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Mercantour is most famous for its paintings and petroglyphs dating back to before the Bronze Age (we’re talking 3300-1200 BC).
This park is a great place to hike and to eat. Every hike and every meal is going to knock your socks off. For us it’s the perfect lifestyle. We love hiking up to mountain refuges (huts), having a fantastic lunch, and then waddling back down the mountain.
You’re going to stay in one of the many charming villages while you’re here. Some of them look as though they sprouted right from the mountainside. You can easily tack some time along the Mediterranean at the beginning or end of this trip if you like. We always do!
The closest international airport is going to be the Nice Côte d’Azur Airport. It’s a good airport (it’s tempting to call it a “nice” airport, but we’re more mature than that right?) that services around 60 different airlines.
In order to avoid snow and still be able to easily access the Refuges, we recommend going between May and September. You can try April and October too, but you might still have snow in April and early flurries may come in October. The only problem with the shoulder seasons in Mercantour is you are going to have more rain.
Of course the summer months are going to be busier but warmer. In late September and into October you might still get good weather but, the Refuges may not be open on the weekdays or closed up for the season.
Average monthly temperature and precipitation:
There are trains, buses and taxis, but really this is a place where you should consider renting a car. It’ll save you lots of time and let you access a lot of places that are challenging and expensive if you want to rely on trains, buses and taxis.
Beware though, driving in Europe means smaller cars so you can’t pack as much luggage. There are also smaller roads, which can make some routes challenging to drive.
We obviously love Mercantour for the hiking. All the Refuges and little towns only add to the experience. The one thing you’re not likely to find in Mercantour would be the kind of accommodation that drips in elegance; you’ll have to go to one of the larger towns along the coast for that.
That being said, that doesn’t mean there isn’t unique, well-equipped, charming, and memorable places to stay in the region.
If you want a unique place to stay look no further than the “Bubble Tents” at Le Cains Campground. These cartoon-igloo shaped tents – you may have seen them in photos – are opaque around the back and bottom and then clear at the front and on the ceiling. You can stargaze while you sleep in a comfortable bed surrounded by the amenities you’d expect in a three star hotel. A night in a Bubble Tent makes for a great story. Le Cains Campground also has cheap campsites, tents to rent, and chalets to rent as well. It’s our most unique but also our most affordable option.
To start the list of great mid-scale hotels in the park we go to La Bolline in between Vallée de la Tinée and Vallée de la Vésubie. The Hotel Valdeblore has a great owner, showers, and breakfast. It’s in a charming and older building but the rooms are newer and a good value.
If you wanted to stay more at the tail of the Park, a little bit southeast of La Bolline is La Bollène Vésubie. In that charming town you’ll find the Hotel Les Chamois. It has the budget ski chalet look, but the rooms are nicer and larger than you’d expect. They do everything right, making this hotel another good value pick. The restaurant at Hotel Les Chamois is superb, down-home French cooking. We love the traveler-comradery-vibe that you get while you stay here. It’s kind of like all the positives of a hostel except it’s clean and you have your own bed and ensuite.
If you head a little bit north, in the Gordolasque valley, you could stay at The Hotel du Grand Capelet. It’s more expensive than the Hotel Les Chamois, but they have some great amenities like a sauna, and they’ll pack you an awesome lunch to take with you on your hikes, so make sure to ask for that.
And finally, we would fools if we didn’t mention the fabulous Refuges. We love to hike up to a refuge and use that as a base for a day or two explorations in the more remote alpine that are too far for a day hike.
Up near the Lac d’Allos, perhaps while you’re on our Lac d’Allos hike, you can stay at the Refuge du Lac d’Allos. It’s not a hotel; it’s a mountain lodge, so keep that in mind. It’s one example of the Refuge experience: dorm sleeping, and amazing food. It’s biggest strength being that it’s right beside a beautiful lake. Waking up and having your coffee on the patio by the lake is amazing.
