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February 2007
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April 2007

Escape to Port-Cros


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. 

Beforeplagepalud2So 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. 

Crosdowntopalud We make a gorgeous descent to Plage de la Palud. On the beach, we see no one. Where is my man Friday?

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.

Getting there:
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.

Hike: Col du Bougnon

Aside from being almost entirely deserted this time of the year, the Maures mountain range of the Var have the added advantage of opening up incredible viewpoints. 

From the top of the Bougnon hill, about 9 km from the seaside resort town of Sainte-Maxime,  the dark green wooded hills of the Maures bounce across the horizon for miles. From the peak of the Cabasse, the bay of Saint-Raphael appears to the east like the cusp of a hand that holds the sea. To the south, the Issambres, then the tip of the St Tropez bay.

Rusty dirt paths slice through the mountain flanks. They serve as access roads for fire-fighters, but also for mountain bikers and hikers.

The Bougnon hill and the peak of the Cabasse didn't disappoint us today. Clouds cleared enough to show us the sea tucked behind the hills. 

The hike is 1.5 hours, with a steep climb and downhill at the end to reach the Col de Cabasse and its panorama.


Getting there:
N98 seaside road from Saint-Maxime. Turn left into the D8 heading to "Roquebrune-sur-Argens par le Col de Bougnon."  Pass Le Hameau des Issambres and park next to the archery range on the left. In front of the range, a D8 street sign indicates "Col du Bougnon, Alt 154 m."

Head up the F232 "Cabasse" fire road. Leave the F35 to your left as you climb (this will be your return route).  When you reach a crossing of paths by a green cistern labeled RAG9, continue on the F232 path, the left-most track until you reach the F35 at a hairpin intersection. Take the F35 on your left all the way to the intersection point with the F232.

The F35 section of the hike involves an energetic climb followed by a equally leg-burning descent - though the climb is tough, you're uplifted by bushes now (in mid-march) starting to flower in whites and purples, cork oaks in their sinuous trunks, and the caress of a cool sea breeze whooshing from below the hills.

A Day In: Les Salins des Pesquiers

SouthsidepesquiersBetween the two arms of sand that form the Giens Peninsula tombolo by the city of Hyeres, as many of 600 pink flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) stroll across the shallow waters of the Pesquiers wetlands. Groups of them poke their heads under water, their long necks dangling like noodles over the pond. The birds stamp the mud with their webbed feet and stir the thick brown soupy waters.  With their bills, they filter the water to feed on seeds, larvae, algae and little fish.  Behind the flamingos, above a drape of low-lying reeds, a tiny Zitting Cisticola bird (Cisticola juncidis) tweets.

On a guided visit of the Salt Marshes of Pesquiers, you might well observe pink flamingos, but also black-winged stilts, couples of red-billed common shelducks, grey herons, egrets or any of the 200 different species of birds that have been spotted here.

Note that to keep the site as wild and undisturbed as possible, only guided visits are allowed at the Salins des Pesquiers.  The LPO (the League pour la Protection des Oiseaux) organizes regular bird-watching tours. Contact them at Tél. : 04 94 57 01 98