Provence – Active Holiday Guide
With a backdrop of stunning landscapes and more than its fair share of sunshine, Provence is the perfect destination for an active holiday.
The Mediterranean. Breathtaking views, chic towns and wild landscapes characterise coastal Provence. A hugely diverse geography offers limitless possibilities for outdoor sports enthusiasts. Kitesurf the wind-blown beaches of the Camargue and Hyères, mountain bike amongst the red-ochre rock formations of the Esterel mountains, and rock climb the coastal limestone slabs of Les Calanques. If you like being by the sea, check out the Alpes Maritimes, the Var and the Bouches-du-Rhone.
Provence. Inland from the Cote d’Azur, you’ll find the picture postcard scenes that are typical of the south of France. Under a big blue sky, canyons of limestone dissected with turquoise rivers and lakes, the omnipresent smell of lavender and ancient hilltop villages, provide the backdrop to an unforgettable active holiday. Check out Vaucluse, Alpes de Haute Provence, Var and Bouches du Rhone.
Southern Alps. Less than two hours inland from Nice, whether you’re into skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, rock climbing, rafting or paragliding, you’re guaranteed be in your element. Summer or winter, the wild landscapes, breathtaking scenery and sunny weather of the Southern Alps are heaven for outdoor sports. If big mountains rock your box, check out Alpes Maritimes, Hautes-Alpes and Alpes de Haute Provence.
Top Locations for your Active Holiday in Provence
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The ancient village of Èze, with its stunning views over St Jean-Cap Ferrat, is a must-visit if you’re driving the legendary Grande Corniche. Perched on a rocky peak at an altitude of 427m overlooking the Mediterranean sea, the village is centered around the ruins of a 12th century castle. Hike the Nietzsche trail down to the sea, or paraglide from Mont Bastide down to Eze beach, where sailing, diving and sea kayaking are all popular.
Rafting, Canyoning and Via Ferrata in Breil-sur-Roya
Breil-sur-Roya is a centre for adventure sports including rafting, kayaking, canyoning, mountain biking, rock climbing and via ferrata. Just under an hour from Nice, Breil is located on the edge of the Vallée des Merveilles, inside the Mercantour National Park, making it a superb base for a multi-activity holiday in the Alpes-Maritimes.
Rising to 800 meters above sea level, Saint-Jeannet’s cliffs dominate this lively medieval village. There are more than 460 climbing routes covering the ‘Baou’ an imposing limestone cliff-face jutting skywards from the village. From the top, the panorama is incredible, you can see the Med, the Esterel mountains, Italy, and on a clear day, as far as Corsica.
Explore the Mercantour National Park
Mercantour National Park, Parc national du Mercantour in French, covers a vast 685 square km area of mountainous south-eastern France including Mont Gélas, which at 3143 m is the highest peak in the Maritime Alps. Explore 600 km of way-marked hiking and biking trails, or head to the activity centres of Colmiane, Breil and the Vallée des Merveilles for rafting, via ferrata, canyoning, paragliding and rock climbing.
Just 27 km from Cannes, the wild beauty of the Gorges du Loup is like a different world to the bustling coast. The canyon has one of the most popular whitewater scrambles (randonnée aquatique) in the Alpes Maritimes. It’s a bit of a choose your own adventure in that there’s always an escape route if the jump or slide feels a bit too extreme. However, if you’re keen, there are some challenging features, including getting harnessed up and abseiling down waterfalls.
Paragliding in Gréolières
Gréolières, located in the Southern French Alps just an hour inland from Cannes, is an internationally renowned paragliding site. Gréolières’ highest mountain, Mount Cheiron (1778 m) stretches 20 km east to west and has characteristically favourable winds, making flying possible almost every day of the year. Some of paragliding’s greats have lived in Gréolières, such as 2007 World Champion, Bruce Goldsmith and two-times World Champion, Rob Whittal.
Snowboarding in Isola 2000
Just 80 kms from Nice, Isola 2000 has 120 km of pistes and over 800 m of vertical drop. In Spring it’s possible to ski or snowboard in Isola and swim in, an albeit cool, Mediterranean all in one day. Isola is a compact resort with well-connected pistes, a good lift system, decent snowpark and terrain varied enough to keep even advanced riders amused for a week.
