As I try to convey the sensation of luxuriousness produced by being on the island of Porquerolles off-season, I’m strongly tempted to cheat and steal F Scott Fitzgerald’s descriptions of the Côte d’Azur back in the 1930s, before it was ruined. I’d pilfer phrases from his last novel Tender is the Night, set on the French Riviera a little further up the coast from the three islands of Hyères, of which Porquerolles is the largest. I’d use his “pink and cream of old fortifications”, and his image of the sea, yielding up “its pigments, moment by moment, to the brutal sunshine”. For my first dip after an unrelenting British winter I might borrow, “The water reached up for her, pulled her down tenderly out of the heat, seeped in her hair and ran into the corners of her body.” Because, as I pushed through the chill water, I did find myself laughing out loud at the insolence of enjoying the Mediterranean all alone, with no one to watch me from the long curve of pale sand but my husband and a single, overweening seagull.
Porquerolles, as its proud inhabitants and stern administrators never tire of pointing out, is unique. Unique in its beauty, its climate, its state of preservation. The French government bought 80 per cent of the island in the 1970s to preserve it from the speculation that has ravaged the rest of the coastline and the result is a little under five square miles of conserved Mediterranean paradise – nothing but fine, sandy beaches, secluded creeks, parasol pines, vineyards, olive trees, fig orchards, lavender fields and green oak forests; all of it crossed by a network of cycle paths, the gradient of which seem to have been perfectly engineered by nature to provide a testing but clement workout.
The spirit of conservancy that pervades the island tends to turn its 340 inhabitants into museum guards, quick to lecture you on the perils wrought by human habitation. An impressive list of rules and regulations is everywhere on display: no dogs, or eating, or smoking allowed outside the village (the island, it is said, could burn to a crisp in 20 minutes if the mistral was blowing hard) and no straying off the designated paths. Although no cars are allowed on the island, you will see plenty of them racing past you, whipping up clouds of dust as you cycle sedately beneath the deferential eucalyptus (as Fitzgerald might have written). Behind their wheels sit the privileged few who own property on the island or those who work for the National Park or the Botanical Conservancy, or employees of one of the three domains that produce Porquerolles’ much vaunted and, to my taste, fairly indifferent wine.
If, like me on holiday, you’re only really interested in two things: beauty and solitude, ideally in conjunction, then none of the above will bother you. You’ll find a long weekend in late April or early May, fly to Toulon, take a taxi to the port of Giens, hop on the ferry and be on the island in time for supper. The town is to be avoided as much as possible. The food is poor, the hotels are overpriced and most of the inhabitants behave as though they’re counting the days until the tourist season is over and they have the place to themselves again.
Not knowing this, some Parisian friends who used to summer on the island recommended the Auberge des Glycines, which advertises itself as an hôtel de charme, and it might once have been just that. Well located just off the main square, where the pensioners play boules among the turtledoves, the old building is swamped by some fetching wisteria. Inside, it is wall-to-wall Provençal, with straw hats and lavender everywhere and the employees are kind, helpful and welcoming. The problem is that despite all this, the hotel now feels a little unloved. We ate only once in its restaurant, beneath the dripping wisteria flowers: cold, leathery whitebait only just salvaged by the mayonnaise and cod that tasted as though it had been marinating in a bath of soapy water. After that we ate take-out pizza in our room or bought good pan bagnat (tuna fish salad sandwiches) from the boulangerie, which we secreted in our rucksacks and ate in a hidden cove called Les Gorges du Loup (about a 20-minute bike ride from the town).
Flawed though it might be, the place to stay on Porquerolles is Le Mas du Langoustier. Like many things on this island, there is something a little ragged about this rambling, four-star hotel isolated among pine woods on the island’s westernmost point. Porquerolles’ regulations insist upon shuttle buses rather than taxis, so the driver Achour will pick you up from the port and, with great charisma, usher you on to a coach. As you drive through the gates and catch sight of the outbuildings, your heart might sink a litte because you might feel as though you’re entering a white compound in 1970s Rhodesia. Then you will see the vegetation working its magic, the terrace, the turquoise and ultramarine sea shimmering through the pines, and all will be forgiven.
