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Ile du Levant: why take more than le minimum?
The residents of the Ile du Levant, a twenty-minute boat ride from St Tropez, don’t ask for a lot. No cars, no streetlights, and, in the town square at least, just the sporting of a small tanga. Or as they call it, le minimum…
It’s August and St Tropez is heaving. An estimated 100,000 visitors are coming in to a town normally inhabited by 4,000. We need to get away. The boat leaves from the port by the packed car park where an irate Italian man is screaming at a parking meter and a Dutch family with indistinguishable rage. We board the hundred-person ferry and pull away from the madding crowd. We are heading for the Îles d’Hyères, which we have been informed are the hidden jewels of the Côte d’Azur. An air of mystique surrounds the island, heightened when friends in the region had seemed so mischievously intrigued by the visit, requesting full reports on our return.
The islands are named Porquerolles, Port Cros and Île du Levant. At 7km by 3km Porquerolles is the largest and has around 300 inhabitants year-round. Port Cros, at 3km by 4km is the smallest. But Levant, somewhere in the middle in terms of size, is the jewel.
Our research told us that only a tenth of the island is open to the public with a secret military base occupying most of it. Didn’t sound the most inviting, but a couple of first-hand accounts told us differently. Our own research had told us that two doctors, Gaston and André Durville had settled on the island in 1931. They were pioneers of early naturism and established a village dedicated to it. They named the village Héliopolis and established a school, a supermarket, a police station, a post office and, of course, as we are still in France, a boulangerie.
The small ferry chugged into the port of Ayguade and the sensation of arriving on a tropical island hit us tout de suite. As did the sub-tropical heat. It was a matter of miles but it felt like a different world. A little van which doubles as the island’s bus pulled up and offered to deposit new arrivals at one of the island’s small number of hotels and guest houses. Foolishly we declined and decided to walk to see more of the celebrated flora and fauna.
The incline was steep and we passed a number of tiny hotels and guesthouses as well as a number of bars and restaurants of ten or fewer covers and peopled by nude and semi-nude folk. If you have never visited a naturist resort (the term nudist implies casual nudity, this is not that) this will be a strange sight at first, but one which you will adapt to with incredible speed. For the uninitiated, naturism is a decidedly more hippie stance on the absence of sartorial decoration. The International Naturist Federation have framed their philosophy as, “Naturism is a lifestyle in harmony with nature, expressed through social nudity, and characterised by self-respect of people with different opinions and of the environment.” Seems fair enough.
As we reached the peak of the island, the diminutive little buildings and businesses start to give the island a magical and enchanted feel, like something out of a fairytale. The jasmine hedges enshrining the entire island and the constant birdsong accentuate this other-worldly ambience.
We had chosen Héliotel, the island’s only three-star hotel, and we were greeted like family by Lucie, the magnaminous hotel owner. A cross between Brigitte Bardot in the 1980s and Zsa Zsa Gabor, she showed us to a homely rustic cabane overlooking the southern side of the island. The views were breathtaking. Lucie, a long-term inhabitant of this naked retreat told us more about this curious Lilliputian settlement;
“We are open all year-round, and only shut for a month and a half,” she explained from her beautiful rocky outcrop balcony.
“The actual Héliotel dates from the 1970s and I have been on the island myself since 1998, so over 12 years. I am one of the few hundred who stay here all year round. It’s my home.” Lucie went on to tell us that she came here for the weather and the nature, but she stays here for the sunsets, “Every night I have been here they are different.”
First stop, exploring the island. The paths around the circumference of the island are all colour-coded on regular giant maps as nature walks with regular viewpoints and kooky statues to keep your bearings. Most of the pathway which fringes the island is amber and tells us that nudity is optional, rather than enforced. A red area requires ‘le minimum’ although toplessness is allowed, and certainly seems to be the norm. This applies almost solely to the main square, the port and, resassuringly, the one shop/supermarket – Le Bazar d'Héliopolis. A code green means that nudity is obligatory, and this applies largely to the seashore and the one sandy beach, La Plage des Grottes.
On our walk round we met a few friendly faces, quite a few young couples, some naked old sea dogs and some athletic naked hikers. The convivial atmosphere of the island imbued all these meetings with an effortlessness that it seems hard to imagine now we are back ensconced in the rat race.
The pathway eventually took us round past the port and on to the ‘Nudity Enforced’ gate, which sits at the pathway entrance to La Plage des Grottes. Like a kind of Narnian portal, the gateway leads to one of the most magical beaches we had ever visited. Powdery sand and ultramarine blue sea hidden away in a rocky enclave, all discreetly shaded by Mediterranean pine trees, orchids, heather, ferns and arboreal spurge.
By night the only noise pollution comes as the sound of the cigales turns in to the sound of the grillons. There is no booming music from the bars and the naked inhabitants largely reconvene (appareled) in one of the three or four establishments in the dainty main square. We went for the cheekily-named ‘Le Minimum’ and were almost disappointed to see not one pareo-attired customer. The attached restaurant served almost exclusively fish and the meal was sublime.
On our second night we ate at our hotel’s own exalted balcony restaurant. In contrast to most restaurants in the South of France the service was exceptional with a complete lack of fuss, flurry or hurry. The food was simple Provençal fare, served against a sunset on the Riviera. All from our secret vantage point on our secret enchanted island.
The jewel in the hotel’s tropical garland is that it also boasts its own wellness programme. This programme takes the form of a solitary poster advertising the single-named ‘Viviane’ and her ‘massage de relaxation’. My girlfriend and I had enquired at Lucie’s main reception area (the bar) as to Viviane’s prices and availability and she had told us that she would let us know more when she spoke with her. An hour or so later, as my girlfriend and I sprawled by the pool in the early evening glow our tranquil sun was interrupted by the strutting shadow of a woman in four-inch heels, a thong the size of a keyring and nothing else. “Je suis Viviane,” she informed us, in a way I imagine Madonna to introduce herself. Taken aback, and suddenly feeling more naked than the day I was born we arranged massages for the next night, before she spun off in to her relaxation world in the bushes overlooking the pool.
The next evening, around dusk, we each had hour-long massages underneath the oleander and orange trees. Viviane, now wearing a bikini top as well as her keyring, worked her magic and we both felt strangely normal being massaged completely nude by a woman in a thong overlooking a bar.
After our massages, our dozy heads in the pink-tickled sky, we strolled back to the pool. We were sold on this lifestyle on this enchanting island; the discreet and respectful people…the absence of washing required. For first time naturists it would be the perfect introduction with none of the ghetto or voyeuristic feel of other naturist establishments in and around the Riviera. The mutual respect and tolerance naturists hold so dear is more in evidence here than anywhere else…in harmony with nature has never felt more natural.
How to get there and what you need to know
Boats to the Îles d’Hyères are regular in season, less so out of it. In any case the port of le Lavandou is the easiest place to catch a boat from. One to eight departures by boat per day, depending on the season. There also boats leaving from Toulon, Cannes, La Tour-Fondue, Hyères, Le Lavandou, Cavalaire, La Londe or La Croix Valmer.
Price: from 15 to 30 euros round trip.
See http://www.hyeres-tourisme.com/fr/ for more details.
This is how you get to Le Lavandou….
Take the autoroute direction "Toulon", then, "Hyères". Once in Hyères, continue straight on the motorway, direction "Le Lavandou"
By train :
To Toulon (40 Km), then take the Sodetrav bus across from the station which goes direct to Le Lavandou.