The Îles de Lérins would be lovely anywhere, but at just fifteen minutes’ ferry ride from frantic Cannes, they’re not far short of paradise – though that very proximity means neither is exactly a desert island in peak season. Of the two, Ste-Marguerite is busier than its neighbour, St-Honorat, whose abbey is often used for spiritual retreats.
Île Ste-Marguerite is beautiful, and large enough for visitors to find seclusion by following the trails that lead away from the congested port, through the Aleppo pines and woods of evergreen oak that are so thick they cast a sepulchral gloom. The western end is the most accessible, but the lagoon here is brackish, so the best places to swim are along the rocky southern shore, reached most easily along the allée des Eucalyptus. The channel between Ste-Marguerite and St-Honorat is, however, a popular anchorage for yachts, so you’re unlikely to find solitude.
Owned by monks almost continuously since its namesake and patron founded a monastery here in 410 AD, Île St-Honorat, the smaller southern island, was home to a famous bishops’ seminary, where St Patrick trained before setting out for Ireland. There are a couple of places to eat but no bars, hotels or cars: just vines, lavender, herbs and olive trees mingled with wild poppies and daisies, and pine and eucalyptus trees shading the paths beside the white rock shore. The present abbey buildings date mostly from the nineteenth century, though some vestiges of the medieval and earlier constructions remain in the austere church and the cloisters. You can visit the eleventh-century fortified monastery on the water’s edge and the abbey church, see the chapels dotted around the island and purchase the abbey’s sought-after wines and liqueurs.