Winning tip: Cassis, near Marseilles
Cassis, around an hour’s drive from Marseille, is a tiny port town famous for its salty rosé (not to be confused with blackcurrant liqueur crème de cassis, from Burgundy) and herb-scented whites. We had the delight of a vineyard tour at Clos Saint Magdeleine, where the family greeted us like long-lost friends and took us on a journey through the vines, allowing us to sample their beautiful pale rosés made with grenache and cinsault grapes. The town has a great little beach under a towering cliff, Cap Canaille, one of France’s highest. Taking a boat or hiking three or four kilometres you can visit the many calanques (steep-sided limestone inlets) along the coast, which offer deserted bays for swimming. In May, just before the high season begins, accommodation should be that little bit easier to find.
Alpine meadows, Mercantour national park
Lac d’Allos, in the Mercantour national park. Photograph: Alamy
June is heavenly in the Mercantour, in the Alpes-Maritimes near the Italian border. It is the peak month for wild flowers, which carpet the meadows, where clear streams run down from forested slopes. Against a backdrop of craggy summits, visitors can see animals such as marmots, chamois and mouflon. Hiking and biking routes crisscross the highland meadows and converge on the Lac d’Allos at 2,226 metres, Europe’s largest high-altitude lake. You can bivouac overnight in the park but the outdoorsy town of Barcelonnette makes a great base, with a good range of campsites (€27 for two people with car, tent or caravan at rioclar.fr) and hotels, plus a brilliant market every Wednesday and Saturday.
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Fun on the water, Vendée
The wide, sandy beach at La Tranche sur Mer. Photograph: Alamy
We spend our May half-terms in La Tranche-sur-Mer, a beach resort in the Vendée, an easy drive from the ferry ports. There are miles of sandy beaches, which are deserted in late May and June. They are shielded from the strong Atlantic currents by the Île de Ré, so are ideal for children and for water sports. We’ve hired sea kayaks from WaterFun before, and it’s easy to rent surf boards. There are cycle paths through the town and all along the coast so we cycle everywhere as a family. Fresh mussels and oysters are widely available in the local restaurants and markets. Our favourite places to eat are Michelin-listed Le Pousse Pied for a treat (€35 menu) and steak and pizza specialist La Cabane for a good family meal. And, as it’s a popular resort with the French, there’s also a plentiful supply of self-catering accommodation. We use Vendee Vacations.
Île de Ré cycling
Photograph: Getty Images
Early summer brings briny Atlantic breezes to the Île de Ré to blow away the cobwebs as you cycle from one idyllic, low-slung village to another along tidy cycle paths scented with pine. Plot your route to include some of the simple pleasures this island does so well: rock pooling, pottering down green-shuttered lanes, basking on the sand or investigating the salt pans. Aim to be cycling past Cabanajam oyster shack (Chemin du Chaffaud, Saint Martin) when your belly is empty and the tide is out, so you can watch the tractors squelch out to harvest the oyster-beds while enjoying a dozen direct from the producteur on his rustic, sea-bleached benches.
Hiking in the Vallée de la Loue, Jura mountains
The source of the Loue river in France’s Jura region.Photograph: Alamy
The dramatically beautiful valley of the River Loue lies in the largely tourist-free northern Jura and the lovely riverside town of Ornans is right at its heart. Birthplace of artist Gustave Courbet (1819-77), it is a quiet town (now through traffic is diverted away from the narrow main street) with rustic buildings, some backing directly on to the river, and a museum devoted to the artist. It’s a great base to spend a relaxing few days hiking to splendid waterfalls, caves and canyons (many hidden by lush forest). I spent a happy day in the Gorges de Nouailles exploring the sheer limestone cliffs and caves along the Loue and its short tributary, the Pontet. The next day we hiked the unspoilt Ravin du Puits Noir (Ravine of the Black Well) just outside Ornans, where a print of one of Courbet’s masterpieces has even been installed for comparison with the real thing.
The cinema at Hotel Belvédère, Cerbere.
In the foothills of the Pyrenees the last village before Spain, on the Mediterranean side, has a Jacques Tati atmosphere. People tend to miss this little gem in its sheltered creek overlooked by vineyards producing the well-known (in France) Banyuls natural sweet wine and the excellent Collioure table wines. The village has an amazing art-deco hotel, the Belvédère, with its own cinema. Opened on the eve of the Spanish civil war, it suffered a loss of demand as travel in the region declined. In 2002 it was given protected historic status and has now reopened with rooms (doubles from €95). There’s also the Dorade hotel (doubles from €55 B&B) on the seafront, run by Anne and Yves, who speak excellent English. The town hall runs the Central Hotel (doubles from €59) as well, which is open all year. There’s a good diving club north of the village; offshore is one of France’s few maritime reserves so there are plenty of fish. There’s plenty of walking and mountain biking available and with the train services on both sides of the border it’s easy to do one-way trips in France or Spain. The nearest airports are Girona about 45 minutes south, or Perpignan about an hour to the north. The Spanish village across the border, Port Bou, has a great selection of places to eat and pick up cheap booze.
This southern town could be France’s most underrated and doesn’t seem to have too much tourism. However, Toulouse’s excellent cuisine and pink brick buildings make it a gem for any Francophile. Be sure to try the macarons (pictured) at Au Poussin Bleu and the crêpes at Pastel et Sarrasin, while historians will be fascinated by the Basilica of Saint-Sernin, one of the largest remaining Romanesque buildings in Europe and a Unesco world heritage site.
A 75-minute drive from Nice takes you to Bargemon, a sleepy, medieval Var village with cobbled streets, beautiful views over the valley, a central square complete with restaurants, bakery and butchers … oh and a typewriter museum. Explore the backstreets and enjoy the leisurely pace of life with a crisp glass of the local rosé. Incidentally, Bargemon is where David and Victoria Beckham used to have a chateau.
Lac de Gaube, near Lourdes.Photograph: Alamy
An assortment of tourists and polyglot locals, a sprinkling of merry priests and nuns and the site where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared 18 times: Lourdes is surprising because of its many faces – the devout, the medieval, the kitsch, the mountains, even the modern. It’s breathtakingly beautiful yet run-down in parts. Snow-covered peaks in the distance, the fast-flowing Gave de Pau and ragged rock peeking out from under the houses. A destination for pilgrims and the gateway to the spectacle, nature and outdoor activities of the Pyrenees national park. A profusion of hotels means there are always affordable rooms. I suggest Appart’hôtel La Closeraie (doubles from about €50 B&B), near the station and The Majestic (doubles from about €50 B&B), in the centre. In Boulevard de la Grotte there are many good-value restaurants, notably Café Le Genève. I am the bearer of good news: you don’t need to be religious to love Lourdes.
Beaches of Biarritz
Photograph: Robert Harding
If you can get down to Biarritz in June, you will beat the crowds and have your pick of sandy beaches for surfing, hilltop bars to watch the sunsets and great places to fill yourselves with pintxos and seafood. The weather is usually great in May and June and you are 50 minutes away from San Sebastián if a foray into the culinary capital of Spain tempts you.