787km (489 miles) S of Paris; 48km (30 miles) NW of Béziers; 63km (39 miles) SW of Lodève; 35km (22 miles) SE of Montpellier

Sète, the deepest port in the Mediterranean, is in the process of change. Once cheerfully scruffy, with its focus firmly on the fishing industry, it has been busy expanding, regenerating, and generally smartening itself up. Its sea soul is still there, but it's acquired a new gloss. Sète was built on a limestone rock on the slopes of Mont Saint-Clair, with a 25km-long (16-mile) spit of sand connecting it westward to Cap d'Agde and eastward to the mainland via bridges. It's a city of canals lined with mainly 19th-century pastel-colored buildings. Inevitably it gets compared to Venice, but so does anywhere with a canal or two. Sète doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: a bustling, thriving fishing port with some of the best seafood in France.

Sète is on the southwestern edge of the Etang de Thau, an enormous lagoon that is the breeding ground for countless beds of mussels, oysters, and whelks. These end up on the plates of Sète's quayside restaurants, as well as in the villages on the northern side of the étang, namely Bouzigues, Mèze, and Marseillan.

The road from Sète to Cap d'Agde used to be one of the best drives along France's Mediterranean coast, with nothing but 18km (11 miles) of practically empty beach and the vivid blue of the sea. Unfortunately, because of coastal erosion, the road has been moved inland to offer some protection to the coast. Now the road is punctuated by a series of parking lots in front of each individual beach, separated by a windbreaker of tall grasses. Some of the magic has gone, but the beaches are still wide, windswept, and nearly empty -- it's a far cry from the huddled bodies wedged along the crowded sands of the Côte d'Azur.