French Riviera Outdoors

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French Riviera Outdoors
Rainy days are rare on the Riviera, and daily life focuses on the outdoors. From open markets to open-air museums and leisurely strolls to adrenaline-filled sports, there is always an opportunity to be outside soaking in the sunlight.
By Sylvia Sabes, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Norbert Scanella/age fotostock
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    Breathtaking Views
    Towering above Toulon, téléphérique cable cars to Mont Faron provide thrilling views of the craggy hills below and the azure sea beyond. It's a long, winding road to the Pic de l’Ours in the Massif de l’Esterel, but the breathtaking views are worth the trek. Likewise, the diverse views from the Casterino horse trails. Stretch your legs with a two-hour hike to equally stunning views from the nearby Pic du Cap-Roux. The Madone d’Utelle has been a popular pilgrimage site since 850, rewarding true believers and the truly curious with an incroyable view of the southern Alps.
    Photo by Norbert Scanella/age fotostock
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    Picture-Perfect Historic Towns
    Exploring the picture-perfect towns of the Riviera is a rewarding adventure full of unexpected discoveries. A surprising mural in Grasse stops visitors in their tracks, while the ruins of a fortified castle in Grimaud encourage an impromptu detour. Medieval Mougins and its gurgling fountains are surrounded by the gardens of sprawling estates. Built at the end of the 10th century, the Château de Roquebrune-Cap-Martin is the only Carolinian castle left in France, boasting 1,000-year-old olive trees and a street carved into the mountainside. For a more urban experience, the patina-coated pink and orange pastel buildings of Old Nice frame a vibrant market that blends the sounds of excited merchants with the fragrance of their wares.
    Photo by Tommaso di Girolamo/age fotostock
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    Gardens of Eden
    The entire Riviera is an exuberant garden; mimosas bloom in January and are gradually replaced by violets, lavender, and eventually jasmine, filling the air with seductive fragrance until October. This was no doubt the inspiration for the seven stunning gardens that surround the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Not far from the extraordinary Serre de la Madone, the 19th-century Citronneraie orchard features an exceptional collection of citrus trees and tropical plants, making Menton a popular destination for horticultural enthusiasts. The botanical collection at the Villa Thuret in Antibes is so good that it has become a national center for agricultural research, attracting botanists and gardeners from across the globe.
    Photo by Geoffrey Peter Kidd/age fotostock
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    French Riviera Beaches
    The Riviera is synonymous with beach; as the Alps spill into the sea, nature has created a chain of small beaches divided by rocky cliffs and joined by winding roads. Nice is known across the globe for its pebble beaches, where cushioned deck chairs and parasols are available for rent. Publicity-shy stars stay out of the spotlight at tiny Paloma Beach on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Near Saint-Tropez, the best beaches are in neighboring Ramatuelle, where a long stretch of shore is lined with private clubs hosting anyone willing to pay the entrance fee, while leaving plenty of space for public access. More focused on wildlife, the Plage de l’Almanarre in Hyères is near marshland that attracts flocks of pink flamingos.
    Photo by Sylvia Sabes
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    Private Yachts and Dolphins
    The beach towns along the coast were originally fishing villages with small ports for local flotillas, but today there are facilities for everything from the Cannes-bound private yachts to the large cruise ships that steam into Villefranche-sur-Mer throughout the summer months. In Saint-Tropez, small cruise boats hug the coast, highlighting the private villas of the stars and looking for dolphins along the way. SOS Grand Bleu sails from Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, observing sea mammals and educating visitors on their future. The Visiobulle has a glass hull for a glimpse at local sea life without getting wet. Dive shops along the coast make it easy to get even closer.
    Photo by Colin Sinclair/age fotostock
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    Extreme Adventures
    From Alpine skiing to scuba diving, the Riviera is paradise for thrill seekers in search of the next great adrenaline rush. Paragliders and hang-gliders dot the sky, and catamarans race through choppy waves in every season. Granite mountainsides create the ideal environment for challenging canyoning in the summer and ice climbing in the winter. Spelunkers are drawn to the more than 550 caves in the Dévoluy valley, while rock climbers conquer the Via Ferrata and there are opportunities for kayaking and white-water rafting in the river below. Racing fans get a thrill every May when the Grand Prix takes over the streets of Monte Carlo; true speed demons can take the wheel of a Formula 1 car at the Circuit Paul Ricard in Le Castellet.
    Photo by Uli Wiesmeier/age fotostock
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    Cycling and Hiking
    Lycra-clad cyclists whiz by as they conquer the innumerable hills and valleys along the coast, but there are also cycling trails for visitors happy to take frequent breaks as they seek out baroque architecture and lavender fields or follow Napoleon’s journey. A four-mile cycling route for families begins in the village of Caille, passing an adventure park and the underground Via Souterrata. For hikers, the Sentier des Douaniers' trail runs along the coast, hugging the shore at every cape, while Grande Randonnée trails run through the region, heading to destinations as varied as Amsterdam and Santiago de Compostela. For a serious break, the Train des Merveilles offers spectacular views as it heads from Nice to Tende.
    Photo by Norbert Eisele-Hein/age fotostock
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    En Famille
    The Riviera is an ideal destination for children of all ages. Alpha in Saint-Martin-Vésubie is an animal park that teaches visitors about the local wolves before taking them on a night outing to watch the magnificent canines in action. In Thorenc, there are reserves to save bison and Przewalski’s horses, while llamas roam the Col de Turini. Looking toward the sea, the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco plays an important role in preserving the world’s coral reefs, and there are several snorkeling “hikes” like the sentier marinat at Domaine du Rayol or the guided trips at Antibes. Many museums welcome young visitors—family-friendly activities and a lot of outdoor space facilitate a relaxing excursion for everyone.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Côte d'Azur Islands
    There are several islands worth a visit along the Riviera. Fifteen minutes from Cannes, Cistercian monks welcome visitors to the Abbey des Lérins on Île Saint-Honorat, selling wine and running a gourmet restaurant, La Tonnelle, to support their community. Neighboring Île Sainte-Marguerite, where migratory birds flock to the marshes, has miles of hiking trails running through Aleppo pine forest. Facing Hyères, Île de Porquerolles claims some of the most beautiful shoreline in the region, with crystal blue water lapping at pristine sand beaches. Many Parisians spend their summers here, enjoying the hiking trails, gardens, and Port Cros National Park, and savoring the quiet pace of village life and the excellent local wines.
    Photo courtesy of Jerome Kelagopian/Palais des Festivals
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    Snow Sports on the French Riviera
    Skiing the Alps is not limited to central France. The Riviera is where the legendary mountains fall into the Mediterranean, allowing for adventure on the slopes with the somewhat incongruous view of the sea in the distance. The first skiers arrived on the coast in 1889, clearing the way for a full range of winter sports; ice-skating, snowboarding, snowshoeing, ice climbing, and dog sledding can be enjoyed at more than 10 ski resorts, some of which offer igloos as exotic lodging. Isola 2000 is the trendy place to head; Valberg caters to families; and Auron prides itself on more than 80 miles of challenging downhill runs. Enjoy the day, knowing that dinner on the the pebble beaches of Nice is just a few hours down the winding mountain road.
    Photo by Valery Trillaud/age fotostock