In the 2008 French film “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis,” a goofy comedy that pokes fun at regional stereotypes, a hapless postal worker is rewarded for years of suffering in the country’s bleak north with a supposedly plum post — on the Mediterranean island of Porquerolles.
Naturally, because the protagonist is French, he can’t get too happy about moving to paradise. His feelings are complicated. He has developed affection for the rubes of remote Nord-Pas-de-Calais, despite what is satirized as an Arctic climate populated by Franco-Neanderthals.
The average vacationer, however, is unlikely to feel so conflicted. The first view of Porquerolles’ harbor is almost unreal in its stunning beauty: water a vivid turquoise, dark green hills rising over cliffs, white sailboats bobbing in the sunshine. There is something almost Caribbean about Porquerolles — yet the fragrance of pine, eucalyptus and olive groves is quintessentially Mediterranean.
Porquerolles is the largest and westernmost of the accessible three Îles d’Hyères that make up a tiny archipelago just off the coast at Hyères. These are no Balearics, though: The Îles d’Hyères are mostly undeveloped, sorely lacking in the nightlife that draws vacationers to Ibiza. And that’s just the way discerning French vacationers like it.
Four miles long and shy of two miles wide, Porquerolles feels even smaller than that. Four-fifths of the island has been set aside as conservation land, leaving just a single village and that lovely harbor to welcome visitors (but not their cars, which are prohibited on the isle). Harbor and town lie just opposite mainland France on the north coast; Porquerolles’ pristine, rocky southern shore is defined by dramatic cliffs and staggering sea views.
Unless you come by yacht, getting to the island involves a 15-minute passenger ferry from the port of Giens or nearby Hyères, a lovely medieval French town for which the islands are named. The closest city of any size is Toulon, a naval base and the provincial capital of the Var department; while it has more transportation connections, Toulon is prosaic by Côte d’Azur standards, so you aren’t likely to linger.
With a single village and just a few hundred locals, there isn’t much in the way of Jewish or any other culture on Porquerolles. (Interesting side note: Dany Boon, the hugely popular French actor who wrote “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis,” converted to Judaism for his Jewish wife.)
But if you’re in southern France and longing for a pristine, idyllic escape from the Riviera crowds, Porquerolles is probably worth the considerable effort. I say considerable because lodgings are scarce and pricey, camping is banned, transportation is limited to bikes and your own legs … and Type A vacationers will run out of things to do fast.
It is, however, an ideal getaway for nature lovers — hikers, picnickers, birdwatchers, bikers — and those who crave solitude. (Even more nature and solitude is on tap at the neighboring Île du Levant, home to a few hotels, a military base, and — most famously — a nudist colony; “naturiste” doesn’t refer to the wildlife.)
For the stressed-out traveler, Porquerolles offers just enough in the way of timeless pleasures. The inviting village, full of fragrant bougainvillea and pastel buildings, offers a selection of hotels and cafés where vacationers linger over fresh salads, seafood and local rosé. Olives come from nearby groves; crisp, orange-tinted wines, grown from sunbaked island vineyards, are produced at the local winery, Domaine Perzinsky, itself a charming spot to tour.
The winery is also on the way to Porquerolle’s most historic site: Fort St. Agathe, a 16th-century fortress. Built on a strategic bluff, the fort boasts well-preserved walls and a cannon tower that protected the French coast from maritime invaders. Today the site is home to a small archaeological museum whose exhibitions trace island history (guided tours are also available in season).
Near the lighthouse at the edge of the village, the public Emmanuel Lopez Garden is a botanical idyll that showcases species native to these isles: olive, laurel, small green cacti, palms and palmettos. Tiny green lizards and the occasional snake slither through a landscape that feels almost desert-like in places, despite its lushness.
In the shimmering, hot silence of midday, I could see why a chatty postal worker might have second thoughts about a post in paradise. Pared down to its Mediterranean essence, Porquerolles is a challenging place to live … but for vacationers, it just might be perfect.