A guide to sailing around France’s most fashionable port
Awash with historic treasures, charming watering holes and what claims to be France’s oldest urban quartier, the port city of Marseille boasts enough attractions to keep you busy for days. But it’s also worth venturing from your luxury hotel and sailing into the deep blue Mediterranean waters to explore the wild, rugged side of Provence’s capital. From dramatic cliffs and creeks along the coast, to beautiful nearby islands – here are some ideas of where you might want to drop anchor.
Meander around Marseille
Nicknamed ‘the Phocean City’, Marseille owes its maritime heritage to the Greek sailors who first settled here around 600 BC. Since then, Vieux Port has always been the busy heart and soul of the city. Head north to Le Panier where you’ll discover two good museums in the splendidly preserved 17th century La Vieille Charité. Instead, the beaches in the south mark the start of a climb up the hill to Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde. Covered in gold leaf, the 10-metre-high Virgin and Child statue at the top forms a gleaming focal point for the city. There’s also a crypt and Romano-Byzantine basilica displaying an intriguing collection of votive offerings to saints.
Write your own adventures on If and the Frioul archipelago
Book yourself on a private excursion by boat. Because just 20-minutes away from Marseille’s coast is the island of If. The infamous fictional character, the Count of Monte Cristo, was ‘imprisoned’ here in the imposing, windswept fortress built by François I. But it’s well worth visiting for the fantastic views alone, stretching across to Marseille and the islands of Pomègues and Ratonneau – collectively known as Frioul.
Joined by a dyke, Frioul promises some great back-to-nature walks and wildlife spotting along wild cliffs. Plus, the crystal-clear waters surrounding the Saint Estève and Morgiret beaches are perfect for swimming and water sports. You could also stop for a drink and bite to eat in the little port village before visiting the 19th century Caroline Hospital, once a quarantine centre used for keeping yellow fever away from Marseille.
Sail away to the Calanques
One of the loveliest trips outside Marseille is to set off in private sailboat or maxi-catamaran from the Old Port, towards the Calanques National Park. Curving around the coast for 20 miles between Les Goudes and Cassis, sheer white limestone cliffs rise sharply out of the sea, towering over spectacular creeks and coves. You’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to finding a place to swim, snorkel or simply soak up the sun.
The barren, rocky landscape of the Calanques is also renowned for its richly diverse plant and bird life. Botany fans will be rewarded with some very rare, legally protected species, such as Gouffé Grass, which only grows on the scree slopes between Marseille and Toulon. Look to the sky and, if you’re lucky, you might spot a Bonelli's Eagle, Peregrine Falcon or even a Great Horned Owl that nests here.
Seek out the treasures of Riou and the Conglué
Still within the Calanques National Park area, you can sail on to Riou. A 100m-high hill rules over a wild, uninhabited landscape and the ruins of a Medieval watchtower that once warned Marseille of any approaching Barbarians. A stone’s throw away lies the Conglué islands, simply known as Large and Small. Underwater archaeologists found that this was where Jacque Cousteau, in 1952, discoveredthousands of pieces of tableware and a cargo of wine amphorae sitting in the world’s most famous Roman shipwreck.
Where to stay
Just a short stroll away from the sights and sounds of Vieux Port, you're greeted by the 1930s art deco elegance of Hotel Les Bords de Mer. With its spa and rooftop pool overlooking Catalan beach and the Mediterranean Sea, the scene is set for a peaceful escape.