Out of the Spotlight: An Ode to Île Saint-Honorat

Cannes might have the Hollywood cachet to draw the crowds, but this island in the French Riviera's Îles de Lérins will capture the heart.

Everyone knows about Cannes. The French Riviera's star-studded coastal city is home to a high concentration of upscale hotels, restaurants and designer shopping, and annually welcomes the Festival de Cannes, the film fete that needs no introduction. Each May Hollywood's finest descends on the region, and for 10 days the beach-facing Promenade de la Croisette sparkles with movie star glitz. Tents are erected, beaches are raked, restaurants are booked up, hotels house the famous and the super-rich, and the harbour fills with superyachts. If there was an antidote to all this glamour and clamour, it would be the emerald island that floats just 20 minutes' boat ride away: Île Saint-Honorat.

I visited Île Saint-Honorat with my best friend in May 2019, when the weather was a balmy 22°C and the island's heady perfume of orange blossom, eucalyptus and pine hung heavy in the air. En route, my friend told me that Saint-Honorat was her favourite place in the world to visit. Today, I'm almost loathe to share this little nugget of travel knowledge.

One of the four islands serviced by a public ferry from the mainland, Île Saint-Honorat is the second largest at just three quarters of a mile long and less than half a mile wide. No cars or motorbikes are allowed on the island; instead a well-marked coastal path skirts the circumference, sheltered from the Mediterranean breeze by eucalyptus trees. It takes around 40 minutes to walk.

Île Saint-Honorat often plays a supporting role to neighbouring Île Sainte-Marguerite, whose claim to fame is that its fortress was the site where the "Man in the Iron Mask" was imprisoned in the 17th century. Yet follow the crowds to Marguerite and you'll forego the charming seclusion of Saint-Honorat. While the larger island has a hotel, Saint-Honorat is home only to a small group of Cistercian monks who have lived and tended the grounds of the island's petite monastery since the fifth century.

At the visitor centre we learned that, between praying eight times per day, the monks care for eight vineyards and several olive groves. They produce a highly-coveted pinot noir that's served at the Festival de Cannes as well as Léhrincello, a take on the Italian aperitif made from lemons grown along the Antibes coast. The monastery itself is closed to the public, but we sought refuge in the 19th-century gothic church - its humble interior provided pleasant shelter from the heat of the midday sun.

On the eastern tip of the island sits a fortress built sometime between the 11th and 14th centuries. While its pockmarked walls tell tales of invasions by pirates and Spanish invaders, today its height is more useful for photo opportunities - from the top I could see Cannes and the snow-capped Alps.

There is only one place to refuel on Saint-Honorat: La Tonnelle, which overlooks the boats that gather in the channel off Saint-Honorat's harbour. While you could do far worse than a lunch here, it's perhaps more romantic to pack a picnic. Before setting sail for the island, my friend and I stocked up on freshly baked baguette, local cheeses, cured meats, Moroccan tapenades and olives at Cannes' Marché Forville.

Such a feast is best enjoyed in Île Saint-Honorat's small, sheltered coves found a short walk either side of the port, followed by a spot of sunbathing, swimming and snorkelling - the island is surrounded by marine life.

After a blissful day spent exploring and lounging in the sun on this tiny island, my friend and I caught the last ferry back to Cannes - though we agreed it wouldn't have been quite so bad had we missed the boat.