The picturesque port of Cassis - well worth a visit in its own right - is an excellent starting point to visit the three easternmost calanques along the coast in the direction of Marseille: Port Miou, Port Pin and En Vau.
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Strictly speaking, only one of them, Port Miou, is part of the "territory" of Cassis. All the others fall within the municipality of Marseille.
However, for practical purposes, these particular calanques can be more easily accessed from the east, rather than starting in Marseille.
This is a guide to Port Miou, Port Pin and En Vau (pictured top left), and to how to get to these calanques, which - as you can see from the map - are noticably longer than most of those further west. Click on the map to enlarge the image.
These calanques (with the partial exception of Port Miou) were officially declared a National Park in April 2012, and there may be restrictions on certain sporting activities such as hunting or fishing as a result. Click here to read the full rules and regulations governing visits (in French only).
Click here to read a detailled general guide to the calanques, here to read about the calanques immediately south of Marseille, here to read about the calanques west of Marseille on the Blue Coast, here to read about the beaches of Cassis and here to read a guide to the town of Cassis itself.
On the Presqu'Ile (Peninsula) to the south-west of the town, Port Miou is the nearest of these calanques, and the easiest one to reach from the centre of town (see below for full details of how to get to the three calanques of Cassis).
You arrive at the Peninsula along a high crest fringed on one side by pine trees overlooking the sea and on the other by olive trees overlooking Port Miou itself. At the end of the crest is a restaurant, La Presqu'Ile, which serves seafood, salads and simple grilled meat dishes and is open from May to September. Next to it is a tennis club. There is no bar or restaurant down at the bottom of the calanque.
The crest offers dramatic views along Port Miou, which is winding and very long - 1.5 km / just under a mile - and offers mooring for over 500 boats along both its fringes. Like the other two calanques of Cassis, it is uninhabited; unlike them, it has no beach.
The Romans used Port Miou as a harbour. In fact, its name comes from the Latin portus melior: the best port. It's the deepest and most sheltered of the calanques between Cassis and Marseille.
From 1900 to 1981, part of Port Miou was a limestone quarry run by a company named Solvay. The limestone was removed by dynamite, broken down and loaded in transporter boats through giant funnels.
These are pictured in the background of the photo - note the blue and red fire-fighting boat moored in the foreground. The limestone was then utilised to manufacture toothpaste, chalk, textiles, plastic and caustic soda, among other things.
As its name suggests, Port Pin, the smallest and most intimate of the three calanques of Cassis, is surrounded by the Aleppo pine trees so typical of this part of the Mediterranean.
It boasts a small sand and shingle beach, pictured, and the water here - emerald or turquoise depending on the light - is very clear and perfect for swimming.
En Vau is the most spectacular and beautiful of these three calanques and also the most difficult to get to.
Extremely steep, it's popular with rock-climbers and - pictured below - a little shingle beach awaits you at the end to reward you for your efforts.
How to visit the calanques of Cassis
The extraordinary topography of the calanques makes it difficult to get to many of them, except by boat. And because of the severe fire risk in summer, access is restricted by law between 1 June and 30 September.
During this period there are three risk levels: orange (access authorised), red (access authorised between 6am and 11am) and black (access banned).
The level varies according to weather conditions and is set daily at 6pm for the following day. It's available on the official helpline, tel (+33) 8 11 20 13 13, in English as well as French and published (in French only) on the Bouches du Rhône regional website.
Even on days when access is authorised, the heat - amplified by the sun and reflected by the sea and the white rocks - will make hiking disagreeable in the middle of the day.
There are also no bars or restaurants at any of the three calanques near Cassis, so take plenty of water, as well as protective headgear, sunblock and the usual equipment.
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Parts of this trail skirt vertiginous drops and the rocks have been worn smooth by generations of hiking boots. It's therefore dangerous on days of the Mistral (Provence's fierce, gusting wind). You should check the weather report before setting out. Camping out in the calanques overnight is prohibited by law.
On foot: Weather permitting, you can walk to all three calanques from the centre of Cassis.
The first and by far the easiest walk is to Port Miou, pictured, which you can reach in half an hour, from the Cassis harbour front to the top of the calanque.
From there, you can either content yourself with strolling along the crest overlooking the calanque and the sea, or you can hike right around and into Port Miou.
This hiking trail is called the "Sentier du Petit Prince", after The Little Prince, the classic children's book by the poet and aviator Antoine de Saint Exupéry ("Saint Ex" died in a plane crash off the Mediterranean coast in 1944).
