Distance: About 7 kilometers round trip
Difficulty: Easy, it’s pretty flat most of the way
Approximate Time: Around 2 to 3 hours for the entire hike, depending on your pace
I love water. I love to swim. In swimming pools, rivers, lakes and especially the ocean. I grew up in southern California. Not right next to the beach, but not too far from it. I was always very excited when the family would pile into the station wagon and head to the beach for a summer outing. One of the things I love most about the Côte d’Azur is the coastline. It’s just so damn beautiful. I never get over it. Sure, I’ve got a soft spot for long, sandy beaches (you won’t find many of those on the French Riviera) but what I really enjoy are wild, rough, rocky shorelines (the French Riviera is full of those). All along the Côte d’Azur you’ll find one glorious stretch of coastline after another. I’ve written about hiking on Cap d’Antibes and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat elsewhere on this site, two of my very favorite coastal hikes in this area. Recently I took a trip down to Cap d’Ail, a little further east, situated between Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Monaco. It’s not quite as “prominent” of a peninsula as the two aforementioned capes, but it’s nevertheless quite beautiful and full of stunning landscapes.
[more info after the photo gallery]
Le Sentier du Littoral
It means “coastal path” in French and it refers to a pedestrian walking path along the edge of the coast. Because they add a lot of “tourist value” these paths are almost always well marked, well maintained and generally laid out in a way to make them accessible to most hikers. Every single one I’ve ever walked or hiked on has been fabulous. They are managed and financed by the various departments and municipalities. Some are even a part of the huge French “Grande Randonnée” system. These paths often cross private property when it is not possible to do so otherwise. In France at least three meters (and often more) of the edge of any coastline resides in the public maritime domain. A law passed in 1976 sought to give access to the public to many areas where houses, hotels, private piers, etc. blocked access to the coast. There is a famous case of Eddie Barclay, a well known musician and music publisher. The walls of his estate violated the free access to the shore and after several unsuccessful “friendly” attempts were made to resolve the situation the army was sent in to blow up the walls! There are over 5,000 kilometers of these paths throughout France and they are some of my very favorite trails to hike on. A quick Google search will turn up lots of information about them on every part of the French coastline.
If you see the name “Cap d’Ail” it could be referring to one of two things: the small town on the French Riviera just west of Monaco or the small peninsula that juts out into the ocean at the same location. Now, if you speak French you will be forgiven for thinking the name means “Cap of Garlic.” There is much debate about how the cape got its name. Some claim the name comes from an old bee tower built on the territory which is thought to have served as a warehouse for beekeepers in the region. Others insist it comes from the old Niçois langue, cau daï, meaning a cape in the shape of a scythe. No one really knows for sure, but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with garlic. On this hike we will pass through both the town and the cape but our focus will be predominately on the cape itself.
The town of Cap d’Ail is fairly new compared to many of the others along the Côte d’Azur. In the 1880s the first railways reached the area and when a station was opened near what we now know as Cap d’Ail a real estate financier, the Baron de Pauville, decided to develop about 64 acres of land in the area. In 1897 he built the Eden Hôtel which was, for many, many years the most important and prominent landmark in the area. A huge “palace” of a hotel during its prime years, it has now been converted into luxury residences. Over the years as the area grew villas were sold to the likes of Greta Garbo, Jean Cocteau, the Prince of Wales and other celebrities. The town itself was officially established in 1908 and has continued to grow in size and stature since.
Winston Churchill was an honorary mayor the town for many years and the Brothers Lumière (inventors of “moving pictures”) owned a house in the town, the magnificent Villa Perle Blanche. There are numerous buildings and villas open to the public, you can consult the city’s website for more information if you want to spend some time visiting some of them.
Hiking the Trail
It’s not an especially long coastal trail, around 3.5 kilometers, starting near Mala Beach on the west end of the cap and ending near Marquet Beach on the east end. Along the way you’ll find lots of explanatory panels that provide information about the local flora and fauna. They are in French but if you don’t read French its pretty easy to use an app to translate them if you are interested in the information they provide. Looking inwards you’ll find a seemingly endless display of luxuriant Belle Époque villas and exquisite gardens. The rocks on this stretch of the coast are particularly interesting. In looking at them you would swear that they are made of concrete, a mixture of actual cement and small stones. But, you would be wrong. They were formed by some type of volcanic activity and look like no other rocks I have ever seen. In many places along the trail large portions of stone were removed to use in buildings and structures and there are markings to identify these spots.
