Each to their own
52 of the 54 French regional natural parks are situated in metropolitan France, the other two in the overseas territories (Martinique and Guiana). Each has their own landscape and atmosphere, but all will surprise you, from the oldest such as Scarpe-Escaut in Hauts-de-France and Armorique in Brittany, to the two most recent: Aubrac and Médoc. Some are large such as the Volcanoes of Auvergne, steep like the Vercors or mysterious like the Brière. Others are smaller, like the Haute Vallée de Chevreuse near Paris, or less well-known, like the Brenne in Centre-Val de Loire. The Ballons des Vosges and that of Lorraine are densely populated; those of Corsica, the Camargue, Queyras in Hautes-Alpes and Guiana are much less so. 30% of the Grands Sites de France and nine of the 14 French biosphere reserves are located in these parks, as are certain UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as the banks of the Loire, the Loire-Anjou-Touraine Park or the Scandola reserve in Corsica. So, which one to choose? It all depends on your passion.
If your passion is... food
What a dilemma! Each of the 54 parks offers you a gourmet welcome because in France, food is a national art de vivre. We admit we have a weakness for the Parc des Causses du Quercy and its neighbour Périgord-Limousin to stock up on foie gras, truffles, nuts and saffron - and of course, little Rocamadour cheeses. In fact, when it comes to cheese, it's hard to decide between the Haut-Jura Park (ah, the Comté!), the Ballons des Vosges and the northern Vosges (the Munster!), the Parc des Grands Causses (the Roquefort!) and the Parc de l'Aubrac for creamy Cantal. Right next door in the Parc des Volcans d´Auvergne, it's all about aligot (cheesy mash) and pounti, a pork, swiss chard and prune terrine.
If your passion is... wine
With wine as a common theme, the Parc du Médoc is a must-visit. Located in Nouvelle Aquitaine, where four regional natural parks are already nestled (Landes de Gascogne, Périgord-Limousin, Marais Poitevin and Millevaches en Limousin), this world-famous vineyard is France's leading wine tourism destination. At the gates of Bordeaux and a stone's throw from the Cité du Vin, it's ideally explored by taking one of the six Bordeaux wine routes. On the south side, you should also allow time for the rocky vineyards of the Parc du Haut-Languedoc. If you prefer to stay further north, head for Champagne and its hillsides in the Parc de la Montagne de Reims. And if it's the Alsace wine route that's got you inspired, the Parc des Ballons des Vosges boasts a series of superb forest trails with panoramic views.
If your passion is... stargazing
France's regional natural parks make the eyes of astronomers - even beginner gazers - shine bright with their vast open skies, far from urban light pollution. The black triangle of Quercy, in the Parc des Causses du Quercy, is one of the most famous sites in France for stargazing. Other nocturnal paradises are the Saint-Véran observatory in the Parc du Queyras and, in the Hautes-Alpes, the Baronnies Provençales observatory in the park of the same name. Also in Provence Verte, the Parc de la Sainte-Baume has you delving deep into the celestial vault. Further north, in Burgundy, the Parc du Morvan is a star, labelled an 'International Starry Sky Reserve'. There couldn't be a better accolade.
If your passion is... wide open spaces
Of course, there's the regional natural park of Camargue in Provence, a paradise for salty trips between the rice fields and the Mediterranean. There's more than one park to impress with breathtaking landscapes, from the Larzac plateau to the Parc des Grands Causses where the Millau Viaduct plays the balancing act, to the marshes of the Parc des Marais du Cotentin et du Bessin in Normandy, and the Parc des Caps et Marais d'Opale in northern France, prized for birdwatching. The Monts d'Ardèche is another vast, wild space. Brittany's Parc d'Armorique opens wide from the Monts d'Arrée to the spectacular Crozon peninsula, with the islands of Iroise, Sein, Molène and Ouessant sitting on the horizon, classified a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
If your passion is... history
As their name suggests, the regional natural parks have us seeing life in green. But in France, history, culture and heritage are never far away. If you're really struggling to choose, how about visiting the chateaux and gardens of the Loire in the Loire-Anjou-Touraine Park? You could also stroll around the Parc des Buckles of the Normandy Seine, beloved by the Impressionist painters, or go back in time on the mining sites of Parc Scarpe-Escaut in northern France, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and close to the magnificent Louvre-Lens museum.
If your passion is... walking
In all France's regional natural parks you can don your hiking boots and take your poles, jump on a bike or hurtle down rivers and waterfalls. For mountain climbing, the beautiful summits of the Alps can be approached from the parks of Chartreuse, Massif des Bauges, Vercors and Azur Préalpes, and the Pyrenees from the Ariège and Catalan parks. For more leisurely strolls, the coastal paths of the Parc du Golfe du Morbihan in Brittany or the hilly paths of neighbouring Normandy's Parc du Perche are delightful, as are the green landscapes of the French Vexin Park, the Parc de la Haute Vallée de Chevreuse and the beautiful forests of Parc du Gâtinais Français, just outside Paris.
If your passion is... cycling
By bike, how about climbing the Monts d'Auvergne in the Parc des Volcans or whizzing down the slopes of the Champagne vineyards to the large peaceful lakes of the Parc de la Forêt d'Orient? Provence is gorgeous from the saddle too, along the little lanes of the Luberon and Alpilles parks, between fields of lavender and olive trees (beat those hills with electric bikes!). But if you want something flat, opt for the pine-fringed cycle paths of the Landes de Gascogne. The beautiful Bassin d'Arcachon isn't far away and birdwatching along the Leyre is a great alternative to pedalling.
If your passion is... boats
To cool off, there's nothing better than a canoe trip down the Dordogne Valley in the Parc des Causses du Quercy, a long snake past elegant chateaux and picturesque villages, or a dive into the Gorges du Verdon. Canyoning is a great activity to try in Corsica's Vizzavona forest. Otherwise, embark on a peaceful, guided boat trip in the Marais Poitevin or Brière parks, close to La Baule and the sandy beaches of the Atlantic.