By Jamie Feldmar
August 28, 2015
Credit: courtesy Les Clos du Paulilles

I’m supposed to be on vacation, but I can’t stop thinking about Children of the Corn. I’m lost, you see, in rural Southern France, whipping my poor rental car frantically down narrow dirt-lined roads as my GPS sputters indecipherably. Any second, I’m sure, a menacing band of blank-faced children will emerge from the fields and lead me to certain doom. So this is why no one’s heard of Belesta, I think.

Just as I’m preparing to place a long-distance last call to my mother, a sign appears, pointing me in the right direction. My GPS fairly screams with delight, and soon, I’m at Riberach, a wine cooperative-turned-boutique hotel perched discreetly among the rambling vineyards of the Pyrenees-Orientales. Inside, there’s Michelin-starred restaurant, a private spa, and a swimming pool filtered entirely by plants. It’s all very secluded, very civilized, and very chic, and there’s nary a demonic blond child in sight.

Riberach is just one of the semi-hidden pleasures of Languedoc-Roussillon, the southeastern coastal region of France, wedged between Spain and Provence. Compared to its more famous (and crowded) neighbors, the region is wild and winding, with gorgeous scenery, laid-back locals, and top-notch food and wine. It’s also small and (back roads aside) easy to navigate, making it the perfect place to explore by car. The best part? You can take in Mediterranean beaches and the craggy Pyrenees mountains, sleepy villages and discotheque-fueled cities over the course of about four days. Here’s how—and where to eat and drink on the road.

Credit: courtesy Salins du Midi

Arrive in Montpellier, a one-hour flight from Paris, to pick up the car, then head 40 minutes east to Aigues Mortes, a walled Medieval village on the edge of the Camargue, a vast river delta and nature preserve along the Mediterranean coast. Here, you can take a guided horseback trip across the marshland on one of the region’s famous white horses, tour a working salin, where sea salt is harvested, and load up on local delicacies like airy, sugar-encrusted fougasse (flatbread), wild bull meat, and nutty red rice.

From there, head inland toward Belesta, detouring slightly to wind your way through the National Park of the High Languedoc, a stunning drive through windswept hills, sprawling vineyards, and colorful Roman villages. Stop for a leisurely lunch at La Cave Saint Martin in Roquebrun, and take your natural Piquepoul wine and tete de veau with anchovy puree and heirloom tomatoes overlooking the Orb River. Then it’s onwards to the aforementioned Riberach for the night, where you can settle down for a seasonal six-course tasting menu with wine pairings at Restaurant La Cooperative and then toddle off to bed in one fell swoop.

The next morning, hit the road and head south. You’re entering Catalan country now, near the border with Spain, whose influence on the culture, language, and cuisine is plainly evident. The rugged mountain scenery gives way to dramatic coastal vistas near Collioure. Parking for the public beaches is a pain, so avoid the crowds by booking lunch at Les Clos de Paulilles, a tucked-away wine estate with a private beach and vineyard-facing outdoor restaurant near Port-Vendres. After (in no particular order) a plate of local anchovies, a glass of biodynamic rose, and a swim, check in to Mas Latour Lavail, a recently renovated, family-run farmhouse-inn just outside of Perpignan, the former capital of the kingdom of Mallorca and Roussillon’s liveliest city.

Credit: courtesy Les Clos du Paulilles

Get lost in the covered passageways of Perpignan’s old town and take in all the brick-walled cathedrals (St-Jean is particularly impressive), streetside acrobats, and chilled Muscat you can handle before heading back to Montpellier to close the loop. When you reach Marseillan, about an hour south of Montpelleier, follow (yet another) string of tiny country roads that lead to Le St Barth oyster farm. Here, the Tarbouriech family uses solar power to grow sweet pink-hued oysters prized by top chefs in Paris and Japan. Enjoy them by the dozen—along with tielle, the local octopus-tomato pie, juicy whelks, and steamed shrimp—at the farm’s ridiculously scenic waterfront restaurant.

Return the car at Montpellier’s centrally located train station and drop your bags at Baudon de Mauny, a restored 18th-century townhouse with intricate period details and modern furnishings. Then it’s time for a night of urban revelry, though “urban” is perhaps not the best way to describe Montpellier’s historic cobblestone boulevards, narrow passageways, and stately 12th-century university grounds, which include the oldest botanical gardens in France. Still, the large student population keeps things lively at night: grab an expertly-seared onglet (hangar steak) and frites at the casual Le Bistrot Gourmand in bustling Place de la Chapelle Neuve, and watch the city unfold around you, before joining the fray at the subterranean Papa Doble, an Ernest Hemingway-themed bar specializing in bespoke cocktails.

Several Papa’s Parrot Coladas and (if you’re lucky) a few hours of sleep later, you’ll be ready to roll again, with Southern France’s best-kept region tucked under your loosened belt.