This loop takes between an hour and 90 minutes, is clearly marked with eleven panels en route explaining the ecology and culture of the calanques (in French only) and is flagged as accessible to all moderately fit walkers.
Port Pin is half an hour from Port Miou (i.e. this calanque is an hour hike each way from Cassis harbour) and En Vau is another hour further (i.e. a two hour hike each way from Cassis harbour).
The longer hikes form part of the Grande Randonnée 98 (GR98). They - in particular the trail to En Vau - are steeper, more challenging more slippery and less well signposted than the walk around Port Miou.
If taking one of them, you are strongly advised to arm yourself with sturdy hiking boots and a good map. Find a large-scale IGN map of hiking trails through the Marseille-Cassis calanques on Amazon
If you read French, consider investing in Les Calanques à pied, one in the series of definitive topoguides (illustrated guides) produced by the Fédération française de la randonnée pedestre, the national rambling federation. The one for the calanques offers 28 hikes of varying lengths and levels of difficulty.
You can also walk down to En Vau from the Parking (car-park) de la Fontasse, which is reached along an unsigned, narrow dirt track leading off the D559 between Marseille and Cassis, opposite the military training ground.
The steep walk from the car-park to the bottom of the Calanque d'En Vau leads through a narrow gorge, is three km / 1.8 miles long and takes 30-40 minutes.
For the adventurous, organised excursions into the calanques are available from the Bureau des Guides des calanques (the Office of Guides to the Calanques) for groups of a minimum of four and a maximum of 12 persons. As well as simple guided walks, canyoning, abseiling (rappelling), mountain biking and rock climbing are all on offer. Some excursions are available in English.
The Bureau des Guides des calanques is based at the Tourist Office on the quai des Moulins, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 6 85 55 04 47. Website for the Bureau des Guides des calanques
By car: You can drive to Port Miou, where there is a (pay-for) car park on the crest overlooking the calanque, though space here is likely to be in extremely short supply in the high season.
You can also drive part of the way to En Vau along the route de la Gineste between Cassis and Marseille, though the last part of the entry to this calanque still involves a steep hike. At both these venues, do not leave valuables in your vehicle and try to retrieve it before nightfall.
By the petit train (little train): The petit train touristique runs from the Tourist Office on Cassis harbour (quai des Moulins) to the Peninsula overlooking the Calanque of Port Miou between April and mid-November.
The tour departs five-six times a day, depending on the season, includes a commentary and takes 40 minutes, including a ten minute stop on the Peninsula. Tickets are sold on board. Website for the little tourist train of Cassis
By bus: A tourist shuttle bus (navette) operates between Cassis harbour and Port Miou in the evenings from early July to early September. The minibus can take eight passengers and runs every 15 minutes between 6pm and midnight. Tickets can be bought in the bus or at the harbour master's office in Port Miou. Details of the tourist shuttle bus between Cassis harbour and the Calanque of Port Miou
If you are driving into Cassis in the high tourist season, you will probably need to park at the out-of-town car-park of Les Gorguettes.
From here two shuttle bus routes operate, one to the Peninsula and one to the centre of town. Click on the map to enlarge the image. And click here for details of the park-and-ride shuttle bus timetables.
By boat - organised tours: The individual boat companies offering tours to the calanques are members of an association, the GIE des bateliers de Cassis. The boats are moored along the quai Saint Pierre in front of a small kiosk which sells tickets for all of them. Website for the GIE des bateliers de Cassis
Four circuits are offered: a 45 minute tour to three calanques (Port Miou, Port Pin and En Vau), a 65 minute tour to five calanques, a 90 minute tour to eight calanques and a 110 minute "mini-cruise" to nine calanques, which will take you as far as Sormiou. You can book tickets for a boat trip to the calanques of Cassis at the kiosk between the February half-term holidays and mid-November.
Outside this period, you can enquire directly with any skippers who happen to be around on the quay with their boats. Some circuits include bathing stops but you will be unable to get off the boat in the calanques themselves due to safety regulations.
By kayak or boat - private hire: Among companies which rent out boats, either with or without skippers, are JCF Boat Services and Loca Bateau. For a hire without a skipper, you will be required to hold a valid boat permit for anything with a motor more powerful than 4.5 Kilowatts (6CV).
The Tourist Office has a list of places where you can hire a kayak. Kayaking to the calanques and in Provence will be covered in full in a future article.