Denise Barkley finds plenty to see and do in the beautiful Ardèche region of France

I HAD only ever seen photos of Pont d’Arc, the stupendous natural stone arch spanning the River Ardèche and carved out by the tumultuous waters through the annals of time. Nothing prepared me for the real thing, or the awesome splendour of the Ardèche gorges themselves.

In south-central France, the Ardeche is famous for its deep rocky canyons - the ultimate thrill for canoeists who tackle the 20-mile descent of the river with the added challenge of 25 sets of pretty hairy rapids.

Those who prefer to keep their feet firmly on the ground can complete much the same route on foot, by bike or in a car. Whichever you choose, the Ardeche gorges are impressive. Limestone cliffs, 300 metres high, line the river - and you will find yourself stopping at every viewpoint to admire the stupendous panorama and click away with the camera. It is simply gorge-ous, if you’ll excuse the pun!

When my children were young our summer break was spent at a holiday village or, as we generically termed it ‘campsite’, on the west coast of France. We never did actually camp – not my scene at all - but instead stayed in very nice mobile homes. The pace was relaxed, the sun shone, the beaches were golden, the kids were entertained, the French food and vino hit the spot, and we have nothing but happy memories. So why not revisit, I surmised, now we are middle-aged and the kids are long gone . . .and let’s see a region of France we’ve never been to before.

So last September myself, husband Steve and our friends Dave and Liz set off for a three-night break in the Ardeche. We wanted to immerse ourselves in the history, enjoy the scenery and indulge in the local cuisine and wine.

It was an excellent decision. Out of season the holiday sites become a haven for the more mature holidaymaker with all-mod-cons luxury accommodation, fabulous pools, restaurants and spas, and are peacefully devoid of children – apart from a few pre-school infants. Choose a four- or five-star holiday village, such as those run by the renowned French company Sunelia Vacances, and get set for a fantastic holiday.

We flew from Bristol to Marseille, where we picked up our hire car and hit the road for the two-hour drive to our chosen holiday village, the five-star Sunelia Aluna Vacances at Ruoms, at the gateway to the Ardeche gorges.

This year, Aluna Vacances is open from early April to the beginning of November, so early or late season is the time to bag the best lodges, the best rates, and make the most of the peace and quiet.

In low season a two-bed lodge, sleeping four people, costs just £322 per week, making it great value (this rises to £749 per week high season). But there’s nothing budget about the chalets or the holiday village. As it was so quiet the lovely people at Aluna Vacances spoiled us with not one, but two, lodges at the lower edge of the site overlooking the countryside – so each couple got their own space, a definite bonus. It was, however, a steep climb up to the restaurant and pool, something to consider for anyone with mobility issues.

Unfortunately the weather wasn’t warm enough for us to make use of the verandahs and sun-loungers, but the cosy chalets had everything – comfy beds and two bathrooms, so if two couples are sharing there’s no queuing for the shower and loo. Take note though, French holiday chalets do not have ovens. We found this out the hard way when we wanted to cook a pizza – we had to ‘fry’ it and then microwave it. In fact, it turned out okay, but it would have been much easier to order a pizza from the on-site takeaway!

There is a fantastic swimming pools complex at Aluna Vacances including a heated indoor spa pool complete with whirlpool, bubble beds and rapids.

The restaurant was excellent – warm croissants, freshly-baked baguette and preserves for breakfast, and an evening menu which celebrated the specialities of the region. The little cheese and herb-stuffed ‘ravioles’ were my favourite. We received great service throughout from the friendly staff.

After a hard day’s sightseeing, Liz and I treated ourselves to facials at the on-site spa, emerging relaxed and looking ten years’ younger – we wished!

But it was the Ardeche itself that captured our hearts and minds. It’s like the land that time forgot where quiet roads wind between vineyards and fragrant lavender fields, sheltered by oak and chestnut trees. The ancient villages cling to the slopes or nestle in the bottom of the valley, pretty as a picture. It’s a pleasure to nothing more strenuous than sit in a pavement café with a glass of wine and watch the world go by.

In the Ardeche, Pont d’Arc is undoubtedly the star of the show, arching grandly over the river. It’s a breathtaking and very popular sight – you will not be on your own!

We included a visit to the nearby town of Vallon-Pont d’Arc, just a few miles from the river arch, and were delighted to discover it was market day. There’s nothing nicer than wandering around a French market and the stalls here were selling all manner of local delicacies – vegetables and herbs, chestnuts, nougat, saucissons, cheeses and, of course, wine.

The number one tourist attraction in this beautiful region is the Pont’ d’Arc Cavern. Some 36,000 years ago in the depths of a cave, the first-ever artists created a masterpiece: horses, lions and rhinos running, hunting and fighting. There are more than 1,000 images.

The original decorated cave of Pont d’Arc, sealed off by a rock fall for 20,000 years, was rediscovered by three amateur cavers in 1994. It’s a designated World Heritage site, and will never be open to the public, so a replica cave was opened in 2015 and it’s really impressive.

We entered the cavern with an English-speaking guide and stood in the midst of stalagmites and stalactites before being led through to see the drawings. It’s a sophisticated, atmospheric, high-tech re-creation, but it’s all done very well and the concluding lion panel, where more than 90 animals emerge as moving forms, is entirely memorable.

There are 19 listed villages in the Ardeche and our favourite was Labeaume, which is one of those places that is so evocatively beautiful that it’s a bit unreal. Its quaint streets and honey-hued cottages with their flower-strewn balconies are in total harmony with the surrounding wild hillsides and the river.

Here we ate at the Le Bistrot de Pays Le Bec Figue, dining on local specialities – a rustic beef casserole and a sharing platter of veggie dishes. But it was the pudding I loved – a mouthwatering combo of meringue and chestnut puree. The Ardeche produces half of all France’s chestnuts and they feature prominently on menus in a variety of sweet and savoury guises.

You are, of course, in one of France’s major wine-producing regions and this is celebrated at Neovinum, the brainchild of the local wine-growers co-operative, where you can learn all about the wines and taste some too. It’s definitely worth a visit.

I loved the Ardeche and it has everything for a relaxing break – go early or late season, get a good deal, and avoid the madding crowds. As I say, it’s simply gorge-ous!

Denise Barkley was a guest of Sunêlia Vacances ( offering 31 4- and 5-star holiday villages in prime coastal, mountain and countryside locations across France. She stayed at Sunêlia Aluna Vacances, Ruoms, ( which is open between April 8 and November 5, 2017. The Sunêlia Privilege Card costs £30 and, valid for two seasons, offers benefits, discounts and loyalty points that count towards free accommodation at all Sunêlia villages across France