Known to some as Millionaire’s Bay, Cap d’Antibes conjures up images of luxurious villas rather than hiking country, but the limestone cliffs, deep blue sea, olive trees and meandering streams make a wild landscape which may surprise you when trekking here. The coastal path is quite narrow and uneven and with the mistral wind, you need to have your wits about you. Follow the coast for most of the trek but cut back to Garoupe beach through the narrow streets for a refreshing swim.
City by the sea, but with a backdrop of mountains, the nearest ski resorts are just over an hour away. Close to the border with Italy, Nice is a bit Italian, a bit French, but has a vibrant culture all of its own. If you like the buzz of a city, with its bars, restaurants, nightlife and transport links, Nice is a fantastic place to base yourself for an active holiday in the south of France.
Nicknamed ‘Europe’s Grand Canyon’, the vertiginous Gorges du Verdon slice a 25 km fissure through Haute-Provence’s limestone plateau. Under the protection of the Parc Naturel Régional du Verdon since 1997, the Gorges du Verdon is a hot spot for thrill seekers who rock climb the 250 m limestone cliffs, raft the emerald green waters, bike and hike the waymarked trails and brave the 180 m bungee jump.
Val d’Allos is where Enduro mountain biking was born. Ride 870 m of vertical drop on 24 graded trails from green to black, and enjoy chair-lift access in the summer months. Freeriders will love the bikepark with its jumps, drops and berms, while XC riders can enjoy the 44 km of way-marked trails that criss-cross the Upper Verdon valley.
Canoeing on the Lac de Sainte Croix
The Lac de Sainte Croix in the heart of Verdon National Park is a beautiful turquoise lake nestled in a limestone valley and fringed with pine trees. You can rent canoes, windsurfers and sailing boats at any number of sites around the lake. Explore the many inlets and swim in fresh water that can reach 27 degrees in summer. Stay in the picturesque village of Bauduen for a quintessential Provence experience with its restaurants overlooking the lake.
Rafting in Barcelonnette and the Vallée de l’Ubaye
The Vallée de l’Ubaye is heaven for outdoor sports enthusiasts, and using Barcelonnette as a base you can mountain bike, rock climb, paraglide and go canyoning. The Ubaye river with its class 4-5 whitewater is the main attraction though. Raft, canoe-raft, hydrospeed or kayak, there are loads of ways to have fun on the river and companies like Aqua Rider, Raft Ubaye and Crazy Water Rafting are there to make sure you have a great time.
Via Ferrata La Grande Fistoire
Located just above the hamlet of Le Caire, 25 km north-east of Sisteron, La Grande Fistoire via ferrata is one of the most challenging routes in France. Renowned for its high exposure and difficulty, La Grande Fistoire via ferrata includes the famous Nepali bridge and Great Wall. The route can take from 2 to 4 hours depending on if you choose to miss some features. Finish off with three zip lines of 150, 135 and 220 meters long, which whisk you down from the summit in a few adrenalin-packed minutes.
Kitesurfing on the Lac de Serre-Ponçon
The Lac de Serre-Ponçon is a 40 km long man-made lake at Embrun near the Italian border. The lake is blessed with a wind so reliable you can set your watch by it. Add that to guaranteed flat, beautifully turquoise water and incredible mountain scenery and you have a top kitesurf destination. If you have any energy left after kiting, Embrun is a Mecca for outdoor sports and you can wakeboard, raft, paraglide, mountain bike, or tackle the via ferrata.
Skiing and Snowboarding in Montgenèvre
Located a stone’s throw from the Italian border, Montgenèvre blends the charm of a traditional alpine village with skiing that’s as good as the big resorts. From the end of November to the end of April, you can ski and board over 400 km of pistes. The Montgenèvre resort rises from 1860 meters to 2700m, and is blessed with great snow quality and exceptional sunshine.
With consistently good weather and nearly 1000 m of accessible vertical drop, Les Orres is a hidden gem. Two chairlifts take you up to 2530 m and provide access to red and black downhill tracks, whilst blue trails snake down with fast berms and low-profile jumps. Recent work to make the bikepark more accessible to beginner and intermediate riders compliments the more extreme northshore, drops, gaps and wall-rides.
Freeride snowboarding in La Grave
La Grave is an extreme snowboarder’s paradise. When the snow falls, there is no other resort like it in the world. Mind blowing terrain covering over 2 km of vertical drop with couloirs, massive cliffs, gullies, chutes, steeps, trees and crevasses. La Grave is freeriding at its very best. The highest lift takes you up to 3560 m and although there are only 12 km of marked pistes, it’s the legendary off-piste that’s the main attraction.
