Visiting the South of France in Summer 2022

Where to even begin… how about our couple’s trip to Toulon on the Mediterranean coast?!

Memory-making and family videos

I’m aware I’ve been largely absent from this platform, but I’d like to start writing more again. I find myself trying to avoid social media more and more because I find myself too easily sucked in (this wouldn’t be my first time trying to navigate that balance…). I’d like to put more energy into writing about our life, which I’ve often found brings me a lot of joy and helps with gratitude. Somehow, putting things into writing, photos, and video helps me SEE the beauty in my life more vividly, acts as a “highlight reel” for myself when I struggle or get down. (I learned the highlights reel concept from Trevor Moawad in “It Takes What It Takes,” which was a really interesting read about motivation and performance).

Anyway. Let’s start with a little video:

In the past I’ve put a lot more work and production into family videos, but these days I find myself to be a “done is good enough” kind of person and that’s OK. These videos are such a treasure for our family on gloomy days or when the school and work grind get to be too much, and they help cement memories in my children’s minds — it’s been studied, in fact, that retelling stories has a whole host of benefits like reinforcing family identity, which I think is just beautiful.

Toulon and the Côte Provençale

This video, though, is just me and Andrew. He planned the whole thing and insisted we do a couple’s trip when I worried we wouldn’t be able to manage it or leave the kids behind or… you name it. It’s hard for me to envision travel because I get stressed about it. And I’m so grateful he pushes for these things because this trip was absolute paradise.

The hotel was heavenly, the setting was beyond picturesque — you walk down a few steps from the hotel restaurant terrace (which is covered with a lush canopy of vegetation) and you’re ON the beach — and the food was divine. Stepping outside into a wall of sound from the song of the cicadas was otherworldly.

Other than getting to spend precious time together — and a LOT of time at the beach, ha, I couldn’t get enough of the warm, crystal clear water! — we had a lot of FUN, too. It isn’t always a big part of our lives these days, between all the childcare responsibilities and work and just life in general. We’re trying, but we don’t always succeed. So here are a few favorite things from the trip.

Toulon historic port and military ships

We rode a train down to Marseille from Bordeaux and then switched to a smaller commuter train to get to Toulon, which is about an hour away. Just riding a train without kids and being able to read a book was pretty awesome, ha!

I say that Andrew planned the whole thing, but I did contribute a few key things: he had asked me what I wanted to do, so — thank you internet — for one, I had discovered a ferry online that took us directly from downtown Toulon to the other side of the bay where the hotel was located, for only 2€. Totally worth it because it’s a bit of a roundabout drive otherwise, plus the experience itself is lovely: I love the sea and everything about it.

Toulon is a major port city (and has been for hundreds of years) so every time we took the ferry we got a look at France’s military fleet stationed there, including a nuclear aircraft carrier. Definitely cool for a military kid like Andrew, and it is extraordinary that those steel behemoths actually FLOAT!

Stepping into paradise at the Grand Hotel des Sablettes

From the port, it was a short walk over to the Grand Hotel des Sablettes. It was absolutely magical. (and lest you think we’re extra fancy, Andrew travels for work — well, used to, pre-covid — and saved every last point to make this affordable, ha!)

It was truly the most beautiful location I’ve stayed at in my life. The water was incredible, the hotel was gorgeous — a renovated historic building with original wood floors and it even SMELLED good because beauty brand Nuxe is their spa’s main sponsor.

At the back of the hotel was a lush garden terrasse where we had breakfasts (and what a breakfast it was!). From there, you only had to walk down a few steps to be on the beach.

Truly heaven. The water is so warm that there’s no adaptation time when stepping in, but still cool enough to be refreshing, and one day we spent ages just floating in the water while Andrew told me the entire plot of the Count of Monte Cristo (which is no short story, for the initiated!). He’d just finished reading the novel before our trip and was really excited to visit the Château d’If outside of Marseille. But before we get to that: other than lounging about the hotel, we enjoyed walking around the seaside town and tried out a few restaurants (some better than others) while dodging mosquitoes (the kids had a really tough time with those all summer, and I don’t blame them).

