Daydream Destination: Cassis

Last week we went to Portofino which is known, in part, for being a favorite spot of the rich and famous. So today I thought I'd take you to Cassis (pronounced Kah-see, but I've also heard people pronounce the final "s"), a small town on the French Riviera. It's still sun-soaked and Mediterranean but is completely different from Portofino. Someone whose name rhymes with Schmick Schmeeves and who writes those ubiquitous blue guide books to Europe calls it "The Poor Man's St. Tropez."  Hmm, ok. Maybe. I haven't been to St. Tropez (yet!) so I guess I'm not really qualified to weigh in on that too much. But I think that Cassis doesn't necessarily need to be compared to St. Tropez. It has breathtaking natural sites and a soul of its own.

When I went to Cassis in 2009, we were staying in a small town in Provence called Lourmarin for ten days. It was an easy drive from Lourmarin to Cassis, just over an hour or so when we went. So if you're ever staying in Provence or elsewhere on the Riviera/Côte d'Azur, here's a unique town you can do in a day.

The main part of Cassis is centered around the harbor. Most of the restaurants and cafés surround it and offer great views of the people, the boats, and the sea. We had lunch/ice cream at one café and the people-watching was fantastic because it was August, which is high season. It seems like almost everyone in France gets shaken down to the south in August, so Cassis was alive with a bustling mix of tanned, relaxed vacationers and tanned townspeople.

It is easy to meander through the town and along the harbor. There's a casino within walking distance if you like gambling.

There are also some shops along the streets, but don't expect to see big name designers. It's not really that kind of town, and that's part of what I like about it.

This place isn't made for buying, it's made for being. There's a great, free public beach directly ahead of the main street and next to the harbor (this is also where the washrooms are, for those of you like me who wish there were maps pointing out good public WCs) Most European beaches I've been to have fees, so having a nice, free, easy to access beach in a great little town is special.

What makes Cassis unique, however, are its calanques. Calanques are valleys made by tall, steep cliffs plunging into water, like fjords. Limestone forms the ones here.

The best way to see them is by boat. You can choose to see 3, 5, or 8 calanques on a group tour based on how much time you have and how much you want to pay. The 5 calanque tour we went on was about an hour long and was perfect for us.

Tickets are reasonably priced and easy to get at one of the little huts in front of the tour boats on the harbor. You can't buy them too far in advance, so make sure to check out the tour times and then ask someone in the huts when your time will go on sale.

So what is the tour like? Well, first you hop on one of these boats.

Now, if you're wearing a white camisole and a khaki skirt, I recommend not sitting at the bow if you can help it. If you want to get wet and have a great ride, sit at the bow. If you don't have a choice, like us, just be ready to get wet and cover anything that doesn't like water.

Our captain seemed to think that accelerating into the middle of the waves was great fun. It was. I think he must have had some sort of game to see if he could beat his best time from calanque to calanque. Almost everyone at the bow was screaming with glee as the Mediterranean surged over the edges of the boat and onto us. My dad was mostly cursing and trying to save the camera. I was loving every second but wondering who and what I was flashing.

Here is a bit of what the beautiful and imposing calanques look like.

What I love is that the tour takes you into the calanques, which kind of slice through the topography and make little cove areas. In each calanque there were always sunbathers tucked away on slabs of limestone, little beaches, or diving from their boats. It felt like you were stumbling upon a wonderful secret spot despite being on a tour that runs constantly.

Our guide explained what we were seeing, but my French was too rusty to understand much of it. There's something called God's Finger along the way, but I couldn't catch the rest. I do wish I had been able to follow it better. Being able to understand some parts led me to make up reasonable sounding stories in my head. For example, this looks like a troglodyte cave to me:

As you come back into town you get a lovely view of the beach and the cliffs behind it.

So there you have it. A different taste of what a visit to the French and Italian Rivieras have to offer you. On one hand, you have the quiet wealth of Portofino. On the other hand, you have lively, relaxed Cassis, which is less of a fantasy-land but no less fun.

I will never forget standing in the warm sun, trying to dry my clothes, and feeling the salt crystals that formed on my skin as the water evaporated. Teenagers were huddled in groups watching each other and listening to music. Families played on the beach. Couples walked hand in hand. Cassis was wonderfully alive.