Where to stay and what to do off the main path in France

Oct 31 | 11 minutes read
Where to stay and what to do off the main path in France

This summer, France, the most visited country in the world, plans to get back on track by promoting eco-friendly vacations, moderate travel, and sustainable tourism with an investment of €50 million from the government. That calls for venturing away from the typical tourist traps and discovering the lesser-known side of France, complete with bamboo groves, pink salt flats, cottages perched on stilts, dinosaur-age steeds, and perhaps a weekend spent tending a lighthouse.


Brittany, little islands

After two years of coronavirus, Brittany is expecting a huge influx of tourists this summer; if you want to avoid the crowds, spend some time stargazing with puffins and gulls on one of the little islands off the west coast.

Île Molène, which can be reached from Brest via ferry in 90 minutes, is barely 1,200 meters in length and is car- and bike-free. The area is great for short treks, people-watching in the picturesque harbor, and sampling the fried fish at Au Vent des îles. The Musée du Drummond Castle is tucked away among the slate-roofed cottages of the village, and it's open every afternoon by appointment; it's devoted to a British ship that went down in the waters off Molène in 1896. Except for three survivors, all 241 passengers and crew members perished in the water and 29 are buried in a nearby cemetery.

The 300-meter-wide Île de Quéménès, located in the Molène archipelago, is home to a single family that operates an organic farm and a bed-and-breakfast for visitors. Those who wish to paint, play board games, and fish from the rocky shoreline will find this to be an ideal place to stay.

The island of Île Vierge, located one mile off the coast of Plouguerneau, is subject to the full fury of the North Atlantic and features not one but two lighthouses, the tallest "conventional" lighthouse in Europe at 365 steps (open April-Oct). One is for personal use and the other is available for lease. There are a few tiny pebble beaches on the island, and it is a sanctuary for birds.

To see thousands of puffins, kittiwakes, shearwaters, boobies, and razorbills plunge into the water between the bobbing gray seals, birdwatchers can take a boat from Trestraou beach in Perros-Guirec to the Île Rouzic on a circular journey (no disembarking).


Where should You stay?

Les Refuges de Mer (from €15pp) eco-friendly bungalows are a 15-minute walk from Molène on the tiny islet of Lédénez Vraz (only doable at low tide). The refuges exclusively use rainwater, and their electricity is generated by solar panels.

The eco-friendly guesthouse on Quéménès (from €588 for two or €2,450 for the entire property) features three bedrooms and includes a full-board, two-night, three-day stay, fishing rods, binoculars, and pick-up from Molène island.

The historic lighthouse keepers' home on Île Vierge, La Maison des gardiens de phare (from €550 for two nights), has been renovated into an eco-sustainable vacation property for nine.

Penn Ar Bed operates a daily ferry service from Brest and Le Conquet to Molène, while Vedettes des Abers operates passenger services between Plouguerneau and Île Vierge.


Canal de Bourgogne, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté

The Canal de Bourgogne, which runs through the Côte-d'Or and Yonne and passes by chateaux, abbeys, forges, and medieval villages, may not be one of France's most celebrated canals, but it is the ideal length for a week's cycling or walking vacation. The majority of visitors to Burgundy come for the wine, leaving the museums and canal towpath relatively deserted.

Tonnerre, 100 kilometers north-west of Dijon, is only an hour and 40 minutes by train from Paris and is ideal for exploring the 16th-century Château de Tanlay (guided tours only) and the Château d'Ancy le Franc, a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture with sculpted courtyards and gardens, 17th-century murals, and runs cookery courses in the same kitchens that prepared meals for Louis XIV.

Semur-en-Auxois, built on a pink granite outcrop, is far enough away from Chablis and Beaune to be off the wine trail. It features a beautiful gothic church, sturdy fortifications, and stone bridges. It is famed for hosting the annual Course de la Bague, France's oldest horse race (which began in 1639), as well as the Course des Chausses, a race in which townspeople sprint around the cobblestone streets dressed in medieval tabards and jester's stockings, which dates back to 1369.

Nearby lies the 18th-century steelworks Grande Forge de Buffon, replete with waterwheel, and the fairytale Châteauneuf-en-Auxois, a walled village with a five-tower, 12th-century château complete with moat and dungeon.

