Languedoc-Roussillon: Provence’s lively neighbour

by Mike.Martin

The slightly neglected Languedoc-Roussillon region of France offers much for thrill-seekers, with just as much culture, beauty and fantastic wine as Provence

After all that fuss about Provence in the 90s, discovering the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France is a bit like finding out the school babe has a better-looking and far more interesting sister. Located to the west of Provence, the Languedoc curves round the Mediterranean from Nimes to the border of Spain. With long, wide sandy beaches, mountains and rushing rivers, it's the perfect setting for an activity holiday, and the local food and wine is outstanding. Ryanair also serves four destinations within the region - Montpellier, Carcassonne, Nimes and Perpignan - which means it offers good value for money too.
Canoes and caves
In St Bauzille de Putois, you can explore the Herault Valley by canoe with the Aupalya company. You paddle seven kilometres over some rapids that are described as sportifs (which means they're pretty challenging) and are set amid stunning scenery. If you can catch your breath, you can see herons, hawks and some large fish in the river. Then, if you’ve still got some energy, you can go mountain climbing and caving in the Grottes des Demoiselles, opposite the Canoeing Centre. It has the via ferrata system, which literally means "iron road", and is one of the most terrifying – but satisfying – adrenaline rushes you can have.
You attach yourself to iron cables for safety and climb over, through and down the mountain. It includes a very scary descent into a cave, part of which you have to climb along rather than crawl or walk – there’s nothing under your feet but total darkness. Once you emerge, you abseil down the side of the mountain - terrifying the first time, but once you trust your equipment and the wonderful guide, it's actually great fun. You may be scared of heights or claustrophobic but the sense of achievement is worth it.
Relaxing base
Reward yourself with a night at the sublime Mas de Baumes hotel , a converted farm house nearby. A dip in the pool soothes aching muscles, then a sublime dinner on the terrace with the sun setting over the mountains is the perfect end to an exhausting but immensely satisfying day. A bottle of stunning local Rousanne wine and you feel even more grateful to still be alive – if you can pour it into the glass with hands still shaky and bruised from the climb.
Catch the wind
The fishing village of Gruissan, instantly recognisable from the opening scenes of the very French film Betty Blue, is a great spot for windsurfing and land yachting because of the constant breeze. Windsurfing is all about balance rather than fitness or power - a beginner like me spent most of the time in the water. However, a three-day course includes six sessions, and that's the way to crack it. It's all about practice and gaining confidence, although a vague sense of balance is a plus too - something I was embarrassingly short on.
Land yachting is easier to pick up, and the feeling of speed is quite sublime. You sit in what looks like a bathtub with a wheel at the front, two wide wheels at the back and a big sail above, and use the wind to control your speed and to stop - there are no brakes. With your backside inches off the ground, 25mph feels like you're really moving, but cornering is another skill altogether. The long beaches are perfect for gaining both momentum and confidence, You would do well to have a crash, even if there are lots of other bathtubs – sorry, yachts – on the beach.
The village of Leucate is the home of the new sport of sky-flying. It involves sitting in a harness at the end of a bungee rope attached to a kite and using wind power to whizz through the air. It feels as if you're on a fairground ride. A practice session gives you the feel of the kite and its amazing power. It's a real adrenaline rush.
Take to the water
The Aude gorges are another spectacular setting for a spot of white water rafting. Gushing from the Pyrenees and regulated by two dams, the Aude is a beautiful setting for some rafting. Five people propel the boat while a guide steers, and after a brief explanation, you hit the water and off you go through some pretty testing rapids. The river cuts through spectacular limestone cliffs. There's always the danger of falling out, but everyone wears a lifejacket for safety. Elbows get bashed but again it's great fun, and the wetsuits keep out the cold.  Go easy on lunch, as you need a strong stomach for the second half of the rafting, which is more testing than the first. If you’re still dubious, remember that there are plenty of stretches of tame water in between the rapids, so you can catch your breath and even have a look at the gorgeous scenery whizzing by.
La Grande Motte, 10km from Montpellier airport, is a great place to stay if you want to learn to sail or sample lots of other sports. The resort sprang up in the 1970s, which makes the architecture an acquired taste, to say the least. It's Aztec meets IKEA - kitsch would be a fair description. But the facilities are superb. You can play golf at Parcours, football, tennis and rugby at Le Parc des Sports and sail at the marine centre, all for very reasonable prices. Or you can relax on one of the 13 private beaches that are open to the public. On some, you can even enjoy a Thai massage while sipping a drink.
The Languedoc-Roussillon area has been in the shadow of its neighbour Provence for far too long. It offers much better value-for-money accommodation and food, and has a greater variety of scenery, with similarly beautiful Mediterranean weather. For activity holidays, it's hard to beat and it's less than a two-hour flight from London.