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Sara Odeen-Isbister enjoys skiing, snowshoeing and cheese as she visits the mountainous district of Cantal in south-central France

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Spend a few days in the beautiful Volcanic district of Cantal in France and you’ll no doubt be told by more than one local that you’ve found a “hidden secret.”

Can it be true that France, visited by around 11 million people from the UK every year, still has large areas unknown to the average Brit?

Well a quick, and not necessarily representative, survey of friends and colleagues found no-one had visited Cantal and only one had heard of it.

This ‘hidden secret’ lies to the east of Bordeaux in the region of Auvergne and is named after the Monts de Cantal - a group of extinct eroded volcanic peaks which cover most of the area.

In summer Cantal offers plenty of energetic outdoor activities, from mountain biking and hiking to horse riding and canoeing.

I decided to visit in wintertime when the area is usually covered in a wonderful blanket of thick snow. This season, however, has been warmer than usual and the only white stuff to be found during my visit was on the mountain tops.

It may not have been the winter wonderland I’d hoped for but thanks to modern snow making technology there was still a chance to spend a few hours skiing at Cantal’s biggest ski resort – Le Lioran. Although much smaller than France’s more famous resorts, Le Lioran, with its 22 lifts and 60km of pistes, is perfect for anyone wanting to combine a day or two on the slopes with other outdoor pursuits. There are a few black and red runs for those with a bit of experience behind them as well as a good selection of greens and blues for beginners.

When the snow’s more plentiful Cantal also provides a host of snowshoeing possibilities. This popular activity – called raquette in French - doesn’t require too much skill, just a reasonable level of fitness.

On a wonderfully sunny day myself and a couple of others hired a mountain guide and snowshoed along a ridge way leading to the most impressive peak in the Monts de Cantal, the Puy Mary. From the summit you are rewarded with a stunning panorama view of 12 glacial valleys.

As well as downhill skiing and snow shoeing visitors to the district can also enjoy dog sledding, ice-skating, climbing, and many kilometres of cross country skiing.

Outdoor activities are definitely a major draw of Cantal, but there’s much more to this vibrant area.

The district is full of gorgeous medieval villages and towns to explore, including the lovely Murat. This bustling town is made up of numerous small cobbled roads winding around stone houses, many dating from the 15th and 16th century. Among the highlights of Murat are a fountain which emits steaming hot water from natural springs, Aux Belles Pages, a tiny bookshop run by Irish born Daniel Kiernan and a tea room and bed and breakfast called La Maison de Justine. It’s worth popping into the latter just to admire the owner, Jean Christope Maurin’s incredible shrine to the late singer Dalida – a huge star in France and across the world in the 70s and 80s. If you stay for a cup of tea (there are dozens to choose from) you’ll no doubt be treated to some of of her greatest hits.

A stay in Cantal would not be complete without sampling its wonderful cheese. Probably the area’s most famous types are Cantal and Salers – both strong tasting, hard varieties. Milk from cows fed hay during the winter is used to make Cantal, while milk taken from the same cows grazing meadows in the summer goes to produce Salers. Real enthusiasts should arrange a tour around Murat’s cheese making farm, Association des Fromages d’Auvergne – where there’s a chance to see how the produce is made – from the milking right through to the maturing process. And of course you’ll get the opportunity to try some at the end.

If touring one cheese farm is not enough, then why not follow the Route des Fromages AOC d’Auvergne. Easy to follow with its distinctive brown road signs, not only does it take in some of the most beautiful Cantal countryside and ancient villages, it also lists some 50 cheese makers who welcome visitors to look around their farms, dairies and cellars.

Cantal is certainly an undiscovered treasure, ideal for those who appreciate outdoor activities, beautiful nature, a bit of history and very, very tasty cheese. Now that I’ve found it I’m almost a little reluctant to share this “hidden secret” - just don’t tell too many people about it!

Five great places to stay in Cantal

Alta Terrra

A quirky cafe, bed and breakfast and spa, which features a sauna, steam room and outdoor Nordic spa.

Each bedroom is individual and full of character. The place, which sits at the foot of the Puy Mary, is run by a young couple - Virginie and Stephane Serre - who have lovingly restored the building. Stephane offers guided hiking, snowshoeing and mountain biking tours.

For more information go to www.altaterra-cantal.com or call +33 4 71 20 83 03.

Auberge d’Aijean

A traditional auberge with a homely feel and lovely rooms. Run by Valerie and Bruno Fabre, who can prepare a fantastic traditional home cooked meal. In the summer it is also a popular restaurant.

The auberge has a great view of the mountains.

Go to www.auberge-puy-mary.com or call +33 471 20 31 61.

Instants d’Absolu

A higher end ecolodge and spa which has a beautiful spot by a lake called Lac du Pecher. The interior is elegant, mixing log cabin cosiness with modern chic. The rooms are large, stylish and luxurious.

There is a restaurant with open fire serving range of delights from local steak to fresh fish.

Go to www.ecolodge-france.com or call +33 4 71 20 83 09.

Demeures des Montagnes

A large auberge with over 20 rooms, a spa, a bustling restaurant visited by many non guest as well. Ideal for those wanting more life at their accommodation. Met one elderly British couple who visit the Demeures des Montagnes every year because they like it so much.

Go to www.auberge-des-montagnes.com or call +33 4 71 43 76 46.

La Roussiere

This bed and breakfast at the foot of the Plomb du Cantal, used to be a mountain farm - and even featured in 1999 French film Harry, We’re here to help - but has since been beautifully restored. It has a wonderful, cosy living room with open fire and a big farmhouse kitchen where you can enjoy an evening meal. Christian, who owns the house with his wife Brigitte, is a qualified mountain guide.

Go to www.auberge-des-montagnes.com or call +33 4 71 47 57 01.

All the accommodation is open throughout the year.

Ryan Air fly from Stansted to Rodez. Go to www.ryanair.com. Rodez is a 1.5 hour to 2 hour drive from Cantal. There are also trains connections from Rodez to Murat.

For more information on Cantal in English go to www.cantaltourisme.fr/ang/default.

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