From the peaks, rivers and canyons of the French Alps to the mountains and volcanic peaks of the Massif Central – not to mention 3,200km of coastline stretching from Italy to Spain and from the Basque country to the Straits of Dover – France offers a cornucopia of exhilarating outdoor adventures.
With recreational options like canyoning, diving, ice-driving and kite-surfing on snow or water, France sets the pulse racing. In larger cities and picturesque regions like the French Riviera and the French Alps, local activity companies offer all kinds of high-adrenaline pursuits. Yet for those who prefer less heart-pounding activities there are fresh-air frolics made for exploring and discovering rural France from a very different perspective.
Grab a bike
The French take cycling very seriously with whole parts of the country grinding to a halt during the famous annual Tour de France. Indeed a vélo tout-terrain (VTT, or mountain bike) is a fantastic tool for roaming the countryside. Some of the areas for decent mountain-biking (with varying gradients and grades of difficulty) are around Annecy in the Alps and throughout the Pyrenees. In southwest France, the Dordogne offers a vast network of scenic, tranquil roads for pedal-powered tourists. The Loire Valley, Alsace, Burgundy, the Lubéron in Provence and coastal regions like Brittany, Normandy and the Atlantic coast offer easier, flatter options.
Skate in the city
More than 10,000 in-line skaters – accompanied by skating police – race through the streets of Paris from 22:00 to 01:00 every Friday night. The free, 30km ride, whose purpose – in addition to fun – is to promote in-line skating as a mode of urban transport, is the largest such event in the world.
The ski season in France’s 400-odd resorts generally lasts from mid-December to late March or April. January and February tend to have the best overall conditions but the slopes get very crowded during the February–March school holidays. The high Alps have some of the world’s priciest and most fashionable resorts, although smaller, low-altitude stations in the Alps and Pyrenees are cheaper. Cross-country skiing is best done in the valleys. Some lower-altitude stations are examining their options should global warming make the ski season too short and/or unpredictable. One of the cheapest ways to ski or snowboard is with a package deal by budget airlines flying to and from Lyon, Grenoble, Chambéry and Geneva (Switzerland).
Take a walk
The French countryside is criss-crossed by 120,000km of sentiers balisés (marked walking paths) through every imaginable terrain in every region of the country. No permit is needed to hike. The best-known trails are the sentiers de grande randonnée (GR), long-distance paths marked by red-and-white-striped track indicators. The grandes randonnées de pays (GRP) trails, whose markings are yellow, are designed for intense exploration of one particular area. Other types of trails include sentiers de promenade randonnée (PR), walking paths marked in yellow; drailles, paths used by cattle to get to high-altitude summer pastures; and chemins de halage, canal towpaths. Shorter day-hike trails are sentiers de petites randonnées or sentiers de pays.
France has fine beaches along all its coasts – the English Channel, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The beautifully sandy beaches stretching along the family-oriented Atlantic Coast are less crowded than their rather pebbly counterparts on the Côte d’Azur. Brittany, Normandy and the Channel coast are also popular, albeit cooler, beach destinations. The general public is free to use any beach not marked as private. The best surfing is on the Atlantic Coast around Biarritz, where waves reach heights of 4m. Windsurfing is popular wherever there’s water and a breeze, and equipment is often rented out near beaches and lakes. White-water rafting, canoeing and kayaking are practised on many French rivers, especially in the Alps, but also in Burgundy along the Gorges de l’Allier, Gorges de l’Ardèche, Gorges du Tarn and Gorges du Verdon.