Detours: spiritual retreat

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2008, 12:00am

Each year the famous and infamous descend on the lavish seaside town of Cannes in the south of France, to guzzle champagne and taste test the year's documentaries and feature films. Starlets flood the red carpets and film's major players hold sermons, often to themselves, from cocktail party pulpits. But if the decadence of the Cannes Film Festival starts to get to you and you can't tell the difference between your Louis Roederer and your Louis Vuitton, it's time to take a shuttle ferry to the saving solitude of Ile Saint-Honorat.

The island's history has been shaped over the past 1,600 years by its resident Cistercian monk population, and the recent regulation of ferry services, so that only the monks can guide you across to their turquoise paradise, has seen the numbers of tourists drop from 60,000 to 20,000 per annum. The monks are rather pleased. The saintly sailors, complete with crosses at their throats, ferry would-be devotees (as well as a fair number of sun worshippers) across to the tiny isle during the summer months, on the premise that tourists are on their own spiritual pilgrimage (if you want to stay at the monastery, you need to give a written reason and filling in your tan lines might not cut it).

The reason most tourists pop over to the tiny island, a drop of tranquillity in the surrounding azure sea and less than 2km off the coast, is the wine grown by the monks. They also produce honey and liqueurs, all of which you can combine for a seaside barbecue, monk-style.

Although accommodation at the monastery is available, most people head to the island for a day trip to lunch by the sea, dive from the rocks or explore the tiny temples which ring the island. The monks are happy to oblige with an al fresco meal for groups of up to 40, although working with them during the grape harvest is also popular, with the resulting vino resident on the wine lists of many of Europe's top restaurants.

If you do decide to go spiritual and stay the night, be prepared to earn your keep (in silence) and for the 4.30am tolling of the bells that sounds the beginning of another day as a Cistercian monk living in a little piece of paradise.

To stay, write to Brother Pierre-Marie (Frere hotelier, Abbaye Notre Dame de Lerins, BP 157, 06406 Cannes cedex, France).

The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 14-25