South of France: Raise the bar in the Var

Kathryn Tomasetti finds adventure in this secret corner of France

The Var region in the south of France rubs elbows with some pretty dynamic neighbours. The Côte d'Azur emanates a come-hither magnetism from the east, while edgy big-city Marseille sparkles to the west. But with the exception of the town of St-Tropez, this low-key département remains understated, under-visited and frequently underestimated.

The Var revels in its relative anonymity. Intrepid visitors will find its mountains untouched, its white sandy beaches pristine. A sprinkle of tropical islands float off its Mediterranean shores. The vast Gorges du Verdon canyon and emerald Lac de Sainte Croix – both centres of adventure tourism – sketch its northern border. For fresh air, blue-flag beaches and adventure activities by the dozen, the Var is perfectly poised to surprise.

Up in the air

The Var's landscape runs from coastal vineyards to snowy peaks and tumultuous rapids. For a view from above, try paragliding school Parapente Lachens (00 33 4 94 84 55 70; parapente-lachens.com), where first-timers can stretch their wings with tandem baptism flights, from €55 per person.

Alternatively, daredevils can dabble in discovery days consisting of a two-hour lesson plus tandem flight for €80 per person, or the committed can take intensive paragliding courses from €370 per person, after which you can swoop over the countryside alone.

The Gorges du Verdon is Europe's largest canyon, carved deep into the earth over millions of years by the river Verdon. Check out its rugged beauty from one of Gap-Tallard's hot-air balloons (00 33 4 92 54 32 10; gap-tallard.com). Sunrise flights bob over this natural wonder, hovering 1,000m above the ground. A 90-120 minute flight costs €375.

On terra firma

The Var is criss-crossed by scores of hiking and biking routes. Better still, the terrain's extreme diversity ensures a backdrop almost unmatched in France. On the eastern edge of the region, the Estérel mountain range is tucked up along the Mediterranean coast near St-Raphaël, home to more than 100km of cycling routes and 40km of hiking trails. The rugged peaks, which reach up to 600m, poke up between sheer crimson cliffs and isolated beachside coves. Both Agay (00 33 4 94 82 01 85; agay.fr) and St-Raphaël (00 33 4 94 19 52 52; saint-raphael.com) tourist offices can direct you to well-marked walks and cycle paths along the hills and shores. Each office also sells a detailed hiking map of the area (€8.50) published by the Office National des Forêts.

A sentier du littoral, or coastal walking path, winds almost all the way along the Var's southern coast. The prettiest stretches skirt the deserted beaches of the St-Tropez peninsula between Plage de Gigaro and Plage Pampelonne: some are great for snorkelling and sandy-bottomed swimming, while others attract naturists year-round.

Degrees of difficulty along the trek vary enormously: you'll scramble up some stony sections, while other parts are smooth and flat. Download a map of this hike, as well as walking instructions (in French) and details of other inland treks nearby, from golfe-saint-tropez-information.com.

Hardy cyclists should pedal directly to the breathtaking Piste des Crêtes, a loopy, vertiginous ribbon of a road that spans the 20km between the foodie village of Bormes-les-Mimosas and the Col du Canadel peak. The sport's great names are still painted on the Tarmac from previous Tour de France races.

Under the waves

Two hundred kilometres of sun-kissed coastline unfurl along the Var's Mediterranean shores. Beaches here range from shallow, child-friendly bays to secret lagoons accessible only via a heart-racing hike. Compared with the coastline of the Côte d'Azur further east, they're near deserted outside July and August.

For an afternoon of making sand castles and splashing around with the little ones, hop aboard the Petit Train des Plages (various journeys from €4-8, under-threes travel for free). This motorised train follows a section of the disused railway route between Toulon and St-Raphaël, stopping at 10 easy-access beaches east of Le Lavandou, which is a fine old resort in its own right.

Below sea level, the Mediterranean's depths are a colourful paradise: expect to spot urchins, sea anemones and schools of bream, as well as the odd octopus.

Join other divers at botanical gardens Domaine du Rayol (00 33 4 98 04 44 00; domainedurayol.org) where summertime guided snorkelling sessions (from €18 per person) are launched from their private beach. Or go it alone: both Plage de la Palud, on the island of Port Cros, France's smallest national park, and Bormes-les-Mimosas' Plage de l'Argentière boast sentiers de découverte sous-marin. These underwater discovery trails careen through turquoise waters, as snorkelers follow a pathway of buoys posted with information about indigenous sea life.

Want to dip down even further?

The scuba specialist Porquerolles Plongée (00 33 4 98 04 62 22; porquerolles-plongee.com) explores wrecks and reefs around the gorgeous Îles d'Or islands (from €45 per person). Further west, Bandol Plongée (00 33 6 07 45 27 81; bandol-plongee.com) organises dives at sites along nearby calanques: fjord-like inlets blessed with mineral-rich turquoise waters (also €45 per person).

Skimming the surface

Lapped by beautiful Mediterranean bays to the south, the Var is also creased by rivers and flecked with serene lakes further north. All are ideal for exploring by canoe or kayak. Rent one from Base du Rocher (00 33 6 61 41 75 74; basedurocher.fr) and float down the river L'Argens to the seaside (from €16 for a half day's hire).

Along the Estérel's seashore, Base Nautique d'Agay (00 33 4 94 82 71 42; ville-saintraphael.fr) also hires out canoes and kayaks (from €12 per hour): hop aboard and scope out your own stretch of sand.

Or try paddling the circumference of petite Ile de Bendor, just off the coast of Bandol, with Provence Canoe (00 33 4 94 29 52 48; provence-canoe.fr), which costs from €16 per half day.

White water

Speed freak? Adrenalin junkie? Yes, the Var caters to you too. Hit Plage de l'Almanarre, just south of Hyères, where world champions Erik Thieme and Pascal Boulanger run the Funboard Center (00 33 4 94 57 95 33; funboardcenter.com). A variation on windsurfing, funboarding lessons start at €30 for 90 minutes; board rentals from €25 per hour.

Down the coast, just southwest of Fréjus, Plage de St-Aygulf is another watersports haven. Kitesurf Evasion (00 33 6 15 14 45 69; kitesurf-evasion.fr) offers two-hour introductory lessons for €90.

Or try canyoning along the tumbling Verdon River. An adventurous day out that appeals to the truly daring, this high-energy activity mixes swimming, rock climbing and abseiling. Local outfit Aboard Rafting (00 33 4 92 83 76 11; aboard-rafting.com) organises outings from €33.

* For more information on the region call 00 33 48 39 50 000 or visit var.fr.

Kathryn Tomasetti is the author of 'South of France with Kids' (published by Footprint in May 2011).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Day In a Page

    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US