Just east of Montpellier, the area around the bustling little town of Lunel offers wonderful rolling countryside that has as yet escaped the attentions of tourist hordes. So it is a prime place to enjoy peace, along with wide-open spaces. Dotted with picturesque villages, it’s great biking country, with a network of cycle paths opened here last summer. These are graded, rather like pistes, into colour-coded routes: green for relatively easy going (perfect for families with young children) while blue, yellow and red trails respectively present increasing challenges.
There are more than 100km of these bike paths, which are well signposted so finding your way around should present few problems. However, should you so wish, an enterprising outfit in Lunel will supply you with a satellite navigation device when you hire a bike there. Cyrpeo in Lunel is part bike shop, part activity tour operator and can kit you out with everything you need – from mountain bike to helmet, child seat, trailer and more. They even have tandems to hire and can deliver bikes to your accommodation if needed.
You’ll soon be able to combine wine tasting with biking in the Lunel area. A state-of-the-art wine centre is currently being constructed at the village of St Christol. Not only has it been painstakingly planned as an environmentally friendly building, but when it opens next year it will also be offering green transport in the form of bikes to rent, and you’ll be able to set out from here on the colour-coded trails.If you prefer to walk, there are plenty of hiking options in the area. The Lunel tourist office has devised seven walking circuits in the region, including a trail that leads you around the wine lands of St-Christol.
Up in the north of the Hérault departement, the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Languedoc is a ruggedly beautiful area of granite peaks and river valleys. It extends over 260,000 hectares and is criss-crossed by footpaths and bike routes.
A particularly pleasant option is to follow the cycle route created from the disused railway running through this region. Known as the Voie Verte, it was an operational train line until the mid 1970s, and it variously passes through some of the most attractive little towns and villages in the area, among them Mons la Trivalle, Olargues and St- Pons-de-Thomières.
Nearby the last of these, there’s a treat in store. Grotte de la Deveze is an extraordinary series of caves celebrated for their speleothems. These needles of calcite and aragonite are so fine they look like spun glass – hence the caves are often referred to as le palais de la fileuse de verre, the palace of the glass spinner. The caves were discovered in 1886 during the construction of the Toulouse-Montpellier railway line – and in the course of time these natural wonders have been made safely accessible to the public.
For seaside contrast, head down to the coast and to Frontignan where a host of activities is on offer, from sailing to waterskiing. The tourist board also organises guided walking tours into the outlying woods and hills, ending each excursion with a venture into the winelands and a glass of local Muscat wine.
To counterbalance the exertions – and to emphasise that sense of wellness – there are some soothing spa options. Balaruc-les- Bains, set on the Thau Lagoon near Frontignan, has a well-earned reputation for the therapeutic cures provided by the two big thermal spa institutes here.
Last summer a new enterprise opened in this small town: Obalia is a chic and extensive day spa with wellness treatments and facilities based around the warm water from Balarucles- Bains’ natural thermal springs. Its central, outdoor features range from a large thermal pool with geyser and hydromassage benches to an onsen, a Japanese-style pool complete with waterfall. Meanwhile, treatments extend from wraps, footbaths and facials to a wide range of soothing massages.
Alternatively, you can take in the thermal resort of Lamalou-les-Bains in the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Languedoc. Here the Thermes de Lamalou spa also opened last year and offers a wide variety of treatments including white-clay baths, as well as hydromassage.
What to do
For walks in the Lunel area, pick up a map from the Lunel Tourist Office, 16 cours Gabriel-Peri, 34402 Lunel (00 33 4 67 71 01 37; ot-paysdelunel.fr)
For walks in the Parc du Haut Languedoc see parc-haut-languedoc.fr
Grotte de la Deveze, Courniou les Grottes (00 33 4 67 97 03 24; tinyurl.com/5rr5y92) From April departures for daily tours are at 2.30pm, 3.30pm and 4.30pm – more frequent in the summer (Sundays only in February, March and October, November); adults €8 – the ticket also covers entry to the caving museum.
For further details on activities in the Frontignan area contact the tourist office, avenue des Etangs, Frontignan (00 33 4 67 18 31 60; tourisme-frontignan.com).
O’Balia, allees des Sources, Balaruc-les-Bains (00 33 4 67 18 52 05; obalia.fr).
Thermes de Lamalou, avenue Georges Clemenceau, Lamalou-les-Bains (00 33 4 67 23 31 49; chainethermale.fr)
Chateau de Pouget, chemin des Brus, Verargues (00 33 4 67 86 08 82; chateau-de-pouget.com). This wonderful country retreat dates from the 12th century – and was much embellished in 1800s. Accommodation is offered in five bedrooms in the oldest part of the property, all exquisitely styled to enhance the antique atmosphere. Doubles from €130 including breakfast.
Nabat le Haut, Courniou, Saint Pons de Thomieres (00 33 4 67 95 35 81; nabathaut.com) Set in a dreamy location in the heart of the Parc du Haut-Languedoc this old stone farmhouse exudes tranquillity. It offers cosy accommodation in four guest rooms costing from €70 per double per night (including breakfast) and a self-catering gite equipped for up to four people and priced from €350 per week.