Explore Nouvelle-Aquitaine's great outdoors

If you’re searching for peace, tranquillity and unforgettable adventures, look no further than Nouvelle-Aquitaine. France’s largest region is one giant natural playground and a mecca for those who love the great outdoors. This sunny southwest corner of the country is home to over 720km of sandy coastline, dense forests that shelter a rich variety of wildlife, ancient peat bogs, freshwater lakes, craggy mountain peaks, wild estuaries and so much more. So, grab your bike, lace up your walking shoes, wax your surfboard and get ready to enjoy the myriad natural wonders of Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

Go wild in its nature parks

There are five enchanting natural regional parks within the Nouvelle-Aquitaine borders, home to forests and vineyards, marshlands and wooded valleys, granite hills and lush green valleys.

Millevaches en Limousin

The city of Limoges might be best known for its luminous fine white porcelain but it’s also the gateway to some of the most diverse wilderness in the region. A stone’s throw from the city is the gateway to the Millevaches Natural Park in Limousin, named for the countless rivers, lakes and springs - Millevaches means 'a thousand springs' and is derived from the Celtic name 'Thousand Vacuas'.

It’s a remarkable wonderland of traditional moorland, dense coniferous forests, verdant meadows, and peat bogs. Of these, the Longeyroux Peat Bog takes top billing; its unique ecosystems provide safe haven for flora and fauna as well as otters, pearl mussels and migratory birds including Wryneck, Eurasian Nightjar and European Honey-buzzard. The biggest lake in the park is the manmade Vassivière Lake where you can fish, canoe, paddleboard, wakeboard or simply choose to work on your breaststroke.

Médoc

Bordered to the east by the Gironde Estuary and to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, the Médoc Regional Natural Park has a little bit of everything. From vineyards producing the area’s eponymous red wine and swathes of pine forests to ancient marshes, freshwater lakes and excellent surfing. Its trump card, however, is the Gironde Estuary, the largest estuary in Europe stretching between Bordeaux and the Cordouan Lighthouse. Explore the tidal waters by boat, or follow a section of the GR8 walking trail along fine sandy beaches. On the eastern side a hiking path runs past dozens of colourful carrelet, fishing huts on stilts unique to this region.

Périgord-Limousin

Lying east of Limoges, the Périgord-Limousin Regional Natural Park is an exceptional and varied landscape home to some curious natural phenomena. Tucked away among the woodlands, waterways and oak and chestnut forests is the Roc Branlant, an enormous block of granite three metres long. Located in the town of Saint-Estèphe this gigantic rock forms part of the Chapelé du Diable, a boulder strewn valley known as the Devil’s Rosary. Rochechouart is home to a lunar-like landscape caused by a meteorite strike 200 million years ago and, in Villars, a deep cave hides beautiful stalactites and stalagmites alongside ancient cave paintings dating back some 19,000 years.

Landes de Gascogne

South of Bordeaux lies one of the greatest expanses of forest in Western Europe, a distinctive terrain that combines maritime pines, marshland and freshwater lakes beside the Atlantic Ocean. Discover the park along one of its many walking trails such as the Saint-Symphorien circuit or explore by bike along the Mios-Bazas path. Swap pedals for paddles and head to Lake of Lamothe, where you can hire canoes, paddle boards or pedal boats. Look out for otters and terrapins in the river Leyre, stags and roe deer in the woods, and any of the 300,000 migratory birds that take refuge in the wetlands every year.

Marais Poitevin

Tucked in behind the French Atlantic coast is the magical bird-filled marshland of Marais Poitevin, one of the largest wetland landscapes in France. Often referred to as ‘Green Venice’ owing to its canals and multiple shades of green, water is at the heart of this nature reserve. A patchwork of pastures are divided by canals, fringed with ash trees, willows and poplars and, in summer months, carpeted with light green duckweed. Transport along the waterways is by simple punt and has been since the Middle Ages. These days, however, you can also cycle or hike your way around the remarkable landscape.

By the coast

There are 124km of beaches in the Médoc Atlantique making it a dream destination for a beach holiday and, when the surf’s up, the perfect place to catch some waves. Strong Atlantic swells bring barrelling waves to challenge even the gnarliest of surfers and Lacanau beach, one of the best surfing spots in France, is a good place for pros. Grommets are well catered for too with 50 surf schools to choose from.

If fresh water is more your thing, then head inland to the Hourtin-Carcans Lake, one of the biggest lakes in France. It’s ideal for windsurfing, sailing, kite surfing, water skiing, canoeing and nearly any other water sport you can think of. Just south of Hourtin-Carcans is Lake Lacanau, one of the Great Lakes of the Landes, a series of waterways connected by sparkling lagoons and canals. Lacanau is famous for its walking trails that weave their way along the lakeside amid Napoleonic pine forests and high wooded dunes. The long swathe of coast nearby is a fantastic spot to try sand yachting.

You can’t visit the Médoc Atlantique without exploring the Gironde estuary, the largest estuary in Europe. Formed from the meeting of the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, it is rich in cultural, historical and natural sights. Sail along the waterway and watch life on the banks pass by; the fishing huts on stilts, Vauban’s citadel in Blaye, characterful lighthouses, and slumbering fishing villages.

Lace up for a hike

Nouvelle-Aquitaine offers thousands of marked hiking trails along the wild coastline, across the rolling hills, up craggy peaks, and through the endless green countryside. So, pull on your boots, strap on your backpack and get ready to discover the region on two feet.

