Cowboys, Wildlife Highlight Colorful Playground by the Sea

Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

Start with the ancient Provencal legend of the Three Marys--washed ashore here from Jerusalem with the servant Sarah to establish a small chapel to the Virgin--and you realize why this town is alive with colorful pilgrimages and pageants from May until December.

Now add the Camargue, a vast coastal area of rice fields, lakes, wild horses, longhorn bulls and thousands of migratory flamingos, and you begin to understand why this 225-square-mile region is considered by many French to be the most distinctive in their country.

Just south of Arles, Les Saintes Maries de la Mer (its full name) is capital of the Camargue and a year-round playground with 19 miles of glorious beaches.

The French and other Europeans flock here yearly, but Americans have still not made an appearance in any significant numbers. This is one of the few choice stretches of Mediterranean coast without a high-rise.

While all of Provence is noted for its colorful scenery and spirited natives, the Camargue alone has Les Gardians, the cowboys who have herded the region's bulls and wild horses since 1512. Their festival in May is one of the year's liveliest, rivaled only by that of the Gypsies honoring their patroness, the biblical maidservant Sarah.

Anyone visiting the more renowned Provencal towns of Aix en Provence, Avignon and Arles should consider the satisfying journey down to this little seaside resort in the wild and rustic Camargue.

Here to there: Air France flies from Los Angeles to Paris nonstop; American, TWA and Pan Am without changes, and Air Canada, British Airways and British Caledonian with good connections. Take French National Railways' 165-m.p.h. TGV to Avignon, a local to Arles, bus or rental car the 25 miles on to Les Saintes Maries.

How long/how much: A day or two for the town and exploring the Camargue, whatever your schedule permits for beach time or lazing by the pool of your hotel. The dollar's recent fall hasn't made life any cheaper throughout Western Europe, but food and lodging costs here are still reasonable.

A few fast facts: The franc was recently valued at about 5.33 to the dollar. Late spring and early fall are the best times for seeing the birds and animals of the Camargue, weather always pleasant except in mid-winter; July and August are most crowded.

Getting settled in: The Provencal farmhouse is called a mas, a low building with shallow roof of terra-cotta tile in Roman fashion, most houses whitewashed. Some of the town hotels are a short distance into the countryside and built in the mas style.

Le Boumian (Route d'Arles; $68 U.S. double) is the essence of a Camargue mas: low buildings built around a lovely pool, beamed ceilings, bar with fireplace where Les Gardians often gather for an after-work pastis. Le Boumian has two stables of Camargian horses for guests, its own boat for fishing trips on the Rhone or Mediterranean, and a superb restaurant.

Mas des Lys (Route d'Arles; $45 U.S. double) is another mas -style place just a cut below Le Boumian. More rustic furnishings and beamed ceilings, very pleasant bedrooms, a gigantic pool overlooking countryside. There's also a small lake beside the mas where flamingos arrive in early evening. Breakfast and light snacks only.

Les Amphores (1 Ave. Gilbert Leroy; $35-$63 double) is in town and right on the beach, a modern place with attractive bedrooms, breakfast only, which you may take inside or on terrace overlooking the Mediterranean. La Brise de Mer (31 Ave. G. Leroy; $45 double, $24 shared bath) has the same seafront location. This is a simple one-star hotel, yet the restaurant in an adjoining building is a cheerful place with very good seafood.

Regional food and drink: Les tellines de beauduc, tiny mussels sauteed with garlic, oil and parsley, are a town specialty and we ate them like mad. Poutargue, mullet eggs grated in oil and red peppers then crushed and dried, is just as fantastic and habit-forming.

Boeuf en daube is beef cooked with vegetables and olives in a wine sauce, a Provencal specialty given local flavor here as a la mode gardians. Camargue rice and asparagus are both excellent; the bull, wild boar, duck and other coastal game always marvelous.

And of course fresh seafood is a delight: bouillabaisse, whitefish bourride, eel and a heavenly saffron-flavored fish stew. Blanc de blanc wine from the village of Cassis is the preferred wine with seafood, Rhone reds and whites always good and sensibly priced.

Moderate-cost dining: One of the best meals of our Provence visit was lunch at Le Piccolo (Ave. Gambetta) just off the beach, a simple yet colorful place filled with French rejoicing over the superb seafood. Here's where we had those glorious tellines and poutargue, the latter billed as poutargue facon martegade. A bourride de lotte, Camargue rice and a generous selection of chevre added up to a splendid meal.

The dining room at Le Boumian is truly lovely: antique furnishings and hewn beams, huge fireplace, old copper and ceramic serving dishes. You may also dine on a tree-shaded terrace beside the pool on many local specialties, lamb and beef grilled to perfection, wild boar or duck in season.

We heard several wonderful reports on Le Bruleur de Loups (Ave. G. Leroy), including one opinion that it's the town's best, quite an accolade around here.

On your own: Start your stroll with a visit to the 12th-Century fortified church rising from the sea of small shops at village center, a massive Romanesque structure visible for miles across the flat Camargue. Climb the church's 54 steps to walk on the crenelated ramparts for a spectacular view of the coast and inland hills of Provence.

Lots of sea sports here: windsurfing, Rhone and Mediterranean boat trips, excellent and safe beaches.

The lakes, plains and marshlands of the Camargue can be explored by auto, bus, bicycle or hiking, taking your time to photograph the animals, flamingos and colorful cabanes of Les Gardians, distinctive white huts with roofs of thatched rush where the cowboys live near their animals.

And if you're here for one of the innumerable festivals, be sure to see an abrivado, during which cowboys drive bulls into the village arena where young men perform all sorts of feats of agility in the ring, a bloodless bullfight of Southern France.

For more information: Call the French Government Tourist Office at (213) 271-6665 or 272-2661, or write (9401 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 840, Beverly Hills 90212) for a brochure and map of Provence, another of all France, and information on French National Railways' rail passes.

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