From my first dive in Port-Cros National Park in 2016 to my dives in the Esterel area last summer, I kept exploring for 4 years every harbour and village I could, feeling I hadn’t seen enough to create such an itinerary. Result: how to fit now all the beautiful things I saw in only 2 weeks, the average time people have for holidays.
I’m not going to lie, this is quite a challenging pace but you will get the opportunity to experience some of the finest diving in France. So don’t hesitate to skip a few steps or add a few days to this French Riviera itinerary to make it more relaxing. Another option is to cut it into two and do each in 2 weeks: the Var Prefecture from Hyères to Saint-Raphaël, and the Alpes-Maritime Prefecture from Mandelieu to Menton. Ready? Let’s go for the best of the best of the things I loved as a scuba diver on the French Riviera!
Map of my French Riviera itinerary
You will find below the map of my 2-week road trip on the French Riviera going through Hyères, Bormes-les-Mimosas and Saint-Raphaël in the Var Prefecture, and Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Nice and Menton in the Alpes-Maritimes Prefecture.
1 – Hyères / Porquerolles / Port-Cros: 4 days
There are many opinions about where the French Riviera, or Côte d’Azur, starts, but the common consensus makes it start in Hyères. Located in the heart of the Var Prefecture, it is today a vast territory around a medieval old town including the entire Giens Peninsula and the “Iles d’Or” (Gold Islands, aka Porquerolles, Port-Cros and Le Levant islands). Thanks to the Port-Cros National Park, the first marine park to be established in Europe in 1963, Hyères is a must-see place for scuba divers exploring the French Riviera.
Visiting Hyères Old Town
While most of the time I went scuba diving in Hyères I was staying in Toulon, I finally took the opportunity last year to book a flat on Airbnb for a week in Hyères. By booking right in the heart of the old town, I could explore each of its hidden gems as it is quite underrated on the French Riviera.
The first place you’ll see will surely be the Templar tower. This heritage site from the time when Hyères was a stop on the crusades route is more than a lovely square with many restaurants. Make sure to check the opening hours to get inside. At the time of my visit, there was a photography exhibition about Hyères architectural patrimony. But the best remains the delightful view once you climbed all the stairs. From the rooftop terrace, you are right above the tile roofs with the sea in the background.
I didn’t find it the first time, but the old wash house, down the church, is in a quiet and lovely garden. Perfect for taking a break in the shade or for reading a book while hearing the soft sound of the water running from basin to basin.
It is quite a climb to get up to Hyères Castle, which is on the hill above the old town centre, so I recommend going there early morning in the summer. Of the ruins of this 11th-century castle, you can still see a couple of towers and a drawbridge. However, at 198 m of altitude, the true reward is the stunning view of the Giens Peninsula and its saltmarshes, Porquerolles and Port-Cros islands.
Scuba diving in Port-Cros National Park
The dive centres going to the protected waters of Port-Cros and Porquerolles are quite spread out from Hyères to Le Lavandou. A few are directly located on the islands themselves, but I found it way more convenient to board directly from one of the harbours in Hyères. In my case, to go diving in Porquerolles, I embark from the harbour of L’Ayguade.
Every day in the season they go for two dives a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, making it sometimes a full day trip with a lunch break on Porquerolles or Port-Cros island. I usually call a few days in advance, as depending on the weather they may choose different dive sites in Port-Cros or Porquerolles, or one of the famous shipwrecks between the islands.
My recommended dive sites in Port-Cros National Park:
- Don’t miss the “Grec” shipwreck, my favourite dive site in France. At 40 m deep, the hull is entirely covered in red and yellow gorgonians with thousands of fish around including groupers, dentex, seabreams, swallow-tail seaperch, damselfish and so much more!
- The site named “La Gabinière” is in Port-Cros and is maybe the most famous in France. This deep drift dive is all about action with large groups and schools of barracudas.
