The Pastis Fairytale Islands

The fish was divine, the mussels out of this world, the wine, the crisps, the warm bread, the berries, the onion soup, the kittens jumping in our plates -- I will spare you the amount of the addition (bill) for the four of us.
09/19/2014 09:00 am ET

Have you heard of the insanely weird French drink Le Pastis? A fierce 40-45 percent ABV -- or alcohol by volume -- mᅢᄅlange of anis, liquorice and various herbs (it's a well-guarded secret, my lips are sealed). This favorite at bars primarily in the south of France took over after the total ban in 1915 of the absinthe concoctions in any form. As opposed to absinthe, which was declared a forbidden and dangerously addictive psychoactive drug because of the wormwood content in it, pastis is drug-free, but will still get you up there quickly.

Paul Ricard from the city of Marseille was the first one to commercially produce the pastis liquor in 1932, even though at the time in Provence pretty much everyone had their own homemade pastis family recipe. In 2015, his grandson Alexandre Ricard will take over and continue the family tradition.

Located across the water from Bandol, a seaside resort favored by Aldous Huxley, Paul Ricard first bought the Isle of Bendor in 1950, an uninhabited and barren 17-acre rock. The island can only be reached by a few minutes-long boat ride, or you could always try to swim. Now sporting pretty Provenᅢᄃal houses surrounded by palm trees and local bougainvilleas, Bendor has sculptures dispersed on the land, an art gallery and a Village des Crᅢᄅateurs (Designers' Village.)

The second pebble he acquired in 1958 is the Isle of the Embiez, a 235-acre resort-like location by the sea. This is also only accessible by boat from Le Busc, a small fishing village on the coast. On both islands, there are no cars -- only rocky trails and secret coves of deep blue waters named calanques and a few vineyards among pine forests. Embiez has an old ruins tower and a few famed red, white and rosᅢᄅ wines distributed all over Provence. In June, a small harbor excavated on the former salt marshes was named the Best Mediterranean Port in France by Voile Magazine, a sailing publication.

On this island, in the former Saint-Pierre Fort used by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Oceanographic Institute Paul Ricard houses a team of researchers year-round. An early environmentalist and ecologist, Ricard understood the challenges faced by the Mediterranean Sea and its wildlife, anxious to help preserve and understand the typical animals, fauna and flora.

The calanques of South Provence are a marvel to visit by boat, by foot or even while para-sailing or cliff-jumping. Referred to as the fjords of the French Riviera, the rocky cliff paths can sometimes be tricky to maneuver if you try by car. One summer, we rented a car -- one of those family van-for-seven-plus-luggage -- and decided to go to lunch at a one of Marseille calanque's restaurant aptly named LUNCH.

The magnificent cove only has a tiny restaurant built on wood planks over the shallow waters of the sandy beach, a fishing supply shack for boaters in need and a locked first-aid shed for dire emergency -- don't know who had the key to that, perhaps the waitress? Up at the entrance of the serpentine road, two men seated on folding canvas chairs were checking to see if you had a reservation for lunch at LUNCH, as no one else was allowed to descend the insane way. We did.

Eyeing our monstrous vehicle, they warned us that we might want to leave it at the parking lot and walk down to the cove. We asked why, and they said that some cars do not make it back up easily. Come on, we had a brand new rental -- certainly it would make it back, right? The long winding walk down would take about one hour, and we would have missed our reservation time. We did not dare to ask how long the trek back up could possibly take.

The fish was divine, the mussels out of this world, the wine, the crisps, the warm bread, the berries, the onion soup, the kittens jumping in our plates -- I will spare you the amount of the addition (bill) for the four of us. Our heavy stomachs did not help, and our van never wanted to go up the steep and turning road. We passed the mailman van, who was laughing his head off. After burning some tire material and a few back and forth scary tries, the stick shift car finally sprung forward, with everybody (but me) drunk, finding the situation quite hilarious. I will never drive down to a calanque in my life again. Period.

The two locals on top saluted us as we drove by smiling. If they only knew what we had just gone through!

Both private Paul Ricard Islands are open to visitors and tourists. Each island has a couple of small hotels and a couple of restaurants -- and they won't make you drink the drink. On Bendor, the serene all-white Hotel Delos will make you want to stay forever.

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