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Hyeres Island Cruises

HYERES is the oldest resort on the Cote, listing Queen Victoria and Tolstoy among its early admirers, but the lack of a central seafront meant the town lost out when the foreign rich switched from winter convalescents to quayside strollers. It is, nevertheless, a very popular resort, but has the rare distinction, for this part of the world, of not being totally dependent on the summer influx. The town exports cut flowers and exotic plants, the most important being the date palm, which graces every street in the city - and numerous desert palaces in Arabia. The orchards, nursery gardens and vineyards, taking up land which elsewhere would have become a rash of holiday shelving units, are crucial to its economy. Hyeres is consequently rather appealing.

Walled and medieval old Hyà ¨res perches on the slopes of Casteou hill, 5km from the sea; below it lies the modern town , with avenue Gambetta the main north-south axis. At the coast, the Presqu' Ãle de Giens is leashed to the mainland by an isthmus, known as La Capte , and a parallel sand bar enclosing the salt marshes and a lake. Le Ceinturon, Ayguade and Les Salins d'Hyà ¨res are the villages-cum-resorts along the coast northeast from Hyà ¨res-Plages; L'Almanarre is to the west where the sand bar starts.

From place Clemenceau, a medieval gatehouse, the Porte Massillon , opens onto rue Massillon and the old town . At place Massillon , you encounter a perfect Provenà §al square, with terraced cafes overlooking the twelfth-century Tour St-Blaise , the remnant of a Knights Templar fort now elegantly converted into exhibition space for contemporary art (April-Oct Wed-Sat 10am-noon & 4-7pm; rest of year Wed-Sun 10am-noon & 4-6pm; free). To the right of the tower, a street leads uphill to place St-Paul , from which you have a panoramic view over a section of medieval town wall to Costabelle hill and the Golfe de Giens.

Wide steps fan out from the Renaissance door of the former collegiate church of St-Paul (April-Oct Mon 3-6.30pm, Wed-Sat 10am-noon & 3-6.30pm, Sun 10am-12.30pm; rest of year Mon 3-6.30pm, Wed-Sat 10am-noon & 3-6pm, Sun 10am-12.30pm), whose distinctive belfry is pure Romanesque, as is the choir, though the simplicity of the design is masked by the collection of votive offerings hung inside. The decoration also includes some splendid wrought-iron candelabras, and a Christmas crib with over-life-size santons (traditional crib figures). Today, the church is only used for special services - the main place of worship is the mid-thirteenth-century former monastery church of St-Louis , on place de la Republique.

To the right of St-Paul, a Renaissance house bridges rue St-Paul, its turret supported by a pillar rising beside the steps. Through this arch you can head up rue Ste-Claire to the entrance of parc Ste-Claire (daily 8am-dusk; free), the exotic gardens around Castel Ste-Claire , once home to the American writer and interior designer Edith Wharton and now the offices of the Parc National de Port-Cros. Cobbled paths lead up the hill towards the parc St-Bernard (daily 8am-dusk; free), full of almost every Mediterranean flower known. At the top of the park, above monte des Noailles (which by car you reach from cours Strasbourg and avenue Long), is the Villa Noailles , a Cubist mansion enclosed within part of the old citadel walls, designed by Mallet-Stevens in the 1920s and a home to all the luminaries of Dada and Surrealism. It has been recently restored, and you can look round its gardens and the interior of the house, which is used as an exhibition space for contemporary art showings (April-Oct Wed-Fri 12.30-6.30pm; free). To the west of the park and further up the hill you come to the remains of the castle , whose keep and ivy-clad towers outreach the oak and lotus trees and give stunning views out to the Ales d'Hyeres and east to the Massif des Maures.

The switch from medieval to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Hyeres at avenue des Ãles-d'Or and its continuation, avenue General-de-Gaulle , is as abrupt as it is radical, with wide boulevards and open spaces, opulent villas and waving palm fronds. If you're keen on the ancient history of this coast, the Musee d'Art et d'Archeologie , on the top floor of the city's administrative building on place Lefà ¨bvre (Mon & Wed-Fri 10am-noon & 2.30-5.30pm; free), should appeal. It displays Roman and Greek finds from L'Almanarre as well as local paintings and natural history exhibits. An alternative pastime is to wander around the spectacular array of cacti and palms in the Jardins Olbius-Riquier , just to the southeast of the bottom of avenue Gambetta (daily 8am-5.30/7pm; free).

The gare SNCF is on place de l'Europe, 1500m south of the town centre, with frequent buses to place Clemenceau , at the entrance to the old town, and to the gare routiere on place Mal-Joffret, two blocks south (tel The modern Hyà ¨res-Toulon airport is between Hyeres and Hyeres-Plage, 3km from the centre (tel, to which it's connected by a regular shuttle. The tourist office is next door to place Mal-Joffre in the Rotunde Jean-Salusse, on avenue de Belgique (July & Aug daily 9am-8pm; rest of year Mon-Fri 9am-noon & 2-6pm, Sat 10am-4pm; tel, fax Bikes and mopeds can be rented from Holiday Bikes, on chemin du Palyestre, between the airport and the gare SNCF (tel, www.holidaybikes.com ).

Hotels in the old town include the Hotel le Soleil , on rue du Rempart (tel, fax; 220-300F/34-46), in a renovated house at the foot of the parc St-Bernard, and the smaller Hotel du Portalet , 4 rue de Limans (tel, fax 35.86.33; 160-220F/24-34). One kilometre from L'Almanarre beach, La Quebecoise , on avenue Amiral (tel, fax; 300-400F/46-61; half-board obligatory in July & Aug), is a quiet and very pleasant hotel on the wooded slopes of Costabelle, with a pool and sea views. There are any number of campsites on the coast. Two smaller ones are Camping-Bernard , a two-star in Le Ceinturon (tel; closed Oct-Easter), and Clair de Lune , avenue du Clair de Lune (tel; closed mid-Nov to Jan), a three-star one on the Presquele de Giens.

For eating and drinking , there are the terraced cafe-brasseries in place Massillon and, all around this corner of the old town, a good choice of creperies, pizzerias and little bistros which serve plats du jour for around 80F/12.20. On the edge of the new town, Les Jardins de Bacchus , 32 av Gambetta (tel; menus from 145F/22.11), serves novel concoctions with panache, while a little way out of town, at 15 av du Toulon, La Crà ¨che Provenà §ale (tel; closed Sat lunchtime; menus from 130F/19.83) is excellent value for sophisticated food.

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