Passengers 104 maximum. That was the capacity of the boat, according to the slightly faded sign. We were certainly precariously close to limit, bunched together, proverbial sardines in the morning sunlight, heading across to Ile Sainte-Marguerite, twenty minutes off the coast of Cannes.
I had been there a few times before, for walks through the forest pathways that snake across the infamous island, but this time I was taking a friend. The infamy owed to the fact that the “Man in the Iron Mask” was held captive there, a mysterious prisoner whose identity was hidden by, you guessed it, an iron mask. Rumour has it that it was the identical twin of Louis XIV who was subjected to the ordeal, though today we are not visiting the island to speculate. We are here to swim.
Surrounded by almost improbable clear waters, the island is home to breathtaking beaches and coves. My accompanying mate knew the area extremely well, and told me we would visit a cove he has known since he was a child. As we left the over-crowded boat in a flood of limbs and pushchairs, I was escorted up some old stone steps.
“Follow me. We’re going the way no one else knows.”
How very exciting. Though had those words been spoken by somebody who I did not know, perhaps excitement would not be an apt description. We walked for about fifteen minutes through trails lined by prodigious trees, the chaotic hubbub of the boat left behind. We soon found ourselves at the cove.
Descending a group of rocks, we set up a base of towels, sun cream and flip-flops. What’s interesting about the island is the lack of sand, or rather its complete nonexistence. Instead, the island’s shore is covered in layers of dried seaweed, which actually seem to be more like chunks of sawdust. Perhaps it’s not as traditional as sand, but the stuff makes for a lovely natural mattress.
Growing up by the North Sea, I’ve never been one to shy away from cold water, so it wasn’t long before I ventured into the perfectly still sea, much to my friend’s horror. The horror was well placed, my enthusiasm wasn’t. The water was freezing, big mistake. I forced myself to persist, and ventured underneath a mysterious rocky arch, wading knee deep through glass-like water. I felt like I was on some kind of expedition, and I half expected to see Bear Grylls behind me, grunting while punching a snake.
But no, I was alone. Complete serenity except for the odd seagull manically screaming as it flew by. Next to me was a dark cave, a shingle beach at its entrance.
My friend informed me, having finally dared to leave the warmth of the beach, “When I was a young boy, I used to call this place le repère de la sirène.”
Murmaid’s Waypoint, a befitting name for such a mysterious place. Next to it trickled a minuscule waterfall, pouring into a rock pool. After maybe ten minutes trying to ascertain whether a red object was a fish or perhaps a piece of litter (it was a fish, thankfully) we climbed up onto the hot slabs of rock behind.
From here, we could really appreciate the beauty of the cove below, a sparkling gem hidden from the rest of the world, a turquoise canvas untouched for centuries. I plucked up the courage for another swim, which perhaps lasted a meagre 33 seconds. Bear Grylls would have been ashamed.
It was time to leave the island and head back to Cannes. A bustling metropolis in comparison. I told my friend that we would return soon, for I would love to swim without the sea rendering me a whimpering child.
How do you find this hidden cove, you ask? Well, it wouldn’t be a secret if I told you. But there’s much to discover on the off-beaten paths at Ile Sainte-Marguerite.
The 15-minute ferry departs from Quai Laubeuf in Cannes year round. Adult return fare: €14. Book online at www.trans-cote-azur.com.
For more, see https://lewislongman.wordpress.com