The Camargue is best explored by bike, horse, or jeep, or on the water in a boat, canoe, or paddle steamer. A camarguais horse can take you into the interior, through waters and marshlands to places where the black bulls graze and wild birds nest. You'll find two to three dozen stables (depending on the time of year) along the highway from Arles to Stes-Maries. The rides are so easy that they're recommended even for those who have never been on a horse before. Cabanes de Cacharel (tel. 04-90-97-84-10; www.camargueacheval.com) offers excursions for all levels as well as rides on a horse-drawn carriage.
Bicycle hire is easy to arrange, either through Vélo Saintois in rue de la Républic (tel. 04-90-74-56) or Le Vélociste in place Mireille (tel. 04-90-83-26).
Bird-watchers must visit the bird sanctuary at Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau (tel. 04-90-97-82-62; www.parcornithologique.com), where they can wander the nature trails through 60 hectares (148 acres) of natural marshes to spy on pink flamingoes and many other species of beautiful fauna. It's open daily 9am to sunset; admission is 7€ for adults and 4€ for children aged 4 to 10.
Les Gardiens of the Camargue
The waterlogged flatlands encompassing the Grand and Petit Rhône were scorned by conventional farmers throughout the centuries because of their high salt content and root-rotting murk. However, the area was considered a fit grazing ground for the local black-pelted longhorn cattle, so a breed of cowboys evolved on these surreal flatlands. These French cowboys, known as les gardiens, take care of the cattle that survive amid the flamingos, ticks, hawks, snakes, and mosquitoes of the hot, salty wetlands.
The tradition of les gardiens originated in the 1600s, when local monasteries began to disintegrate and large tracts of cheap land were bought by private owners. Wearing their traditional garb of leather pants and wide-rimmed black hats, the gardiens present a fascinating picture as they ride through the marshlands on their sturdy horses. Once the gardiens lived in distinctive, single-story cabanes with thatched roofs and without windows; bulls' horns were positioned above the entrance to drive away evil spirits.
An ally in the business of tending cattle is the strong, heavy-tailed Camargue horse, probably a descendant of Arabian stallions brought here by Moorish invaders after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Brown or black at birth, these horses develop a white coat, usually after their fourth year. Traditionally, they were left to fend for themselves during the stifling summers and bone-chilling winters without sheltered stables.
Today, in the world of modern tourism, the gardiens have become living symbols of an antique tradition that hasn't changed much -- the cattle still run semiwild, identified by the brand of their manadier, or owner. Although there are fewer gardiens now than in the past, there are some ranches that allow you to visit and watch them at work. They include Manade des Baumelles (tel. 04-90-97-84-37; www.manade-des-baumelles.com) and Manade Saint-Antoine (tel. 06-10-66-02-12; www.manadesaintantoine.com); both of these ranches allow visitors to spend time exploring the Camargue with the gardiens, as well as offering lunches and dinners.
One of the prettiest ways to get a feel for the Camargue is by hopping aboard a boat tour. Longtime local operator Croisières en Camargue, 14 rue Théaulon, Aigues-Mortes (www.croisieres-camargue.com; [tel] 06-03-91-44-63) chugs along the Camargue’s canals, passing gardians in action, local bulls, nesting flamingos, and salt marshes en route. There are plenty of itineraries too: Prices for adults range from 9€ for a 90-minute tour to 45€ for a full day out. Le Pescalune, 12 rue Théaulon, Aigues-Mortes (www.pescalune-aiguesmortes.com; [tel] 04-66-53-79-47) offers watery tours that span the whole of the Camargue.
Always imagined yourself in the Wild West? French-speakers may try their hand at herding horses or bulls along with local gardians at one of the Camargue’s manades, or traditional ranches. Manade Clauzel, Mas du Ménage, Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer (www.manadeclauzel.com; [tel] 06-12-13-77-06) offers both full days out and shorter private visits from 25€ per person.
And for a superb medley of Camargue-flavored tours—from food and wine to horseback-riding and bird-spotting—local boy Sébastien Lopez leads off-the-beaten-track tours of his homeland through I Am Not a Tourist (www.iamnotatourist.fr; [tel] 06-25-42-78-22; tour itineraries and prices on request).
Note that many of the outfits listed here operate between April and October, closing up entirely from November through March. Be sure get in touch before you travel in order to ensure tour times.
Especially for Kids
Le Seaquarium, avenue du Palais de la Mer Rive Gauche, Le Grau-du-Roi (www.seaquarium.fr; [tel] 04-66-51-57-57) is a giant marine world, where kids can peek at 25 different species of shark, plus seals and sea lions, as well as smaller creatures like turtles and sea horses. It’s open daily July and August 9:30am to 11:30pm; April to June and September 9:30am to 7:30pm; and October to March from 9:30am to 7:30pm. Admission is 13.50€ for adults, 12€ for students, 10€ for children aged 5 to 15, and free for children 4 and under. Family tickets (two adults and two children) cost 41.50€.
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.