At Port-Cros' only port, behind the rocky ile de Bagaud, the ferry boat drops off a handful of visitors, all strapped with backpacks and hiking boots. Under the shade of palm trees, a couple of restaurants line up to face the little port's three floating decks. It's March. Not a restaurant is open.
Smaller, hillier and more rugged than its big sister Porquerolles, the Ile d'Or island of Port-Cros in the Var draws to its shores those who long for a slice of raw nature. You come here to escape, to live marooned like a Robinson Crusoe, pick sea shells, crack coconuts and sip flower dew.
OK, so Port-Cros makes us dream...
You can't pick sea shells on Port-Cros. As of 1963, all of its 700 hectares of land (2.7 square miles) and 1600 hectares (6.8 square miles) of surrounding sea environment are protected. The island is a National Park. No motorized vehicles, no bikes, no dogs running freely, no smoking, no fires, no camping, no picking plants, no fishing with some restrictions for the island's one professional fisherman who helps supply locals with seafood.
We all carry back-packs, and I stuffed mine with more baguettes, goat cheese and water than we could ever need.
So much for roughing it.
We head for our picnic destination: the Plage de la Palud on the northern side of the island. We walk by lush bushes of rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum), silvery shrubs of Jupiter's Beards (Anthyllis barba-jovis), bright tender green Mediterranean Spurge (Euphorbe characias). We hike above cliffs of brown schists that drop into the sea. As the paths curb, the cliffs yield a few sheltered coves and the island's main beaches: Plage du Sud, Plage de Port Cros, Plage de la Palud, Plage de Port-Man.
In the summer time, we can trade hiking shoes for fins and dive with mask and tuba (no need for full scuba gear) in the shallow waters between the island of Rascas and the beach of la Palud along an underwater marked trail. The Park Office at the port sells plastic aqua guides to take along on dives.
As much as we love the now secluded beach, there is only one boat off the island this time of year, at 3:45PM.
We head inland to the heart of the island, through forests of green oaks that cover the humid and mysterious inside Vallon Noir, back by the forts of l'Estissac, to the towering Fort du Moulin above the port.
The same crew of a half-dozen hikers awaits ship, quietly sitting by the pier, backpacks by their sides, heads still in the salty clouds.
It's on the southern eastern side that the island runs wildest: under towering cliffs, sea and wind wrestle in a fury of crushing waves, of sea froth and of wind whips.
For now, our boat awaits at the pier. When our heads buzz at night with the screeches of cars and the shuffle of hurried heels on pavements, we will return, looking for a day with no other sound than those of the wild.
Catch a ferry boat from Port d'Hyeres - the ride lasts 1 hour and runs year-round, with fewer trips outside of the busy summer season. During the busier summer season, many other ports of the Var serve the Iles d'Or: Toulon, La Londe Les Maures, Le Lavandou, Cavalaire, St Tropez, St Raphael.