With its varied landscapes – alpine mountains and cavernous gorges, flamingo-pink wetlands, and a world-famous coastline of sparkling white sand and turquoise water – Provence has an outdoor activity to match every mood, moment and energy level.
Drifting across Provence’s patchwork fields in a hot-air balloon is a seductive way to take in the captivating countryside. Balloon flights last one to 1½ hours (allow three to four hours in all for getting to and from the launch pad, inflating the balloon etc) and cost from €230 per person. Flights run year-round but are subject to weather forecasts.
Operators include Montgolfière Vol-Terre near Roussillon, with flights in the Avignon and Luberon areas; and Les Montgolfières du Sud (www.sudmontgolfiere.com), west of Nîmes, whose balloons fabulously float above the Pont du Gard.
Canoeing, Kayaking & Rafting
For a white-knuckle ride, the Gorges du Verdon is famous for its foaming white-water rapids. Dozens of operators offer trips from their main base in Castellane, along with related river activities such as floating and canyoning. Allow €35/60 for a half/full day.
For a more tranquil trip, try paddling beneath the arches of the Pont du Gard, or along the River Sorgue between the towns of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and Fontaine de Vaucluse.
There's no shortage of sunshine, and let's face it – you're not going to get away without tackling a few hills. The best regions for cycling tend to be away from the busy coastal roads: the quiet country roads of the Luberon, the villages of the Var and the hills of Haute-Provence are all good areas to explore.
Road bikes (vélo de route) and mountain bikes (VTT, vélo tout-terrain) can be widely hired for around €15 a day including helmet and puncture-repair kit. Children’s bikes (around €12 per day) and toddler seats (around €5 per day) are also widely available. Some outlets deliver to your door.
Your first port of call for routes should, as always, be the local tourist office – it always has a range of leaflets and guides to give away, as well as suggestions on local bike shops and rental outfits.
Keen to make the best of their ski lifts and cable cars in summer, ski resorts have developed a brilliant mountain-biking infrastructure, whereby you and your bike are ferried up the mountain so that you can enjoy two hours of uninterrupted, thrilling descent.
Mont Ventoux is a key centre for mountain-bikers and downhillers.
Bikes can easily be hired, especially in areas that are known for their cycling trails, such as the Luberon and Mont Ventoux. Expect to pay around €15 per day for a standard bike, up to €30 or €35 for a full-suspension mountain bike. Rates normally include repair kit, lock, helmet and sometimes route maps. Some rental shops also offer battery-assisted electric bikes, perfect for giving you that extra push when your legs start flagging: expect to pay around €35 to €40 per day.
Many companies offer free delivery services within their local area.
Popular Cycling Routes
- Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon Roads – steep in places – have little traffic and saunter up, down and around photogenic hilltop villages, vineyards, olive groves, lavender fields and fruit farms. Check www.veloloisirluberon.com for more information.
- Île de Porquerolles Seventy kilometres of unpaved biking trails zigzag across this car-free island. See www.porquerolles.com.
- Mont Ventoux It's a mighty climb, drawing cycling fanatics from around the world. Guided rides are offered in nearby Malaucène and Sault.
- Toulon to St-Raphaël Seventy-nine kilometres of smooth-as-silk two-lane cycling path following the old railway line. See www.var.fr.
- Vallée de l'Ubaye Famous for its seven, punishing mountain passes. See www.ubaye.com.
- The Camargue Small, flat and full of wildlife; ideal for families.
Autour du Luberon
This signed, round-the-Luberon bike route covers 236km in total, or you can just follow individual sections. Cyclists taking the northern route pedal 111km from Forcalquier to Cavaillon via Apt, Bonnieux, Lacoste and Ménerbes; the southern route links the two towns by way of Lourmarin, Vaugines, Cucuron and Manosque.
Those who enjoy a stiff climb should tackle the northern route east to west (signposted with white markers). Freewheelers should opt for the easier westbound route, which is marked by orange signs. For day trippers in Cavaillon, the 40km round trip to Ménerbes makes for an exhilarating bike ride.
Information boards posted along both routes provide details on accommodation, eating and sightseeing. For more information see www.veloloisirprovence.com/fr/luberon/circuit/autour-du-luberon-velo.
Les Ocres en Vélo
This colourful itinerary forms an easy 50km circular route around the land of Luberon ochre, linking rocky-red Roussillon with Rustrel, Villars, Apt and Gargas. The route can be followed in either direction; green signs mark the westbound way from Apt, and ochre markers flag its eastbound counterpart. For more information, see www.veloloisirprovence.com/en/luberon/circuit/les-ocres-velo.
Le Pays de Forcalquier et Montagne de Lure en Vélo
The rough-cut planes of Haute-Provence star on the agenda of this mountainous-in-parts, 78km-long route that can be followed in either direction from Forcalquier; ochre signs mark the eastbound route, blue the west, and brown the 6km boucle (loop) that can be picked up in Lurs. Villages passed en route include Aubenas les Alpes, St-Michel l’Observatoire and Mane. See www.veloloisirprovence.com/fr/luberon/circuit/le-pays-de-forcalquier-montagne-de-lure-en-vtt.
