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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).