Marseille -Everyone has a favourite Mediterranean getaway in the south of France.
Jet setters flock to the Hôtel du Cap in Antibes or dock their yachts in Saint-Tropez. Gamblers take a suite in glitzy Monaco, nudists bare it at the "naturist" resort at Cap d'Agde, and the spiritually minded retreat to the peaceful Cistercian Abbey on Saint Honorat Island off Cannes. Nature lovers thrive in the Camargue National Park while sun worshippers gravitate to the endless sandy beaches west of Sete.
But the only true way to find your personal outpost on the Med is to walk the entire coast from Italy to Spain. I began my 600-mile trek, which took me about a month, at Menton near the Italian border. Often called the "Pearl of France, Menton was the hot bed of European aristocracy in the 19th century. It's now the site of ornately landscaped Belle Epoque gardens and a kaleidoscopic array of botanical beauty. If you're a horticulturist, go no further.
I then hiked through the tiny principality of Monaco where there's not only a new prince but also an expanded port. Fans of Disneyland will enjoy this fairy-tale locale with its pristine royal palace, cliff-side aquarium, yacht-filled harbour and serene Japanese garden.
A bit further along is Nice, the fifth largest city in France, which was founded by the Greeks in the fourth century and is a mélange of old world culture and new world energy. But I'm not sure how many people will enjoy the pebbled and rocky beaches along the Promenade des Anglais.
Antibes, where Graham Greene lived and died, is a more laid-back city and I stop for a meal at La Garoupe beach, where Gerald and Sara Murphy used to bring visiting friends like the Fitzgeralds and Hemingways for a dip in the 1920s. I like the walk around the Cap d'Antibes and am surprised to stumble upon a plaque indicating that Jules Verne once lived and wrote here. Anyone with literary aspirations might want to rent a villa in the vicinity.
The population of Cannes, which got its name from the cane reeds or "cannes" that grew in the marshes when the town was founded in the tenth century, is a little too retiring for me. But I enjoy the mix of roadside, seaside and hillside hiking through the nearby red-tinted volcanic rock Esterel hills.
Another good trail for a seaside hiker is the twenty-mile jaunt from St-Tropez to Cavalaire-sur-Mer that features expansive beaches, silent coves, majestic capes, jutting rocks and crashing waves. I dread the summer crowds and congested traffic here, but it's easy to understand why the place has an ardent following.
Oenophiles will savour the vineyards around La Croix Valmer that produce some of the region's tastiest Côtes de Provence wine. They'll also like taking a boat to Bendor Island off Bandol where the "Universal Wines and Spirits Exhibition" displays some 7,000 bottles, decanters and glasses.
The two-day trek from Cassis, which was founded in 500 BC, to Marseille, features a strenuous hike through an expansive massif of limestone "calanques" (the word is derived from the Provencal "cala" for steep slope). Photographers will find this one of the most visually intriguing sites on the Mediterranean.
I meander mindlessly through Marseille where there's a dramatic view of the Chateau d'If where Alexander Dumas set "The Count of Monte Cristo." But although it's an outmoded image, I still find the port a little too much like the "French Connection" for my tastes.
Ornithologists won't want to miss the Camargue, a 328-square mile botanical and zoological nature reserve on the Rhone River delta. I spend hours at a "flamingo observatory" and agree with the Michelin guide that this "the most original and romantic region of Provence and possibly of France."
Beyond canal-filled Sete I encounter the "Nudism Obligatory" beach in Le Cap d'Agde, where the undressed population soars to 40,000 naked souls in July and August. It doesn't take me much time to master doing most things, from standing in line at the post office to dining out, without wearing any clothes.
It certainly might not be everyone's cup of tea. But I feel so comfortable that I decide to spend a few more days investigating the world's largest nudist colony before I complete the 100 miles of flat trekking to the Spanish border.
This article is copyrighted by Joel Stratte-McClure.
Photos copyrighted by Joel Stratte-McClure or Russ Collins, www.beyond.fr.