It was the third time I was spending the summer on the French Riviera. I can’t believe I passed, again and again, the Esterel mountain range, half-way on the coast between Toulon and Nice, without ever stopping! It only took a hike and a dive to make me fall for this Natura-2000 protected area of 15,000 ha famous for its red volcanic rocks. Needless to say that after 4 months locked down at my Parisian flat, space and nature was everything I was craving for. I couldn’t choose a better place among the limited options I had.
The Esterel is a paradise for all outdoors lovers whether you are into scuba diving, free diving, hiking, biking or kayaking. To scuba dive in the Esterel, there are departure points from St Raphael to Mandelieu-la-Napoule. In a week of alternating scuba diving, hiking and snorkelling, I ran out of time as I kept finding more places to explore. So, I already know I have to go back!
Hiking to the top of the Esterel
The best way to get a perfect overview of this superb natural park is a hike to the peak of Cap Roux. From the top, at 453 m of altitude, you can admire the entire shore from Antibes to St-Tropez and check which “Calanques” (creeks) you will dive later on.
Being below the limit of 600 m at its highest point, you can technically do it after diving, but considering the climb and the sun hitting hard in the afternoon, I don’t recommend it. This is why I decided to do it on my first day in the Esterel. Leave as early as you can in the morning and take advantage of the cooler temperature with a nice breeze to ascend to the top.
This hike starts at a parking lot in the heart of the park, about 10 minutes driving from the small seaside town of Agay. If you don’t have a car and feel brave enough, you can take the bus to Agay and then rental a mountain bike which is a popular option in the area (you will find many mountain bike rental places all over the Esterel area).
It technically takes 2 hours to go up and down, but if you can’t resist taking hundreds of pictures (I bet you will like me), it can quickly double the total time. I might have stayed a good 30 minutes at the top but seriously look at this view! There is a drinking water spring near the beginning of the hike but make sure you bring a hat, non-toxic sunscreen and plenty of water with you.
For my next trip, I think I will do the tour of Cape Dramont, 1h30 (without the photo stops) and the viewpoint is at 127 m high. As I was running out of time, I only did a tiny portion of the trail near the harbour of Poussaï to get a few shots of the iconic tower on the Ile d’Or.
I warmly recommend consulting the official hiking website of the Esterel to get all the essential information you need, such as directions and safety tips.
Please keep in mind that fire risk is high during July and August mostly, so sometimes when a combination of high temperatures and strong winds is met, the hiking trails of the Esterel can be closed. Find more information on the official website of the Var Prefecture.
Diving in « Réserve du Cap Roux » from Mandelieu-la-Napoule
After a 9-month surface interval, you can imagine how excited I was to go back underwater! After such a long time without diving, I knew I had to take it easy. This spot was fantastic from this point of view: no current, easy navigation and clear water.
The marine ecosystem was typical of the Mediterranean Sea. I saw many groupers and corbs (also called brown meagre) thanks to the no-fishing rule enforced in the marine protected area of Cap Roux. But the lucky moment was definitely the large stingray at the beginning of our immersion.
Reflexes on my underwater camera slowly came back, so I chose a few easy subjects to start with such as the elegant swallowtail seaperch also nicknamed marine goldfish (with striking pink hues and a touch of yellow) or even a simple starfish.
Dive parameters: max depth 25 m, total dive time 52 minutes, water temperature 20°C
To go scuba diving in the MPA of Cap Roux, the best way is to go from the harbour of La Rague, in Mandelieu-la-Napoule, with Centre de plongée de la Rague. One of the advantages of boarding in Mandelieu a scuba diving boat was definitely the view of the Esterel mountain range from the sea during the 20-minute boat ride each way.
Diving in « Le Lion de Mer », from Saint-Raphael / Port-Fréjus
The tiny rocky islets named “Lion de Mer” close to the shore of Saint-Raphaël, are only a 15-minute boat ride from Port-Fréjus where I boarded. Their name comes from the shapes of the rocks emerging at the surface of the sea. They supposedly looked like a Sphinx to the boat approaching the shore. With the expert guidance of Alpha Beluga Plongée, I was stunned by the density of marine life and the number of routes that can be taken, from very shallow waters to the bottom of its deep wall at 60 m.
On my first dive, I had, as I usually do, only taken my wide-angle lens, to discover that in terms of underwater photography, the “Lion de Mer” is better appreciated with a macro lens. On this first dive, we went on the right side of the islands and swam along the drop-off. This is where scuba divers looking for deep dive sites go. There is even a cavern covered in Mediterranean red coral called “Grotte à corail”, at 40 m deep.
In my case, as our buddy team included an Open Water diver we stayed in the 20m area. So I just saw a few of the gorgonians at that depth but I was ok with it. It was only my second dive after such a long surface interval. Before we ended the dive, I had the chance to meet an enormous dusky grouper on a Posidonia seagrass plateau at 15 m deep (sorry I missed the picture!).
On my second dive, I took my CMC lens, and as a group of underwater photographers was diving that day, we went on a 90-minute dive! I realised this how I prefer diving now, without the need to going deep.
