We all love those iconic French experiences and activities; wine-tasting, discovering new cheeses, skiing in the Alps, shopping in Paris, relaxing at the coast. But France has other, more unexpected activities on offer, things you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of in connection with France... here are some of our favourites:
This is becoming increasingly popular and available in various different areas of France, but one of the first companies to offer camel rides was DromaSud in Balaruc-le-Vieux (Hérault), founded and run by Cécile Le Meur and her daughter Coralie. “Actually they are dromedaries with one hump,” says Cécile. “We don’t have Bactrian camels (which have two humps) because they are more suited to cold climates. Dromedaries thrive in the heat here, even when the pasture is very poor.”
She and Coralie offer rides and riding lessons, and instruction in looking after dromedaries. They also attend public events like festivals as well as private ones like birthday parties. “People are surprised to discover how tame and gentle our dromedaries are. But that’s what inspired us to work with them. These animals are very calm, kind, affectionate... they take away all your stress.”
Dromedaries used to be classified as exotic animals in France, but are in the process of being reclassified as domesticated animals, which is good news for dromedary-keepers and breeders like Cécile and Coralie.
“They give wool and milk as well as being a method of transport,” says Cécile. “And there is now a French Federation of Dromedary Owners, which I think will increase their popularity.”
She notes that dromedaries thrive where horses cannot, and that with global warming they are likely to become more common rather than less.
Riding a dromedary is a strange experience because unlike horses, their progress is silent, and the hump sways beneath the rider giving a sense of sailing rather than riding across the terrain.
Their long legs set a peaceful pace and being so high up gives you wonderful views. If you have never tried it, perhaps you should put it on your list for 2018.
Explore the jungle
It sounds unlikely but it is true. In Normandy, near the town of Eu, Charles Boulanger has created the ‘Jardin Jungle Karlostachys’, a fabulous, luxuriant jungle using plants brought back from his travels around the globe.
So mixed in with the usual fuchsias and ferns are all sorts of outsize exotic bamboos, bananas, and other plants which have been skillfully adapted to survive the cold northern winters.
You have to book ahead to explore the jungle with Charles as your guide, but the €10 per person price is well worth it, especially for keen botanists and gardeners as Charles is more than happy to share his knowledge and you can also buy plants in the shop on the way out.
Build yourself an igloo
Ski stations started it but now it seems that everyone is doing it. You can learn how to build an igloo, you can spend the night in one, or even a whole weekend.
There are offers for families, for skiers, and for nature lovers. You can snow shoe to an igloo in the mountains serving tartiflette, and either make the return journey by moonlight or stay over until the morning.
Not all igloos are in ski stations, and you don’t need to be on a skiing holiday to get into an igloo. You just need to have warm clothes and an adventurous spirit. Start at www.france-montagnes.com or search for ‘igloo’ and ‘France’ for more offers in the Alps as well as the Pyrenees.
The Alligator Bay reptile park in Normandy is only five minutes from Mont-St-Michel but could be a million miles away. Walk along the wooden bridge over the alligator pool and you could be in Louisiana.
These enormous, scary beasts do not do much, so try to be there at feeding time if you want to see some real tooth action. And while you are there, do not forget to check out the tortoises and other smaller reptiles.
Coral reef diving
Just off the coast of Cassis, just 35 minutes east of Marseille by car, you can go diving in the ‘Grotte au Corail’.
It is ideal for beginners as it is only 10 metres deep and contains a wide variety of red coral, marine plants, sponges and fauna including barracuda.
Various diving schools offer everything from an afternoon snorkelling in the ‘calanques’ (inlets formed between smooth white walls of rock) to a ‘baptême’ with an instructor to a full training course to become a qualified diver.
Even if you do not want to get wet (the water is very cold even in high summer) it is worth taking a boat trip for the views of the coastline.
Panning for gold
‘Orpaillage’ is becoming a popular pastime in France, with multiple websites springing up complete with maps and offers of equipment.
It is a fabulous way to explore the countryside, and fans say that panning for gold is fantastically relaxing, even if you don’t find any. Chercheurdor.net and chercheur-or.com are both crammed with information on panning methods and maps of likely gold seams, and of course they both offer a range of equipment to buy.
On the other hand, you can just use a frisbee. You’re unlikely to become rich, or even find actual nuggets, but apparently there are tiny flakes of gold in many of France’s rivers and these can be collected in a small plastic test tube.
Sleeping with bears
Like many other zoos, Parc Animalier des Pyrénées (half an hour south of Lourdes by car) now offers accommodation; a wooden cabin (sleeping two) adjoining the bear enclosure.
You can have dinner and lounge in the king size bed as you watch the three brown bears through the panoramic windows, giving the impression that you really are in the enclosure with the animals.
If polar bears are more to your taste how about a cabin sleeping up to seven in the ‘Zoo de La Flèche’ in the Pays de la Loire? The trapper’s cabin overlooks the polar bear enclosure but the best thing is that there is an underwater window where you can watch the polar bears swimming.
It is entirely possible to go back to the 13th century and become a medieval labourer at Guédelon Castle. A team of builders, architects and historians has been working for 20 years to build a castle from scratch, using only medieval technology and members of the general public can join in.
You have to be fit and speak reasonable French in order to apply for a placement, but you do not need any special skills as there is work for everyone. You can go for between 4-7 days up to twice a year, but if this is too hardcore, you can join the 300,000 visitors who spend a day at the castle talking to the builders and finding out exactly what they are doing and how.
Look out for our forthcoming, in-depth article about this amazing project.
Go ranching with bison
Think of bison and you will probably conjure up images of the unconquered Wild West inhabited by American cowboys and Indians. But you can get up close with a bison without leaving France.
A visit to the Bison Ranch in Petit-Réderching (in Moselle, Grand-Est) is almost like travelling to another world.
Robin and Gloria Chall have been breeding free-range bison on the ranch since 2007. “The farm has been in our family since 1878, said Robin Chall, but when I took over from my grandfather, it was hard to make a profit from beef.” So in 2008, having met bison breeders on his travels around Europe, he and Gloria decided to give bison a try.
They have since diversified, and now offer accommodation and visitor activities as well as fresh bison meat. In the summer months up to 40 people at a time go out with Robin twice a day on ‘safari’ in his truck to watch the free range bison and get up close to the newborn calves. “The bison are so used to the truck now, that they aren’t at all frightened of it so we can get very close to them,” says Robin.
Visitors can also stay in one of the four comfortable log cabins on the ranch for serious bison-spotting or just some uninterrupted peace and quiet. Or go to the ranch’s Tatanka festival on the first weekend of July with riding demos, dancing and a BBQ.