A Way of Life as Much as a Region. Peter Mayle's classic memoir A Year in Provence prescribes just that, but even a year might not be long enough to soak up all the charm of this captivating region. In three days you can see three representative (and very different) towns: Arles, Avignon, and St-Rémy; with seven days you can head eastward to the French Riviera to explore Nice, Antibes, and Èze; with 10 days you can head back to check out St-Tropez and Marseille.

But no matter where you head, plan to divide your days between big-city culture, backcountry tours, and waterfront leisure. Be sure to tear yourself away from the coastal plages (beaches) on the Riviera to visit the perched villages in Provence's "backcountry."

If you must, you can "do" Provence at a breakneck pace, but its rural roads and tiny villages will amply reward a more leisurely approach. Provence is as much a way of life as a region charged with tourist must-sees, so allow time to savor its old-fashioned pace.

Where to Begin? That depends if you're starting with Provence (to the west) or the French Riviera (to the east). Avignon is Provence's gateway city, with fast TGV trains to and from Paris. From here you can access every part of Provence easily, either by train, by bus, or by car. For the French Riviera—the Côte d'Azur region—head to Nice, also with an express TGV train to and from Paris. This colorful city is more than nice for hub-and-spoke explorations thanks to its Marseilles–Ventimille (Ventimiglia) train, which connects with all the coastal towns to the east and west of the city.

What to Avoid? Unless you enjoy jacked-up prices, traffic jams, and sardine-style beach crowds, avoid the French Riviera coast in July and August. Many of the better restaurants simply shut down to avoid the coconut-oil crowd, and the Estérel is closed to hikers during this flash-fire season. And remember: Cannes books up early for the film festival in May.