Affordable Nature Spotting in the South of France

by  Kayla Becker | May 24, 2017

The South of France is nothing if not diverse, where a short ride from major cities like Marseille and Avignon can get you to everything from sun-drenched beaches to snow-capped mountains, and lavender fields to wetlands. Here’s what to see and when to go to this nature-rich region when you’re on a budget.

Beaches of the Cote d’Azur

The French Riviera might be the playground of the rich and famous, but you can see it on the cheap if you travel smart. Go to Nice, where you can pick upfresh fruits and veggies from the open-air market at Cours Saleya, walk down the oceanside Promenade des Anglais, and pick a spot on the beach and hike up to the top of Colline du Chateau for views of the cerulean water.

When to go: June and July are high season, so hit the beach while it’s still warm in August but when the tourists have cleared out.

Wild Horses and Flamingos in La Camargue

Untamed white horses and bulls run free and flocks of pink flamingos balance in these briny wetland marshes, just a 15-minute drive from Arles. Booking a tour is the stress-free way to cover the most ground (80 euros or $90 USD per person for a day-long bus tour) but you can also rent a car and do it yourself. Make a stop at nearby Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer afterward to see the beach.

When to go: Summers are scorching and April tends to be rainy, so travel here in late spring or fall.

iStock / Lavender field in the Luberon/iStock

Lavender Fields in the Luberon

These rows of fragrant purple flowers are free to visit — you just need to rent a car or book a tour to get there. Try a company like Provence Reservation Tours (their five-hour tour of the Luberon costs 60 euros or about $67 USD). Or, rent a car and head to the town of Sault from Avignon (it's an hour drive) and stop in the beautiful, small town of Simiane la Rotonde on the way.

When to go:
Lavender blooms from the last week of June to the end of August but peaks (along with contrasting yellow sunflowers) in July.

Seaside Cliffs in Cassis

Head to the Calanques National Park in Cassis (from Marseille, it’s just a 35-minute drive or train ride from Gare de Saint-Charles) to see plunging white cliffs backed by Mediterranean water that’s bright, clear, and an unreal shade of turquoise. Once there, you can rent a bike for 23 euros or about $25 USD or take a guided walk from the Marseille tourist office. You can also book a two-hour mini cruise from Marseille and see two calanques (Morgiou and Sormiou) up close for 23 euros (or $25 USD) round-trip per adult.

When to go: Trails close from June to September due to fire risks, so your best bet is to come in October or November's off season (when you’ll also beat the heat).


The Alps in Mercantour National Park

It’s hard to believe that just north of the beach-lined Riviera — under an hour's drive from Nice — lies this snow-capped region of the Alps. Take a hike through the national park’s six lush valleys, ski in the winter months (80 euros or $90 USD), or book a rafting tour in warmer summer months (42 euros or $47 UDS for a half day per person) for a look from the bottom up.

When to go: There’s something to do at all times of year in this park: skiers will find fresh powder in the winter, and hikers will relish fresh mountain air in the cool spring months.

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