Remarkable for its jagged mountains and bountiful hiking trails through remote and unspoiled limestone and dolomite peaks, Parc National des Calanques–France’s tenth and newest national park and the first in Europe to include land, sea, and modern architectural developments–stretches three miles from Marseille to Cassis in Bouches-du-Rhône in southern France’s picturesque and globally beloved Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region.
Simply known as the Calanques to locals, and officially deemed a protected area in 2012, travelers flock to the park in the heat of summer to explore iconic landscapes formed by the Massif des Calanques, which pinnacles at nearly 2,000 feet at Mont Puget, and to hike, rock climb, and swim beneath vertiginous, towering cliffs that plunge perpendicular into the Mediterranean Sea. With plenty of popular swimming holes, quaint fishing towns only reachable on foot or by boat, and more sequestered stretches of coastline perfect for a gourmet Provençal picnic, there’s plenty of reasons to visit France’s loveliest natural wonder this summer.
Tucked between Marseille and Toulon, and situated at the foot of the area’s emblematic, sun-kissed cliff of Cap Canaille, the seaside town of Cassis, a quaint French Riviera town on the park’s eastern edge, is the perfect base to explore the Calanques. Although accessible from the former shipbuilding port of La Ciotat and France’s second largest city of Marseille, where the Philippe Starck-designed Mama Shelter Marseille is positioned near the vibrant Cours Julien arts district and the Maison Montgrand offers luxe accommodations in two retrofitted 18th- and 19th-century townhouses, a stay in the once sleepy village of Cassis will garner you instant access to pebbly beaches and the park’s famed narrow inlets framed by steep, limestone cliffs.
Book one of five rooms at Château de Cassis, a 13th-century manor set on a hilltop overlooking the town, where each suite includes a private terrace and views of Plage de la Grande Mer beach, where locals line the shores with pastel beach towels and oversized straw caps to tan and relax away the day in true French fashion. Stroll the Cassis harbor, where a seaside row of candy-colored townhouses stand erect over myriad boats and small canoes on the water’s edge, to discover sidewalk cafes and restaurants where you can dine alfresco. Also at the harbor are private yacht charters for hire. Book a day trip to sail to the park’s most stunning inlets–which can be tricky to navigate on foot for novice hikers–for a day of swimming in the area’s brisk, albeit refreshing waters.
Although known for nautical adventures, hikers worldwide are drawn by the allure of the Calanques trails. To explore the park’s finest hiking paths with the expertise of a local guide, book an itinerary with Mountain Travel Sobek to discover the Calanques on foot. With your base in Cassis, gain swift access to the park’s most illustrious inlet of En-Vau, known for its turquoise waters hugged by the park’s ubiquitous limestone cliffs on all sides, and Calanque de Port-Miou, one of the park’s largest Calanques and home to a marina where you can rent sea kayaks to paddle inlet to inlet until you reach Marseille.
Because the park’s footpaths weave along the Mediterranean Sea, hiking is the best way to explore the area’s isolated coves, which are cast with rays bouncing from pure white limestone, revealing turquoise reflections on still waters. Hike from Calanque de Sugiton to Calanque de Sormiou, where you can dine at Le Château on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Often, a regatta of boats practice sailing just beyond the Calanque in the churning open waters. Due to its location near the Rhône Valley, the Calanques prove the perfect base to discover Provençal gastronomy like the area’s renowned production of herbaceous, full-bodied white wines from Clairette and Marsanne grapes, which make an ideal complement to savory bouillabaisse, a traditional Provençal fish stew originating from the port city of Marseille, comprised of clams, lobster and fish in a broth made fragrant with fennel and pastis, an anise-flavored apéritif.
The best time to visit the Calanques is in May and June, as due to the threat of fires in the hot summer months, most of the roads into the Calanques are temporarily closed during summer, from June 1st to September 30th, to avoid any potential sparks. The absence of cars proves refreshing, as you can only gain access to the parks most rugged and charming stretches by trekking, adding even more to the allure to the wild terrain of Les Calanques.