The first 20 minutes we stayed on the sandy slope area at 12 m on the left side of the rocky islands. This is where divers in the know look for seahorses. And we found 3 that day! I was so happy to discover another seahorse hotspot in the South of France. However, with their dark or sand-like colours, a patient eagle eye is needed. By spending time in the area, you are also likely to find a few hermit crabs.
We then moved on the other side of the islands under a scenic arch covered in yellow encrusting anemones. Right after the arch, there is a statue of Virgin Mary, “Notre-Dame-des-Fonds-Marins”, at only 12 m deep, so all level of scuba divers can have a look at it. A bit further down on the left, at 18 m there is another statue, called the “Mermaid” (even it didn’t have a fishtail).
Thanks to the mild currents passing between the rocks, the area of the arch is an ideal spot to look for nudibranchs. Especially where you will feel a tidal current, check carefully the hydroids, udotea algae and encrusting sponge.
We found a couple of pilgrim Hervia just above the arch, but also on the hydroids growing on the mermaid statue. Purple and pink Flabellina could be found on each side of the islands. As usually around the Mediterranean Sea, we saw a few a dotted Doris but for the first time, I saw a lemon Doris!
- max depth 22 m, total dive time 53 minutes, water temperature 17°C
- max depth 14 m, total dive time 90 minutes, water temperature 24°C
- max depth 20 m, total dive time 68 minutes, water temperature 24°C
As you can notice, between my first and second day of diving there was a dramatic difference in water temperatures! It was the same for the visibility, lower than 10 m compared to more than 20 m the next day. This was due to the wind blowing the night before my arrival, the infamous “Mistral” which blows from Marseille to Saint-Raphaël. The Cape Roux marks an invisible frontier in sea conditions, especially water temperature. 10°C of difference is not rare in summer when diving on each side the same week.
The Esterel offers many more dive sites, especially around Cape Dramont around the “Ile d’Or” and its iconic tower. But to tell you about them, I will have to return to Saint-Raphael!
Snorkelling in the « Calanques » of the Esterel
There are so many pretty creeks in Esterel to go swimming that the hardest will be to choose where to go. On the map you can get for free at the Tourism board office, I counted 12 between Agay and Le Trayas. There are many more, but I would say that the most breath-taking part was between Antheor and Le Trayas, where you also find the marine reserve of Cap Roux. The most famous creeks include “Calanque d’Antheor” and its elegant train viaduct, and “Calanque Saint-Barthélémy” at Cap Roux.
On my last day, I decided to extend my time underwater for free by going back to the marine reserve of Cap Roux from the shore! Since parking spaces can be scarce ( looking too dangerous for the rental car), I preferred stopping at the convenient parking lot of “Calanques de Maupas“. Access by car was easy but to go down to the creek included a bit of rock climbing, so please, be careful.
The water was warm and clear, and after a plateau of Posidonia seagrass, there was a small drop-off leading to a pure white sandy bottom at 4 m deep only where I enjoyed some free diving. Being located in the marine reserve of Cap Roux, I was honestly expecting more fish. I saw a few seabreams, a starfish and a sea anemone. Maybe by going early morning, it would work better; I was there around noon.
Where to stay in the Esterel area?
You can virtually stay in Saint-Raphael or in Mandelieu, or in both like I did, or anywhere along the “Corniche d’Or” road. The maximum drive time I had one morning, thanks to the highway passing by at the north of the Esterel was 30 minutes. The only thing you need to consider is the road traffic on the Corniche d’Or, especially between 4 pm and 7 pm when people all come back from the beach, the worse area being around Théoule-Sur-Mer forming a bottle-neck.
In Saint-Raphael, I was staying at the Excelsior hotel, right between its sandy beach and its elegant Basilica. While I loved the vintage look of the hotel, it still offers all the modern comfort and cloud-like beds you may look for in a 4-star hotel. I must say, their terrace with the view on the sea and their innovative, delicious cuisine, quickly became my favourite spot!
Being so well located, every evening I could walk everywhere along the beach or the old port hop for a last drink after my dinner at the hotel. However, note the hotel doesn’t have its own parking and in St Raphael centre, parking is free but limited to 2 hours between 9 am and 7 pm.
In Mandelieu-la-Napoule, I stayed at the Golf Park Hotel. Quite a funny choice for a scuba diver, right? But I discovered there that Golfers’ hotels have an incredible advantage scuba divers can enjoy too: plenty of space to take away the gear. I simply have never seen a more oversized closet in a hotel room!
Besides, rooms all have their own terrace, which is nice to let the gear dip dry. The hotel had a lovely garden with a swimming pool for when you feel too tired to go back to the beach after a day of diving and a large secured parking space for the rental car. Only 10 minutes of driving from the hotel, I could go for a sunset picnic next to a historic castle on the beach. Simply unique on the French Riviera!
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This article was written in partnership with the tourism board of Côte d’Azur. As always, all my views and opinions are my own and reflect my experience honestly.
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