SPINDRIFT falls like meteors on Porquerolles. Spinning spheres of sea spray burst high in the fierce blue sky and fizz on upturned faces. It feels magical, like a snow fight in summer.
Les Iles d’Or – Porquerolles, Port-Cros and Ile du Levant, or simply Le Levant – lie just 20 minutes by boat off the Côte d’Azur. The mistral, rushing down the Rhône valley to the Mediterranean, has its last hurrah here. Here on Porquerolles’ western tip, the pine canopy is windswept to a straggly green quiff, in keeping, as it were, with the island’s retro vibe. This is the South of France as sung by Jacques Brel, unstyled and unspoiled. Beyond the flash of the Côte d’Azur are a twinkle of salty island starlets that no paparazzi have snapped. If St Tropez is Bardot in a bikini, Porquerolles is Jeanne Moreau in a fisherman’s jumper and espadrilles. Charms are deliberately low-key, as if it had learned from the Riviera the perils of trying too hard.
The croissant-shaped island is just three kilometres by seven: small enough to explore by foot or bike, but big enough to find solitude and, if you discount the urgent pulsing of the cicadas, silence. Private cars are banned on Porquerolles and there is no public transport. The best way to get around is by cycling and hire shops are plentiful. It should, however, be noted that the Jules et Jim fantasy takes you only so far on extravagantly rutted dirt roads. Best, when choosing your wheels, to go for the BMX option and don’t even think about a tandem – unless you’re hell-bent on divorce.
Waking up on Porquerolles, there are two clear options: to tootle or not to tootle. A sizeable proportion of residents at Le Mas never stir from its lovely precincts, but this would be a shame, for Porquerolles packs a lot of topography into a small area. Strike uphill from the village to the 16th-century Fort Sainte Agathe for a lordly vista of the domesticated interior – orchards of rare orange, lemon and mandarin varieties belonging to the Conservatoire Botanique Nationale and scaled down vineyards (the charming owners of Domaine Perzinsky welcome walkers looking to buy just one bottle for a picnic). Or explore the spectacular clefts and creeks of the island’s rocky fringe (Les Calanques) by bike or by sea kayak; even at the height of the summer season you can find a two-person beach with unbroken Mediterranean views where you can think yourself a castaway (and be home in time for tea).
A SHORT RIDE on a ferry full of super-bronzed men with goatees (the third Ile d’Or on the circuit, Le Levant, is a long-established nudist colony) takes you to the smaller and more rugged island of Port-Cros. Disembarking on the sandy quayside with its scatter of beach bars and row of royal palms, this could be the Caribbean.