Véli-Bourgogne has bike rental at numerous points along the canal (€20 per day, €104 for seven days), and La Bicyclette Verte can organize a six-day, five-night vacation, including accommodation. Visitors can also take a two-hour ride on an electric boat or visit Dijon's brand new gastronomy and wine complex, which features gourmet food galleries, cooking demos, a library of 10,000 textbooks, and sommelier training.

The mediaeval Hotel Relais de la Côte d'Or in Semur-en-Auxois has doubles starting at €95 room-only. Petite Forge de Buffon features rustic gîtes starting at €90 (sleeping four) and €120 (sleeping nine), while Lodges du Canal de Bourgogne has five tree houses and towpath huts starting at €185.


Andon and Saint-Vallier-de-Thiey, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur

Beyond the hills of Grasse, a 90-minute zigzagging drive from Nice, lies a panorama of grey peaks, pine forests, and gorges - a prehistoric backdrop complemented by grazing bison and wild Przewalski horses at La Réserve biologique des Monts d'Azur in Andon.

Patrice Longour, a vet, and his wife, Alena, took up a former hunting reserve in the Parc naturel régional des Préalpes d'Azur approximately 20 years ago and established this organic natural reserve. Its 700 hectares serve as the setting for a rewilding programme promoting sustainable tourism. There are wooden eco-lodges, a "bioclimatic" villa, and rooms above the organic restaurant for visitors to stay in. Stays can include a safari walk (or horse-drawn calèche ride) through the reserve's forests and prairies to see the bison, wild horses, boar, elk, and roe deer. It's an incredible sight to see sharp Przewalski stallions galloping around the grasslands.

The pre-Alps regional park also includes Saint-Vallier-de-Thiey, a popular hiking and mountain biking destination. The Grotte de Baume Obscure, three kilometers from the center, is open every day in June, July, and August). Visitors can explore the cave's small passageways on their own, guided by a fairy-flute music and frequent spotlight illuminations of stalactites, potholes, and rock pools. The 700-meter journey is difficult for the faint of heart, since there are narrow gangways and steep staircases, everything is dripping, and tiny bats hang overhead towards the exit. Once outside, there's a souvenir shop offering fossils and jewelry, as well as a snack zone for hungry kids.

A short drive north-east lies the Calern plateau near Caussols, which has an observatory open on Sunday afternoons. Tickets include access to the massive telescopes as well as a tour through the moonscape environment (visits in English are available). The adjacent Auberge de Caussols offers rustic cuisine in a cozy dining area.

The Estéron River gorge, accessible from the village of Aiglun, is perfect for canyoning. Altitude 06 offers five-hour canyoning programmes for €80 per person. One of the best climbs in the area is up to Le Castellaras de Thorenc, a three-hour hike to the ruins of a perched medieval town with stunning views of the Pays de Grasse.

Visitors to the Monts d'Azur reserve can stay in a variety of buildings (half-board starting at €129pp). La Cascade (doubles from €65) in adjacent Courmes boasts rooms with views of the Gorges du Loup, a pool, and home-cooked dinners.


La Lozère and Anduze, Occitanie

When Robert Louis Stevenson lands in La Lozère in his 1879 Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, his first instinct is to strip nude and "bathe my bare body in the mountain air and water." La Lozère is still one of France's least-touristy regions, with a volcanic scenery of heather-clad hillsides, beautiful meadows, dense chestnut trees, and fast-flowing rivers - and donkeys for rent.

Mende, the capital of Lozère, is famous for its croquants (almond biscuits) and coupétado, a bread-and-butter pudding prepared with prunes and cognac, both of which are ideal mountain snacks before venturing into the Parc national des Cévennes. Continuing Stevenson's journey south (by foot or mountain bike), visitors pass through the Protestant stronghold of Le Pont-de-Montvert, where there's an eco-museum about the area (open July and August) and a route up to the summit of Mont Aigoual, site of France's last inhabited meteorological observatory (open July and August) (open May to September, free entry).

There is also excellent trekking around strange rock formations at the Chaos de Nîmes-le-Vieux, but for those looking for something a little gentler, or who are put off by the yearly 170 days of rain recorded on Mont Aigoual, the town of Anduze, a short drive east, is lively and appealing. Its steam railway from the 1920s runs to Saint-Jean-du-Gard and stops at the town's bamboo plantation. The Bambouseraie, founded in the mid-nineteenth century by local botanist Eugène Mazel, currently boasts over 1,000 varieties of bamboo, a 40-metre sequoia avenue, and a treetop net walkway (open daily, adult €13.90, over-six years €9.90). Place du Marché in Anduze, on the banks of the Gardon river, includes a 17th-century pagoda fountain. Le Tife-Tafe cafe's whitewashed vaulted cellar is ideal for a craft brew and a Cévennes salad of walnuts, goat's cheese, and sweet onions.