- “Le sec de la Jeaune-Garde » is near the lighthouse of the same name, on the western tip of Porquerolles Island is my favourite site for macro photography. There are always plenty of nudibranchs, gobies, and this is where I saw for the first time a dogfish egg and a slipper lobster.
Exploring Porquerolles & Port-Cros Islands
Honestly, don’t leave after only exploring the dive sites of Porquerolles and Port-Cros islands. Their inland side offers fantastically preserved natural spaces, so try at least to explore one of them.
Port-Cros is wilder so it’s the best choice for hiking and snorkelling, thanks to the well-known underwater trail of “La Palud” Beach. Just the walk from the harbour to the beach takes 30 minutes on the top of high cliffs or through the woods, is a sporty hike in itself. Don’t forget your hat and to bring plenty of water!
On the other hand, Porquerolles is way more populated but has an adorable village, a fort, a windmill, olive tree fields, vineyards and long sandy beaches to relax on, such as “La Courtade” and “la plage d’argent” (the silver beach).
2 – Bormes-les-Mimosas / Le Lavandou: 1 day
For this step of the itinerary, it depends on you: how much you want to do and your level of scuba diving. There is excellent wreck diving available in the area from Le Lavandou to Cavalaire, but most of it is deep diving. You also need to take into account that the village of Bormes-Les-Mimosas is above 600 m of altitude, so be careful with your decompression time.
Visiting the village of Bormes-les-Mimosas
Famously known for its mimosas blossoming at the end of the winter (hence its name), Bormes-Les-Mimosas is the most adorable village of Provence on this itinerary to me. In the summer, mimosas will be long gone, but there is plenty of bougainvillaea and oleander to add bright shades of pink on the yellow and orange houses.
I recommend starting your visit with the overall view of the village you can get from the “Boulevard du Soleil” right down the city hall. Then, climb all the way to the top where the ruins of “Château des Seigneurs de Fos” stand. Another breath-taking view on the islands of Port-Cros and Le Levant waits for you there. Finally, you’ll be able to go down using the narrow stairs between houses and come across pretty squares, gardens and arches, always with thousands of flowers around (the village claims to count 700 different species of plants!). Don’t miss the square named “Lou Poulid Cantoun”, there is a café there which is my absolute favourite lunch break for a salad with melon while sipping a glass of rosé wine in the shade.
Wreck diving in Le Lavandou & Cavalaire
While you can also go diving in Port-Cros National Park from the harbours of Bormes-Les-Mimosas and Le Lavandou, the best of diving in the area is all about its fantastic collection of historical shipwrecks.
Beginner divers can explore the “Spahis” between 10 and 25 m deep. This steamer sank on its port side, not far the harbour of Le Lavandou, at the end of 19th century. The stern is surprisingly still in good condition and allows easy swim-through.
Advanced divers should check any opportunity to go wreck diving the “Rubis”, a French submarine from WWII. It was scuttled in 1958, after serving as a training submarine for the French Navy in Toulon. At 40 m deep, you’ll need the deep specialty to explore its 60 m of length and admire its majestic stern from the white sandy bottom.
Tec divers may decide to extend their stay when they learn about all the other deep wrecks. Among them, the “Togo” is one of the most famous with a maximum depth of 60 m. It sank in 1918, six months before the end of WWI. There is also an American plane wreck from WWII, the “Wildcat”, which is lying at 53 m deep.
3 – Saint-Raphaël / Mandelieu-la-Napoule: 3 days
From hiking to scuba diving, the Esterel mountain range and its red rocks plunging into the blue of the Mediterranean Sea is a paradise for outdoor and ocean sports lovers.
The best way to appreciate this unique protected natural space on the French Riviera is by hiking to the top of “Pic du Cap Roux”. It offers an incredible 360° view at 488 m high. You can see the shore from St-Tropez to Antibes. The hiking trail is surprisingly accessible and goes up progressively. In the summer, think about getting as early as possible to avoid overheating in the sun!