Many cyclists who make it to the summit of the mighty Mont Ventoux do it as something of a tribute to the British world-champion cyclist Tommy Simpson (1937–67), who suffered a fatal heart attack on the mountain during the 1967 Tour de France. There is a moving roadside memorial to Simpson 1km east of the summit, which reads ‘There is no mountain too high’. The road ascent from Chalet Reynard on the westbound D974 to the summit is a very painful 6km, but a good many cycling enthusiasts only pedal part of the road, often just to see how hard it is!
Tourist offices have information on guided bike rides on the mountain, including night descents by road and daytime mountain-bike descents.
Brevet des 7 Cols Ubayens
The seven cols – Allos (2250m), Restefond la Bonette (2802m), Larche (1991m), Vars (2109m), Cayolle (2326m), Pontis (1301m) and St-Jean (1333m) – linking the remote Vallée de l’Ubaye in Haute-Provence with civilisation form the region’s most challenging bike rides. The series of loop rides from Barcelonnette involves 207km of power-pedalling and can only be done May to September when the passes aren’t blocked by snow. Cyclists who do all seven get a medal (to prove it, participants have to punch a special card at machines installed on each mountain pass). See www.ubaye.com for more.
Toulon to St-Raphaël
Between 1905 and 1949 a steam train (poetically named le macaron after a local almond cake containing pine kernels extracted from the same pine cones that fuelled the locomotive) huffed and puffed between Toulon and St-Raphaël. Today the same 101km-long coastal stretch is covered by a smooth-as-silk two-lane cycling path (piste cyclable) instead. The track winds from Toulon to Hyères via Cap de Carqueiranne past Cavalaire-sur-Mer and St-Tropez to St-Raphaël. Find details in French online at www.cg83.fr.
The only means of transport on this paradise island – bar one’s feet – is bicycle. Sights are few and distances between beaches are small, making it a hassle-free choice for families happy to spend the day travelling by pedal power. In all, 70km of unpaved cycling trails zigzag across the island. There are seven rental companies; some provide picnic hampers, and they all rent buggies to pedal little kids along. See www.porquerolles.com.
Véloloisir Provence (www.veloloisirprovence.com) A superb cycling resource, detailing a range of colour-coded road and mountain-bike routes around the Luberon, the Verdon and other areas. The website is in English and has suggestions for accommodation, guides, baggage transport and more.
La Provence à Vélo (www.provence-a-velo.fr) Another good online route resource, with suggested routes mostly covering the area north of Avignon towards Mont Ventoux.
With its famous cowboys, creamy-white horses and expansive sandy beaches to gallop along, the Camargue is a wonderful, windswept spot to ride. Aspiring cowboys and cowgals can learn the ropes on week-long stages de monte gardiane (Camargue cowboy courses).
Dramatically different but equally inspiring are the donkey and horse treks through lyrical chestnut and cork oak forests in the Massif des Maures, set up by the Conservatoire du Patrimoine du Freinet. Donkey treks and horse rides are also offered around the Parc National du Mercantour.
Elsewhere in Provence, tourist offices have lists of stables and riding centres where you can saddle up.
- Terre Equestre (www.terre-equestre.com) Useful French-language listings site with details of horse-riding schools all over the region and further afield.
Sailing, Snorkelling & Sea Sports
With such a beautiful coastline, it's no surprise there is so much to do on the water. Note that there is often a minimum-age restriction for many watersports.
- In summer you'll find the usual fun rides of jet skiing, waterskiing and wakeboarding (€30 to €50) at a number of beaches along the Côte d'Azur.
- Hiring a kayak is the best way to explore the turquoise rocky coves of the Calanques near Marseille.
- Canoes are ideal for paddling along the rivers Gard and Sorgue.
Skiing & Snowboarding
The few ski resorts in Haute-Provence are refreshingly low-key. Slopes are best suited to beginner and intermediate skiers and costs are lower than in the Northern Alps.
Resorts include Pra Loup (1500m to 1600m), Valberg (1600m to 1700m), Foux d'Allos (1800m) and the concrete-block Isola 2000 (2450m).
The ski season runs from December to March/April (depending on the snow conditions). As always, buying a package is the cheapest way to ski and/or snowboard. Otherwise allow €25 to €30 for a daily lift pass, and about the same again for equipment rental.
You couldn't come to the coast and not get wet – whether that means a quick paddle or a proper snorkelling session.
- The sea is warm enough for swimming without a wetsuit between June and October.
- Flippers, masks and goggles are widely available from sport and dive shops along the coast.
- Underwater nature trails and guided snorkelling tours are available at many beaches.
