France’s fabled Riviera is a wondrous place – the time-honoured playground of the rich and famous – but summertime’s crush can turn it into a hellhole. Those in the know veer westwards and head towards the Spanish frontier. Here, deep in Languedoc, lies the Hérault départment, a relaxing environment that offers rolling countryside dotted with vineyards, along with uncrowded beaches and a generally laid-back ambience.
It’s here that, like so many British couples, Richard ‘Rocky’ Simpson-Birks and his wife Barbara have made their home. They have also set up a fascinating business that allows others to share their serendipity.
La Pause Parfaite is a simple but clever concept. Aiming at cash rich, time poor business people seeking a break from the daily grind without all the hassle that can so easily turn a relaxing break into a stress-laden bad experience, Richard and Barbara offer their guests an all-inclusive chauffeur accompanied service. It includes everything from limousine transportation throughout the stay to pre-booked, pre-paid meals in some of the best local restaurants and guided visits to wineries and other attractions.
They can even offer private executive jet flights to Beziers, just 30 kms away, through Jet Booking Direct, while there are scheduled flight options via Nimes, Montpellier, Carcassonne and Perpignan, all within 70 minutes drive, or Toulouse, Marseille or Gerona, which are just over two hours away.
“We take care of all the client’s travel, eating, drinking and relaxation needs within a pre-determined all-inclusive price,” says Barbara.
Accommodation is in a choice of traditional country hotels and private villas. I stayed in the couple’s beautifully restored L’Hermitage property.
Bordeaux and Burgundy are better known, but Languedoc has a very real claim to be the wine capital of France – at least in terms of sheer volume of production.
It’s claimed that breezes coming in off the Med imbue the wines of Herault with a subtly distinctive taste.
Particularly favoured by those in the know are the rosés, which are a little more full-bodied than those from other regions. The Côteaux de Languedoc appellation offers some classy reds while unctuously sweet dessert wines are made from the Muscat grape at Frontignan and Lunel, where a major wine tourism centre is due to open by next year.
I visited the 50 hectares of vines at Mas de Daumas Gassac which, along with some superb vintages, also produces luxuriant oils, the finest of which, branded as Huile Paradoxe, combines 55 per cent of extra virgin olive oil with 45 per cent of grape seed oil.
At the atmospheric Domaine Savary de Beauregard, the charmingly personable Christophe Savary de Beauregard – a real live French count – offers not only his exceptional wines but the opportunity to stay as a guest in one of two welcoming gîtes, set among the vines and just five minutes from the local village and half-an-hour from the sea.
Another fine location favoured by La Pause Parfaite is the converted dovecot at Château Capion, which also offers an apartment in the main house. The 50 hectares of vineyard here produce a range of superior reds, whites and rosés.
The Pézenas area is filled with art and history that inspired the noted playwright Molière.
Horse riding beside the beautiful Lac Salagon provides riders of all abilities with a wonderful trek through the garrigue, breathing in the heady aroma of wild lavender, thyme and other herbs. Wind surfing, water skiing, canoeing, kayaking, white water rafting and sailing are all available locally.
There’s also mile on mile of waymarked rambling and mountain bike trails while road cycling is a delight – thanks to very low traffic levels on the region’s pretty byways.
Once you have explored the countryside and are seeking something livelier, head for the seaside resort of Cap d’Agde, renowned for its seafood, as well as its nudist village and beaches for both clothed and naked holidaymakers. Here you can discover the secrets of local cuisine through a cookery class at Gastronomicom. Master chef Iman Bogen conducts lessons in a wonderful flow of intermingled French and English.
Séte, built on a network of canals is also a must-visit. It is situated on the 28 km long Etang de Thau. In the lee of Mont St. Clair, this picturesque 17th Century port was purpose built to serve the wine trade. It’s like Venice, but without the crowds.
The Etang is a salt water lagoon into which runs the famed 240-km long Canal du Midi, a 17th Century engineering miracle and now a recognised World Heritage Site. Some 12,000 workers were involved in the canal’s construction, which was completed n 1681.
Succulent molluscs are grown at the La Grande Bleu oyster farm, just outside the little port of Marseillan. They match well with the locally produced Noilly Prat vermouth and made a glorious prelude to a sailing trip across the lagoon with local character Bernard at the helm.
Turn inland along the Canal du midi towpath and you’ll reach the bustling market town – and rugby football mecca – of Béziers, which is also the terminal town of the useful overnight motorail service from Calais, which enables tourists to bring their cars south without the usual two days or more of tedious autoroute driving.
As well as the canal, water lovers will find the tranquil River Orb, which flows beneath a graceful 10-arch mediaeval bridge in the shadow of the hilltop cathedral to provide the city’s classic panorama.
Béziers has had a turbulent history, having been a centre for the Cathars, whose take on religion flourished in the 12th and 13th Centuries but was regarded as deep heresy to be ruthlessly persecuted into extinction.
Further inland still there’s the amazing staircase of locks at Fonsérannes and the breathtakingly beautiful walled city of Carcassonne.
Founded by the Romans, Balarue-les-Bains is the third biggest spa resort in all France – renowned for its mineral mud treatments. Here they offer relaxation and wellbeing as well as curative programmes.
Why visit Herault?
Sun, sea and sand; yes. But also enticing countryside, flourishing vineyards, great cuisine and a laid-back way of life
By Roger St Pierre. Despite his French name, veteran globetrotting writer Roger St. Pierre is proudly British. He is, though, passionately Francophile and has been to every one of France’s 94 metropolitan departments.