Saint-Honorat: A Cheap Island Escape from Cannes

by  Mary Winston Nicklin | May 15, 2013
Saint-Honorat, France
Saint-Honorat, France / nito100/iStock

Hollywood stars (and all the paparazzi who stalk them) will descend on the French Riviera this week for the year's most prestigious cinema event: the Cannes Film Festival. La Croisette – the city's Mediterranean-facing boulevard – is transformed into a veritable catwalk of stylish A-listers. And this year, the festival is highly anticipated because of the premiere of Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby. For a fleeting moment, the red carpet, rolled out in front of the Palais des Congrès, will become the most photographed event of 2013. But there's more to glitzy Cannes than this 15 minutes 12 days of fame. Just off the coastline where Zelda and F. Scott used to party, the island of Saint-Honorat is home to a colony of Cistercian monks who tend 20 acres of vineyards. And you're invited to pay them a visit.

Fragrant with jasmine and verdant with gardens, the island has been coveted by marauding invaders for centuries: Genoese pirates, swashbuckling Spaniards, and the Moors, not to mention the passing mega-yachts, whose cruisers get serious real estate envy when they spy Saint-Honorat. But the enterprising monks who inhabit the island have laid claim to it since the 5th century. Legend has it that Saint Patrick even stopped to study at Saint-Honorat's monastery while island-hopping in the 400s. Frère Marie-Pâques, the jolly Commercial Director, used to be a beekeeper near Montpellier before embracing the island life. Another monk, Romain, channels his former Baywatch days as a Riviera lifeguard by swimming every morning in the crystal clear sea. The newest addition to the Abbaye de Lérins' team is Vincent, who hails from Italy.

Now, back to the winery: The product from these wind-swept vines isn't any old swill; the monks' Saint-Césaire and Saint Salonius wines were served to 26 heads of state at the G-20 summit in Cannes in November 2011. "I'm ambitious. These wines will soon rival Romanée-Conti!" Frère Marie-Pâques told me, referring to the famous Burgundy Pinot Noir that can fetch up to 13,000 euros per bottle. And he isn't joking. After publishing a book about the business last year, Marie-Pâques went on a book tour all over France, marketing their wine and signing copies at superstore chain FNAC, while sporting his friar's habit.

Getting there is a breeze. A 20-minute boat ride from Cannes and you'll be strolling the island paths, ogling the ancient fortified monastery, partaking in wine tastings, and sitting down for a lingering lunch at La Tonnelle. On the menu at the monks' resto? Freshly caught fish, Mediterranean vegetables, seared foie gras, and even Lérins mojitos. Pick up some lovely gifts at the monks' boutique, where their top-notch herbal liqueurs are also sold. Need an even longer escape? You can even do weeklong retreats on the island.

Boats depart almost every hour in the summer months from the Saint Pierre pier next to the Quai Laubeuf parking lot in Cannes. The ticket price is just 14 euros per person. Are you going to Cannes? Tell us about it below!

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