The 12 best places in south-west France to enjoy the great outdoors

The 12 best places in south-west France to enjoy the great outdoors
A view from the Lac de la Vassivière straddling the Creuse/Haute-Vienne border. Photo: Living Magazine / Roger Moss
Need some space? Want to get away from the crowds? Roger Moss at Living Magazine gives us a rundown of perfect spots in south west France to enjoy the great outdoors.

We’re social creatures, but after a prolonged confinement, and with an open-ended need to avoid big social gatherings, the idea of heading off to enjoy the great outdoors is sounding more attractive than ever before. Fortunately, here in Nouvelle-Aquitaine we don’t need to venture too far to find perfect peace, so here are some of our favourite away-from-it-all spots.

Canoe or kayak on the Dordogne (24)

When visitors are jostling for parking spaces at Périgord’s attractions, both big and small, why not take to the water and see things differently at your own pace? You can hire a canoe or kayak from various locations on the Dordogne (and other rivers around the region). Choose from a short 90min taster or a longer trip lasting up to a full day, paddling gently downstream to a pick-up point for a bus-ride (included) back to where you originally set off. 

Canoeing on the Dordogne. Photo: Magazine Living / Roger Moss

Pointe de l’Aiguillon (85)

Located on the tip of a modest peninsula extending into the Baie de l’Aiguillon below La Tranche-sur-Mer, there’s a satisfying sense of away-from-it-all remoteness among the windswept sand dunes. The nearby reed-beds, tidal mudflats and wetlands at the mouth of the Sèvre Niortaise river make this a halt for countless migrating and nesting birds, so the spot is a protected nature reserve. There’s also a small beach, if you feel like a bracing stroll. 

Vibrac (16)

There are few more relaxing pastimes than gazing idly into the gently flowing currents of one of our rural waterways. They make great walking or cycling companions, and the antics of those messing about on the river can be high on entertainment value, particularly when negotiating locks. Vibrac, between Angoulême and Jarnac, offers just this kind of escape, as the River Charente divides briefly into three courses – and there’s a lock. 

Vibrac, between Angoulême and Jarnac, offers the perfect peaceful escape. Photo: Living Magazine / Roger Moss

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Côte Sauvage (17)

This near endless succession of fine sandy beaches between Ronce-les-Bains and La Palmyre offers lots of opportunities for anyone in search of some plage-style open space (with more beaches almost to Royan). Along the way lie some interesting landscape features, including WWII defences and the incredible Phare de la Coubre lighthouse overlooking the Gironde Estuary. There are lots of cycling opportunities too, including a section of the 1,200km Vélodyssée long-distance route. 

Vallée du Thouet (79)

Here’s a little-known area whose leafy lanes take very little traffic, even in summer. Add the fact that there are few hills but some great unspoilt scenery and you have fantastic cycling country. It’s now part of the Vélo Francette, in fact, which links Caen Ouistreham (14) with La Rochelle (17). A good starting point is historic Parthenay, from which you can ride to Gourgé for a lunch stop, or continue to the chateau town of Thouars (37km). 

A view of the Vallée du Thouet. Photo: Living Magazine / Roger Moss

Lac de la Vassivière (23/87) 

A glance at the map reveals the vast scale of this outdoor playground straddling the Creuse/Haute-Vienne border. With a surface area of 1,000 hectares and shoreline paths extending to around 30km, there’s plenty of potential for walking, cycling, fishing or waterborne activities – or simply finding your own secluded space away from the rest of the world. Here and there you might almost believe you’re in Canada, and there’s lots more landscape to explore on the surrounding Plateau de Millevaches (see separate entry). 

The Plateau de Millevaches in Limousin. Photo: Wiki

Plateau de Millevaches (19, 23 & 87)

Limousin’s vast upland Parc Naturel Régional benefits from green tourism, yet remains sparsely populated – what isn’t forested is mostly pastures and rugged heathland grazed by hardy sheep and cattle. Here and there granite outcrops compete for attention with the outlines of the nearby Monts d’Auvergne, while the Vienne and other rivers spring into life here, adding to the biodiversity and making this a haven for walkers, kayakers and anglers. 

Réserve du Pinail (86)

A real curiosity, some 142 hectares of the landscape below Châtellerault is peppered with thousands of indentations from centuries of granite extraction for circular millstones. Around half are water-filled, and the rich diversity of habitats, flora and fauna makes this a protected national nature reserve. Freely accessible all year, there’s a 2km discovery trail to help you get the most from your visit – or join a guided tour. 

Lacs de Haute-Charente (16)

For a relaxed waterside walk, and perhaps a family picnic, two large man-made lakes between Chabanais and Massignac are worth getting to know. Lac de Lavaud and Lac du Mas Chaban offer canoeing, sailing, windsurfing, angling, etc., but without compromising their natural appeal. That’s something which attracts many bird species, which can best be appreciated at the Observatoire Ornithologique de Foucherie on the shores of Lac de Lavaud. 

The Pointe de l'Aiguillon. Photo: Living Magazine / Roger Moss

Fôret de la Braconne (16)

Get back to nature with a host of flora and fauna for company in the ancient Forêt Domaniale de la Braconne, which covers around 4000 hectares of the Charente landscape between Angoulême and La Rochefoucauld. The kind of forest you always hoped you’d find, around half of the trees are noble, mature oaks, among which are way-marked trails, with interpretation panels giving information about wildlife you might encounter. There are also picnic tables plus a 4km discovery circuit, supported by a  ‘Défi Braconne’ smartphone app. (Find out more – see our dedicated feature in the Oct/Nov 2018 issue of Living.)

Trek with a horse or pony (86)

Robert Louis Stephenson famously travelled through the Cévennes with a donkey, and you can still do something similar nearby with a four-legged friend for company. You’ll find that it’s an enjoyable way to unwind for an afternoon, and if you want more you can do it in style by spending several happy days exploring lanes and tracks through villages, peaceful valleys, rivers, streams and much more in the rural landscapes of Poitou and Limousin. Everything is organised. You’ll be following a carefully pre-prepared itinerary, and can sleep soundly each night under canvas, in a caravan or if you prefer in chambres d’hôtes.

Île Madame at the mouth of the Charente river. Photo: Living Magazine / Roger Moss

Île Madame  (17)

Summertime is a busy period for popular sites on the coast, but come to this diminutive island in the early evening and you should have few people for company. You’ll find it at the mouth of the Charente river, just off Port des Barques, from which it’s accessed via a slender tidal causeway – la Passe aux Bœufs. Beyond it are some surprising features, including a 17th/18th century fort complex, a poignant monument to 254 martyred priests, an organic ‘ferme aquacole’ with a restaurant, an auberge and some contented Scottish black-face sheep, all set within a rocky shoreline dotted with traditional fisherman’s carrelets. 

© Living Magazine 2020

Living Magazine is the leading English-language magazine for the south west of France written by individuals who live here and are passionate about the region, it’s landscape and its culture. Every two months, we produce a 68-page magazine celebrating the area with stunning photos and in-depth features. Read the online copy or better still, subscribe and have the October edition delivered to your door anywhere in the world.

Subscribe to Living Magazine HERE.


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