A French Adventure
There are downsides to being off the beaten track, of course. Few service people speak English well, and a first-time visitor to the region is best served by an attitude of laissez-faire rather than strict itineraries. Since there are few public transportation options, you'll need to feel comfortable driving on the often narrow, winding roads of Ardeche, which can be an adventure in itself. For those interested in the outdoor activities that the area has to offer, there are plenty of outfitting businesses that will gladly help a visitor out. But the bottom line for a visitor to Ardeche is to go there with a sense of adventure and exploration. You will be richly rewarded.
On my final day, I drove into the Domaine de Bournet in the tiny village of Grospierres, where owner Edouard de Bournet recently returned to his family farm after spending decades as a banker in Canada. He and his brother, who runs the neighboring vineyard, decided after living away from the Ardeche for so many years that their hearts really were lodged in this region of chestnut trees, craggy mountains, and flowing rivers. "I kept dreaming of this place," says de Bournet. "I just had to come back." Right about now, months after my trip, I'm thinking the same thing.
To travel efficiently around the Ardeche region, it's almost mandatory to have a rental car—a small one, because the roads are narrow. Take the TGV directly from Charles de Gaulle airport to Valence or Montelimar, and rent a car there. (Make sure you arrange for car rentals ahead of time to save a lot of headaches and money.)
When calling this region of France from the United States, preface all phone numbers with 011-33-4.
To explore the Ardeche at a relaxed pace, I recommend allowing about four to seven days. Near the Gorges of the Ardeche the appealing towns of Les Vans, Vinezac, and Grospierres make fine bases for day trips. Good bets for lodging include Hotel Carmel in Les Vans (75-94-99-60 or fax 75-94-34-29; rates from $55 per night through September), Hotellerie Le Charbonnel in Vinezac (75-36-91-66 or fax 73-36-91-59; rates from $53), and Domaine de Bournet in Grospierres (75-39-08-35 or fax 75-39-06-89; rates from $40).
Adventures described in this article may be booked through Explo (75-39-37-27 or fax 75-39-39-00). This reputable Castlejau-based outfitter offers all manner of guided excursions for groups and individuals, including spelunking, kayaking, canyoneering, and hiking. Rates range from $25 to $50 per day for most activities, slightly less for children.
For general information about visiting the Ardeche, call or write the Rhone Alps Tourist Board, 444 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022, tel: (212) 838-0716, fax (212) 838-7855.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication