Iles du Frioul Marseille, crique et coquelicots

The islands of Frioul and 'Château d'If'

jewels of the Mediterranean sea

Jump on a boat for a trip to the islands of Frioul or ‘Château d’If’ (If castle). It is a chance to discover the local fauna and flora and part of the city’s history.

To discover more of Marseille than the ‘Vieux-Port’ or the Mucem museum, go aboard and escape to the islands to enjoy the crystal clear waters and the seabed, but also to explore the many remnants left across the archipelago. Located in the Calanques National Park, they are part of the European network of protected areas called Natura 2,000. One of the main reasons to visit the Frioul archipelago is its landscape with small sandy beaches and many beautiful creeks.

The ‘Château d’If ‘: a fortress facing Marseille

In 1516, king Francis the 1st of France had the idea to build a fortress on the island ‘île d’If’ during a visit to Marseille. The building soon became a prison as its isolated location made it more difficult to escape. José Custodio Faria, made famous by Alexandre Dumas’ novel ‘The Count of Monte-Cristo’, was a famous prisoner there. The site is full of ‘little stories’, such as the famous hole dug on the wall by Edmond Dantès when he escaped. The fortress ended up sheltering the rebels of 1848 and the ‘communards’ of 1871. It stopped being used as a prison when it opened to the public in 1890.

 ‘Îles du Frioul’, another way to visit Marseille

Facing Marseille, the Frioul archipelago is made of four islands: Pomègue, Ratonneau, Tiboulen, and If. The dry climate around the archipelago has favoured the appearance of a rare, sometimes endemic flora. The island’s fauna consists of sea birds such as the yellow-legged gull, also called “gabian” by the locals.

The islands belong to the city of Marseille since 1971. The Port-Frioul village expanded together with the port which now holds 700 moorings. A few businesses also opened doors, with restaurants and a few shops. The aquafarm on the Pomègue island farms bass and gilt-head bream.

Did you know?

Each year in June, a race called the Monte-Cristo challenge which started in 1999 gathers around 800 swimmers who compete to swim across to the ‘Château d’If’ the fastest!


This 2,5 km island has a rugged landscape offering breathtaking views. The rocks and vegetation have been sculpted by the seaspray, creating extraordinary shapes in some areas. The easy walking trail starts at the end of the Berry seawall and ends at the Cavaux military fortification. It is marked with geology, vegetation, and fauna signs all along its length. It will take you 45 minutes to walk the trail where you will feel at the end of the world, lost in wild vegetation away from any civilisation. The aquafarm is located in a natural shelter which was used as a quarantine port in the 17th century.

All weapons have been removed from the fort and the semaphore but, together with the old military fortification, they are the testimony of a troubled military past.

The best time to explore the area is between April and June when the sun shines but is not too hot, flowers bloom and colour the rocks with pink, yellow and purple. But it is also the nesting and post-nesting time for the seagulls. You should better not wander off the path as these big birds can try to intimidate you to protect their nest.

Intrepid swimmers will be ready to walk further and reach small isolated creaks to swim in freshwater.


Ratonneau island is not as wild as Pomègues but equally interesting and better suited for walks and swims with children. The 2.7 km long island can be explored by foot, cycling, or onboard a little train in the summer. About 100 residents live on the island, sometimes defying the weather on the ferry to reach Marseille city center. Protective of their way of life, they welcome visitors with open arms nonetheless organising social events such as walking races, painters’ shows, and more. Small shops, bars, and restaurants bring the village alive in high season, together with pleasure sailors who stop by to rig their ship or have lunch.

In the summer season, the ferry increases its operating hours and also operates at night.

A small chapel resembling an antique temple overlooks the port and the village. It was erected for sailors whose boats were quarantined, to enable them to attend church services. The holiday resort Léo Lagrange is the only one on the archipelago. It welcomes groups, schools on seaside trips, sports camps, and family gatherings between March and November.

The trail leading to Saint-Estève beach and Caroline hospital goes on to the ‘Maison des Pilotes’ (Pilots’ House). This building shaped in a ship’s bow is home to the pilots of the ‘Grand Port Maritime de Marseille’ (Marseille’s maritime port). Experienced sailors are responsible for piloting ships to the docks in place of the captain. The ‘Maison des Pilotes’ staged the famous French movie ‘Marie-Jo et ses deux amours’.

Saint Estève beach is accessible by a 30 minutes walk from the pier. It is the only real beach of the Frioul islands with turquoise waters, sheltering an underwater pathway flagged with five buoys, where you can discover the local fauna and flora. The beach is supervised in the summer months and you will find showers, toilets, and a small cafe.

‘Tiboulen de Ratonneau’

Scuba dive lovers know this small island, West of Ratonneau. Underwater features, currents, and the fact that the archipelago is sheltered from eastern wind all contribute to a wide diversity of fauna and flora. Nearby, slightly deeper, the wreckage of a WW2 German bomber also attracts experienced divers.

Caroline hospital: the remains of a quarantine hospital

On the Frioul island, discover a unique location: a 19th-century lazaretto.

The archipelago has always been a port of call for Mediterranean sailors. Whether it be warriors or adventurers, their sanitary know-how has played a huge part in the protection of the Phocaean city. This is the reason why the architect Michel-Robert Penchaud built the Caroline hospital on the Ratonneau island at the beginning of the 19th century, in order to treat the patients infected with yellow fever. Partially destroyed when Marseille was freed, it was abandoned until 1971, when it was bought by Marseille Council.

Practical information

How to get to the islands of Frioul and the ‘Château d’If’?

Ferry crossings provide a seven days a week service to the Frioul archipelago.

Careful: the ‘Château d’If’ is closed on Mondays.

Regular departure from ‘Vieux Port’. Weather dependant.
Crossing times and more information here