Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A Great Day Out on Île Sainte Marguerite Cannes

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Looking for fun things to do in Cannes? Catch the ferry to Île Sainte-Marguerite. It’s only a stone’s splash away.

Here’s a guide to this walkable island of beaches, mysteries, woodlands and coves.

Ile Sainte Marguerite ferry dock
Île Sainte-Marguerite – Photo: Carol Perehudoff

Île Sainte Marguerite France

Part of the Lérins Islands Archipelago, Île Sainte-Marguerite is a tiny island with a hefty history.

A natural haven of rocky inlets, Aleppo pines, myrtle and fragrant eucalyptus, it’s only 15 minutes by ferry from Cannes.

What Can You Do on Sainte Marguerite Island?

While the island is a mere 3 km long, there is a lot to keep you busy.

You can swim in turquoise and sapphire water, picnic, wander the trails, or have lunch on a seaside terrace. For a big bang of culture you can visit the old Fort Royal, home to the Museum of the Sea.

You can also do what I did and become obsessed by the Man in the Iron Mask.

Display of the Man with the Iron Mask in Fort Royal prison
The Man in the Iron Mask – Photo: Carol Perehudoff

The Most Famous Prisoner of Fort Royal – The Man in the Iron Mask

Who was the Man in the Iron Mask?

We don’t know.

We do know he was a political prisoner held in the Fort Royal prison on Île Sainte-Marguerite from 1687 to 1698. To conceal his identity he was forced to wear a mask. That’s 11 long years. In a mask.

And not a comfy two-ply cotton disposable one either.

The prisoner, l’Homme au Masque de Fer, never caught a break. After 11 years on Sainte Marguerite he was transferred to the Bastille in Paris, and held until he died.

The world loves a juicy mystery and there are no end of theories about who he was – some more outrageous than others. (The king’s secret twin brother, really?)

Whatever the truth, stepping into his cell – and into this strange puzzle piece of French history – is one of the most unique things to do on Île Sainte-Marguerite.

Although, to be honest, most people go to Sainte-Marguerite Island simply to enjoy the nature and have a refreshing day out on the French Riviera. That’s fun, too.

Thick foliage on Sainte-Marguerite Island with Cannes in background
Getting back to nature on the Lérins Islands Archipelago – Photo: Carol Perehudoff

Part of the Lérins Islands Archipelago

Île Sainte-Marguerite, or Sainte Marguerite Island, may be small but it’s the largest of the Lérins Islands, a pocket-sized archipelago made up of four islands and a few scattered rocks off the coast of Cannes.

Sainte Marguerite is one of two islands that can be visited by ferry. The other, Île Saint Honorat, is home to the Lérins Abbey where Cistercian monks still live today.

Both islands are an easy day trip from Cannes – you can even go over for just a couple of hours – and provide a welcome escape from the bustle of South of France cities like Nice and Cannes.

Sign for Ste Marguerite ferry in Cannes
Ferry leaves from the Old Port in Cannes – Photo: Carol Perehudoff

Taking the Île Sainte-Marguerite Ferry From Cannes

You can catch the ferry to Sainte Marguerite Island from the harbour, the Vieux Port. It’s at the west edge of the port.

Getting to the Cannes Ferry Dock

You may not see the ferry terminal at first if you’re walking from the Palais des Festivals and La Croisette. (I didn’t, but I’m directionally challenged).

It’s at the opposite end of the harbour, closer to the Old Town.

If you see the Radisson Blu Hotel you’re in the right zone so head for the sea.

Buying your Ferry Ticket:

You can buy a Cannes Île Sainte-Marguerite ferry ticket at the ferry terminal or in advance.

If you’re buying at the dock give yourself extra time as there could be a lineup. Prices are around $20 USD (about 18 euros).

Skip the line and buy your ferry ticket to Sainte Marguerite Island here.

Ferry Schedule to Marguerite Island

Ferries leave approximately hourly, sometimes every half an hour, depending on season and time of day.

The first boat to Ste Marguerite leaves Cannes at 7:30 a.m. Except Sundays, when the first boat is at 9:00 a.m.

The last ferry back is at 6:00 p.m. Don’t miss it, or you’ll be wishing you at least had a cell like the Man in the Iron Mask.

Check the full ferry schedule here.

Taking the boat from Cannes to Île Sainte-Marguerite is breezy bliss. If the weather is good sit outside and let the wind tug your hair as Cannes fades into the pastel distance, the Esterel Mountains behind.

Can you visit Île Sainte-Marguerite and Île Saint-Honorat on the same trip?

Nope, not on the ferry. The boats are different. You’d have to take the ferry to one island, then go back to Cannes and buy a ferry ticket for the other. Or opt for a private tour.

Ferry From Nice to Sainte Marguerite Island

You can visit Sainte Marguerite as a day trip from Nice, too, though the Nice Ste Marguerite ferry schedule is much more limited.

