When it comes to travel, the off-seasons usually suck — Miami is miserable in August, and Paris in the dead of winter has nothing on Paris in springtime. However, I recently discovered a place that's perfect during the shoulder season: the South of France.
My love affair with cold-weather France began last January, when I visited a friend in Aix-en-Provence, a chichi city with stunning architecture and the pipe-cleaner fir trees you’ll recognize from the paintings of its most famous local: Paul Cezanne. It rained on and off, but compared to January in my hometown, New York City, 50 degrees felt warm and drinking café au lait in a café overlooking a busy boulevard felt cozy and right. I hadn’t quite picked up on the magic of the South of France’s winter, but I’d get a few more chances.
I planned a trip to Cassis, a tiny Mediterranean town in the in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, for the first few days of March after the magazines I was working at folded. I called it a solo writing retreat and couldn’t believe the deals I found when I searched for airfare and lodging. I got a round-trip flight for $600 (albeit with annoyingly long layovers) and booked a one-bedroom Airbnb with ocean views for $50 a night. OK, it was too cold to swim in Cassis’ turquoise waters, but it was sunny with temperatures in the 60s (a revelation on my skin after New York’s god-awful winter) and I loved everything about the tourist-free city.
In the morning, I hiked or went for a run in Les Calanques, an unmissable national park with stunning limestone cliffs and sheltered sapphire-colored inlets. In the hours I spent walking there, I rarely encountered another human being. I shopped at the twice-weekly farmers market where friendly locals made sales via pointing and hand gestures. (I don’t speak French.) At night, finding seating at restaurants along the port or up in Cassis’s winding sandstone streets was simple and relaxed. I’ve seen photos of Cassis' downtown in the summertime, with hordes of tourists, and I smile — remembering how easy it was to sidle up to a sun-wrinkled fisherman with a cigar tucked into his cap and order fresh fish on the spot.
In early April, I returned to the South of France, this time to Marseille, France’s second-largest city— a bustling port town with hulking churches, lively squares and ancient forts yoked to crisp, modern buildings. It was still a bit too chilly to wear a dress without tights, but the sun sparkled on the Mediterranean and I soaked it in like a sunflower, sipping rosé al fresco, watching the Marseille-Paris soccer match from a picnic table and even donning a wetsuit to give windsurfing a go.
Far be it for me to bash the South of France in the summertime, when the sunbathers blanket the beaches of Saint-Tropez and the waters around Port Camargue froth with kite-boarders and windsurfers and sailboats. But if you like the idea of cooler nights, a slower pace, lower prices, and the soaring sensation that the South of France is all yours— you might consider traveling in a shoulder or off-season.