France has over 3000km (1880 miles) of coastline, ranging from the rugged English Channel and Atlantic coasts in the north and west to the sunny shores of the French Riviera (Côte d’Azur) along the Mediterranean in the south. All types of watersports are available, although the warm climate of the Mediterranean provides obvious advantages, with swimming in the sea possible practically all year round. Diving and snorkeling are popular in Porquerolles and Corsica. The colder English Channel and Atlantic waters are popular with sailing enthusiasts, and Biarritz is renowned for good surfing. The Côte d’Azur offers the possibility of sailing to Corsica.
France is criss-crossed by some 8500km (5313 miles) of canals and rivers, and houseboats can be rented easily. Popular itineraries include the Lorient–Redon route (along the former route of the Brittany invasions); Marne–Strasbourg (through the vineyards of Champagne to the Alsace-Lorraine canals); the Burgundy Canal (a popular wine route); and Bordeaux–Sète (a 500km/313 mile-journey from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean along the Canal du Midi). Boats can be rented from numerous private operators who can also arrange the necessary permits. Most vessels sleep between two and 12 people. The return journey is usually via the same route; one-way trips are possible but involve extra costs.
Good fishing regions include Brittany (salmon and trout), Franche-Comté (which has many lakes), Languedoc-Roussillon (mountain fishing), and Midi-Pyrénées (famous for the fario trout). Trips with local fishermen are possible along the Atlantic coast. Popular catches include crayfish, lobster, scallops and, at low tide, crabs, shrimps and mussels. Deep-sea-fishing trips are widely available on the Côte d’Azur. Permits for river fishing can be obtained from local city halls.
The French Alps offer excellent skiing with some of the world’s best-known resorts. There are over 480km (300 miles) of ski pistes, over 150 ski lifts, innumerable ski schools and quality resort facilities. All the major resorts offer skiing package holidays. The season runs from early December to the end of April. The height of the season is during February and March, which is reflected in the higher prices. SNCF, in association with the French Association of Resorts and Sports Goods Retailers (AFMASS), organizes skiing holidays. Packages are only marketed in France; contact SNCF on arrival.
There are thousands of miles of carefully marked trails in France. These are known as Sentiers de Grande Randonnée, and are generally marked on maps as well as being recognizable by a red and white logo marked GR. The hiking routes are complemented by an extensive network of gîtes and mountain refuges providing inexpensive but comfortable accommodation. A Guide des Gîtes de France is available from bookshops.
French towns and cities are actively promoting the use of bicycles. There are some 28,000km (17,500 miles) of marked cycling paths throughout the country. Bicycles can be hired from many local tourist offices, and French Railways (SNCF) also offers bicycles for hire at some 30 stations. There is an extensive network of pistes cyclables (cycling paths) along the Atlantic coast, all the way down to the Spanish border.
Although popular and available countrywide, one of France’s favorite destinations for horseriding is the Camargue where even inexperienced riders can gallop along sandy beaches and through the characteristic marshland. Horses can be hired from numerous stables.
There are over 200 golf courses. A number of companies are offering themed golf holidays which combine golfing with other activities as well as sightseeing. Popular destinations include the Loire Valley, Burgundy and the French Alps.
The most popular are rugby and football, which the French follow passionately. Emotions exploded to fever pitch when France won the football World Cup in 1998. The Tour de France cycling race during summer is one of the world’s most prestigious cycling races and a favorite spectator event. The French Open at Roland Garros near Paris is one of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments and attracts all the world’s top players as well as drawing huge crowds. Another notable event on the French sports calendar is the 24-hour motor race at Le Mans. The highlight of the horse racing calendar is the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe held on the first Sunday in October each year. It takes place in Longchamp close to the Bois de Boulogne.
Traditional boules (also called pétanque), requiring as much dexterity as social skill, is frequently played in public squares. Visitors wishing to join in may find it easier if they speak French.
Tailor-made tours to France’s numerous wine-producing regions and domaines (estates) are widely available. There are 10 principal wine regions, each with its own identity based on grape varieties and terroir (soil). Highlights on the wine calendar include the annual appearance of Beaujolais Nouveau (released fresh from the cellars on the third Thursday of November); the Vendanges (grape harvest) festivals in Burgundy during autumn; and champagne tasting in Champagne (with many producers in Rheims and Epernay offering free samples). The wines’ origins and quality are guaranteed by strict appellation contrôlée laws. In various regions, the most famous wine routes (routes du vin), as well as special sales and auctions, are signposted. Wine tours are frequently combined with cheese tasting. Like the wines, France’s 365 cheeses vary according to region and climate. For further information, see Dining in the Social Profile section. An illustrated map with details of cheeses, wines and regional dishes is available from the French National Tourist Office.
For information and detailed brochures/guides on all the sports and activities listed above, contact the French National Tourist Office (see General Info section) or see online. Further details on regional attractions, cultural sites and major tourist resorts can be found in the Where to Go section.