Flee the packed beaches of France’s Cote d’Azur and head instead for the secluded coves and warm waters just along the coast near Cassis
The French calanques to the east of Marseille are absolutely stunning. If you want secluded beaches, turquoise water and magnificent views, they have it all. But it’s not that easy to get to them.
The calanques are small inlets that jut into the limestone cliff edges along the coast surrounding Marseille. The crevices create lagoon-like pools and coves with small beaches, perfect for quiet sunbathing. We set off in search of them from the old port of Cassis.
After a short walk from the centre of town, we arrived at Port Miou, the closest calanque to Cassis. The area surrounding Miou is dusty and hot, with mostly scrub vegetation and cacti. In the summer it can get seriously hot. There are over 400 yachts kept here and it is also where you can hire a kayak for the day to navigate your way between the calanques by sea.
The hiking trails from this starting point are clearly marked and once you’re on your way you start to climb pretty quickly. The trail is stony and you have to pick your way between tree roots and large, flat-surfaced rocks that are surprisingly slippery. Flip-flops won’t really cut it and even if you do make it to the top in them, the looks from the natives are enough to make you want to flee to your nearest Blacks and pick up a pair of hiking boots.
The trail takes you up and over the cliff in about half an hour, but before you cross the top there are some amazing views out over the Mediterranean. Once you’re over the summit you hit Port Pin, a smaller calanque with a beach that can fill up quickly. However, there are plenty of large flat rocks around the edges of the water where people spread themselves out for picnicking or diving into the water. This is a good spot for swimming and the water can be as much as 25 degrees in the summer.
We kept going, climbing up towards En Vau, the third calanque in the municipal territory of Cassis. It’s one of the most famous and most dramatic of the calanques, with sheer white cliff faces towering over the cove. From the top of the cliff, which takes around an hour and a half to two hours to reach from Cassis, the drop down to the water is intimidating, but it’s worth getting up there for the view. The water looks amazing; you can see at least three shades of green, from emerald to deep turquoise and dark forest green. If you’re not one for heights, make the way down to the large beach and get straight into the water; it should be hard to resist.
If you don’t want to hike, there are regular trips around these three calanques and beyond – all the way to Marseille and back – by boat from the port at Cassis and from Marseille. Choose carefully: there are lots of different trips, many of which dash between Cassis and Marseille in two hours. Opting for a pleasure cruise will let you take it slowly, and even stop off for a swim along the way.
You can also hire a moped in Cassis and brave the ‘Route des Cretes’, which takes you along the coast up above the calanques. The narrow road winds between the towns of Cassis and La Ciotat over the Cap Canaille, which is the highest seacoast cliff in Europe. Doing the route at sunset gives you extraordinary views across the Med and over the Provencal hills inland, and there are plenty of opportunities to stop and take photos or just bask in the sun and enjoy the panorama.
The town of Cassis itself is beautiful and a great place to eat in the evening. The brasseries along the port are packed and very touristy, but just off the port, down a small alley, we found Restaurant l’Escalier (4 rue Frederic Mistral), a small bistro, with terracotta-painted walls and rustic furniture, split between two rooms on either side of the street. Here you can try the fish soup with croutons and rouille that is very much the speciality of the region – and is delicious. Main courses are Provencal fish dishes with olives aplenty. They all wash down nicely with some crisp vin blanc de Cassis. For pudding, Amorino ice cream just across the port (4 avenue Victor Hugo) has delectable flavours and rich coffees. The passion fruit is particularly yummy.
Where to stay
Chateau de Cassis
: the old Cassis castle has been converted into a luxury hotel with stunning panoramas across the Cassis bay.