While being up there, take the time to pick your favourite “calanque” (creek) to go snorkelling, later on, to cool down in crystal clear water.
To go scuba diving in the Esterel area, there are several options. You will find dive centres in Frejus, Saint-Raphaël, le Dramont but to scuba dive in the Cap Roux protected area, you need to go to the harbour of “La Rague” in Mandelieu-la-Napoule.
The Esterel underwater area is mostly appreciated by macro critters lovers and underwater photography enthusiasts. The “Lion de Mer” islands, right in front of St-Raphaël, are a seahorse hotspot for instance!
4 – Golfe-Juan: 1 day
Nestled between Cannes and Antibes, don’t miss the opportunity to go scuba diving in Golfe-Juan as this is maybe the best diving spot of the Alpes-Maritimes Prefecture. From there you can either dive in the Lerins Islands facing Cannes or Cap d’Antibes, but the best diving is below the waves of La Fourmigue Lighthouse.
What looks like a tiny rock at the surface hides a massive complex of rocky pinnacles, arches, caverns and even a miniature underwater village! Boasting with marine life (this is where I saw my first torpedo ray), two dives won’t be too much to explore the several diving routes available.
5 – Saint-Paul-de-Vence / Vence: 1 day
To make the connection between Golfe-Juan and Nice, my recommendation is to go on a day road trip to Saint-Paul-de-Vence up in the hills. This walled medieval village is today mostly dedicated to art with many galleries and workshops. For most of the 20th century, the superb location of Saint-Paul on top a rock surrounded by cypress and olive trees attracted many famous artists such as Matisse and Chagall (who lived there for 19 years).
The village is relatively small, once you walked all around the walls and across the cobblestone streets, drive a little further to the town of Vence. You’ll notice a surprising number of water fountains. All of them offer spring water from the nearby spring of La Foux.
6 – Nice: 3 days
No itinerary on the French Riviera would be complete without “Nissa la Bella”, its unofficial capital city. There is so much in the 5th largest city of France that you’ll have to make choices.
If walking along its famous seafront, the “Promenade des Anglais”, or around the narrow, colourful streets of the old town are on the top of the list, don’t forget to climb on the “Colline du Château” (Castle Hill), a park where a castle used to stand. From the top, right above a vertiginous waterfall, you can enjoy the best view of the “Baie des Anges” (Angel Bay), the roofs of the old town on one side, and the old port on the other.
Scuba diving in Nice & Villefranche Bay
Nice must now be the most accessible city in France for scuba divers. Thanks to its tram network linking the airport to the harbour and from north to south, you’re only minutes away from boarding a scuba diving boat. Twice a day, dive centres take scuba divers to Cap Nice, Villefranche Bay and Cap Ferrat in only 10 to 20 minutes.
Here is the usual schedule when diving in Nice: Morning dives are usually deep wall covered in red and yellow gorgonians (my favourite is Pointe Caussinière, off Cap Ferrat, with a maximum depth of 40 m). Afternoon dives are usually shallower, in areas with Posidonia seagrass valleys in Villefranche Bay.
7 – Menton / Cap d’Ail / Eze: 1 day
For your last day before going home, explore the last bit of the French Riviera, all the way until the Italian border by going on a last road trip for a day.
Visiting Menton Old Town
Go the furthest first by exploring Menton, right on the border with Italy, and its colourful old town and baroque cathedral. There you will surely notice how much the area from Nice is much more influence by Italian style. This is not so surprising when you learn the area became French in the second half of the 19th century. If you are not flying the next day, you can go for a last dive off Cap Martin with the dive centre of Menton in Garavan Harbour.
Snorkeling in Mala Beach, Cap d’Ail
If you are flying the next day, the best way to enjoy being underwater one last time is to go snorkelling or freediving. The Mala Beach looks more like a “calanque” (creek) and is a paradise-like setting with crystal clear water calling you to dive in!
