Slow down in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, south-west France

7 slow and sustainable things to do in France’s biggest region

Put the brakes on the fast life and return to nature in -        Nouvelle-Aquitaine, south-west France. With 17,400 square kilometres to explore by bike, foot or horse, here are the adventures that await...

Head into the mountains

Hit the hiking trails

Discover coastal adventures

Go birdwatching

Enjoy cycling

Make a splash

Relax in nature

1. Reach for the peaks in the Pyrenees

The French Pyrénées begin in the far south of Nouvelle-Aquitaine and link France to Spain. The land rises in the western hills of Labourd, making perfect hiking conditions. La Rhune mountain is only 905 metres high, so makes for a good leg-testing climb. Alternatively, catch the train up which is an experience in itself. The unique cogwheel train is almost 100 years old, and will wind you between forest and ravine giving you panoramic views. 

Beyond Basque country, follow the Boulevard des Pyrénées to Pau, in the heart of the former sovereign Principality of Béarn and enjoy a wonderful view of all the 2,000-metre summits, including the mesmeric Pic du Midi d'Ossau, whose distinctive pinnacle overlooks the valley. The Ossau Valley extends from Pau to Col du Pourtalet on the Spanish border and is criss-crossed by alpine streams and glacial lakes which you can follow on hiking trails. Look out for Pyrenean birds of prey along the way.

From the Ossau Valley, it's less than a two hour drive south to Gourette near Eaux-Bonnes, a favourite with winter adventurers and home to the 2,613m Pic de Ger. Not only can you ski here but also bathe in the mineral-rich thermal waters. When the snow melts, the area becomes a playground for summer explorers, with hiking, Nordic walking, climbing, canyoning, via Ferratas and more.

Further west, Pic de l’Arraille, at 2147 metres, and the Pic d’Arlas, at 2,044 metres, are demanding ascents, while Pic d’Anie (2,504 metres) is shaped like a pyramid and surrounded by the limestone karst landscape of the Larra-Belagua massif.  While in there area, be sure to climb Pic d’Ansabère at 2,377 metres and paraglide down into the valley.

La Rhune
Pic du Midi d'Ossau

2. Discover endless hiking trails

Pull on those walking boots and head inland to the central area of La Creuse. This exceptional hiking area is bursting with strolls, taking in lakes, waterfalls and towering granite rocks. You'll find a rich tapestry of walks catering for all abilities. For beginners, the Cascades des Jarrauds at Saint-Martin-Château takes just over 30 minutes. Its highlight is a waterfall where experiments took place to produce and transmit electricity to Bourganeuf, the "city of light.” Another gentle stroll can be found over in Thaurion where you can explore the Thaurion gorges on a 1.2 kilometre loop walk. This Natura 2000 site takes you through a leafy forest, past an ancient bridge, and across heather moorland. Along the way, look out for the wildlife that call this neck of the woods home including otters. 

For a more challenging route, try the 23.2 km Tour du lac de Lavaud Gelade in the natural park of Millevaches, a 3.02 square kilometre artificial lake which is surrounded by pleasant greenery and links the towns of Royère-de-Vassivière, Saint-Marc-à-Loubaud and Gentioux-Pigerolles in the Creuse. 

The true adventurer should look no further than the GR de Pays Cascades Landes et Tourbieres. This a 64.5km journey takes you from the medieval city of Bourganeuf to the gates of Lake Vassivière. Beginning and ending at the Place du Champ de Foire, chart a course across Faux-Mazuras, Mansat-la-Courrière, Soubrebost, Saint-Pardoux-Morterolles, Saint-Pierre-Bellevue, Royère-de-Vassivière, Saint- Martin-Château and Saint-Junien-la-Bregère. The trail takes two to four days by foot or half that time by mountain bike or on horseback, and you'll pass moors, peat bogs and waterfalls along the way.

3. Hit the coast

There are 750 kilometres of Atlantic coastline to travel in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, so when the surfs up, grab your board and head to the beach. Some of the world’s best breaks are strewn along the Atlantic coastline. Seignosse on the south coast of the Landes is a surfing mecca where the barrelling waves compare to California. Soorts-Hossegor, further down the silver coast, has six main surf spots and together they host the QUICKPRO and French championships. Lacanau, around an hour from Bordeaux, is a picturesque place to catch a wave, where the Medoc Sea meets lakes and forests. Biarritz, on the Bay of Biscay, was once home to Napoleon but today is more famous for its ripples.

But you don't need to brave the waves to enjoy the beaches here. Nouvelle-Aquitaine is blessed with long stretches of golden sand, perfect for laying out a towel and relaxing on.

In Basque Country, find a spot all to yourself on the three kilometre Hendaye, the longest beach in the region. While at the nearby small port of Guéthary, Centiz beach is only accessible by foot and is scattered with small natural pools to splash about in at low tide. 

Around a two-and-a-half-hour drive up the coast takes you to Carcans Plage where almost sugar-white sands await. 

From here, drive another two hours to Royan, an historic seaside town which has been enticing bathers since the 19th century. Nearby is the more well-known La Rochelle where you can walk along the charming seafront and admire the historic architecture. 

