The limestone cliffs and inlets of Provence’s Calanques will be the first park since 1979 and it is on the doorstep of the country’s second largest city, Marseille.

Along the quayside in the Provençal port of Cassis, locals are talking about the new national park which is about to be created along the starkly beautiful coastline that stretches 20k west to Marseille.

The Parc Nationale des Calanques will open in early 2012, after several years of haggling between government officials, environmentalists, fishermen, tour-operators and local associations. It is a big moment, because it is France’s first national park since 1979. It is also unique in being a mixed land-and-sea reserve and in being on the doorstep of the country’s second largest city, Marseille.

The Calanques, a series of limestone cliffs and inlets, have survived intact despite being only a stone’s throw from Marseille’s southern suburbs. It helps that the hills are rocky and harsh – only the hardy Aleppo pine clings to the sparse earth – while most of the creeks are only accessible by boat.

Despite the area’s topographic inhospitality, tourism is already taking a toll. It is reckoned that 1.3 million people visit the Calanques every year, making it one of the most popular tourist sites in the country. Experts say the meagre soil is being eroded by walkers, while anchors rip up the underwater expanses of Posidonia sea-grass. The constant cruising of tour boats and their blaring loud-speaker commentary is wrecking the tranquillity.

The core of the national park will extend more than 200 sq miles, a fifth of it on land. In a larger zone (mainly at sea), less strict rules will apply. A small part of the maritime core will be totally off-limits for fishing but otherwise most activities will continue under tightened rules. On land, the aim is also to regulate rather than ban. Hikers for example will be obliged to stick to the official trails, and rock-climbing will be on designated sites only.

“Sure, we will have to make concessions,” said Bruno Marques, president of the association of Cassis bateliers, or tour-boat operators. “We will have to use smaller boats. We won’t be able to go so far down the creeks. We’ll have to turn down our loudspeakers. But the sacrifices are worth it. Our trade has tripled in the last few years. Without regulation, we’ll kill the Calanques,” he said.

Locals are unhappy though. In February, a flotilla of fishing boats and other craft blocked access to the port of Marseille in a demonstration against the then-drafted plan. The show of force partially succeeded because the authorities agreed to exclude from the park the four Frioul islands, just off Marseille, which are hugely popular with sea-goers. As a result, the focus of the park shifted west, towards Cassis – and now it is the Cassidains who are complaining. They worry if they will be able to keep fishing, diving and hunting, and they fear for the future of their beloved cabanons – the traditional creek-side cabins which they use for summer excursions and long liquid lunches.

Debates aside, the park will preserve what visitors are coming to enjoy: the naked beauty of the limestone hills and the soft allure of turquoise waters.

How to
The simplest way to visit the Calanques is by boat from Cassis. If you come by car, you must leave it in a carpark above the town and take a shuttle down the hill as the port is delightfully free of traffic. Trips along the coast leave every half hour or so, and take in three, five or eight calanques (creeks). Prices are not cheap, ranging from 16 to 24 euros for a one to two hour trip. It is frustrating not being able to disembark, but the views are fantastic. Beach access and fishing can be done with a private boat charter. If you wish to visit by land, you can hire a private boat in Cassis or Marseille or hike in on the trails out of Cassis. But bear in mind that from June to September, access is severely limited by local authorities because of the risk of fire. Camping overnight is prohibited.