France is often overlooked by European skippers, which is surprising considering the options it offers sailors. France provides opportunities for beginners and families to indulge in tranquil Mediterranean sailing along the French Riviera, sporty cruises around Corsica or in the oceanic waters of Brittany and the Bay of Biscay, and even exotic tropical islands. France really has it all.
France holds the distinction of having the most time zones within its territory, spanning twelve different zones due to its overseas territories acquired through colonization and still formally administered. This offers a significant benefit for European sailors — the option to enjoy a lavish Caribbean cruise without needing a visa (all you need is a passport).
Conditions for sailing in France
The French have a passion for sailing, which is evident in the renowned boat brands such as Jeanneau, Bénéteau, Dufour, Lagoon, Catana, and Nautitech, all of which hail from France. Marinas in the country are typically modern and well-equipped, and the overall sailing infrastructure is exceptional.
It's true that France can be more expensive in certain aspects. However, if you're accustomed to cooking on your boat, you can find high-quality ingredients at reasonable prices in local supermarkets. Additionally, boat rental rates are not significantly different from those in other parts of the Mediterranean, and as the cost can be shared among the crew, yachting holidays a often a more attractive option than staying in hotels.
Weather in France
The Mediterranean climate of the French Riviera is quite similar to that of Italy or Croatia, characterised by warm and sunny summers and mild winters with average temperatures ranging between 15 and 30°C. The warmest months, between July and August, also coincide with the main sailing season. One notable feature is the stunning blue sky, which remains cloudless on most days. This is due to the Mistral — the powerful cold wind blowing in from the Bay of Biscay across the interior of France, sweeping away clouds and even pollution from larger cities out to sea.
The weather in Corsica is not vastly different from that on the French mainland and winters are similarly mild, although wetter. Summers can be quite hot, with temperatures reaching up to 40 °C in July and August. The weather here is influenced not only by the Mistral, a strong cold wind, but also by the Sirocco — a warm, dry wind from the southeast that originates over the Sahara.
The weather in northern and southern Brittany is largely influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in milder summers and colder winters. Additionally, expect higher humidity and strong winds that create short, choppy waves. The conditions in northern Brittany are further impacted by the English Channel, which is known for its strong winds, currents, fog, and unpredictable seas.
The Bay of Biscay, located off the west coast of France, is known for its unpredictable and changeable conditions throughout the year. While the warm Gulf Stream contributes to a mild climate, ocean currents and areas of high and low pressure frequently interact and cause dramatic shifts in the weather. Indeed, this is the region where the renowned Mistral wind originates.
The Caribbean is characterised by tropical warmth and sunshine, accompanied by high humidity. Temperatures typically range between 26 and 29 °C. A gentle breeze, usually devoid of significant gusts, provides a pleasant cooling effect and steady propulsion for boats. Most Caribbean islands experience two distinct seasons — the dry season and the rainy season. The dry season, spanning from December to May, features mild temperatures and minimal rainfall. Conversely, the rainy season, from June to November, brings higher temperatures and increased rainfall. Additionally, tropical storms and hurricanes pose threats during this period, inflicting damage on the islands and generating large, unmanageable waves at sea.
The Côte d'Azur, also known as the French Riviera, is among the most coveted Mediterranean destinations. Defining the exact boundaries of the French Riviera can be challenging. It is commonly said to stretch from the town of Menton, near the Italian border, to the port of Cassis. However, Marseille, located slightly farther away, is often associated with the French Riviera as well.
Marseille is the second-largest city in France. Boasting an international airport and a port that can accommodate around three thousand vessels, it is frequently the top choice for skippers. This cosmopolitan metropolis provides an excellent blend of historic monuments and modern amenities, allowing you to indulge in the city's delights before embarking on your sailing adventure.
This harbour town, nestled in a stunning rocky bay, is renowned for its fortifications and local stone. The stone has significantly influenced the architecture of this port, as well as those in Marseille, Algiers, and Alexandria in Egypt. Interestingly, the same stone was also used as the base for New York's Statue of Liberty.
The village of Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer is a popular starting point for sailors, as many boats are chartered here. Its convenient location roughly halfway between Marseille and Saint-Tropez enables you to discover the beauty of the Côte d'Azur in both directions. Today, we recommend sailing eastwards to explore the renowned ports of Nice, Antibes, and perhaps the lesser-known Hyères Islands.
