A sunny day, a stretch of sand, and no one in sight. For many, finding a serene and uncrowded swimming spot is the ultimate holiday goal and, when you’re driving around the French coastline in peak season, one that often feels frustratingly just out of reach. Perhaps, just around the corner, behind that rocky outcrop ...
Head a little off the tourist track, though, and you might find what you’re looking for. From sand or pebble beaches tucked below limestone cliffs to secluded lagoons and thermal springs, these are the idyllic swimming spots that dreams are made of.
We can’t promise there will be no one else there, but you definitely stand a better chance of blissful solitude – or at least a far more interesting dip – than driving straight to the sandy sprawls of the Côte d’Azur.
You can swim or kayak in Gardon River, which flows underneath Roman aqueduct the Pont du Gard. Pick your way over slippery rocks in the shallows to bathe in the gentle currents and gaze up at the arched, architectural masterpiece, built around 19BC.
The water isn’t warm but, because it’s relatively shallow, it’s comfortable – particularly so during the swelteringly hot summers.
For the best chance of finding a swimming spot to yourself, avoid school holidays and weekends – or kayak a little further downriver where, unseen by crowds flocking to the Pont du Gard, you’ll be able to bathe in peace.
How to get there: This swimming spot is located in Vers-Pont-du-Gard, a medieval village built with ochre limestone, with Nîmes, Uzès and Avignon close by. Marseilles is the most convenient airport, just over an hour’s drive away.
While crowds typically flock to the coast, sometimes there’s simply nothing lovelier than a lake beach, its sand-and-gravel mix the texture of an unbaked crumble topping. There’s no tide to worry about, the water feels fresher and there’s no threat of salt stinging the eyes.
At Lac d’Annecy, with views of the Alps, the waters are warmed by thermal springs so you can bathe comfortably even on chillier days.
Grassy areas and small beaches are tucked around the water’s edges, with Bout du Lac and La Brune among the prettiest. Explore a little, though, and it’s possible to find tiny coves and corners you can swim from.
How to get there: The area around the lakes is dotted with pretty towns, including Annercy, Veyrier-du-Lac and Talloires. Geneva Airport is the closest international hub, around a 45-minute drive.
Long a favourite escape for Marseille locals, this national park is named for the calanques – steep-walled inlets carved into limestone – that form inviting saltwater pools around its coastline.
Some of the coves are easily accessible. To take a dip at Calanque de Morgiou or de Sormiou, just park up and take a short stroll to the water’s edge. To float happily on your back without bumping heads with other pleasure-seekers, though, you might have to put in a little effort and head out to Calanque de Port-Miou. It can only be reached by a challenging half-hour hike or via kayak, but that just means you’ll feel extra-smug when you finally immerse yourself in those teal waters.
How to get there: This natural beauty is between Cassis and Marseille, with the latter the best airport to fly into (about 50 minutes’ drive). Alternatively, fly into Nice and take a road trip along the Côte d'Azur. The drive is only around two hours in total, but you’ll want to stop at the beach towns and perched villages en route.
Glacial Lac d’Ilay is the largest of a chain of small mountain lakes or tarns in the Jura region in eastern France, and it’s pinch-yourself pretty. Shingle and stone beaches lead into limpid waters, edging the deep, inky heart of the water.
Hike through thick alpine forest to reach smaller lakes where, often, there won’t be another soul in sight.
If that wasn’t enough, Cascades du Hérisson—31 waterfalls within walking distance of each other—are just a short drive away, many of which feed refreshing swimming holes.
How to get there: Fly into Geneva or Lausanne, whose airports are around an hour and a half’s drive from Lac d’Ilay. Jura’s market towns, including Arbois and Poligny, make for lovely bases.
With its creamy turquoise hue, Gorges du Verdon looks a little like a landscape artist’s paintbrush water after painting the sky.
It’s actually part of a river that, over millions of years, managed to force its way through limestone to create what is arguably one of Provence’s most beautiful sites. And, in the land of grapevines, olive groves and lavender fields, it has pretty stiff competition.
The result of all that slow sculpting is a river canyon whose waters are flanked by dramatic, pine-forested cliffs. The corniche road around the gorge’s rim makes for a breathtaking drive, but don’t expect to be content just gazing at this beauty from above. Hike down to take a dip or rent a kayak or canoe to paddle around the quieter spots.
For a more remote, yet just as beautiful, enclave, drive out to the Western Pyrenees and Gorges Kakuetta, with ropes and ladders dangling from the cliffs and into the inviting pools below.
How to get there: Nice is the closest international airport; it’s a scenic two-hour drive, passing Cannes and Antibes before heading inland through the parks of Provence. You can’t go far wrong in this area, but some of the nicest areas to stay include Castellane, the Lac de Sainte-Croix and Moustiers-Sainte-Marie.