The Lerins Islands Travel Guide
Just off the coast of Cannes is a group of islands where the surrounding is serene and tranquil: the Lerins Islands (Îles de Lérins). They are rich with a unique history matched with historical sites, beautiful panoramas, and spectacular natural features. These beautiful and unspoiled islands combine leisure and relaxation to pull many tourists out of Cannes and other major towns of French Riviera.
The hustle and bustle are what make the French Riviera much alive. The influx of tourists, the nightlife, the events… everything is lively and partyish. But sometimes, you may look for a place to escape the buzz and fuss of the beautiful Côte d’Azur. The islands are only a 15-minute ferry ride from Cannes, but seemingly another world away from the partyish French Riviera towns; this pair of islands is a perfect tourist escape.
Take a boat to one of the islands of Lérins and spend an afternoon enjoying nature and wine. You can chose between the island Ste Marguerite, with a military fortress now sheltering a greek artefacts museum, or the island St Honorat, providing an active 5th-century abbey where there will be an option to taste the wine and liquors the monks produce.
Like the rest of the French Riviera, the islands have the perfect Mediterranean climate and 300+ sunny days per year.
|The Lerins Islands are around 5 kilometers away from La Croisette, Cannes, from port to port. It takes around 15 minutes to visit the islands via ferry boats coming from Antibes, Cannes, and Nice. You can also take a private boat or kayak.
There are four islands, namely, Île Ste-Marguerite, Île St-Honorat, Île St-Férréol, and Îlot de la Tradelière. The islands of Ste-Marguerite and St-Honorat are the largest and the most visited. The other two are both tiny and uninhabited.
Note: No cars or hotels are present in the islands, and day trips are until only 6pm, when the last ferry departs. There is also no ferry service between the Islands of Ste-Marguerite and St-Honorat, but you can kayak or charter to those islands. It is also good to bring a stainless-steel water container with you when doing day trips.
Discover these wonderful islands through this travel guide so you can have a relaxing and enjoyable journey:
Saint-Marguerite Island is an almost paradisaical retreat. Full of eucalyptus and pine trees, you can smell the change the moment you set food on the island. As opposed to the bustling city of Cannes, Saint-Marguerite is a calm and quiet space where nature and relaxation come together in harmony.
Scented pathways like the Allée des Eucalyptus and Allée des Myrtles criss-cross from coast to coast. Other forested sections are made up of an impenetrable scrub sourced over decades from places as far away as Australia, China and Brazil – and the island’s climate supports them all. Various marked trails can be followed to explore the island, which hosts a significant number of migratory birds and unique plant species.
Saint-Marguerite island is the largest of the Lerins Islands. It has a span of roughly 150 hectares, 3 kilometers in length and 900 meters across. It is basically a forest with a number of tourist hubs. The main village is a hub of twenty buildings that are home to fishermen, with a small boatyard.
This being socialist France, only paupers are allowed to stay the night. After the last ferry departs from Cannes at 6pm, millionaires must skulk home to their Croisette hotels, while the lucky residents of the island’s International de Séjour youth hostel may lord it up like the Sun King himself.
In 1687, the world’s then most celebrated prisoner was rendered to Île Sainte-Marguerite. The island may be a sub-tropical Elysium nurtured by a dizzying micro-climate, but the inmate (thought to be King Louis XIV’s half-brother and rival heir) could only peek at paradise from the barred windows off the towering Fort Royal; a look-but-don’t-touch torture that must have driven him to insanity.
Over the intervening centuries, Sainte-Marguerite has been a microcosm of global goings-on. It was variously occupied by French and Spanish, plus Ottoman Turks and Nazi paratroopers. Circumnavigate the umbrella-pine-shaded perimeter – a 90-minute stroll – and you’ll bump into a dozen cannonball-making machines that date from Napoleon’s time. Thankfully, since 1945, peace has reigned.
The island got its name from Ste Marguerite, and a sister of St Honorat. She was a nun who founded a nunnery and her own religious order here. The island is named in her honor.
Here are some of the features to enjoy on the island:
Saint-Marguerite is perhaps best known for its Fort Royal, a fortress and prison that was built to prevent the Spanish from occupying the area during the thirty-years war. But it failed its purpose and the Spanish occupied the islands from 1633 to 1637.
