Heliopolis on Ile du Levant, near Le Lavandou, France

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In the category of beautiful places that most of us can’t get to right now, one of our top rankings goes to a place that amazingly few people seem to even know about – especially outside of France. Heliopolis is a real village, with shops, bars, hotels, a hairdresser, a post office, and several amazing restaurants, perched on the end of Ile du Levant off the Mediterranean coast near Toulon. Once considered Mecca of the French naturist pioneers, today it’s a sleepy little island where the city noise of automobiles and scooters has been replaced by the incessant chirping of cicadas. (No cars other than service vehicles allowed on the island!) There are over 250 “naturist resorts” in France, but this is not one of them. This is an actual village, where nudity is allowed almost everywhere We particularly adore the charming proprietors of our favorite restaurant on the island, La Fourmi, who wait tables wearing nothing but an apron and a smile. We love the long walks along the sea in the early morning, and lazy naps over rosé near the pool or the sea in the afternoon. In time, we’ll post additional reviews here about our top choices for dining and lodging, but suffice it to say, a holiday on Ile du Levant is true bliss – like nothing we’ve experienced anywhere else.

WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO GET THERE? Well, you gotta really wanna get there! The most direct route is from the seaside town of Le Lavandou, from which ferries sail to Levant and the adjacent island several times a day, depending on the time of year. (See ferry schedule here.) You can catch a circuitous bus route to Lavandou from Marseille, but we typically drive. There is also a parking lot right on the port where you can leave your car. Sometimes, we have more belongings in the car than we want to lug out to the island, so we reserve a spot in this little garage near the port where our car is totally secure. Peace of mind! (Check their hours though – they aren’t open on week-ends and holidays.) Depending on the routing, it takes 30-60 minutes to get out to the island. From there, you can make the trek up the very steep hill to your hotel or rental on foot, or you can meet the mini-bus that will take you and/or your luggage right to the door – for a fee, of course. Finding English speakers is hit and miss, though if you simply have a document to point to, there aren’t that many places to get lost on the island. 🙂

WHAT’S THE FAMILY VIBE? We usually see a few families with kids on the island, though it’s a pretty sleepy place. If they’re old enough to snorkel or dive, you could have a really amazing vacation here, especially if your rent one of the many self-catering villas, but there won’t be organized activities. There are a couple hotels on the island that very discreetly cater to, eh-hem… “adventurous couples,” though that’s easy to avoid if you simply do your Trip Advisor research first. This is not a throbbing night-life kind of place, but instead, a quiet little hamlet where you can hardly avoid an amazing view of the sea.

HOW ARE THE ACCOMMODATIONS? The hospitality sector has grown tremendously since the island finally got electricity in 1989! There are several very comfortable hotels with poolside restaurants, a few more in the budget category, and many choices of guesthouses or self-catering villas. The nicer hotels now have air-conditioning, which is mostly helpful in abating the mosquitoes that can be a problem on the island, especially at night. Heliotel is our personal favorite spot in the luxury category, though we’ve also had good stays at La Gecko and L’Esplanade. There’s even a small campground right in the middle of the village.

*Google indicates La Gecko is permanently closed, but they still have an active listing on Naturist BnB. We hope the latter is correct.

ANYTHING ELSE WE SHOULD KNOW? Our typical day on Ile de Levant goes something like this: Breakfast on the terrace overlooking the sea is followed by a brisk (naked) walk down the hill to the coastal path to trek the wandering trail over the craggy coastline. There are several places that provide access should you want to take a quick morning dip. No worries, you’re likely to dry off in the arid morning sun in a matter of minutes. Sometimes we’ll double back across the port, wrapping in a pareo to get across the pier, then naked again to the little Grotto Beach, before heading back up the hill for a “strenuous” day of reading and floating in the pool. There are two small markets on the island where you can purchase provisions like wine, cheese, and charcuterie, but we love visiting the little restaurant at La Gecko for a simple lunch and their homemade rum for dessert. For dinner, you can have your hotelier book restaurant reservations for you. There are several on the island, reasonably priced compared to what you’d pay for a meal like that at home. The biggest challenge is moderating wine consumption knowing that you’ll need to walk back up the hill to your hotel – in the dark – once your three-hour dining extravaganza is complete.