Sailing route tip from Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer
- Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer — Porquerolles (14 NM)
- Porquerolles — Saint-Tropez (40 NM)
- Saint-Tropez — Iles de Lerins (28 NM)
- Iles de Lerins — Antibes (12 NM)
- Antibes — Nice (15 NM)
- Nice — Calanques de Cassis (47 NM)
- Calanques de Cassis — Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer (27 NM)
This once insignificant fishing village gained fame through movie stars in the 1950s. Since then, the town has undergone a remarkable transformation and has become synonymous with summer holidays in France. To this day, it maintains a strong connection to cinema, particularly the series of films about gendarmes starring Louis de Funès, which even has an entire museum dedicated to it.
Often referred to as the Venice of France, Port Grimaud is a city built on water, connecting several peninsulas and islands in a similar manner to Venice in Italy. Constructed in the 1960s, the harbour's architecture may not be as old or intricate as its more famous counterpart. However, if you enjoy cruising the canals, Port Grimaud is the perfect destination for you.
Cannes is a city that will likely forever be linked with its renowned film festival and luxury brands. The original historic centre, though small, is somewhat overshadowed by the hotels, restaurants, and spas that have emerged over the years.
Antibes is a city of contrasts. On one hand, you can witness the yachts of the world's wealthiest individuals in the Mediterranean's largest private marina. On the other hand, you have the opportunity to enjoy genuine Provençal hospitality and purchase delicacies directly from the people who grew and crafted them at the local market.
The harbour town of Menton, with its vibrantly painted houses, ascends the hillside and strikingly resembles Porto in Spain or the resorts of the Amalfi Coast. The town is renowned for its delicious oranges, mandarins, and lemons, which are celebrated annually with a colourful and delightful festival. Apart from that, the town has a more tourist-oriented atmosphere.
Crossing the entire French Riviera
- Marseilles — Cassis (14 NM)
- Cassis — Toulon (45 NM)
- Toulon — Porquerolles (25 NM)
- Porquerolles — Saint-Tropez (40 NM)
- Saint-Tropez — Cannes (17 NM)
- Cannes — Nice (21 NM)
- Nice — Menton (14 NM)
YACHTING.COM TIP: Rent a boat in one port and return it in another. We will be happy to coordinate this option with the charter company for you.
The so-called Golden Isles are located near Hyères and offer an excellent opportunity to escape the bustling resorts and immerse yourself in nature. For instance, the island of Porquerolles is not only renowned for its wine production and stunning beaches but also for its relatively flat landscape, which is ideal for cycling. You can rent a bike here. Palud beach on Port-Cros is reputed to be one of the best Mediterranean spots for snorkelling.
Cruising route around the Hyères Islands
- Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer — Porquerolles (14 NM)
- Porquerolles — Port-Cros — Île du Levant (15 NM)
- Île du Levant — Saint-Tropez (25 NM)
- Saint-Tropez — Iles de Lerins (28 NM)
- Iles de Lerins — Hyères (12 NM)
- Hyères - Presqu'île de Giens — Calanque de Port d'Alon (38 NM)
- Calanque de Port d'Alon — Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer (22 NM)
YACHTING.COM TIP: If you enjoy the wilderness, be sure to visit the Camargue National Park just outside Marseille. This unique area is co-inhabited by wild white horses and flamingos. Revel in their company and explore the untamed beaches that this beautiful park has to offer.
To the west of Marseille, the French Mediterranean coastline has a different character. The Gulf of Lion spans the ports and waters between Marseille and Cape Creus in north-eastern Spain. In contrast to the French Riviera, the coastline here is less developed and more laid-back for such a popular tourist destination. The centres of the larger towns are set further inland, and overall, the yachting infrastructure is not as sophisticated as on the Côte d'Azur. However, the area exudes a romantic medieval charm. In almost every town, you'll find a well-preserved fortress, an imposing religious building, or simply impressive stone bridges and houses.
The Bay of Lions is an attractive destination for those who prefer a more secluded experience, away from busy tourist resorts. It can also be an interesting sailing adventure to embark from the French coast to the Spanish coast or even to the Balearic Islands, providing a diverse and enjoyable sailing experience.
