Cannes' Secret Islands - the Iles des Lérins

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The Iles de Lérins, the serene islands off Cannes, represent the Mediterranean in miniature. The two islands are so near chic but consumerist Cannes, yet so far away in spirit. This is the quiet Cote d’Azur before the cinema crowd moved in. Even the breezy crossing is cool Cannes - without the bling or billionaire company. While away an afternoon over a waterside picnic, wine-tasting with monks, or walking past creeks to the next dip in turquoise waters.

Saint Honorat is tucked behind Sainte Marguerite, and easily overlooked. It’s not quite as accessible as its big sister – exactly as the monks like it. Even so, in August, the flotilla of moored yachts almost makes a bridge between the two islands. Sadly, you can’t hop across, but need to take the ferry from Cannes. It’s all part of preserving the monks’ peaceful way of life. This serene, mile-long island has been a place of prayer for over 1,500 years, bar the odd piratical invasion.

The island is still a heady mix of scented paths, swaying umbrella pines and wafting monks. Around twenty Cistercian brothers share their retreat with the world. These black-and-white cassocked monks are among the holiest and happiest you’ll ever meet. As Brother Marie-Pacques, the abbey spokesman says, “a community life means joy and inner peace.”

The community is contemplative and cloistered, as St Benedict envisioned. Their tenets are work, love, pray and self-sufficiency, an extension of the Benedictines’ devotion to “ora e labora” (`work and prayer’). It’s about simplicity, stripping life down to its essence, including communal prayers seven times a day. But these austere monks also observe the ancient Benedictine tradition of hospitality.

Take a clockwise tour of the island, respecting the monks’ private domain, signalled by symbols of cassocked monks. Hug the coast, resisting the gated pathways strewn with wild geraniums, and you can’t go wrong. The fortified monastery is the most romantic building, standing sentinel on the southern shore, facing the open sea. This stark medieval citadel defended the community against Saracen raids. It is without equal in the Mediterranean. Climb the eerie staircase to the roof terraces for views over the honey-tinted abbey and the mountains across the water. After tasting the abbey wines, sacrilegious visitors have been known to cry: “Hallelujah, there is a god!”

Extract from Cannes' Secret islands by Lisa Gerard-Sharp (copyright © Travel)
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