Distance: Just under 8 kilometers round trip
Difficulty: Easy, a few flights of stone stairs here and there
Approximate Time: Around 3 hours for the entire hike
With over 3427 kilometres (2130 miles) of coastline, France is home to more beaches and coastal trails than any one person could ever explore. But, that’s not going to stop me from trying! From the English channel to the Atlantic Ocean, from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea you will find a truly amazing range of coastal landscapes. Millions of people enjoy camping, swimming, diving, hiking and other outdoor activities along the French coast every year. Down here in the Southeast we are especially blessed with what I think are some of the most fantastic beaches, coves, islands and trails in the country. There are several hiking routes along the coast that are very close to Vence and provide a wonderful morning or afternoon walk pretty much any day of the year. The trail around Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is one of these and I usually end up here at least two or three times a year.
[more info after the photo gallery]
Cap Ferrat is a small peninusla located just east of Nice, between Villefranche-sur-Mer and Beaulieu-sur-Mer. It has been inhabited since Celto-Ligurian tribes lived there long before the Roman times. It served as a base for pirates during the 11th century, was home to a large fort during the 16th century and was occupied by the French armies of King Louix XIV in 1706. It was part of the Kingdom of Sardinia in the 1800s and officially became part of France in 1860. Since then it has attracted kings, wealthy visitors, famous celebrities and, of course, everyday tourists. Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild built the fabulous Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild on the peninusla in 1905. King Leopold II of Belgium had a villa here as well. Saint Jean is a small fishing village on the peninusla that developed towards the end of the 1800s. Today the entire piece of land is known as Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. It has some of the most expensive real estate in the entire world and is often referred to as the “Penisula of Billionaires.” “There are almost too many billionaires living here to count,” Edward de Mallet Morgan of Global Super Prime Residential told CNBC in 2018. Bono (from U2) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (Cats) are just two of the current residents you might be familiar with.
There are two well-known hikes associated with Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. The first (and most popular by far) is a trip around the main portion of the peninusla and this is what I will write about here. Additionally, you can hike around the little piece of land that juts out on the Eastern side. Neither hike is particularly difficult or long and I will often do both of them together. They are both very flat with only a few short sets of stone stairs here and there. The French call this kind of a trail “le sentier du littoral.” Basically, it means “coastal path.” There are lots of official ones in France and they are almost always in excellent condition because of the high added tourist value.
The best place to park for either hike is in one the parking lots next to the port. During the off-season the parking is free and pretty easy to find. During the summer you will probably have a harder time finding a spot and you’ll also have to pay for the parking. From the port head south along the Avenue Claude Vignon (you will see a large blue and white sign that marks the trail with arrows pointing towards the lighthouse and more), which will turn into Chemin de la Carrière and then, at the proper beginning of the coastal trail, it will change names again to Chemin des Douaniers. This first part of the trail is concrete and asphalt and very, very wide. It’s really more of a small road at this point though cars are not allowed. It’s well maintained and you should have absolutely no problem at all following the route as it winds along near the edge of the water.
This first portion of the walk is characterized by the rough, jagged, black and white rock against which the sea is constantly crashing. It’s very similar to the rock you’ll find on the Cap d’Antibes hike. Watching the water pound against the rock it’s easy to see how the waves have worn it down into the harsh, rugged landscape we see today. The path is fairly low at this point, pretty much sea level, and you’ll see some villas and houses if you look up and to the right, many of them very modern in style.
All along the trail, but especially during the first half, there are multiple opportunities to veer off the path and wander down to the water. You’ll find numerous sets of stone steps, often with some type of concrete platform at the water’s edge. I would encourage you to take your time and explore these little sidetrips. It’s really great to get down close to the water and you have a much different vantage point there than you do when you are on the actual trail. During this first portion of the hike you will have wonderful views of the Côte d’Azur from Beaulieu-sur-Mer all the way to Menton and the Italian Riveria beyond that.
About 2 kilometres into the hike the large, wide concrete path will turn into a smaller one that consists of stones set into concrete. It’s quite lovely and again, very well maintained. You’ll see a red and white sign on the right that says “N°20.” These signs are situated throughout the hike and provide a way for visitors to tell emergency services where they are located should the need arise.
Shortly after this small change in the road you’ll come around a bend and the Lighthouse of the Cap Ferrat will appear in front of you. It’s really quite stunning, towering high above the rocks and the sea. Built in 1732, it was destroyed in 1944 during the Second World War and then rebuilt in its present form. It has been classified as a Historic Monument since 2012 but, unfortunately, it is closed to the public. You will find the lighthouse quite photogenic, especially from this side of the peninusla.
When you arrive at the foot of the lighthouse you will come to a couple flights of stairs, the first real climbing that you will need to do on this hike. After finishing the short climb you’ll come to a beautiful little shaded fountain, marked with the word “Coexist,” which is a great place to take a break and maybe have some food and water. At this point you are just under 3 kilometres into the hike, almost halfway. It’s slightly downhill from the fountain until you reach a trail marker signifying you have arrived at “La Batterie,” a small French army outpost on the peninsula. The trail will eventually turn into a dirt and loose rock pathway and you’ll find a few more steps to climb after the batterie.
Along this side of the peninsula you’ll find yourself much higher up than the first side. It’s not as easy to get down next to the water, but there are several opportunities to do so. You’ll have a great view of Villefrance-sur-Mer and it’s wonderful bay, one of the deepest natural harbours of any port in the Mediterranean Sea. During the summer the bay is full of boats of all sizes, from tiny little rowboats to huge sailboats, yachts and even cruise ships.
At about 4 kilometres, on the left, is a fantastic little beach. It’s not easy to get to, you must climb down some pretty steep dirt and rock trails to reach it, but let me tell you, it is worth it! If I am on this trail during the summer I always stop here for a swim. Because it’s difficult to get to you won’t find a lot of people here, even in the busiest of times. The water is clear and cool and it makes for a very special stop along the hike. Not too far past this little beach is another popular spot for swimmers, a large concrete deck that provides easy access to the water. It’s much easier to reach than the beach and it is usually full of people when the weather is warm and sunny.
Continue along the trail and you will eventually come up onto a road, Chemin du Lido. From here you can walk a short distance to the Plage Passable (another beach). It will be very crowded with families and children during the summer months, so I usually avoid this beach. From here you can make your way back to the port. If you leave the beach by the main entrance you will see a set of big, very wide stone steps and you want to go straight up these. Then cross over the peninsula via several roads to get back to the port.
If you’d like to add some extra distance onto your hike, or just take a short drive, I’d encourage you to visit the Chapelle de Saint-Hospice, a wonderful little church near the end of the eastern tip of the peninsula. It’s a lovely, quiet place with a huge (and I mean huge) statue of Mary and the baby Jesus. There is also a very interesting cemetery where dozens of Belgium soldiers, killed in World War I, are buried.
Important Notes: This trail might be closed in bad weather. If you are not sure about the status you can call the tourist office in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and they should be able to tell you if the trail is open. 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. There is a fountain about halfway through the hike where you can replenish your water supply. 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 afteroon when things have warmed up a bit. You might be fine in just a t-shirt during most of the year, but if the weather is cool you’ll want to consider bringing a light jacket. It can often be windy along this trail as it faces the open water. If the weather is colder you might even want 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.