What the Grand Canyon is to the U.S., the Gorges du Verdon is to France. The best way to experience this natural wonder in Provence's Verdon Natural Regional Park is via road trip. The drive around Verdon Gorge (as it's commonly called) includes mouth-dropping views and gaping crevices that plunge 2,300 feet down toward the slow-moving river. It’s a drive of hairpin bends and pull-offs where you can marvel at the scenes. It's not exactly for the faint-hearted, but adventurous souls would agree it's worth every nail-biting moment.
The Gorges du Verdon is two and a half hours from Nice, and slightly less from Cannes and Antibes. It can be done in a day from these cities, but that day would be extraordinarily long. It's best to avoid the summer months when long lines of vehicles snake around the gorge at a snail's pace. If you do go during peak season, try to arrive early in the morning.
Morning on the Southern Rim
Many begin the drive at Trigance, a little hilltop village dominated by a great castle hotel, the Chateau de Trigance. Book a room here if you're looking for luxurious overnight accommodation close to the gorge. From the village, take D90 south, signposted Gorges du Verdon and Aiguines. When you get to the D71, turn right toward Balcons de la Mescla, and commence the spectacular views. This road was built specifically to put the canyon and the blue river below on show. The rough hillsides change shape and color as you drive; sometimes they're bare and other times they're covered in lush pines. The gorge is 15 miles long with sheer drops, so be prepared.
Bungee jumpers hurtle themselves over the edge at Pont de l’Artuby and rock climbers can be spotted at Cirque de Vaumale, but for a safer thrill, walk onto the overlook for a precipitous view at Falaise des Cavaliers.
Lunch Break in a Countryside Village
The road continues to twist and turn, but the countryside becomes friendlier. You'll come across a delightful chateau, its round towers topped with brightly colored tiles. This is when you know you've reached Aiguines, a good stopping point for a café lunch or picnic in the park near Chateau d'Aiguines.
For another lunch option, take the winding country road to Les Salles-sur-Verdon, an artificial village created when the dam for Lac de Sainte-Croix was built in the early 1970s. Many of the residents came from the former village, which was destroyed to make way for the dam and lake. Les Salles-sur-Verdon is a peaceful place full of vacation homes and charming inns. You can dine on a locally sourced lunch (such as fresh, wood-fired fish with homemade gratin dauphinois) on the little terrace of La Plancha.
Pottery Shopping in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie
If you lunch in Les Salles, then head back on the D957 and follow signs to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. Park on the outskirts of the village; during summer, it's overrun with visitors. Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is a beautiful hilltop village with a stream that runs between two cliffs. Above it hangs a huge star, originally put there by a returning knight from the Crusades.
The village has two claims to fame: its pottery and its Notre-Dame de Beauvoir chapel, which sits above the village, offering great views. The pottery is handmade, hand-painted, and signed by the manufacturer for authenticity. Try Lallier, a shop on the main street, for an authentic selection. The company has been around since 1946 and is still family-owned and -run.
Afternoon on the Northern Rim
From Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, you'll follow the D952 to the northern edge—rive droite—of the canyon. The road is slightly more spacious than the rive gauche—the road that follows the southern rim—but no less scary.
For a real thrill, drive the Route des Cretes, the "road across the crests." Stop first at La Palud-sur-Verdon, then continue down the small road (for hardy drivers only). At times, you could drive straight off into the abyss, down a 2,625-foot drop and into the river below. (The road is closed between November and April each year for this reason.) But the views are extraordinary, and you can stop along the edge if there aren’t too many cars. Two outstanding stops are the Chalet de la Maline, a scenic hotel with stunning views, and the Belvedere du Tilleul overlook. Afterward, you'll emerge triumphantly (if a little shaken) back at La-Palud.
Continue eastward to the Auberge du Point Sublime (open April to October) right on the edge of the gorge. In the same family since 1946, this hotel is a wonderful spot for tasty local cuisine. Finally, you can either go on to Castellane, Digne-les-Bains, and Sisteron or turn south at Pont de Soleils and go to Comps-sur–Artuby and the Var villages around Draguignan. The entire drive takes about two hours, not including stops.