- Local dive clubs offer courses (€300 to €500) as well as single dives (€50) to seek out the many shipwrecks that lie at the bottom of the Med.
- The latest craze on the Côte d'Azur is stand-up paddleboarding, which involves standing on a surfboard and steering yourself around with a long paddle. Paddleboard providers are springing up on many beaches; budget on €10 for a half-hour, €15 to €18 per hour.
Provence is a great place to strap on your boots, especially once you escape the searing heat of the coast and head up into the mountains of Provence and the Parc National du Mercantour. The region is crossed by a number of long-distance GR (Grande Randonnée) trails, and a whole host of sentiers balisés (marked paths).
The little town of St-Martin-Vésubie in the Vallée de la Vésubie is a popular hub for hikers in the Mercantour, with regular guided walks into the remote Vallée des Merveilles, famous for its Bronze Age rock carvings. Neighbouring valleys also have hundreds of trails to explore; tourist offices stock maps, guidebooks and leaflets. This is the best region for summer walking – the altitude means that temperatures remain cooler than at the coast, although snowfall makes hiking here impractical between October and March.
Further south, trails run along the clifftops and coves of the Parc National des Calanques, with glittering views of the Mediterranean accompanying every step. It's best saved for spring or autumn, as hiking in the summer heat here is more punishment than pleasure.
France's national map publisher, IGN, publishes the best maps for walkers, with all trails and topographical features clearly marked.
Between 1 July and 15 September forested areas are closed due to the high risk of forest fire. Always check with the local tourist office before setting off.
Take bottled water and snacks and wear good boots (even on a hot day). Don't rely on being able to get a mobile-phone signal, especially in the mountains.
- Fédération Française de Randonnée Pédestre (www.ffrandonnee.fr) Has the most comprehensive walking guides; some are now available as ebooks.
- Guides RandOxygène (https://randoxygene.departement06.fr/randoxygene-8938.html) Publishes three walking guides to the region, which are sold in local tourist offices; ebook versions can be downloaded from their website.
- Escapado (www.escapado.fr) Publishes downloadable routes for road cyclists, mountain-bikers and walkers.
- Rando Alpes Haute Provence (www.rando-alpes-haute-provence.fr) A great resource, with dozens of suggested routes.
Île Ste-Marguerite Picnic in cool pine forests and on deserted shores on this Cannois island.
Gorges d'Oppedette Explore this little-known canyon system near Rustrel.
Mourre Nègre Climb up to the Luberon's highest viewpoint for stunning scenery.
Calanque de Morgiou Treat yourself to a garrigue-scented stroll from Marseille to one of these rocky little coves.
Cap Lardier Lap up the Sentier du Littoral's breathtaking coastal views around the St-Tropez peninsula.
Colorado Provençal Hike through crimson gorges in Rustrel.
Perhaps the easiest way to see some wildlife is to grab some flippers and a snorkel mask and go swimming – shoals of colourful fish can be spotted at practically any beach on the Côte d'Azur. For more exotic species, head for Monaco's excellent Musée Océanographique.
The prime area for animal spotting is definitely the Parc National du Mercantour, where with a bit of luck and a good pair of binoculars, you might be able to spy anything from a mouflon (big-horn sheep) to a golden eagle soaring through the skies. There's also a wild wolf reserve to visit.
Ornithologists flock to see clouds of pink flamingos in the protected Camargue delta and between pink-hued salt pans on the Presqu’île de Giens near Hyères. The Gorges du Verdon is another great area thanks to its population of reintroduced griffin vultures, while sea-birds can be spied in the Parc Naturel Départemental de la Grande Corniche and the Parc National des Calanques, both on the Côte d'Azur.
LPO PACA organises guided birdwatching expeditions near Hyères.
There are even more extreme ways to get your thrills and spills in Provence. Parapente (parasailing) is a particularly popular pastime in the high mountains; local guide schools offer initiation flights and longer courses.
In the Gorges du Verdon, canyoning (which involves scrambling over rocks and jumping into rivers) is popular too, along with a whole smorgasbord of weird and wonderful watersports: cano-raft, airboating, tubing and plenty more besides. You can also throw yourself off Europe's highest bungee-jump site here: the Pont de l'Artuby, a dizzying 182m above the Verdon river.
Rock-climbing is excellent thanks to the surfeit of sheer faces available in Provence: Les Alpilles, the Dentelles de Montmirail and the Buoux valley are just a few of the best-known areas.
If you fancy trying out a few of these sports, the flashy new Vésubia activity centre in St-Martin-Vésubie is a great one-stop-shop, with fibreglass environments that simulate the experience of caving, rock-climbing, canyoning and so on.
Whatever activity you're planning on, check the latest weather forecast on Météo France (www.meteofrance.com), or ask at the tourist office. Even on a sunny day in midsummer, storms, heavy rainfall and mistral winds can appear out of nowhere – so it pays to be prepared.