‘What is the beautiful, if not the impossible,’ famously wrote French writer Gustave Flaubert. And when it comes to pinpointing what most captivates our senses, there’s nothing predictable about the unspoilt powdery snow of majestic Alpine peaks or the improbably clear emerald shallows of a deserted Corsican beach. Sometimes beauty is as simple as a shaft of pure winter light illuminating the pastel façade of a village house or the graceful harmony of a grandiose chateau. But whether it’s an unlikely glittering aluminium tower in the Provençal town of Arles or the astonishing panorama of Auvergne’s extinct volcanoes, France’s exceptionally diverse attractions add up to a joyous fête of unimaginable marvels.
PLATEAU DE VALENSOLE, PROVENCE
When it comes to lavender, timing is everything: to experience the full sniff-and-swoon effect of a glorious field of purple stalks, visit in June and July, when the flowers are abuzz with bees. Explore lesser-known spots such as Sault or Forcalquier and keep an eye out for roadside farmers’ stands, which are the real deal for honey and fragrant lavender by-products. Try a stress-busting lavender-oil-based massage at the L’Occitane spa at boutique hotel Le Couvent des Minimes, set in an elegantly restored 17th-century convent.
SAINT-JEAN-CAP-FERRAT, COTE D’AZUR
Wedged between Nice and Monaco, this secluded 2.48-square-kilometre finger of privileged land is much more than a luxurious enclave of security-gated mansions. In this quiet, wind-sheltered village where just about anything will grow, there’s a splendid rocky footpath along the shimmering sea to explore, plus a national museum in the extravagant turn-of-the-century gardens at Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, ablaze with exotic blooms. No wonder the likes of Somerset Maugham, Matisse, Chagall and Cocteau set up house here; for a taste of that timeless splendour, book a sun lounger at the Olympic-sized pool of Le Club Dauphin at the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat Four Seasons.