In high season boats leave Nice at 9:00 a.m. and return at 18:00 p.m. and the trip takes about an hour.

Prices from $56 USD. Check schedule and book tickets for the Nice to Ste Marguerite ferry here.

Ferry dock on Ile Sainte Marguerite France
A pleasant trip from Cannes – Photo: Carol Perehudoff

Arriving on Sainte Marguerite

Arrival on the island is easy peasy. You step off the ferry and start walking. Trails are well marked. Most people head left towards Fort Royal.

Another Option – Take a Private Boat Tour to Both Islands

While I was slumming it on the ferry (just kidding, it was quite delightful), I saw that a lot of people opt for private boat tours so they can sip wine, snorkel, paddle and sunbathe to their heart’s content.

This private speedboat excursion gets excellent reviews and includes a visit to both Sainte-Marguerite Island and Saint-Honorat Island, and hosts up to six people.

Check prices and availability for a Private Speedboat Tour here.

Shoreline of Sainte Marguerite Lerins Islands France
The Lérins Islands are a great day trip from Cannes – Photo: Carol Perehudoff

Violent History of the Lérins Islands

Before you start exploring, it’s helpful to know a little background about the Lérins Islands archipelago.

Basically, it’s long and war-ridden. Here it is in a nutshell.

The islands were occupied by the Ligurians, then the Romans, and in the 5th century they came under the ownership of the Cistercian monks.

Along the way there have been pirate raids, shipwrecks and a successful attack by the Spanish in 1635. The French won it back two years later after a 45-day siege.

In 1746 the islands were lost to the Austrians and the English for a year. And in WWII first the Italians then the Germans occupied Fort Royal.

Honestly, for such a tranquil place, Île Sainte-Marguerite seems to have had a battle fought over every inch of it.

Boats floating in the Bay of Cannes
Pleasure craft head for the channel between Ste Marguerite and St Honorat – Photo: Carol Perehudoff

Île Sainte-Marguerite Things to Do

Look Out For Historical Sites

Keep your eye out for deserted WWII bunkers as you tramp the trails. They’re a poignant reminder of the island’s Nazi occupation.

Don’t miss the 18th-century cannon with elaborate ornamentation (do you see the dolphin?) outside the Fort Royal entrance.

You may also stumble across cannonball furnaces from the Napoleonic era as you explore the island.

Ornate cannon outside Fort Royal in the South of France
Royal cannon cast in 1715 – Photo: Carol Perehudoff

Visit Fort Royal

Fort Royal is a one-stop shop for history. Rising up from the cliff, this stern stone fortress dates back to the early 1600s.

For sweeping blue views walk around the ramparts and look out over the terrace.

Check Out the Museum of the Sea

Inside Fort Royal is the Museum of the Sea.

Here you’ll find artifacts excavated on the islands. Things to see range from fragments of Roman wall paintings and the ancient Roman cistern system to ceramics salvaged from Saracen shipwrecks.

There are also displays about marine ecology and the biodiversity of the sea. It wasn’t a huge highlight for me, but that’s probably because I was more interested in the Man in the Iron Mask.

Roman artifacts at the Museum of the Sea
Museum of the Sea – Photo: Carol Perehudoff

See the Prison of the Man With the Iron Mask

In another section of the museum you can enter the cell and view an exhibit about the Man in the Iron Mask.

I’m a sucker for romantic legends and tragic tales so this was the big lure of Fort Royal. I’m not alone.

Like Switzerland’s Prisoner of Chillon, the Man in the Iron Mask has been catnip for writers, historians and filmmakers for years.

A Celebrity Prisoner

From the writing of Voltaire and Three Musketeers author, Alexander Dumas – who perpetuated the myth the mask was iron when it was more likely black velvet – to the 1998 Hollywood movie The Man With the Iron Mask starring Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s a tale that never grows old.

Outside the cell of the Man in the Iron Mask
Prison cells in Fort Royal – Photo: Carol Perehudoff

Scandalous Secrets of the Man in the Iron Mask

Locked up during the reign of Louis XIV (the Sun King of Versailles fame), the Man in the Iron Mask was a man of some significance who was kept in fairly grand style – at least as far as prison cells go.

He may have been Ercole Matthiole, a traitorous Italian count; or Eustache Dauger, who snitched on his employer for stealing from the royal family.

Was he a depraved nobleman whose family paid to have him out of site? A failed assassin? The queen’s lover? Louis XIV’s illegitimate son? Why was it so vital to hide his identity?

The most unlikely – but by far the most popular – theory is that the Man in the Iron Mask was the king’s older brother (possibly a first-born twin) who, by the very nature of his existence threatened Louis XIV’s right to the throne.

It’s endless food for thought and will keep your head busy as you set off to explore more of the island.

Other Prisoners on Île Sainte-Marguerite

Before you go, take a moment to think about the other prisoners who were confined here, like the six Huguenot pastors held here for their religious beliefs until their lives withered away.

