Four great French adventures


Eloise Barker

Title photography by PEC Photo

Skip to Navigation

October 2017

France’s easy autoroutes are perfect for road trippers and its regional specialities make it worth leaving Paris. Bumble along vineyard driveways, coast past chateaus and revel on the Riviera. It’s easy to be a bon viveur on a French fly-drive – bon voyage.

Paris – Normandy – Nantes

Best for… A taste of the wild northern coast after fashionable Paris

The journey: 386 miles

Paris

In Paris, visit the Musee D’Orsay and the Musée de l'Orangerie to wise up on Monet and the Impressionists. Then drive to the palace of Versailles. Mind-bogglingly large, visit the hall of mirrors, which drips with chandeliers, glassware, mirrored arches and gilded statues.

Where to stay: Trianon Palace Versailles A Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Expect nothing but the best in Versailles. Within walking distance from the Sun King’s palace (it’s in the grounds), this fabulous hotel has two Gordon Ramsey restaurants and a fancy indoor pool.

Normandy

Go on to explore the gardens of Giverny, another visionary undertaking by one man – Claude Monet. He redirected a local river and lovingly cultivated a garden around it, which he painted through all the shades of the seasons.

One hour’s drive takes you to Normandy. Crane your neck to look up at the western façade of Rouen cathedral – a gothic masterpiece that starred in another famous Monet painting. Look out for fantasy animals carved in relief around the booksellers’ portal and the heart of Richard the Lionheart, not on display, but buried within the ambulatory. The Bayeux Tapestry is held in the town of Bayeux. There’s Harold depicted with an arrow in his eye at the Battle of Hastings, and the same Harold rescuing knights from the quicksand around Mont St Michel.

After its appearance in the tapestry, see the real Mont St Michel. This famous tidal island commune is a precarious cluster of buildings couched in the cliffs. The perilous causeway has earned cautionary tales for centuries. Don’t let that put you off crossing.

Where to stay: You could rest overnight at the Novotel Bayeux, which is a useful base after a long drive.

Book flights to Paris

St Tropez is the starlet of the coast. The little backstreets and glorious seafront is made for a long lunch and a spot of shopping

Nantes

Finish in the fun, charming town of Nantes, with its fabulous theme park, Les Machines de l'île, and its penchant for moules frites. The birthplace of visionary author Jules Verne, his extraordinary legacy lives on in a mechanised elephant that guests can ride across the park.

Where to stay: Radisson Blu Nantes is a Neoclassical former courthouse. The fancy plasterwork interiors are filled with modern furnishings. You can have an elegant dinner in the hotel, set in a former courtroom. Order! Order!

Book the Radisson Blu

  • Lilly Pond and Japanese Bridge, Monet's Giverny. ©Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond.

    Giverny’s gardens

    Claude Monet never went to Japan, but his Japanese-inspired garden was one of his favourite subjects. During World War I, he remained at his beloved house in Giverny, just 50km from the battlefields, whilst most of the rest of the town fled. “…if those savages must kill me, it will be in the middle of my canvases, in front of all my life’s work.”

    Hotels in Paris
  • Bayeux Tapestry. ©Photos.com.

    Battle stations

    The Bayeux tapestry depicts the famous battle of Hastings. The English are on foot on the left, behind a shield wall, whilst the Normans ride in on horseback.

    Book flights to Paris
  • Hall of Mirrors in the Chateau de Versailles Paris France. ©Mike Booth / Alamy Stock Photo.

    Fit for a king

    The musical fountains, the hall of mirrors, the King’s state apartments and the battles gallery: the massive palace at Versailles is full of treasures that have survived through revolution and war.

    Holidays in Paris

Nice – Monaco – St Tropez

Best for… Feeling tall, tanned, and lovely in a yachting hotspot

The journey: 106 miles

Nice

You can’t escape the glitz of the French Riviera. Fly into Nice and the rest of the coast is in easy reach. Nice’s Promenade des Anglaise (where tourists traditionally take in the sea air) and flower market are worth a wander. Later, enjoy a crisp glass of rosé in the Vielle Ville.

Where to stay: Le Meridien Nice has an unbeatable location on the Promenade with views over the bay. The heated pool on the terrace is a busy spot, with a bar alongside.

Book flights to Nice

Monaco

In swanky Monaco, order a ‘Monaco’ – a lager shandy, coloured red with grenadine – and catch outdoor film screenings in summer (look out for ‘V.O.’ – signifying an un-dubbed film) in the courtyard by the Oceanographic Museum. The yachts in the harbour are worth a cheeky peek as you walk up the hill to Monte Carlo. Just make sure you don’t lose all your money in the famous casino.

Where to stay: Live like a celebrity at the Fairmont Monte Carlo. This glamorous modern hotel is between the sea and the casino and the restaurants and bars have panoramic views. You can even arrive via helicopter transfer from Nice…

The back-country of the Riviera is lesser-explored and beautiful – you can visit Grasse, famous for Fragonard perfume, and generally enjoy the quieter, less showy foothills of the Alpes-Maritimes. Nearer the coast, climb up to the medieval clifftop village of Èze from the coast road.

Where to stay: AC Hotel Ambassador in Juan les Pins – a small town near Cannes with great nightlife and a fun beach. It’s more relaxed than Cannes. The hotel has a sauna and two pools.

