It's not the destination, it's the journey," or so goes the adage, and there is a kernel of truth in that declaration.
I was behind the wheel of my van, winding through rural southeastern France en route to the Parc naturel regional du Verdon. The Verdon River slices through this part of Alpes-de-Haute Provence on its descent to the Mediterranean carving an impressive series of canyons that run nearly 25 kilometres and, in places, 700 metres deep.
The rugged countryside is dotted with vineyards and olive groves and narrow roads traced ancient routes leading to villages that spoke of centuries-old tradition. Away from the hustle and bustle of the overpriced and overrated "Cote d'Azur," the soul of a simpler life surfaced. Folks relaxed in village squares, sipping wine and catching up on the day's gossip, waving as they noted the foreign licence plate.
The dog days of summer have yielded to autumn's crisp nights and, although the sun remains warm in the sky, daytime temperatures are lower.
The throngs of tourists have dispersed, returning to work, school and the routines that shape and define daily life, leaving me empty roads, empty village squares, empty parking lots and a feeling of freedom.
My first view of the lower section of the gorge came in the late afternoon from Pont du Galetas where you can peer into the mouth of the canyon. Rotating 180 degrees, Lac Sainte Croix with its turquoise waters and the promise of assembling my Feathercraft collapsible sea kayak to enjoy a day on the water beckoned.
Rising early next morning, I put my kayak together and walked to the edge of the lake. Mallards patrolled in search of grasses, cormorants alternately fished and perched on rocks, their wings spread to dry, and blue herons stalked the shallows.
The mouth of the gorge is just upstream, presenting an opportunity to paddle into the lower section offering a glimpse of the narrow canyon. I paddled as far as I could, admiring the steep walls framing views of mountains in the distance.
Lac Sainte Croix, the largest reservoir in France, is perfect for a day trip and if you paddle the shoreline you can squeeze out more than 30 km. The lake was completely empty save three fishermen bobbing in a bay in solo inflatables.
Happy to have spent a day on the water, I re-packed my kayak and crept along D952, a narrow road that skirts the rim of the Gorge where occasional pullouts offer a chance to walk to panoramic views of the canyons. In Castellane, an ancient town at the Roman crossroads of Via Salinaria, Via Ventiane, Via Aurelia and Via Domita, the 12th century Notre Dame du Roc Cathedral, perched nearly 200m above town, dominates the view.
Refuelled and restocked with food, I carried on to nearby Le Touron, on the shores of Lac Castillon. Lac Castillon is long and narrow, the water particularly clear having not been flushed through the gorge. I ventured up a narrow arm and rounded a corner to flush a flock of blue herons from a mud flat, watching as a couple dozen lifted off and circled toward the lake.
It could have been a scene from anywhere in Canada. The waters, reminiscent of the Temagami of my youth, were a deep blue at depth lightened toward the shallows through the complete spectrum of blues.
I paddled as far as water levels allowed, almost reaching St.-Andre-les-Alpes, before sliding down the opposite side of the lake, past St. Julien and around the lower section. Being the only tourist in town, I parked at the water's edge and watched the full moon rise over the mountains reflecting on my good fortune.
Driving back to Nice, I felt revitalized. I am not built for urban life but my daughter lives there with her mom and I have a keen desire to walk her to school in the mornings and share precious moments as she grows. And I know there is plenty of opportunity to return to the natural beauty that lurks close behind the coast.