Head inland to the National Forest of Campagne which combines a variety of walking trails with some fascinating highlights including the prehistoric Neanderthal site, the Roc de Marsal. The two waymarked trails, the 2.5km South Forest Loop and 5.5km Polissoir Loop are moderately challenging with beautiful views of the Vézère valley and the elegant 18th century moated Château de Campagne.

For a more challenging trail, try the 17km-long Le Toit du Limousin that delves deep into the heart of the Limousin Mountains through moors and meadows, forests and rivers, and thousand-year-old peat bogs. The pinch-me moment is the ascent to Mount Bessou and the panoramic views over the Cantal and Auvergne mountains. Other must-sees include the elegant arched Farges viaduct that was completed in 1882 and the 2,000-year-old Gallo-Roman ruins of Les Cars.

Serious hikers should look no further than the GR4 (Grande Radonnee 4), a 1,500km trail that connects Royan on the Atlantic coast to Grasse in Provence. The Charente section measures a more moderate 123.6km starting in the towering forests of maritime pines in the Landes de Gascogne before traversing the vineyards of Cognac and onwards towards the Saintes, passing dozens of perfectly preserved villages along the way.

Head out on a cycle

France has an enviable network of cycling routes and Nouvelle-Aquitaine is possibly one of the best regions to explore on two wheels whether you’re after a Tour de France-inspired climb among the mountain passes of the Pyrenees or prefer something a little more leisurely on the flat cycle paths by the coast.

Among the most famous cycle routes is La Vélodyssée, the longest bikeway through France that crosses Brittany and runs along the Atlantic coastline to the Basque Coast. Nearly 650km of the route runs parallel to the region’s magnificent coastline weaving around colourful seaside towns and past chalk-white beaches, giant sand dunes, towering pine trees, and rocky peaks. Seventy percent of the route is on voies vertes, car-free paths dedicated to cyclists.

For a more cultural bike adventure, pedal along the ‘Flow Vélo’, a 290km trip that meanders through Charente country. Starting in Thiviers, the route winds its way across picturesque landscapes, and through charming traditional towns and tidy villages with painted wooden shutters. Stop and enjoy the local specialities along the way, whether that’s comic books in Angoulême, a stiff drink in Cognac or a slice of galette Charentaise in Rochefort.

The Canal des Deux-Mers is another popular route. This 800km-long path links the two seas of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean running alongside the Canal de Garonne in Nouvelle-Aquitaine and then onto the Canal du Midi in Southern France. But you don’t have to cycle it all, this is a route best enjoyed in stages.

Go slow in its lush gardens

Nouvelle-Aquitaine boasts wild, woolly natural landscapes by the dozen but it's also home to some carefully curated and beautifully designed parks and gardens for you to get lost in.

Jardin Férolle

In the ancient fortified town of Parthenay lie the Gardens of Férolle, medieval gardens that look as though they’ve been providing respite for weary travellers for centuries. In reality, however, these gardens are less than 20 years old, the result of a local initiative to transform what was an abandoned site into a peaceful refuge reflective of the town’s history. The result is a meticulously planted garden inspired by designs from the Middle Ages. There’s a central water fountain from which flows a kitchen garden, a flower meadow, a herb garden, and an orchard planted with pear, apple and quince trees.

Jardin de Riparfonds

The Gardens of Riparfonds came to life when, in 1996, owners Pascal and Dominique Paineau discovered documents showing that hundreds of years ago a garden had existed on this very spot. With a love of history and some nimble green fingers, the duo set about creating a Renaissance-inspired garden. Today the grounds feature popular 16th century trends including a separate garden for pleasure and a garden for fruit and vegetables. Other design features include vases planted with artichokes, boxwoods neatly trimmed into balls, pyramids and cones, and galleries covered with creeping vines. The only downside? The gardens are open by appointment only.

Jardin de Cistus

Located in the Valley of Argenton, near the small village of Argentonnay, are the award-winning Gardens of Cistus created by keen gardener Dominique Ethioux. Ehtioux had been inspired by Princess Sturdza, the Romanian royal responsible for what are widely considered to be the most beautiful gardens in Europe, Le Jardin de Vasterival on the Normandy coast. Inspired by her methods and those of other horticulturalists, Ethioux transformed one hectare of plain prairie land into a truly exceptional garden, selecting plants for their shapes, their colours and their scent. Today the grounds are overflowing with flowering shrubs and bushy cistus flowers among conifers, holm oaks and stunning magnolia trees.

The many gardens of Périgord

The gardens of Périgord are some of the region’s most spellbinding, masterpieces of topiary art, exotic plants and thematic design. At the gardens of Eyrignac, widely considered to be the fairest in the land, perfect sculpted boxwood trees, vast ‘green carpets’ and enormous arabesques surround a 17th century manoir. For more impressive horticulture, the Marqueyssac Gardens not only have perfectly pruned boxwoods of every size imaginable, but also deliver fine panoramas of the Dordogne valley from its position on a rocky spur.

Overlooking a confluence of the Vézère and the Dordogne rivers, the Panoramic Gardens in Limeuil hide numerous gardens including a medieval garden, a witch’s garden and a space dedicated to tinctorial plants. Not to be outdone, the Jardins de l'Imaginaire (Gardens of the Imagination), boast an impressive 13 themed gardens all designed around man’s relationship with nature.

Feeling inspired?

For more information, head to the official Nouvelle-Aquitaine Tourism website.