Visiting the village of Eze
I kind of kept the best for the end with the tiny village of Eze, at the top of a 429 m peak. This medieval village is, once again, incredibly charming. However, Eze has something extra. The maze of old stone stairs leads to an awe-inspiring exotic garden within the ruins of its castle.
The view over Cap Ferrat is undoubtedly the most impressive of the French Riviera. Among the Mediterranean and tropical varieties of plants, you’ll find lounging chairs by a waterfall for a quiet and quite luxurious nap after such an exciting day!
How to go and get around the French Riviera?
Thanks to its extensive network, travelling in France by train remains the best solution in terms of comfort and cost. However, sometimes when going to more rural areas, driving a car can let you see more in one day even in places like the French Riviera with broad public transportation coverage.
This is up to you, but just to let you know, renting a car in France is not cheap. It is what it is, but for information, my 7-day car rental was 430€ last summer. Besides, sometimes parking your car can quickly become a nightmare as space is scarce; make sure your hotel or Airbnb offers free and convenient parking space.
If you travelling from abroad, you can fly to the 2 closest international airports which are Marseille-Marignane in the west and Nice-Côte d’Azur in the east. The airport in Nice is conveniently connected to the city-centre and the TGV train station thanks to its tram network.
By connecting in Paris or Marseille, you can also consider taking the European high-speed trains such as Thalys or Eurostar. Once on rails, the TGV high-speed train goes to Toulon (3h30 from Paris), Hyères, Saint-Raphaël, Nice and Menton (6h40 from Paris).
It requires a bit more planning and organisation, but this entire French Riviera itinerary is feasible with public transportation! A local TER train ticket is between 5 and 10€, and local bus rides single tickets are about 1,50€. Unfortunately, these local connections are not yet available directly onto Google maps so you’ll need to check individual websites, so here is the list:
- Local TER train & ZOU buses Région Sud
- Toulon / Hyères – Mistral buses
- Hyères / Porquerolles / Port-Cros – TLV ferries
- Le Lavendou / Port-Cros – Vedettes Iles d’Or
- Nice / Eze / Cap d’Ail / Menton – Lignes d’Azur buses
When is the best time to visit the French Riviera?
As a Mediterranean region of France, water is 14°C at the coldest during wintertime and 26°C in the summer. However, the Alpes-Maritimes area enjoys a water temperature that is usually warmer than in the Var area due to the infamous Mistral wind. In the middle of the summer, it’s not rare to have water dropping below 20°C between Hyères and Saint-Raphaël while it remains at 24°C between Mandelieu and Menton.
Plan your wetsuit accordingly. In my case, I dive with a 7mm full wetsuit in the summer months and switch to drysuit when it gets below 18°C (usually from November to June). From a species point of view, groupers and barracudas can be seen all year-round. However, lucky scuba divers can spot sunfish beginning of June (still waiting for my luck!).
The weather in French Riviera is usually sunny and warm, except mid-September to mid-October when strong thunderstorms tend to happen. As a rule of thumb, the end of August to the beginning of September is the best period to go scuba diving in the French Riviera. You’ll find water is warm and you’ll avoid the crowds of French holiday goers (traditionally from 14th of July to the 15th of August).
Where to stay on the French Riviera?
With the hospitality industry existing since the 19th century on the French Riviera, finding a place to stay is not so difficult. However, depending on your budget and the kind of experience you wish to have, it can be a bit trickier to find the right place.
For budget travellers, except in Nice where you can find a trendy hostel, rental flats are the best options for short days if you like to be able to cook during your trip (and hence save even more money).
If you are looking for more comfort, hotels are of course the way to go, but to make it more special I’d like to recommend establishments with a history, such as the Excelsior in Saint-Raphaël or the Saint-Paul in Nice.
To complete your French Riviera itinerary, have a look at these additional pages about travelling and scuba diving in the south of France:
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