Lying between Montpellier and Marseille on the Mediterranean coastline, just south of the Roman town of Arles that Vincent van Gogh painted more than 300 times, the Camargue is a wild expanse of wetlands and salt flats roamed by endemic white horses, black bulls, and pink flamingos, all of which are watched over by the local cowboys or gardians. The best way to see this unique landscape is from the saddle, either on a horse or a bike, and most of the traditional farmhouse hotels in the region, like the Le Mas de Sylvéréal or Le Mas de Peint, offer guided outings.
Corsica’s GR 20 is considered among Europe’s most stunning mountain trails, stretching 180 kilometers across the island from north to south. You don’t need to be a professional mountaineer to walk it in the recommended 15 days, though good fitness and confidence levels are prerequisites. Along the way, hikers stay in a series of refuges that cost around €10 per night and sleep 25 to 50 people or take the cheaper option of renting a tent. The best times to go are late June and late September when the refuges are tended, the weather’s mild, and the mountains aren’t crowded.
Meaning ‘Little Sea’ in the local Breton dialect, the Gulf of Morbihan is a natural harbor dotted with 46 islands and surrounded by 900 kilometers of rugged coast. In fine weather, you’d be hard pressed to find a more wonderful place to dive: anemones, sponges, and kelp blanket the seabed and stingrays, lobsters, sea spiders, and a host of fish live among them. There are also shipwrecks resting beneath the waves, which are begging to be explored by more adventurous divers. The seaside town of Vannes, where you’ll find trusted dive centers like Scuabventure, provides most visitors’ base.
The Réserve Naturelle des Gorges de l’Ardèche is France’s very own Grand Canyon and kayaking or canoeing down the 35-kilometer stretch between the Vallon Pont d’Arc, a superb 66-meter-high arch, and the village of Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche is a must for outdoor enthusiasts. Formed over 110 million years, the limestone cliffs are peppered with pebble beaches and rock shelves that are perfect for picnicking. You can spread your trip over two or three nights by staying at two designated bivouacs. Another astonishing natural feature nearby is the Bois de Païolive, a primeval forest of white oaks and petrified oaks.
Aptly named the ‘Valley of the Sun’, the picturesque medieval town of Valensole receives an amazing 300 days of sunshine a year, making this 800-square-kilometer plateau prime lavender country. Blue, violet, and purple fields stretch for miles around in every direction and their scent fills the air particularly between mid-June and mid-July. Throughout the year, local distilleries, like the Ferme du Riou, which uses only traditional techniques, provide tours and tastings, showing off products like lavender honey, ice cream, and nougat as well as essential oils and the other local specialty, truffles. The annual Lavendar Festival is held on the third Sunday in July.
Visions of the spectacular white cliffs and pebble beaches of Etretat hang in museums around the world thanks to the 19th-century French artists who painted them. The Realist master Gustave Courbet was the first to spend a significant amount of time in the village and, in his wake, came Claude Monet and the rest of the Impressionists, most notably Eugène-Louis Boudin. You can visit Etretat on a day trip from Le Havre, located just 32 kilometers along the Haute-Normandie coast, or truly escape the hubbub of modern life by checking into one of its classic hotels like the Dormy House.
Mercantour is one of France’s ten national parks, located an hour’s drive north of Nice on the Italian border. It is also a stronghold for wild wolves, which were hunted to extinction here in the early 20th century. A five-day tour will see you searching out signs of wolf activity in the mountains and staying in self-catering gites or chambre d’hotes, no doubt spotting some of the region’s other wildlife such as chamois, ibex, golden eagles, and wild boar along the way. Even if you don’t track down these extraordinary creatures, you can still encounter them at the Alpha animal park in Saint-Martin-Vésubie.
Looking like a set out of a Hollywood western, the Colorado Provençal awaits visitors on the outskirts of the village of Rustrel in the Luberon Regional Natural Park. The dramatic landscape was formed over millions of years and brought to light by various processes of extraction and erosion. Today, specialists reckon between 17 and 25 distinct shades can be found here from green-tinted iron silicate to deep red and natural ochre. You can explore the trails on foot, by bike, or on horseback but be sure to do so in clothes that you don’t mind being permanently dyed by the earth.
Lac d’Annecy is one of the most pristine bodies of water in France. At an altitude of 447 meters, it is overlooked by snow-capped mountains, the highest of which is La Tournette at 2,351 meters. As well as sweeping scenery, the area is famous for its sports activities, including paragliding, water skiing, mountain biking, and sailing. The most original accommodation in this part of the world is the eco-bivouac igloo village on the Semnoz mountain. Perched at 1,700 meters, the transparent roofs of these fully recyclable, energy efficient, and nomadic ‘Alti Dome’ structures offer uninterrupted views of the stars every night of the year.
If you’re planning a city break to Bordeaux during the summer but still want a taste of the outdoors, consider a night at ‘Les Guetteurs’, a camp of three owl-shaped cabins on the banks of the Garonne river. A collaboration between the Bruit du Frigo association and the artists from Zébra 3, these low-fi cabins each sleep two people but you’ll have to bring your own supplies, including sheets or a sleeping bag, pocket lamp, bug spray, and toilet paper. Open from March 1 to November 30, you can book your free night’s stay online today.