For another option we would recommend trying the Refuge de la Cayolle. It’s in the same area, and while it doesn’t have the lakeside views it does have hot showers. For a real remote experience, while hiking on our Lac De Vens hike, spend a night at the Refuge Talarico. In the summer there is a nearby Holiday House that can provide some catering, but for the most part, when you rent the Refuge you stay there on your own. It’s a very cool, unique experience.
It might almost be easier to list where not to eat. Even the most unassuming family run restaurants can wow you. For example, if you’re in the Allos area of the park, you can head to Chez Natacha and Gaël. It’s got wood paneling and simple chairs that scream 1960, but the food is tremendous. It’s all hearty, French-mountain-fare.
If you find yourself more centrally located in the park, check out La Treille for a varied menu and fantastic mid-scale offerings. They have a great terrace that is open when the weather is good. Who doesn’t love a good terrace?
In Breil Sur Roya try going to Le Flavie. Their menu is fantastic and upper-mid-scale. The ambience is another thing altogether. It’s a very charming and romantic setting, so after a day of hiking, when you need a little date night, this is a good choice.
If you’re looking for a nice little bite of lunch while you’re in Saint Martin-Vesubie, stop by Lou Pitchoun. It’s a cute little place that spills out onto the sidewalk. The hamburgers are very popular and so are the galettes.
We saved the best for last. For the Pinnacle of fine dining in Mercantour we recommend Le Robur Restaurant at l’Auberge Le Robur in Rour (try saying that ten times fast). It has a Michelin star, a young chef, and food that you’ll remember for a lifetime.
Hiking through beautiful valleys and mountains, and then eating gourmet meals paired with delicious wines, might not be enough for some people. It’s (somewhat) understandable. You might need to break up all that goodness with some new experiences.
Why not hang out with some amazing animals at the Alpha Park. This is a neat way to spend an afternoon. The park allows you to watch different wolf packs interact and feed all from a safe distance. There’s lots to learn here and lots of amazing animals. It has been one of the park’s most popular attractions since 2013.
We really love visiting the Town of Saorge. The town is beautiful to behold. It looks medieval, but also like a Tibetan mountain town. It’s striking. They have an amazing Monastery there too: the Monastère de Saorge.
Then, of course, you’ll have to visit the Musée des Merveilles after you complete our hike through the Valley of Wonders. The museum will be able to shed some light on the paintings you saw on your hike, revealing the secrets of the ancients that once lived there.
If you’re stuck indoors due to bad weather, but you still want to go be active, why not try the impressive Vesubia Mountain Park. They have pools, climbing walls and even indoor spelunking and canyoning. It’s quite the feat.
For some outdoor adventuring, why not go rafting? Mat & Eau from Nice Rafting are a great company that can take you out through a number of valleys in Mercantour. They do rafts, kayak-rafts, canyoning and more. They know how to make the waters of Mercantour fun for anyone.
Finally, you can get down to Menton and the French Riviera in 1-2 hours depending on where you are. The weather on the coast can vary dramatically from the mountains and a rainy day in the Alps can be sunny and hot on the coast.
- As cute and neat as the Chamois and Ibex might look, it’s never safe to approach wildlife. It’s better for everyone if you just give them their space.
- Stay on the trails. You can never be sure how the ground under your feet might react if you aren’t on the well-trodden trails.
- The weather in those altitudes can change quite quickly, and if you go hiking in April or May there’s a good chance you could get poured on (or snowed on in April!) quite quickly. Always be prepared and bring your layers.
- There is sometimes a stigma about the French from other travelers. We don’t believe it. The key to having a good time while traveling in France is learning a few phrases and smiling. If you can start with some French and a smile chances are you’ll have a pretty good experience.
- If you’re renting a car, don’t leave anything valuable inside. Rental cars seem to stick out like sore thumbs. Don’t be a victim of theft!
- You don’t have to worry about tipping in France. If you do feel compelled, a 5-10% tip is the most you’d want to give.
- The French gastronomy is very refined, and staff at even humble restaurants are very knowledgeable. We simply go with the flow and eat and drink what is suggested, trying new things almost every meal. It always works out.