Mont Ventoux: King of the Mountains
The formidable summit of Mont Ventoux can be visible all over the valleys of the Rhône, Durance, and Luberon. Its 1,912m (6,273ft) peak makes it the highest in Provence, and one of the most legendary. Even when the snow finally melts sometime in May, its barren upper reaches give it a ghostly look as it looms over the horizon.
From time to time, the ascent to Mont Ventoux forms one of the most punishing stages of the Tour de France. It was here in 1967 that British cyclist Tommy Simpson died from heart failure on a particularly scorching day. You can see the memorial to Simpson just above the tree line, although you may choose not to believe his supposed last words: "Put me back on the bloody bike." Regardless of the risks, cyclists from all around the world come to Mont Ventoux to tackle its steep, twisting roads. All along the route, friends and families wait by the roadside to get the perfect photograph before driving to the top to greet the exhausted cyclist with cheers and a badly needed drink. It's an exciting sight, even if you're merely an onlooker. It can get quite festive at the top, too, especially when the market stalls selling local produce have been set up.
There's also a restaurant called Le Vendran (tel. 04-90-60-29-25), on the D974 100m (328 ft.) from the summit, that has been serving customers since the 19th century, its staff battling through thick snow for half the year. They can't close during the winter, however, as Mont Ventoux forms part of the Mont Serein ski resort.
To get the full experience of Mont Ventoux, take the D974 that winds through thick forests (carefully passing the cyclists) and hair-raising bends. The drive to the top rewards you with views that reach as far as Mont Blanc in the Alps, as well as the Rhône valley and the Luberon.
The best hotel in the area is the welcoming Hôtel Crillon le Brave, place de l'Eglise, Crillon le Brave (tel. 04-90-65-61-61; fax 04-90-65-62-86; www.crillonlebrave.com). This exquisite Relais & Chateaux hotel is set within a cluster of seven 16th- and 17th-century stone houses in an ancient hilltop hamlet about 40km (25 miles) northeast of Avignon. The property feels utterly peaceful, with its glorious views of vineyards, olive groves, and Mont Ventoux -- you can see these spectacular views from the rooms and the golden stone terraces surrounding the swimming pool. Elegant simplicity is the rule for the rooms, with pale furniture, whitewashed beams, terra-cotta floors, and supremely comfortable mattresses. Superb meals are served under a stone vaulted ceiling in an inviting dining room, with the emphasis on local specialties such as Provençal leg of lamb cooked slowly in the fireplace. Its 32 rooms and suites are air-conditioned, with TVs, minibars, and free Wi-Fi. Doubles cost 250€ to 780€ per night.
The French Riviera
Stretching from Mandelieu-La Napoule near the Var to Menton near the Italian border, the French Riviera coastline -- known as the Côte d'Azur -- is a sunny playground for writers, artists, and sun-kissed aristocrats. Glamour is epitomized in the Belle Époque palaces that lie beside sun-drenched shores, and have lured so many admirers from Coco Chanel to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
You don't have to raise your head from your beach towel to enjoy some of the area's best natural attractions: 300 days of sunshine a year and the bright-blue Mediterranean Sea. When you do leave the sun-drenched beaches, there's much to explore. Michelin-starred restaurants, five-star hotels, theme parks, luxury spas, and private beaches offering watersports galore are the upside of this coastline's overdevelopment. Art lovers can head straight to art museums dedicated to legendary Riviera residents: Chagall and Matisse in Nice, Renoir in Cagnes-sur-Mer, and Picasso in Antibes and Vallauris. Aquariums along the coast offer not-to-be-missed days out, such as Monaco's 100-year old Oceanographic museum and Europe's largest marine park, Marineland. The latest arrivals at Marineland are two polar bears in a 3.5-million€ refrigerated home complete with year-round snow, 24-hour surveillance, and a maternity den.
The Riviera's capital, Nice retains a scruffy earthiness while impressing with its state-of-the-art tramway and its splendid turn-of-the-twentieth-century squares. West of Nice lie the fun-filled and family-friendly resorts of Antibes and Juan-les-Pins, which are renowned for their natural sand beaches, while festival-famed Cannes draws crowds all year around. Resorts east of Nice, such as Villefranche-sur-Mer, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and Beaulieu-sur-Mer are more agreeable, serene, and much more expensive. Monaco is awash with royal romance, glamorous nightlife, and gambling; this tiny principality is smaller than New York's Central Park and London's Hyde Park. And sleepy Menton, on the border with Italy, feels more Italianate than French.
As sun-bathing beauties annex the Riviera's beaches all summer long, locals escape the heat to their country farmhouses and await quieter winter days. Here in the back-country, you'll find medieval hilltop towns and villages such as perfumed Grasse; art-filled St-Paul de Vence; violet-strewn Tourrettes-sur-Loup; gastronomic Mougins; and exotic-planted Eze. Nature reserves abound from Valbonne's La Valmasque park, with its lotus-strewn lake to the undisturbed beauty of the Mercantour National Park, with its gorges, grottes (caves), and mountain goats.
The Western Côte & Inland Var
Stretching from the historic naval town of Toulon to family-friendly Saint-Raphaël, the Western Côte coastline straddles the Mediterranean Sea and encompasses several charming towns. In the center of this coastline is the pastel-painted fishing village of Saint-Tropez. All summer long, the St-Trop peninsula is crowded with A-listers and designer-clad wannabe starlets lounging on superyachts or parading along Ramatuelle's golden beaches. Families head to the middle-class resorts of Sainte-Maxime and Saint-Raphaël with their Blue Flag beaches and reasonably priced accommodations. In this region of opposites, world champions windsurf on the Giens Peninsula as fishermen darn sardine nets in Sanary-sur-Mer. Ancient and modern lie cheek by jowl in Roman Fréjus, where its 1st century A.D. amphitheater now has a 21st-century glass-paneled counterpart designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte.
Behind the glittering coastline lies the little-visited 6,000-sq.-km (2,316-sq.-mile) region of the Var, known for its cut flowers, honey, and chestnuts. When you've had enough of lying on the beach, head inland to mimosa-strewn hilltop villages such as Grimaud and Bormes-Les-Mimosas, or organize a hiking tour along the red volcanic Esterel hills. Further inland, a forested landscape dominates, dotted by time-worn hamlets. The new millennium has brought a creeping sophistication to the sleepy inland Var with Michelin-starred restaurants and luxury hotels. Straddling the border with the Alpes de Haute-Provence is the Verdon Nature Reserve, home to limestone peaks and an Alpine climate; here lies Europe's largest canyon, the staggering emerald-colored Gorges du Verdon. Because the Var is more seasonal and several degrees cooler than the year-round Alpes-Maritimes, many designer boutiques, restaurants, and hotels close from November to March, leaving the locals to hibernate in peace. From January to March, towns all over the Var celebrate the arrival of spring with canary-yellow mimosa flower festivals.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.