The Ardèche occupies the eastern flank of the Massif Central, a landscape of jagged, much-eroded granite-and-limestone highlands. Although it defines itself as Le Midi -- its southern border lies less than 40km (25 miles) from Avignon and 48km (30 miles) from Nîmes -- its culture and landscape are more rooted in the rugged uplands of France's central highlands.
Through its territory flow the streams and rivers that drain the snow and rain of the Massif Central. They include rivers such as the Ligne, Fontolière, Lignon, Tanargue, and, most important, Ardèche. They flow beside, around, and through rocky ravines, feudal ruins, and stone-sided villages perched in high-altitude sites originally chosen for ease of defense in medieval times.
The most famous and visited section of the Ardèche is its southern extremity, with granite-sided ravines 300m (984 ft.) deep, gouged by millions of springtime floodings of the Ardèche River -- no wonder it's called the Grand Canyon of France. This area draws thousands of tourists, often with their children, who take driving tours along the highways flanking the ravines.
We recommend that you stop in the southern Ardèche to admire the gorges only briefly. It's better to spend the night in the less touristy northern reaches. The northern Ardèche, in the 45km (28 miles) of hills and valleys separating the hamlets of Vals-les-Bains and Lamastre, is a soft and civilized wilderness, with landscapes devoted to grape growing, shepherding, and hill trekking. One writer described Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, the gateway to the gorges, as a Gallic version of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. For your overnight stop, we suggest you continue north to the more picturesque towns of Vals-les-Bains or Lamastre.
If you want to kayak in the gorges, go between early April and late November, when the waters are green and sluggish and safer than they are during the winter and spring floods. In Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, you'll find at least three dozen rental agencies for everything from plastic kayaks to horses. One of the best, Aventure Canoës, place du Marché (B.P. 27), Vallon-Pont-d'Arc 07150 (tel. 04-75-37-18-14; www.aventure-canoes.fr), rents canoes and kayaks. A 3-hour mini-descente costs around 14€ per person for use of a canoe or kayak. The ride will take you along a 6.5km (4-mile) route from Vallon-Pont-d'Arc to the downstream hamlet of Chames. A full-day grande descente along the 31km (19-mile) downstream route from Vallon-Pont-d'Arc to St-Martin d'Ardèche costs around 24€ per person. A 2-day trip by canoe or kayak costs 38€ to 48€ per person, depending on the season and the equipment you choose. Prices include transport by minivan back to Vallon-Pont-d'Arc at the end of the ride. Lunch is not included, so bring your own. Picnic fixings are available at dozens of bakeries and delicatessens near each point of origin.
Despite the appeal of kayaking, most travelers stick with driving along the upper summits of the gorges.