The Maison Victoire atop Mont Lozère offers half-board for €124 for two people and is part of a community of nearby campsites, gîtes, and B&Bs. Le Garage des Cévennes (doubles from €92 room only) in Anduze is a hip hotel-café-restaurant that also serves as a motorcycle-parts design workshop.


Aude, Occitanie, Gruissan and Narbonne

Gruissan, located on the Mediterranean between Montpellier and Perpignan, is a vibrant mix of elegant French coastal resort and American suburbia.

Gruissan can be seen in the opening moments of Jean-Jacques Beineix's sensuous, unnerving Betty Blue (37°2 le matin) as the beachside cabin. Betty sets fire to the chalet after an argument, but there are over 1,000 similar wooden shacks on stilts, forming a large, floating chalet-park. It's an eye-catching sight: poetic, colorful, and unlike anything else in France.

Gruissan's salt pans are hidden behind its beaches, large pink and mauve rectangular pools populated with flamingos and sauniers bent double as they load salt crust onto wheelbarrows. Trottup offers trips around the salt lakes and woodlands on big-wheeled electric scooters (two hours, €49), and electric boats can be chartered along the quayside (€35 an hour for a five-seater or €110 for three hours in a seven-seater Scoop).

A strenuous hike to the Gouffre de l'Oeil Doux, where steep limestone cliffs plunge into a natural green lake, is available. Swimming is not permitted, but it is a geological wonder and a lovely setting for a picnic among the parasol pines.

Narbonne, originally the capital of Rome's first colony in Gaul and now the main city on France's newly dubbed Côte du Midi, is ten minutes' drive inland. Narbo Via, a museum dedicated to Roman artefacts, opened on the city's outskirts last year. The edifice, built by Norman Foster + Partners, features a gallery wall made up of 760 old funeral stone blocks (adults €8, free for under 26s, and combined entrance with Amphoralis, a Roman workshop for creating amphora, and the Horreum, Narbonne's underground Roman grain store, is €13).

The summer coach groups who descend on the neighbouring walled town of Carcassonne are spared Narbonne. It's a picturesque provincial city with several huge landmarks, including the Archbishops' Palace and Gothic cathedral, as well as the more "quaint" Pont des Marchands and the birthplace of singer-songwriter Charles Trénet. Trénet is most known for his composition La Mer (Beyond the Sea), which he wrote while on a train passing the adjacent coastline's lagoons.


Baccarat and Lunéville, Grand Est

Baccarat is an important stop on the decorative arts route, which runs through Alsace and Lorraine in the north-east of France and includes Nancy for its art nouveau, as well as fine carpentry, ceramics, the glass museum in Saint-Louis-lès-Bitche (site of France's first glassmaker; open Wednesday to Monday) and the Lalique museum in Wingen-sur-Moder (open daily April-Oct; Tues-Sun the rest of the year) on the northern side

The Baccarat firm, named after the town on the banks of the Meurthe River, was founded in 1764 to create soda glass for windows, but when it was acquired by a Belgian corporation in 1817, it shifted its concentration to luxury lead crystalware. The Baccarat crystal museum (open daily July-August) houses almost 2,000 pieces in sparkling exhibits, while furnaces in the workshops across are fired up on a regular basis.

The stained-glass windows in Saint-new Rémy's riverside church contain 20,000 pieces of coloured Baccarat crystal.

To the north-west is Lunéville, which was previously famous for its ornate faience potteries but is now better renowned for its massive Château de Lunéville. The "Versailles of Lorraine" includes enormous parterre gardens and was visited by three of France's most famous Enlightenment intellectuals, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. The deposed Polish king, Stanislaw Leszczynski, lived on a country estate, and his pastry chef created the first rum baba after dipping his brioche into a sweet-wine syrup. It's on the dessert menu at Le Lunéville, which also serves quiche Lorraine and foie gras marinated in gewurztraminer wine from the region.

Les Cabanes du Lac du Pierre-Percée (doubles from €160 B&B) at Badonviller, east of Baccarat, has cabins, treehouses, and chalets on the lake. Domaine Ouréa in Sainte-Barbe offers luxurious ecolodges for two in the heart of the forest starting at €269 a night.

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