Les calanques de Cassis 

On our second day there, we had rented a car to head to church and went on a wild goose chase (the ward had moved buildings but thankfully there was a sign saying where to next, so we definitely walked into sacrament meeting a little late!) to finally find the sister of one of Andrew’s old mission companions. She FaceTimed him so Andrew could say hi, it was pretty fun 🙂

Then we took advantage of having the car to drive to Cassis, which is absolutely gorgeous. It’s too bad we didn’t have more time there because the city is magical, but we had a goal, and this was my second major contribution to the planning of this trip: I dreamt of kayaking in the calanques — rocky inlets along the coast. I really haven’t been in very good shape physically so was a little worried it would be too demanding, but I had done some research and many people said it wasn’t overly difficult, so we went for it.

Yes, it was definitely hard work rowing out toward the open sea — to get to the calanques you have to row straight along the coast line for a bit until you finally hit the first calanque. This map gives you an idea of the trajectory. And it was a little unnerving when your path crossed boats!

But it was SO WORTH IT. The few cell phone shots I have don’t even come close to doing it justice — it was magical, surreal.

This was one of those times I wish I’d had a waterproof GoPro with me because it was obviously not reasonable to bring a camera or pull out my phone with all the splashing going on. We rented from a service at the beach and they give you a big jug-type container that you seal closed for your personal effects — let’s just say it’s not exactly convenient to pull out a camera halfway there in the water! (you can see the kayak and jug in the photo below)

Once we tied up our kayak, we got out and took a well-deserved plunge into the cool, clear water. We had brought some snorkeling gear and it was mesmerizing to look at the fish and swim around the calanque looking at the underwater sea life. (although a girl near us got a really nasty jellyfish sting so I was a little paranoid after that — thankfully no jellyfish in sight!)

Our shoulders were killing us that night, but it was 100% worth it. It was one of the coolest experiences of my life. And we rewarded our hard labors with — what else — more ice cream. Some variant of lemon and a berry is my favorite combo, and this time I went for cassis because, well, when in Cassis… he he. Plus how pretty is this ice cream!? We also picked up some savon de Marseille there, the region is famous for its olive-oil-based soaps. Of course, they come in every scent imaginable and they’re lovely. I wish I’d taken photos of the walls of soaps!

Touring Le Castellet, a medieval village on a hill

The following day, we drove out to Le Castellet, a medieval village that was also something to behold. It’s quite touristy as you would imagine but it didn’t feel overcrowded, and the drive out through the countryside was beautiful too. And the cicadas — it’s like a wall of sound every time you step outside. It’s really something else.

Medieval villages were not built for the Andrews of the world, ha! We did a little shopping to bring back some souvenirs for my aunts, who were watching our kids back home.

The view from the top was beautiful. It was also cool because there was more than just medieval history there — you could imagine the belle epoque parties in the central plaza where people would gather, and there were monuments to the fallen in both world wars there as well.

After one last meal in Toulon, it was time to head back — but not without stopping in Marseille to see the Château d’If first !

Château d’If and Marseille port

As I mentioned earlier, Andrew had read the Count of Monte Cristo earlier in the year, and he very much wanted to visit the very real place where the fictional Edmond Dantès was imprisoned for so many years. It was definitely a lonely, isolated place surrounded by a few other rocky islands — hardly any vegetation, it’s essentially a big boulder in the water outside of Marseille! But some very real political and religious prisoners were indeed held there and it was really interesting.

They played along with the fame of the Dumas character and had “Edmond’s cell,” complete with the hole communicating with his mentor’s cell.

(note Andrew’s baseball cap that he had bought in Toulon when we first arrived — it’s the Charles de Gaulle, the flagship of the French Navy — France’s nuclear aircraft carrier. Pretty cool to see those ships!)

Many scratched out their names or dates or drawings, graffiti that was proof of their existence even if the rest of the world had forgotten them. So when a temporary installation encouraged visitors to do the same, we of course obliged.

I still couldn’t get over how perfect the water was — sadly, no swimming allowed while we awaited our ferry back to the port!

And that about wraps it up — we got on a train back to Bordeaux and returned to our kids, who had been having a blast with my aunts and their little friends (minus the time Gabriel bit Jonas and left a nasty bruise…).

We probably won’t get to have a trip like this all too often, but we loved having all that uninterrupted time to explore and just be together. I treasure these memories and this glorious sunshine and sea for all the gloomy, rainy winter days!

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