On a happier note, you can also think of Marshal Bazaine, a French officer who was the only person ever to escape this grim prison.

HIking trails on Ile Sainte-Marguerite France
Hiking on Sainte Marguerite Island – Photo: Carol Perehudoff

Hike the Trails

By the time I left the museum my head was reeling and I was eager to get outside.

I was slightly less eager when a fat rat trundled across the shady path in front of me near the Plateau de Milieu, the shallow channel between Sainte Marguerite and Saint Honorat.

This is unspoiled nature, however, and nothing could spoil my enthusiasm for long, not when the sun broke through the clouds and I had 22 km of hiking trails, oak trees and scrubland of honeysuckle and wild clematis ahead of me.

Go Bird Watching at Batéguier Pond

One of the top Île Sainte-Marguerite attractions is Batéguier Pond, the Étang du Batéguier, on the west side of the island.

A mix of fresh and salt water, this protected reserve is an oasis for migratory birds.

Sainte-Marguerite Beaches

Much of the charm of this lovely Cannes island is its secluded coves and beaches.

While the sandy beach to the right of the ferry dock can be crowded, the farther away you get from the jetty the better chance you’ll have of finding a private French Riviera paradise.

Most of the places to swim on the island are small and rocky, so expect beaches more wild than groomed.

Bring everything you need with you, as there are no shops. Don’t forget a towel, sunscreen and water shoes if you use them.

Sainte-Marguerite Island Restaurants

Picnicking is a popular pastime on the island, and there’s are two snack bars for quick bites, but there are also a couple of Île Sainte-Marguerite restaurants to choose from.

Salad and sea at L'escale Restaurant Ste Marguerite
Lunch at L’escale Restaurant – Photo: Carol Perehudoff

Casual Dining at L’escale Restaurant

I opted to eat at L’escale, mainly because I stumbled across it by chance.

This family-friendly restaurant isn’t cheap, but the pizzas looked popular and the large outdoor terrace has lovely views over the water.

Take note: L’escale fills up fast at lunch.

I want to give a nod to the waitress because, as a solo female traveller taking up an entire table in a crowded restaurant, I often feel more like an annoyance rather than a valued customer. Not here. Thanks, L’escale.

 A Beach-Clubby Vibe at La Guerite

Situated on a rocky cove, restaurant La Guerite takes dining on St Marguerite up a notch. A big notch.

Mediterranean cuisine and fresh seafood are on the menu at this lively upscale eatery that’s been running since 1902.

There are also beach loungers, and I believe they have a private boat shuttle available. And DJs. Wow. I wish I’d wanted two lunches so I could have eaten here as well.

On summer weekends La Guerite is open for dinner, so if you’re looking for romantic things to do on Île Sainte Marguerite, keep it in mind.

Sainte-Marguerite Hotels

Are there hotels on Île Sainte Marguerite? Er, not really. But sort of.

Former barracks of Fort Royal Sainte Marguerite Island off Cannes
Ste Marguerite hostel accommodation (which I find strangely appealing) – Photo: Carol Perehudoff

CIS Cannes Youth Hostel Accommodation

The old barracks at Fort Royal is a youth-hostel-y looking place open mainly for groups.

It’s official name is the International Center for Iles de Lérins de Cannes Jeunesse (CIS Cannes Youth), and they do book in individuals and families on high season weekends.

To check availability contact them directly.

Ultima Cannes Le Grand Jardin – Ultimate Luxury on Ile St Marguerite

Le Grand Jardin is the only private property on this richly-forested Cannes island, and it’s a sumptuous walled estate with rental luxury accommodation.

There are 12 bedrooms and you need to rent the entire thing, not just a room.

And you’ll probably want to go by helicopter, though a private boat would work just as well. It’s perfect for couples with an entourage.

(Ben and Jennifer, are you listening? Justin and Hailey? Meghan and Prince Harry?)

Just a wee bit of scandal for gossip lovers: The palatial property was once owned by Vijay Mallya, an Indian magnate known as the King of Good Times who is now wanted in India and accused of sensational financial crimes.

Why is the island named Sainte Marguerite? In Roman times it was called Lero. According to our friend Wikipedia, the island was most likely renamed by the crusaders, who built a chapel here dedicated to Sainte Marguerite (Saint Margaret in English) of Antioch.

Is Ste Marguerite Island Worth the Trip?

It depends what you’re looking for. If you’re seeking fresh air and a more laidback atmosphere than many French Riviera destinations, Ile Saint Marguerite makes a relaxing day trip from Cannes, Nice or Antibes.

If you’re seeking Ferraris and foie gras, stick to the Boulevard de la Croisette or head to Monte Carlo in Monaco instead. There’s something for everyone in the marvellous South of France.

Pinterest images of the Bay of Cannes and Marguerite Island

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