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4. Go birdwatching

Due to its lush forests and high cliffs, Nouvelle-Aquitaine is a magnet for birds. Twitchers flock to the Gironde Estuary for the spring migration. Here you’ll find kites, ospreys, harriers, honey buzzards, peregrines, storks, spoonbills, hoopoes and golden orioles.

Also on the Gironde Estuary, Jau-Dignac, in the Medoc, is home to bee-eaters, hoopoes and yellow hammers, while the nearby North Medoc marshes and hedges offer refuge for skylarks, nightingales, bluethroats and shrikes, while white storks and heron species feed on amphibians here.

Further south, the Marais du Conseiller Nature Reserve at le Verdon is surrounded by marshland that is a mecca for black-winged stilts, lapwings and waders, as well as all three harrier species.

Further south again, the Île de Ré has more than 200 species of birds including white stilts, little egrets and grey herons.  Spot some of them on a guided tour at the Lilleau des Niges Nature Reserve.

5. Pedal Power

France is renowned for its cycle tourism and Nouvelle-Aquitaine has 4,200 kilometres of bikeways to explore. Forming a cycle artery from north to south is the Scandibérique, a 1,700km route which links Trondheim in Norway with Santiago de Compostela in Spain and runs through Nouvelle-Aquitaine. Veer off to the Flow Vélo at Ile d’Aix by the Atlantic ocean and you’ll reach Thiviers in Dordogne. This is a scenic route along the Charente River via Rochefort, Saintes, Cognac, Angoulême and Nontron. The Flow Vélo links to another epic European route, La Vélodyssée, that begins in the south of England and ends at the Basque Coast on the Atlantic.

Another epic bike ride is the Vélo Francette, a 628-kilometre bikeway that connects Normandy to Nouvelle Aquitaine’s La Rochelle, via the towpaths around the Canal de Marans.

For more canal routes, explore some 160 kilometres of trails which knit together the Lot-et-Garonne’s lush orchards and vineyards while admiring the wealth of authentic villages along the river. This is an opportunity for the entire family to cover 86 kilometres of flat ground, beginning at Aiguillon where the Garonne unites with the Lot. Along the way, unearth ancient villages including the fortified town of Villeneuve-sur-Lot, the medieval village of Pujols, one of the ‘most beautiful villages in France’ and Le Château de Bonaguil. The towpaths along the Canal des Deux-Mers link the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, stretching across the country from the Gironde estuary to Sète, near Montpellier. You can pedal along for almost 800 kilometres beside the Canal de Garonne and the Canal du Midi.

Those after an uphill challenge will find one in the Pyrénées mountains. La Route des Cols des Pyrénées allows you to cross the entire Pyrénées, from west to east, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, joining Hendaye on the Basque coast to the Col d’Aubisque in Béarn. Unravel Basque villages, the Musketeers, the Béarn mountains and the valleys in the Aubisque and the Soulor, savouring the panoramic views.

For a gentler ride, head to the forests of Landes. The flat terrain between the trees here is laced with paths that were once railway tracks such as the Lo Camin de Hè greenway on the old Landes railway line which takes you from the village of Vielle-Saint-Girons to Taller.

6. Make a splash

The Dordogne Valley is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve of outstanding beauty, characterised by the Dordogne River, which gives life to this green and fertile land. The river stretches over 500 kilometres from the Massif central to the Atlantic Ocean near Bordeaux. Kayak down it, admiring the quaint stone houses, manors and renaissance buildings then moor up on wild pebble beaches for a picnic. As you meander down the valley, look up to the limestone cliffs that hug the riverbank. Climb up the hills to survey the 1001 fortresses of Périgord. The river Dordogne crosses the Vézère River at the black Périgord and Limeuil charting a course through villages such as Montignac, Les Eyzies and Le Bugue.

7. Relax in nature

Following active pursuits, you can enjoy food and drink in the regional capital of Bordeaux while being surrounded by nature. Dubbed the most famous winemaking region in the world due to the antiquity and quality of its vines, (Caesar called it the ‘land of waters’) some of the greatest wine producers on the planet can be found here. Chateau Lafite-Rothschild from Pauillac is on the left bank in Medoc, while on the right you’ll find Chateau Pétrus in Pomerol owned by the Moueix family.

Saint-Emilion is Bordeaux’s oldest wine area, where the Romans planted the first vines. This region became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. In the vineyards, encounter tours and tastings, take bike rides, enjoy a hot-air balloon flight or a have a romantic picnic. Ensure you pay a visit to Chateau Ausone, named after the Latin poet Ausonius and the oldest wine château in the Bordeaux region, privately owned by the Vauthier family.

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Get there

With nine international airports in Nouvelle-Aquitaine and with direct flights from all across the UK, it is easy and quick to fly into the region. Alternatively, make use of the high-speed rail. Trains from Paris take you to Poitiers-Futuroscope in 75 minutes, Bordeaux in two hours, La Rochelle in two-and-a-half hours, and Biarritz-Pays Basque in four hours. Or why not cross the Channel by boarding a ferry with your car to drive to Nouvelle-Aquitaine?

Once you are there you can get around quite easily by train, bus, tram and in the more rural areas, explore using your own two feet, a bicycle, kayak or horse.

What are you waiting for?

Start planning your dream visit to France's biggest region now by visiting the official website.