Hiking the Lac du Goléon
The stunningly beautiful Lac du Goléon near Valloir makes great hiking country. Pick up the start of the trails in the hamlet of Hières, 5 Km from Villar d’Arène. If you walk left around the lake and then head towards the Aiguilles d’Arves you’ll see a projecting ledge of rock covered in ancient inscriptions. The Lac du Goléon is also a great base for cross-country skiing, alpine climbing and paragliding. In winter, you can stay the night at the Refuge des Aiguilles d’Arves which has 24 dormitory beds.
A National Park of 30,000 hectares, the Massif de l’Esterel is Cote d’Azur geography at its most stunning. A coastal mountain range of red-ochre rock which forms the backdrop to some of the classic images of the South of France, the Massif de l’Esterel is located between Saint Raphaël and La Napoule. The park has some superb way-marked hiking and biking trails.
The jaw-dropping Verdon valley with its steep limestone crags towering over the turquoise river has some exceptional rock climbing routes. The climbing is accessible from Aiguines, located on the left bank of the Verdon river, and although these routes don’t have the gravitas of some of the legendary climbs further north, there are some outstanding pitches with stunning views over the Lac de Sainte-Croix. La Corditelle, based in Aiguines, can set you up with a guide and gear.
The Almanarre is actually two long sandy beaches located close to windsports hot-spot Hyères. It’s regarded as one of the top kitesurfing spots in France and can be ridden in almost any wind direction. South-westerlies bolstered by the Mistral can reach 20 knots and generate some pretty good swell, whereas in an easterly, the sea’s completely flat. Look out for local Eric Thiémé pulling kite-loops practically on the beach.
Rock Climbing in Buoux
About 10 km south of the town of Apt in Provence you’ll find the imposing limestone ridge of Buoux, famous among climbers the world over for it’s top quality sports climbing. Ranging from single-pitch to 100 m multi-pitch routes, the climbing is technical and vertical to overhanging, with beautifully pocketed rock and enough routes to ensure you have a superb rock climbing holiday, whatever grade you climb at.
Mont Ventoux, at 1912m, is the highest mountain in Provence and due to its isolation can be seen from miles around. The classic starting point is from town of Bédoin, and ascent from here is a grueling 21.4 km at a gradient of 7.6 percent. The climb is legendary among cyclists and is frequently included in the Tour de France. From the end of April to November, you’ll find plenty of cyclists willing to test their mettle on the Mont Ventoux climb.
Mountain Biking in the Colorado Provencal
At Rustrel, north-east of the town of Apt in the Luberon there’s a stunning and unique landscape of red-ochre rock known as the Colorado Provençal. This, the birthplace of freeriding in France, is famous for its dry dusty trails peppered with jumps, drop-offs and berms. Ride through mini canyons complete with weird towering rock formations and fast, technical forested runs.
Rock Climbing in the Calanques
Les Calanques on France’s Mediterranean coast is a limestone mountain range which spans 20 km from Marseille to Cassis. The rock climbing is superb with technical slabs, steep overhangs, multi-pitch routes and deep water soloing routes right on the water’s edge. In total there are nearly 2,500 bolted sports routes and about 1,000 traditional routes. After a hard session on the rock, dive into the beautiful blue water for a refreshing swim.
Kitesurfing in the Camargue
If you are looking for a truly unique and wild kitesurfing location, Beauduc ticks all the boxes. Located in the heart of the Camargue in the south of France, this spot is always on, all year, and every wind direction! There are beaches suitable for every rider from beginner to advanced. Mistral Kite Passion in Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône can sort you out with lessons and gear.
Mountain Biking in the Massif de Sainte-Victoire
Located between the Vallée de la Durance to the north and the Vallée de l’Arc to the south, Le Grand Site Sainte-Victoire covers 34,000 hectares east of Aix-en-Provence. You can pick up way-marked mountain bike loops from Saint-Marc-Jaumegarde and Vauvenargues. With 12 circuits covering more than 150 km, there’s plenty of riding for all levels, but there’s an abundance of technical rocky descents and fast singletrack.
Paragliding in the Massif de la Sainte Baume
In the heart of the Massif de la Sainte Baume, fly some of the most beautiful landscapes in Provence. This is Marcel Pagnol and Cézanne country and you can paraglide over the location of the classic French film, Manon des Sources, and get breathtaking views of the Bay of Marseilles and the Sainte-Victoire mountain range. Marseille Parapente in Cuges-les-Pins can organise tandem flights and paragliding lessons.