This hotel – once a family estate belonging to the Fourniers, the former owners of the island – is as its manager, Salvatore Troia, touchingly concedes, “un petit quatre étoiles”. Petit in this context referring not to size but to quality.
“The hotel is not for everyone,” Troia admits, his smile suggesting that he knows I have seen the bad reviews on Trip Advisor. I have indeed read the disgruntled American’s invective about the shuttle van with the broken door handle that keeps you waiting at the port, the shabby, haphazard prewar furniture and the overly familiar waiters. Troia is not fazed, however, and in truly anti-capitalist French spirit he confesses to not caring. He wants to attract only the kind of clientele who will appreciate this place.
“We believe that we offer real luxury here,” he adds, gesturing to nature’s bounty all around us – the sunshine, the bougainvillea, the evening shadows stretching across the terrace. “People don’t come here for the WiFi,” he tells me. I should hope not, since we managed to connect only once to the internet and for 10 minutes before it crashed for the rest of our stay. Once again, however, it did not matter to me. Nothing seems very pressing when you’re stranded on a Mediterranean island with no choices to make but which menu to have for lunch, where, on the warm, dappled terrace to sit, when to go to the pool, which of the two nearby beaches (black sand or white) to lie on, which cycle path to take and which creek to snorkel in.
“Can I offer you a glass of Porquerolles red?” Longing for a glass of the 1998 Savigny-les-Beaune that we drank with lunch, I watch in dismay as Troia calls the waiter. “You should try the Domaine de L’Ile,” he adds.
“I have … ”
Too late. The waiter sweeps off with the order.
Troia tells me the story of this place, how François Joseph Fournier bought the island in 1912 and gave it to his new wife Sylvia as a wedding present. Fournier’s gruelling biography might explain the rather dour, utilitarian design he chose for this hotel. Born in Belgium in a coal barge, this autodidact sought his fortune in the new world, first working on the railways in Canada and then striking gold in Mexico. At the age of 53 he returned to Europe a millionaire to find a paradise in which to retire and a wife with whom to procreate. An inveterate overachiever, Fournier shaped the island and its agriculture, set up the ferry company that still links the island to the Continent and fathered seven children.
Joël Guillet joins us from the kitchen. He is the chef and holder of a single, precious Michelin star, which he inherited from his predecessor and has managed to hold on to for the past 15 years. He is shy and seems perpetually amused. He has a passion for football and supports “any team except for Marseilles”. He likes scouring the seabed for obscure delicacies like sea nettles to use in his recipes and when the season ends he stays alone at the Mas and goes mushrooming with his dog. (The regulations allow you a quota of 3kg of the delicious cèpes that spring up all over the island in autumn.) Like Troia, he gives the impression of a man who knows that his life is good just as it is and who has no wish to jinx it by hoping for more.
That evening we dine in his one-star restaurant, L’Olivier. A gnarled olive tree stands in the middle of the dining room, its upper branches swaying in the wind. There is a force five tramontana blowing and the windows rattle all around us as though the elements are clamouring for admittance. A mood of contained hilarity overcomes us as we sit through Guillet’s menu dégustation: a 1½-hour marathon of flavours delivered in quick succession by pirouetting waiters, who announce each improbable dish with an old-world flourish: cappuccino de truffes; royale de foie gras; émulsion de champignons des bois.
Do not be put off by the square plates or “the atmosphere of carpets and padded waiters”, as Fitzgerald put it. Guillet produces some truly delicious food both here and in the hotel’s more low-key restaurant, La Pinède. Just don’t let them bully you into choosing the island’s wine. And if you do make it to Porquerolles in April, wild asparagus and morels can be found in the woods, though only if you’re willing to disobey and stray from the paths.
‘The Secret Life of France’ by Lucy Wadham is published by Faber (£7.99)
Double rooms at Le Mas du Langoustier (www.langoustier.com) cost from €360, half board; it is open from April 22 to October 2. Doubles at the Auberge des Glycines (www.auberge-glycines.com) cost from €158, half board; open year-round. For details of ferries see www.tlv-tvm.com.
Toulon-Hyeres airport (www.toulon-hyeres.aeroport.fr) has direct flights from six European cities, including London City.