In the 17th century, while it was a prison, Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri (an Algerian rebel leader), Marquis Jouffroy d’Abbans (inventor of the steamboat) and Marshal Bazaine are all known to have spent time here, with the latter being the only successful escapee… that we know of. But it is most famous for housing the so-called “Man in the Iron Mask” (who actually wore a mask made of black velvet). Many legends and theories exist about this prisoner and the reasons why he was held for decades until his death, and both older children and adults alike enjoy learning more about this fascinating part of French history.
There’s a museum and a beautiful chapel to explore, but the main attraction is undoubtedly the cell of L’homme au Masque de Fer. Don’t expect to find the mask itself there, however. Instead there are other relics on display, as well as several art installations. The cell itself is actually quite large, although one suspects this wasn’t for comfort and more to facilitate torture. Back in Le Suquet, the story goes that the man in the mask actually escaped and ended up in the tower we mentioned earlier. He supposedly died here too, and haunts it to this day. It’s about as happy as this dark tale gets, and one that is worth exploring when visiting Cannes yourself.
The fort, located on the northernmost point, has become a popular tourist and educational destination in recent years; year-round you’ll see school trips taking place, and there are even lodgings for pupils to sleep in within the walls. The fort holds a barrack-style hostel used by youth groups and schools. The fort gives a superb view of Cannes, Antibes, and the surrounding hills.
The artist Jean Le Gac also decorated some of the walls with murals. It is located near the port for ferries to and from Cannes. The fort is in the list of important heritage sites. Another attraction is the remains of houses that date back from the 3rd century, which have been excavated near the fort. They also have mosaics, wall paintings, and ceramics.
There is a maritime museum housed within the walls of Fort Royal, called Musée de la Mer , which is home to many artifacts from shipwrecks, pirates, and items from Roman times. These underwater archaeological finds are exhibited in a historic seaside fort. The collection also has some ceramics from Arab vessels from the 10th century. There are also aquariums, exhibits, and educational workshops to educate visitors about the ecological life of the islands.
Where to Eat and Chill
From April to October, the restaurant La Guérite is the place to go for a boozy party brunch (the party really gets going during the second seating at around 4pm). One of the most famous restaurants on the French RIviera, it’s an elegant setting with well-prepared dishes. Expect to pay at least €200 per person, and make a reservation well in advance.
But it wasn’t always a party hotspot. There was a time when La Guérite was an old Fisherman’s cabin. It wasn’t long before becoming locals, friends and family’s favorite place to be on a beautiful summer day. Relaxing, sunbathing and socializing around a cheerful pétanque game, this convivial and authentic Mediterranean lifestyle heritage has been passed on and cultivated since 1902, to become one of the most sought after and glamorous restaurants on the Côte d’Azur.
On the other side of the fort, you can find another (much less beautiful) beachfront restaurant called L’Escale . This touristy restaurant offers an expensive and mediocre salade Niçoise, grilled lobster, and seabass ceviche from April to October (dinner service is only in the summer — call to make a reservation).
If you’re looking for something more chill (and a lot less expensive!), or you forgot to make a dining reservation, your only option will be a snack-stall close to the ferry docks. Here, you can fill your belly with pan bagnat and other take-away sandwiches to eat on the beach.
If you’re lucky enough to have arrived by yacht, you can order pizza to be delivered to you on the water from Catamaran Pizza or head over to St. Honorat (the other Lerins Island) and dine at La Tonnelle .
The Nature Trails
Enjoy the thick woods of Aleppo pines, evergreen oaks, and groves of eucalyptus at Pointe de la Convention . Route de la Convention is a group of connected walking paths that lead to the coast as well as in the woodlands inward.
There is a small beach west of the harbor and rocky inlets for bathing with clear waters. Picnic parks are also scattered everywhere.
The Underwater Museum
Off the coast of the island of Sainte-Marguerite, you’ll find one of the world’s only underwater art installations — the underwater “Eco Museum”, by award-winning British artist Jason deCaires Taylor.
The six sculptures in this permanent installation are constructed using pH-neutral, environmentally-sensitive materials to instigate natural growth and the subsequent changes intended to explore the aesthetics of decay, rebirth and metamorphosis.
The location is now cordoned off from boats, making it a safe place to dive. Located just off the shore , it is easily accessible 24-7 for anyone who wants to see it. Check out our guide to the underwater museum.
Plateau de Milieu
In summer months, a large number of boats anchor at Plateau de Milieu, the shallow turquoise channel that separates Ste-Marguerite and St-Honorat. There are water skiing, parascending, and other water activities here. There are picnic tables in the water’s edge, and expect to see plenty of people swimming.
