Hiking in the highlands of the Vercors, which has thousands...

Hiking in the highlands of the Vercors, which has thousands of natural caves and cliffs. Credit: Handout

Diois ("dee-wah"). Say it right, and you're halfway there. Located in the little known Drôme department, or province, of southeastern France, the area is one of the nation's best-kept secrets. Part Provence and part foothills of the Alps, it has all that those regions have to offer, minus the steep prices, crowds and tourist traps.

Forgotten by time, the Diois is a charming cluster of Gallo-Roman towns, villages, mountains and valleys that are easily accessible from Paris, Lyon and Marseilles by TGV (high-speed trains) and local transport. With its vibrant cultural life, abundant artisanal and agricultural production and ample sporting activities, it's a cherished vacation spot and year-round home for those desiring a simpler life.

The writer Henry Miller in his booklet "Happy Days in Die" ("Dee") wrote, "I doubt if I shall ever again see more entrancing vistas. ... How many desperate young Americans would give their right arm to settle in such a village, know a little peace, enjoy a goblet of Clairette and a bit of homely conversation on the terrace of a cafe." In the 60 intervening years, little has changed, except most of those cafes now have Wi-Fi ("wee-fee"), and it's often possible to converse with French people eager to practice their English.

Explore leisurely

As a transplanted Manhattanite who grew up on Long Island, I first discovered the Diois when I was invited to a typical Provençal four-hour Sunday outdoor lunch in Luc-en-Diois. Driving from my home 90 minutes to the south, I was astounded by the Jurassic rock formations and steep, winding roads, by the odd-sounding names and by colors so vivid they looked Photoshopped by Nature. Since then, I've returned often, and with each visit I discover new treasures.

If you can, rent a car and leisurely explore the magnificent countryside, villages and towns. Die, bordered by the enormous Mount Glandasse, was the first century B.C. Roman capital, Dea Augusta Vocontiorum. It still has 1.2 miles of surrounding Roman ramparts built as protection from invaders. The Voconces tribes were already present and are described by Pliny the Elder, Livy, Tacitus and Caesar. Today, Die is noted for its arts scene, festivals, funky shops and hip younger crowd. Not to be missed is the Transhumance Festival in late June, when thousands of sheep are run through the streets on their way to the mountains.

Nearby Crest ("Cray") has the highest dungeon in France at 171 feet, with a spectacular 360-degree view of the Rhône Valley, the 330,000-acre Vercors Natural Park and the Prealps. The Tower's foundation dates to the fourth century A.D. and was once part of a larger castle, destroyed by Royal order in the 1640s. It was a crucial watchtower at the crux of two historical routes, and for more than 200 years it served as a prison, called the "Bastille of the south."

Goats, sheep, cows

The area is France's leading region for organic agriculture and farming. Goats, sheep and cows graze peacefully. Pull off the road to snap photos. Shepherds, happy to chat, keep close watch over the sheep, aided by their dogs. Lamb, succulent and tender, is a prized culinary specialty.

Goats, once known as "the poor man's cow," produce cheese, yogurt and milk. The A.O.C. (highest quality) Picodon cheese -- tiny, tart discs bathed in brandy, washed and set to mature -- is world renowned. Its color, depending on age, can range from white to golden to greenish black. The best are sold at open-air markets by the farmers who've made them.

The Diois is famous for its A.O.C. Clairette de Die, a fruity sparkling wine, and A.O.C. Crémant, a Brut version closer to Champagne. (Both are around $7 a bottle.) The wine's origins go back 2,000 years. Legend says Voconces shepherds discovered it after they'd left their wine casks in streams over the winter. Unable to remove them until the spring thaw, they found the wine had become effervescent. Unlike Champagne, invented later, Clairette and Crémant use natural cooling rather than additives to bring on the bubbly.

In July, the mountain slopes are blanketed in sunflowers, lavender and the hybrid lavandin. True lavender grows only in high altitudes and has the most potent oil. To see lavender in bloom is a photographer's dream made real. The Diois is recognized for its artisanal distillation, drying and production of wildflowers, herbs and plants for medicinal, culinary and cosmetic use.

The population is heavily Protestant, and it's rare to find a village without a Protestant church (called a "temple" or "culte"). The lush Forest of Saoû ("Soo") was a hiding place for Protestants during the Wars of Religion and for the French Resistance during World War II. The Vercors, with its thousands of natural caves and cliffs, was a stronghold for Resistance guerrillas known as the Maquis. There are 300 monuments and a museum, Memorial de la Resistance, in Vassieux-en-Vercors.

Outdoor sport

The rugged landscape lends itself to camping and outdoor sports ranging from rafting, kayaking, fishing and swimming to horseback riding, hot-air ballooning, paragliding, rock climbing and spelunking.

There are many well-marked trails and guided treks to view flora and rare wild animals and birds. Most activities are adapted to accommodate young children and individuals with mobility difficulties.

Perhaps my favorite village is Châtillon-en-Diois with the old town's medieval covered stone alleyways, 17 fountains and 150 varieties of climbing plants; its cafes, friendly population and famed cabanons (stone cabins) in the surrounding vineyards.

Recently, I read an article referring to the Diois as "the next Tuscany." I don't think so. The Diois is incomparable. It's simply perfect on its own.

If you go

GETTING THERE By plane from JFK and Newark to Charles DeGaulle (Roissy) outside Paris, or to St-Exupéry Airport in Lyon, both of which have TGV (high speed train) connections to Valence. From DeGaulle, it is a two-hour magnificent ride through the French countryside. Flights also go from JFK to Grenoble, the closest international airport to the Diois. From Grenoble, you can either rent a car or take the local train to Lyon and then Valence. If you are traveling from Marseille, take the TGV to Valence.

SEE In Die, don't miss La Chambre Chinoise (Chinese Room) and the 12th century mosaic 4 Fleuves du Paradis, by appointment through the tourist office, Maison de Tourisme, Rue des Jardins.

Musée d'Histoire et Archéologie, 11 rue Camille Buffardel, Die. Traces area origins back to Neanderthal farmers and hunters. Many artifacts.

TOURIST INFO The site diois-tourisme.com has detailed information in English. The Vallée du Rhone IGN # R20 map is available in bookshops, newsstands, large supermarkets and at ign.fr.

FOOD Splurge for a meal at Brasserie Pic le 7, 285 avenue Victor Hugo in Valence. Chef Anne-Sophie Pic is the granddaughter of the 1889 founder and only female 3-star Michelin chef. pic-valence.fr

Tchaï-Walla, 8 rue Joseph-Reynaud in Die. Superb, inexpensive vegetarian, locavore restaurant founded by local housewives.

WINE Cave Jaillance, Die. Wine cooperative offering guided tours, jaillance.com; Museum of Clairette, caves-carod.com.

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