I like to park at the train station which is just a bit east of the actual starting point for the hike. From the train station you will see a sign directing you to “Sentier du Bord de Mer,” about a two minute walk. Here you’ll connect with the trail at a place called La Pinède. However, if you wish to find parking near the Mala Beach you can just as easily park there and begin the hike at the actual beginning of the trail.
Throughout the trail you will come across official markers reminding you that you are still on the trail and pointing you towards landmarks in both directions. Balise N° 21 is located here at La Pinède and from there just head east. You’ll find lots of protection in the forms of small stone walls or wire fencing to keep you from deviating from the official path. At the same time, there are many opportunities to take smaller trails to the right and venture right down to the water itself. I like to follow these whenever I run across them as I find they often lead to some remarkable little coves and the perspective from closer to the water is wonderful.
As soon as you hit the trail you’ll be struck with the magnificent views of the coast in both directions and, of couse, the sea in front of you. The trail is paved the entire way, a very wide concrete path that is easy to walk on with no chance of getting lost, running right along the edge of the sea. You’re not walking on dirt and loose rocks here, this is a very solid trail from start to finish. There are a few ups and downs here and there, but overall the path is pretty flat and should not present a problem for most hikers. You’ll pass by Cap Rognoso, another small cape in the area, but the trail doesn’t extend out onto the cape. Next will come Cap Fleuri and Pointe des Douaniers where you’ll find a nice lookout over the ocean.
At balise N°19, about 1 1/2 kilometers from where we started, you’ll have the option to turn right and make a little loop on the actual Cap d’Ail. Don’t miss this! It’s not big, it doesn’t protrude too far out into the sea, but enough to give you some more great views. It’s a pretty short detour and well worth the effort.
At the end of the trail (marked with balise N° 18) you have several options:
1. You can simply go back the way you came.
2. You can continue on and make a visit to the Port de Cap d’Ail and even Monaco if you are up for a longer hike.
3. Or, you can do what I like to do, loop back via the main roads through town, Avenue Winston Churchill and then Avenue du Trois Septembre. You’ll find some shops and places to stop for food or drink along this route. A church (relatively new, only 100 years old), the Église Notre-Dame-du-Cap-Fleuri, is located right at the intersection of Avenue Winston Churchill and Avenue du Trois Septembre. Take a minute to look inside you’ll be rewarded with some beautiful stained glass windows.
At Avenue des Combattants de l’Afrique du N turn left. It will then turn into Avenue Pierre Wreck. Follow it down to Boulevard François de May where you’ll turn left and then take Allée Mala to Plage de la Mala. Don’t miss the magnificent Hôtel Eden where Allée Mala and Plage de la Mala connect. From the “front” it doesn’t look that big, but if you walk around to the side you will see it is really an enormous building stretching quite a distance down the street. Just across the street, at 8 Avenue Charles Blanc, is the villa once owned by the Lumière brothers. It is notable for its “mini fortress” appearance with square towers.
Plage de la Mala will connect you with the beginning of the sentier. It’s just a short walk back now to the starting point near the train station. Be aware though that you will have some stairs here as the trail winds along the side of a steep cliff but they don’t last long. Meanwhile you’ll have a nice view of the Saint-Laurent Bay and Cap Estel. You’ll pass around another tiny cape, Cap Mala and then it’s back to the beginning. Once you’re back at the starting point, La Pinède, simply walk back up the train station.
Cap d’Ail is easy to get to from wherever you happen to be on the Côte d’Azur. If you’re coming from anywhere between Nice and Menton just hop on the M6007 (the Moyene-Corniche) or the M6098 (the Basse-Corniche). If you are coming from farther away you’ll likely need to take the A8 autoroute and get off near La Turbie. I found parking at the train station to be a great option, but there are plenty of other places to park close to the trail as well. Taking the train is another option because you can get off at the exact point where I like to begin this hike.
Important Notes: If there is any sign of rain I would suggest leaving the hike for another day as many parts of the path will be slippery. In fact, if there are signs of bad weather access to the trail may very well be closed. They don’t want you getting washed off the trail and out sea (which has happened in the past!) As always you’ll want to make sure you have good hiking boots and plenty of water. I would suggest at least one liter of water for this hike, more if you are hiking in the heat. You will be able to find food and water at various points along the hike. The best time to make this hike in the summer is early in the morning when it’s the coolest, the best time in the winter is early in the afternoon when things have warmed up a bit. You’ll probably want a hat and sunscreen no matter what time of the year you go. During the winter you’ll want a jacket and maybe even gloves and a hat. You should always hike with a first aid kit, a good knife, a raincoat, a flashlight and a whistle. If you are hiking alone make sure someone knows where you are going and what time you should be back. I always wear an identification bracelet that I got from Road ID.