France’s Best-kept Secrets: Part Three

France’s Best-kept Secrets: Part Three

Our most knowledgeable writers reveal their most treasured finds in France

South East France


Europe’s greatest chasm, the Gorges du Verdon, can be seen from the moon, yet the Hôtel du Grand Canyon (83630 Aiguines, is among my favourite hidden gems. The spectacular views draw lunchtime crowds, but on your private hotel terrace overhanging the void – sky above and below – you don’t notice them. The sunset colours are sensational and sometimes clouds float beneath your feet. La France profonde doesn’t come much deeper. Gorge-side doubles with terrace €140 half-board. RK


From the Parc National des Calanques near Marseille, the view is dominated by an island; a fairy-tale castle of white spires and sculpted cliffs, of white-sand beach and glass-clear sea. Although Île de Riou is clearly visible, it is a secret because very few visitors venture to or around the island. Less than 3km long and peaking at 191m, it is one of the most arid places in France and home to many migratory bird species. The only way to get there is by boat, and the best way is by sea kayak… to float at the ankles of this ethereal rock, is to experience the calanques beyond the crowds. Raskas Kayak runs guided tours ( JA


On an olive-tree-covered slope opposite the village of Trans-en-Provence in the Var is a 12-metre-high stone construction that looks like a giant beehive. It was built in 1931 to produce drinking water via condensation and was a prototype for a system to be used in African countries. The puits aérien (air well) never worked properly, but this extraordinary structure on the Montée de l’Hermitage still survives. JB


Architect and urban planner Le Corbusier is famous for his huge communal housing developments, but much less well-known is his beach hut on the coastal path at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in the Alpes-Maritimes département. Le Petit Cabanon is half-hidden in the trees and visitors have to book a guided visit at the tourist office ( ‘Mon château’, as Le Corbusier called it, represents the culmination of his interior design ideas, all in one log cabin. JB


The Riviera is full of star attractions, but one of the most intimate and important for French culture is the birthplace of Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935), the ‘king of chefs and the chef of kings.’ The house in Villeneuve-Loubet in Alpes-Maritimes is now a museum ( and contains a selection of chefs’ equipment, pans and menus from the era when Escoffier showed off his skills at the grandest hotels on both sides of the Channel. JB


The medieval art frescoes of the Tinée Valley in the Parc National du Mercantour are among the most closely guarded secrets in the Alps. Finding them is a quest in itself since the chapels that house them may be covered in snow for four months of the year. Keys then have to be sought from locals, who are rarely visible, and once inside the chapels, there may be curtains to draw and torches to shine. Once discovered, however, the colours, saints, monsters and artwork leave you mesmerised. A booklet about their whereabouts, Sur les chemins des chapelles peintes, is available from the Cercle Bréa in Nice (tel: (Fr) 4 93 27 27 01). JB


Far from the tourist attractions of Languedoc-Roussillon is the restaurant Ô Bontemps (Place de l’Église, 34480 Magalas,, the culinary gem of the Hérault département. The young chef, Olivier Bontemps, and his wife Emmanuelle produce creative dishes served on long, wooden planks which emerge from the kitchen to cheers of delight. Diners may never have experienced many of the secret ingredients from this intriguing kitchen. Menus from €40. JB


The hotel and restaurant Le Mas des Collines is lost in ancient olive groves and can be difficult to find. Be warned, it is even harder to leave (Chemin des Collines, 83690 Tourtour, www.lemasdes Le village dans le ciel attracts myriad tourists, but as you sit by the lavender-hemmed pool and look over the Massif des Maures, you have Provence to yourself. In the charming old farmhouse, with its seven classically simple Provençal-style bedrooms, owner Laurence Josis treats you like one of the family. The five-course dinners packed with local ingredients reflect her background as a top chef. Doubles from €75, demi-pension €80 per person. RK


The Massif des Bauges ( is so secret, I lived a croissant-throw away for ten years and didn’t know it existed. It is a high plateau between fortress cliffs in a triangle between Annecy, Chambéry and Albertville. Villages retain a traditional way of life, with artisans producing delectables such as cheese, chocolate and bread. The mountains, forests and plateau are now a Geopark, which can be explored on foot, horseback, bicycle, skis or dog sled. I base myself at Auberge des Clarines in the Savoie village of Le Châtelard ( with renovated bedrooms above the best restaurant in the Bauges. JA


At the hotel-restaurant Chamois d’Or, hidden deep in the Alpes-Maritimes, you have truly reached road’s end. Next comes Italy – but for that you’ll need strong boots. The three-star Alpine-style hotel (Hameau de Casterino, 06430 Tende, the River Roya that gushes from the Parc National du Mercantour. You can walk or brave dizzying 4×4 trips to the Vallée des Merveilles’ mysterious prehistoric rock engravings. Angelo, the hotel’s ebullient owner, serves French/Italian gourmet dishes in mountain-appetite portions. Log fires roar – at 1,500 metres, even summer evenings get chilly. My perfect all-year mountain retreat. Doubles from €85. RK


Wedged between Hautes-Alpes and Alpes-de-Haute Provence lies Lac de Serre-Ponçon, a vast body of blue water created by damming a rogue river. It is loved by the French and virtually unknown to everyone else. The lake, near Gap, is one of France’s largest areas dedicated to leisure pursuits: watersports, cycling, hiking, flying, skiing and climbing all take place on and around the lake. Villages such as Savines, Embrun and Chorges provide quirkly places to sleep, eat and relax, and you can rent electric bikes ( JA


If you truly want to get away from it all, then how about staying in a mountain refuge accessible only on foot, skis or by snow vehicle? At an altitude of 2,000 metres, the Refuge du Col de Sarenne (, near the Alpine resort of L’Alpe d’Huez, offers an escape from the crowds in an unforgettable setting with panoramic views. Host Fabrice André uses eco-friendly methods and grows much of the food on offer to guests. Getting there might take some planning, but it’s worth the trek. Full board from €87. RS



In the village of Feliceto, in the Balagne mountains overlooking the sea, the Hôtel Mare e Monti is both a splendid boutique hotel and something of a museum. Built in 1870, it was originally a manor house and many of the rooms have been maintained as they were in days gone by. There is a charming little chapel at ground level, while another floor is given over to the Napoléon III salon, complete with tapestries, antique furniture and objets d’arts. The 16 hotel rooms are decorated in simple yet elegant style and the pool-side restaurant is a delight. Book through CB


The location of the tiny village of Girolata (main picture), in the Unesco-listed Réserve Naturelle de Scandola on Corsica’s rocky west coast, is both its main attraction and its drawback, because those wishing to paddle in its shallow waters will need to hike three hours there and back. There is no road to the village, so the hike starts at the car park on the D81 before the Osani junction (if coming from Ajaccio). Anyone with a little less dedication can board a boat tour from Ajaccio or Porto, which will give you a short visit to the village. Book accommodation through or boat trips through CB

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