Keep exploring interesting destinations:
For seasoned crews, a crossing from the European mainland to Corsica offers an exhilarating 100-nautical-mile journey. Alternatively, you can fly directly to Corsica and hire a boat on-site. Most charters and boats on the island are concentrated in a few ports, such as Ajaccio, Propriano, Bonifacio, Calvi, and Bastia, so marinas might be crowded during peak season. Nevertheless, Corsica's coastline is rugged and boasts many beautiful coves where you can anchor for free, enjoying privacy and tranquillity in these idyllic spots.
Corsica is truly unique with its wild and slightly rugged charm, which will leave a lasting impression and create wonderful memories. Give Corsica a chance and experience a more adventurous cruise in the Strait of Bonifacio.
Brittany and the Bay of Biscay
Typically, it's to Brittany that people venture for their initial experience of ocean sailing. For newcomers, we recommend the more gentle southern Brittany, but we know from experience that even the northern region can be managed under the guidance of a skilled skipper. In any case, be prepared for strong winds, large waves, and a chill that necessitates more advanced sailing gear. However, you will earn your sailing stripes, enjoy exhilarating sailing, and take in the views of magnificent lighthouses standing tall over the rugged coastline. Additionally, Brittany is known for its excellent beer and cider.
The more southerly Bay of Biscay is notably warmer than Brittany, but regular ocean currents, cyclones, and anticyclones can cause the weather to change from one hour to the next. You can begin exploring the Bay of Biscay area from the port of La Rochelle, which is well protected from the winds and waves of the Atlantic by the neighbouring islands of Ré and Oléron. This route might seem straightforward, but the waters here should not be underestimated. Navigating this area will provide you with your first experience of the Bay of Biscay while allowing you to get your bearings.
Possible itinerary for a Bay of Biscay voyage
- La Rochelle — Les Minimes (2 NM)
- Les Minimes — La Flotte on Île de Ré (14 NM)
- La Flotte — Île d'Oléron (20 NM)
- Île d'Oléron — Rochefort (25 NM)
- Rochefort — La Rochelle (25 NM)
- La Rochelle — Île d'Aix (15 NM)
- Île d'Aix — La Rochelle (15 NM)
Bay of Biscay
Tropical yachting in the French Caribbean
If the idea of exceptional sailing in a tropical haven while brushing up on your French appeals to you, these destinations provide the perfect opportunity for both yacht and catamaran sailing experiences:
St. Martin (Lesser Antilles)
St. Martin is famous for Maho Beach, where planes fly incredibly low during landing, thrilling tourists who enjoy being blown out to sea by the aircraft. The island is split into a Dutch and a French section, with the northern French part being much more tranquil. The marinas here exude a sophisticated French ambiance. For an authentic memento, you can pick up a custom-blended fragrance from the local Tijon perfumery.
Guadeloupe (Lesser Antilles)
Take in the breathtaking views of the sheer white cliffs and lush greenery from the deck of a catamaran, pay a visit to the iguanas, relish the enticing aroma of spices at the renowned Saint-Antoine market, or indulge in a romantic bath at the local hot springs.
Martinique, often referred to as the island of flowers, certainly lives up to its name. The lush island vegetation is ever-present, whether you're lounging on a beautiful sandy beach or hiking to the summit of the Montagne Pelée volcano. If flowers aren't your primary interest, the island is also known for producing some of the world's finest rum.
YACHTING.COM TIP: We too have fallen in love with Martinique and have put together our recommendations, including a 10-day sailing itinerary from Martinique to St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Sailing among the 118 islands of French Polynesia offers endless opportunities for exploration and discovery. This vast area, composed of several archipelagos, is believed to be one of the last places on Earth to be inhabited. It's quite remarkable, given the abundance of natural treasures found here, such as black pearls, coffee, pineapples, and vanilla. Each time you sail through these breathtaking islands, you're bound to encounter new and captivating sights, experiences, and flavors that will leave you in awe of this extraordinary destination.
For those passionate about diving and snorkelling, New Caledonia is the equivalent of Mount Everest for mountaineers. Nearby, there is a 1,500-foot-long coral reef that has earned a spot on UNESCO's list of natural monuments.
YACHTING.COM TIP: A yacht holiday in exotic destinations is a completely different experience. Read our practical tips and advice to make sure you enjoy it to the fullest.