France map & highlights
Make the most of your time
France is easy to travel in with minimal stress on the environment – a walking vacation in Provence will see you use nothing but your own two feet and though group minibuses are used for multi-activity vacations in the mountains, the distances you cover are minimal. Self-guided walking in the Alps requires little more than a map, train travel between cities is easy and efficient, and other than that it’s all about natural energy sources: leg power for cycling, hiking, caving and climbing; the rushing energy of upland rivers for canyoning and rafting; and the soaring thermal that rises up the mountains for paragliding.
There’s no question Avignon can become a crowded mess of flip flops and melted ice cream in the busy summer months, but go when its quieter and the former capital of Christendom reveals itself to be really rather cool. Magnificent medieval ramparts encircle the old town, which neatly gathers Avignon’s cultural greats, while the modern city beyond is peppered with bakeries, parks and cafes.
There is nothing understated about Chamonix: the flag bearer of mountaineering, it is presided over by the spectacular snow-white peaks of the Mont Blanc massif and is as much a place for uber-hip boarders to down shots and speed down the pistes as it is for contemplative hikers to explore shimmering ice fields, or paragliders to sweep down from sensational heights for a bird’s eye view.
Ah, the French Riviera, a fabulously wealthy part of France that sparkles with the sheer amount of money that passes through it. Tanning is a serious pursuit here; the beaches are beautiful and so are the (often nude) bodies that grace them. For those that like a little more oomph with their outdoors, there are glittering seas to swim and snorkel in, and winding coastal paths to walk.
A patchwork of countryside studded with traditional chateaus, Renaissance buildings and the lush green meadows that line the banks of its eponymous river, the Dordogne has a ruddy-cheeked, earthy and reassuring charm about it. It’s known for its fascinating prehistoric cave art and rich, gourmet treasure, not least ‘le diamant noir’, the elusive black truffle that grows in its chalky soil.
Ecrins National Park
France has 10 national parks and this is one of the largest, a whopping 918sqkm criss-crossed by steep narrow valleys and centuries-old smuggler’s footpaths, which combined add up to first-class hiking grounds. Less crowded than majestic Mont Blanc, but as much of a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts, whether you’re a solo thrill-seeker or a family of four, you won’t be short of things to do.
To describe the French Alps invites every conceivable superlative: titanic peaks, ice-white glaciers and sparkling sapphire lakes, but to see them firsthand will leave you speechless. The Giffre Valley, an exciting almost eerie terrain of towering cracked limestone cliffs sits beside champagne Chamonix, the iconic backdrop to 007’s stunt-tastic ski chase; a wonderland of adventure.
A bit like the more edgy cousin of the Alps, the Pyrenees has a rougher beauty than its loftier counterpart, but is still a snow-capped Shangri-La for walkers, bikers, skiers and those less adrenalin-charged amongst us who just appreciate a bloody good view. The terrain is great for snowshoeing and horse riding, and the age-old mountain thoroughfares reveal an intriguing mix of isolated valleys.
A wide, smooth expanse littered with grandiose castles with sky-high turrets from its very noble past, the Loire Valley, a UNESCO listed site no less, is a place of architectural splendour with more than a touch of class. From Monty Python-medieval to sprawling country estates, Chateaus take centre-stage here as does wine, a cherished and plentiful gift from the region’s boundless vineyards.
Mercantour National Park
Take a mountain train into the other worldly wonders of the Alpes Maritimes and Alpes de Haute Provence, all part of the relatively unknown Mercantour National Park. A popular area for walking with donkeys to carry your bags, you follow in the steps of shepherds who still do the same, along waymarked ways through ancient forest, up rocky inclines, and along icy river valleys.
The highest peak in Western Europe, Mont Blanc is just so achingly beautiful. It has seven main valleys that feed of it; all lying in its stupendous shadow, and its 4,810m summit is covered in snow and ice all year round. When people talk about ‘doing Mont Blanc’, they often mean hiking its lower regions: the climb to the summit is iconic and achievable, but you’ll need experience to reach it.
Mont Blanc travel guide >
France’s west coast is where the French head in summer; an area that combines ancient cities, a fabulous wine region and miles of sandy coastline punctuated by sleepy villages. From the historic port at La Rochelle to diminutive Re, a windswept island where the Parisians head, the coastline screams variety while inland, the Marais Poitevin is an enticing walker’s web of criss-crossed canals.
The Provencal cliché: wafting lavender; stone villages; smiling people sipping wine. It exists, and it is wonderful, but the region is actually very diverse. Towards the Rhone, flamingos flock to salt marshes where further south white horses gallop the wilds of the Camargue. Avignon is a hub of art and architecture, and Mont Ventoux, the cyclist’s mecca, stands guard like a sentinel over the north.
French Alps self-guided walking (8 days):
Haute Savoie ► Giffre Valley ► Samoens ► Mont Blanc massif ► Bout de Monde
Pyrenees family activity vacation (8 days):
Bareges ► Bantan Valley ► Cirque de Gavarnie ► Grande Cascade ► Col du Tourmalet ► Gave de Pau ► Argeles-Gazost
Provence cycling tour:
Avignon ► Pont du Gard ► Uzes ► Orange ► Mont Ventoux ► Roussillon ► Fontvielle ► Arles ► Carmargue ► Les Baux-de-Provence ► Avignon
Travel times in France
The following times give you a rough idea of the travel times between the main attractions in France.
- Ecrins National Park – Samoens: 3hrs 30mins by road
- Samoens – Mont Blanc: 1hr by road
- Bareges (Pyrenees) – Cirque de Gavarnie: 50mins by road
- Avignon – Uzes: 2hrs by bike
- Avignon – Mont Ventoux: 5 hours by bike
- Avignon – Camargue: 9 hours over 2 days by bike