St Tropez

St Tropez itself is the starlet of the coast. The little backstreets and glorious seafront is made for a long lunch and a spot of shopping. Forget to pack so you can buy sparkly beachwear from Vanessa Bruno or Villebrequin swimming shorts.

Consider a day trip to the three pretty islands that bracelet the coast of Hyères. The island of Porquerolles is a French favourite, unspoilt by development with better beaches than the whole of the Riviera.

Where to stay: Grand Hyatt Cannes Martinez Hotel has two Michelin stars for its Palme D’Or restaurant and has its own private beach on La Croisette – Cannes’ celebrated seafront. Kube Hotel in St Tropez epitomises minimalist chic. White rooms feel crisp and fresh, there are two restaurants serving modish cuisine, and a night in St Tropez is right on your doorstep.

Holidays on the French Riviera

  • Chateau Chambord. ©Anthony Shaw.

    Spectacular chateaus

    Find a real fairy tale at Chambord

    Book flights to France
  • Brunch of Moules Mariniere with rosé wine, St Tropez France. ©David Hastilow/Getty.

    The moule the merrier

    A traditional seafood dish served up in St Tropez with a delicious pale rosé.

    Book flights to Nice
  • Sainte Croix Cathedral, Orléans, Loiret, Centre, France. ©Yann Guichaoua-Photos.

    The maid of Orléans

    Joan of Arc is the subject of the stained-glass windows in the magnificent Sainte Croix cathedral.

    Book flights to Paris

Paris – Loire

Best for… wining and dining in the shadow of the chateaus

The journey: 204 miles

Chateaus

Capture the castles on the banks of the wild Loire. The river is for the most part unnavigable and fast flowing, with islands as slim as cat’s eyes slipping along the middle. But beyond it in the valley, there are perfectly manicured gardens, vineyards and shining chateaus. Chenonceau is built on a series of beautiful arches. Chambord is a massive; its roof looks like the skyline of a small town. In contrast, the chateau at Azay-le-Rideau is small and manageable. The nearby L’Aigle d’Or (golden eagle) restaurant is famously good for gastronomy and has lovely cool courtyard tables.

Swan through Villandry’s beautiful French-style gardens. The ordered planting seems restrained, but its heart-shaped borders are rich in love symbolism. Lose yourself in the maze made from tall hornbeam hedges.

Towns

If you tire of chateaus, visit the Loire’s major towns. Live like a student in Tours eating crepes al fresco on the streets. Cycle or horseback ride along the wild banks of the Loire and pop in on the caves in Vouvray to sample their sparkling wine. The city of Angers has plenty of places to drink – not least the Cointreau factory itself, a short ride out of town. Bayeux might have a ‘fake’ tapestry (it’s embroidered) but Angers has the impressive and, even older, Apocalypse Tapestry showing the end of the world. English King Henry is depicted with seven monstrous heads – pretty unsubtle propaganda.

Orléans is topped with a magnificent cathedral. Jeanne d’Arc entered the city to end the siege that it faced against the Plantagenets. The inhabitants remain grateful to her to this day. Look out for her likeness in statue, place names and souvenirs around the city.

Saumur is dominated by an imposing castle. It’s also home of a military equestrian display team; the Cadre Noir are one of the best in the world. They put on occasional, impressive displays and more frequent stable tours. We’ve been chasing Richard the Lionheart across the itineraries. You’ll find the rest of his body’s resting place at the massive Fontevraud Abbey which was held by a series of powerful abbesses – all with fabulous names like Alice of Champagne and Renée de Bourbon.

Where to stay: With just 45 rooms and an old sweeping staircase, Anne D’Anjou is a charming country hotel near the chateau of Saumur. Sejours Affaires Angers is a simple, central hotel that’s convenient for exploring Angers.

  • View of the French town of Saumur. The Loire runs through it. ©fotoluk1983.

    Saumur calling

    Enjoy the beautiful medieval streets of the Loire towns, a short drive from Paris.

Paris – Reims

Best for… a quick bubbly break outside Paris

The journey: 100 miles

Paris

Start exploring France’s champagne regions in Paris, where the country’s bubbly gets served in iconic restaurants like La Jules Verne, La Coupole, and Georges in the Centre Pompidou, then ‘pop’ over to Reims.

Where to stay: K+K Hotel Cayre in Paris is on the stylish left bank of the river, an easy walk from the Musée d'Orsay. The rooms are chic and the communal areas have a serene green colour scheme.

Reims

The Champagne region is just an hour and a half away from Paris. The main city of the region, Reims (pronounced ‘Rance’) makes a good base. You’ll find everything you’ll need on hand, not least a few good bars, and a stunning cathedral guarded by a smiling angel statue. You can also tour the G. H. Mumm Champagne cellars, in the centre of town. From here you can drive onwards on the Montagne de Reims Champagne Route – a tourist’s path 70km along the edges of the vineyards that ends up in the charming town of Épernay.

Ten minutes up the road from Épernay, Hautvillers is near the birthplace of champagne. You can visit the abbey where the monks ‘invented’ their sparkling wine. You can do smaller vineyard tours from here. If you want to see the cellars of the big-name brands – great for bragging rights, such as Veuve-Cliquot, Cristal, Moët and Chandon, you should book ahead. If you tour Moët and Chandon in Épernay look out for the statue of the monk holding a fat champagne bottle in the entrance.

Where to stay: Holiday Inn Reims is right in the centre and the top floor Italian restaurant has views over the Gothic cathedral.