The Only Private Property
Le Grande Jardin is the only private property ever to be built on the islands. It has several villas, a large swimming pool, gardens, and a small castle on the waterfront. Soon, it will be a luxury hotel. Here is the scandalous story behind this property and its many fascinating owners.
The smaller sister island to Sainte-Marguerite is a bottle’s lob away. The island of Saint-Honorat, with its Cistercian abbey, is the second-largest island of the Lérins. It is approximately 1.5 kilometers in length and 400 meters wide (around 40 hectares). Here, you can experience vines, lavender, herbs, olive trees, poppies, and daisies mingling with the scents of rosemary, thyme, and honeysuckle. Sit under the pine and eucalyptus trees, which give shade alongside the shore.
Home to a silent order of Cistercian monks for 16 centuries, it’s also a favored A-list escape. Not only do the monks produce fine wines, God’s writ prohibits them from talking to the press.
Abbaye de Lérins & Monastère Fortifé Fort
The Abbaye de Lérins is home to the Cistercian monks. The monks who lived here in the past are renowned for their theological contributions. St Patrick, Ireland’s patron trained here. The monks still allow pilgrims to join them in their retreat and contemplation ranging from two days to one week.
The abbey/monastery was established by St-Honorat of Arles (Honoratus) in the 5th century. It was once a foothold of a powerful group of monks that owned most of the area and even extended their influence in Cannes. Their immense power and wealth eventually led to their downfall. The Cistercian monks now own the island. They bought the island in 1861, and the monks live in a monastery that was built in the 19th century (Abbaye de Lérins).
These monks are famous for their Lérins wine and liqueurs, which can be bought in the cloister’s shop or via their website. Covered with pine trees, roses, lavender, eucalyptus, and cypresses, it is a perfect retreat for tourists who seek peace, spirituality, and tranquility.
The Monastère Fortifé fort was built over the sea to protect the monks from pirates. This square, battlemented chateau is actually a fortified dungeon and has a stunning view that extends up to L’Esterel.
While the monks’ residence is not open to tourists, the church is open for visits, and you can attend mass there (check the timing on their official website). The churches and the cloister are the reminders of the medieval era — most of the buildings date back from the 19th century. They serve as retreats for the spirituals.
Chapelle St-Caprais was named after a monk who joined St-Honorat in his retreat and helped him to built the order. It is also the site of a furnace where Napoleonic cannon battery and cannonballs production.
There are several other very small churches on the islands, including La Chapelle de la Trinité , St-Caprais , St-Pierre , and St-Sauveur . The churches remain untouched and in their original condition, to this day.
The Monk’s Products
The monks of today now have their own vineyard to cultivate. They manually plant, grow, harvest, press, age, and bottle them with their own hands. The result is a highly-prized wine. They also make other plant-based liqueurs, fruit-based liqueurs, a pomace brandy, and they have an apiary for honey production. You can buy their products in the abbey’s two shops, and they make great (albeit expensive) gifts.
Restaurant and Café
The island’s restaurant, La Tonnelle , is the perfect place for a lazy lunch with a view of the sea. It serves grilled meats, seafood, and salads, as well as the monastic wine.
Video Tour of Lerins Islands
How to Get to the Lerins Islands
The ideal way to explore the area is to hop on a friend’s yacht (or rent one), so you can travel in privacy and luxury, and relax onboard when you feel like it. Your 5-star hotel’s concierge can help you arrange a yacht rental.
If a yacht is out of your price range, an adult return ticket on a ferry costs about €15.
FERRIES FROM ST-MARGUERITE:
- To/From Cannes:
Horizon (Phone: +33492987136)
Riviera lines (Phone: +33492987136)
Trans Côte d’Azur (Phone: +33492987130)
- To/From Nice:
Trans Côte d’Azur (Phone: +33492004230)
FERRIES FROM ST-HONORAT:
- To/From Cannes: Compagnie Planaria (Phone: +33492987138)
KAYAKING FROM CANNES:
From Cannes you can kayak to the Lérins Islands on double kayaks with the help of an instructor who will give you tips on how to paddle most efficiently and which spots are best for taking in your surroundings. You can either rent the kayaks for independent use or you can book a guided tour with a certified instructor, who will take you to the different islands and show you hidden spots you wouldn’t easily reach by yourself. Sessions are available for a day, half-day, or at sunset, so you can choose which slot fits best into your day.