Going Places: Hyéres: The French Riviera Without the Glitz or the Crowds

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Going Places: Hyéres: The French Riviera Without the Glitz or the Crowds
Plage de la Madrague, at the end of our hike along the Sentit Litoral © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Laini Miranda & Dave E. Leiberman, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Is it possible to experience the blue waters, amazing seafood, and slow pace of a French Riviera vacation without the glitz and crowds? It is if you visit the port town of Hyères, jutting off the southern coast of the Cote d’Azur between Lavandou and Cassis. We went in late September when the crowds of the high season had vanished and the weather was still warm enough to lay on the beach and enjoy bathtub temperature waters.

We arrived on a Tuesday and drove straight to the Vieille Ville (Old Town), leaving our car just beyond the pedestrian streets. Colorful pastel walls line the streets, with classic Provençal shops interspersed with boutiques,artist galleries, and medieval buildings, including a 12th century Knights Templar Tower-turned exhibition space.

Place Massillon in the center of Vieille Ville, complete with cafes, artesan shops, and the 12th-century Tower of Saint-Blaise © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The town still recalls its 19th century heyday when artists and writers like Picasso, Dalí, Tolstoy, and F. Scott Fitzgerald used to vacation here. The narrow streets are filled with artisans sharing their work and wares. There is even a “Parcours des Arts”, a route that takes you passed dozens of artist studios and galleries. We loved learning about the history and design of boomerangs at Wallaby Boomerangs with Stéphane Marquerite, a professional boomerang player and maker whose gallery also houses examples from throughout history and from across the world.

Stéphane Marquerite tells us about his collection of handmade boomerangs from around the world at Wallaby Boomerangs, part of the “Parcours des Arts” in the Vieille Ville © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are 5 main sections in Hyères: Old Town, the port, El Capte, Giens, and Toulon. Giens and Toulon are connected to the Port by a long skinny stretch of land with salt flats on the east and the long sandy Place d’Almanarre on the west. Off the coast you will find three islands that make up Les Îsles d’Or (“Islands of Gold”): Porquerolles, Port Cros, and Levant.

The colorful streets of Vielle Ville, the old town of Hyéres © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We stayed on the Port, about 20 minutes driving from the old town and 10 minutes to Giens. Here we were closest to the ferries to Port Cros, one of the three main islands. There are also several excellent restaurants, including U Primu, right on the port with eclectic seafood-inspired dishes.

El Capte is a small neighborhood just below El Port, and seems to have a busier nightlife with more restaurants and bars. L’Almanarre, on the other side of this strip, is a long stretch of golden sand and clear waters famous for kite surfing (don’t miss a chance to see them flying over the water on a windy day!).

Wandering the narrow streets of Vieille Ville, Hyéres © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Giens is a beautiful area at the bottom of Hyères with a few streets and a handful of restaurants that make up the center of this small village. Hotel Provençal is a popular hotel with a prized location and balcony overlooking epic views of the sea and islands in the distance. Make reservations in advance for a romantic dinner on their gorgeous balcony (but make sure you stop in if even just to check out the view). At the bottom of Giens you will find the Tour du Fond, where you will catch the ferry to Isle de Porquerolles. Also right near here is Plage Pradeau, a beautiful restaurant above the beach of the same name, serving the freshest fish as well as an extensive menu of inventive dishes. Be sure to book a table in advance. Ask for the table by the water if you want to have an intimate dinner surrounded by lush foliage just a few feet above the sea.

Hiking the Sentit Litoral © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

La Madgrague  is on the west side of the peninsula and only has a few restaurants, but what it lacks in establishments it makes up for in its beaches. Here at L’Madrugue is where we picked up the Sentit Litoral, a breathtakingly beautiful hike around the peninsula. The full route is 6 miles, but you can choose to do as much or as little as you want. Our favorite part was the northeastern section with panoramic views of Ponte d’Chevale and some small islands just off the coast. On the day of our hike there were 30 mph winds on the east side of the peninsula, but the northwest was calm and delightful.

While there are many beautiful beaches in Hyères, one you must visit is the Isle de Porquerolles. A 20 minute ferry ride ($25 at the time of writing) brings you to an island with crystal clear waters and world class snorkeling. No cars are allowed, but you can easily explore the island by bike, which you can rent from one of several spots clustered at the edge of town just a few yards from where the ferry lets off.

Plage Notre Dame on the Isle de Porquerolles © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The most famous beach on the island is Plage de Notre Dame, a long, narrow stretch of clean sand and clear water. Make sure you bring plenty of water and snacks since here you are several miles from the nearest concessions. Another beach we enjoyed was Plage de l’Arent, with similarly clear waters and a slightly deeper shore than Notre Dame. Unfortunately we got here a little too close to the departing ferry hour to enjoy a meal at the beach bar there, but definitely plan to return for lunch on a future trip.

In Hyéres you can experience the blue waters, amazing seafood, and slow pace of a French Riviera vacation without the glitz and crowds © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

With seven beaches, many hikes, a contemporary art gallery, and great boutiques and restaurants around a central town square, there is plenty to do here to warrant more than a day trip. There are a few hotels on the island ranging in prices, but we found most rooms to be booked at least two months out (even in low season), so plan in advance. Ferries run between Giens and Isle de Porquerolles every hour from 9am to 6:30pm.

Scouting the water before snorkeling at La Madrague, after our hike along the Sentit Litoral © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

On a future trip we plan to also check out Port Cros, the “wilder” of the three main islands. Port Cros is an hour ferry ride from Hyères, has 2 small beaches, miles of rocky, steep hikes, and boasts some of the best snorkeling and diving in the world. Both the island itself and its surrounding waters are declared National Parks. Port Cros is also known for its several nude beaches. But if you’re specifically looking for an island to visit au natural, Isle de Levant, the furthest island from Hyères, is known as the nudist island, as clothing is optional from its beaches to much of the town itself.

In Hyéres you can experience the blue waters, amazing seafood, and slow pace of a French Riviera vacation without the glitz and crowds © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

During our 3 weeks in France, Hyères was one of our favorite stops. We visited multiple towns and beaches of the Cote d’Azur, including Nice, Villefranche sur Mer, Eze, Saint Jean Cap Ferrat, Cassis, and Marseille. We actually found Hyères to have the most beautiful beaches in terms of soft sand and swimmable water. Of course, all of these places have plenty of picturesque shores, hip beach bars, and the posh ambience you think of when you picture the French Riviera. For this trip, however, we preferred the quieter vibe and golden sands of Hyères to the more common rocky shores of the rest of the Riviera and were thrilled to find this hidden gem.

Pro Tip: Download the app Windy to track the mistral winds while you’re visiting Hyères, or anywhere on the Cote D’Azur for that matter. If the wind is blowing from one direction, just go to the other side of the peninsula!

For more planning help, visit Hyères Tourist Office, Rotonde du Park Hôtel 16 avenue de Belgique Centre-ville 83400 HyèresFrance,   https://cotedazurfrance.fr/en/offers/hyeres-tourist-office-hyeres-en-2915102/www.hyeres-tourisme.com

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