From the Alps to the Med, the Loire to the Louvre, great holidays for 2005 in our favourite summer playground
France — don’t you just love it? Or, to put it another way, don’t you just hate it? No other country, not even Germany, elicits such strong and contradictory sentiments, often from within the same breast.
We may, for instance, spend half the summer soaking up the Dordogne sun or hiking the hills around Annecy, but then we’ll be gratified beyond measure when, as happened recently, France XV gets a thumping from the All Blacks. A thousand years of enmity takes some digesting, and we’re not there yet.
But — and here’s the point — we can’t keep out of their country. More people visit France than anywhere else on earth — 75m in 2003, against 53m to Spain, 41m to America — and the British and Irish are the keenest of all. Between us, we account for 20% of the total, slightly ahead of the Germans and the Dutch. Perhaps our inability to shake off the old cross-Channel aggravation is less to do with Gallic lateness, laziness or lavatorial laxness than pure and simple envy — for the brute fact is that whatever we think of them, the good Lord clearly favoured the French.
Theirs is the most diverse landscape in Europe, ranging from the mightiest mountains to the loveliest coastline, with just about everything else in between. Great rivers flow all over the place. Forests still cover a quarter of the country — and when surveying the C?vennes or the Landes, you’d say it was much more. There are vast marshlands, lakes and gorges, plains and hills, wondrous islands. The French were given a superb geographical hand, and they’ve played it well.
Of course, there are spots along the Riviera where the Gallic genius for stacking apartment blocks in beauty spots has spiralled way out of hand. But everyone makes mistakes, and the French have mostly got things right. For a start, they have filled their land with the planet’s finest food and wines. Whatever the recent counterclaims from the Pacific Rim and fusion-food departments, nobody feeds you better right up and down the price scale.
Despite (or perhaps because of) their manic drive towards civic centralisation, they’ve also maintained a splendid fabric of real regional identities. The Bretons eat crêpes, go fishing and play harps. Some of their old women still wear lacy headgear under which you could hide a lighthouse. The Alsaciens brew beer and keep getting taken over by Germany. Basques play rugby like wild animals, spell their names like match-winning Scrabble scores and sing in male-voice choirs. These things run deeper than you’d think.
By the same token, the French have kept proper villages, and country towns where shops are shops and not faceless outposts of international chains. They’ve managed to improve their landscape continually, from the cave art in the southwest, by way of the Loire chateaux to the magnificent Millau viaduct, opened last month (you soar over it when you drive south from Clermont- Ferrand on the A75). And they’ve balanced the business of central government with a low-level laissez-aller that sees bulls on village streets, festivals ending at dawn and nothing at all wrong with whiling away the day — or indeed the week — on a sunny cafe terrace.
It’s a world-beating mix, which admittedly lost a little lustre last year, when visitor numbers dipped. Americans stayed away, sulking about Iraq; Britons eyed the rising euro and cleared off to Croatia and beyond.
The French responded by commissioning a report, which essentially urged France to wake up and be “more welcoming”. Sound advice — and yet one more reason for going to France this year … to see if the natives really are being extra nice. Not a chance, of course. Nobody pays the slightest attention to government commissions, least of all the French. No matter. You’ll still have Europe’s most fascinating country before you. And you’ll still return home hoping they get stuffed at rugby.
Package prices are per person, based on two sharing, and where flights are included, they are from London. Contact the operator for details of UK regional and Irish departures
The best of France with your family
The French like families. They all have one, and are rarely ashamed of the fact. So they’re happy to see children in hotels, restaurants and even on motorways — some service stations lay on summer activities to take the stress out of the long haul.
And French families themselves holiday overwhelmingly in France. This means two things. First, holiday spots remain resolutely French in character. Second, there’s a family-friendly sense of public decorum in even the most carefree resorts — the boozier element of international club culture gets short shrift here.
Much more problematic is the sheer choice — beach, mountain, fantastic countryside — in this wildly varied land. Also, of course, the language. One word of advice (and I speak from experience): if travelling with young children, bone up on basic French medical terms. This will save you miming diarrhoea in the local pharmacie.
OFFICIAL FRANCE is suspicious of the beach, as it is of most extemporised fun. It persistently bulldozes beach bars and cabins (most recently at Beauduc in the Camargue), and claims that seaside holidays are pass?. Folk now prefer hiking, cathedrals and similar kinds of cultural diversion, it is decreed.
Unofficial France takes no notice. It continues to stream onto the sands — and who can blame it? French beaches, all 1,200 miles of them, have everything: rocks, creeks and bays on the Côte d’Azur, in Provence and in Brittany; sand stretching from here to eternity in Languedoc and on the Atlantic coast; and a splendid mix of the two, plus amazing light, in the north.
Many strands provide activities to flatten the fittest teenager. Most are fringed with great fish restaurants. And all inspire the squeals of childish delight that remind mum and dad why they wanted kids in the first place.
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The Côte d’Azur has enjoyed great PR ever since Tobias Smollett showed up in the 18th century and found it more tolerable than most other places he’d visited. However, the stretch west of Toulon is marginally less celebrated and slightly less crowded, despite being just as pretty. At Six-Fours-les-Plages, Pierre et Vacances (00 33-1 58 21 55 50, www.pierreetvacances.com) has a classy family-holiday residence slotted next to a creek, between the forest and the beach. Every seaside activity is on hand, as are horses and bikes for riding out along the glorious Cap Sici? headland. Small but well-equipped two- and three-room apartments cost from £420 per week in June, £790 in August. Fly to Marseilles.
That’s the south — but the north is nearer. And though sea bathing in the Somme d?partement may be nippier (no problem for proper Britons), the beaches are satisfyingly vast, the activities endless (sand-yachting anyone?), and the birdlife engrossing. And in Les Tourelles (03 22 27 16 33, www.lestourelles.com), at Le Crotoy, the region has one of the happiest family hotels in France. Perched above the Somme Estuary, it appears to have been airlifted from a medieval theme park, damsel-in-distress towers and all.
Inside, things are cool and artily simple. Kids run in and out unfettered. They have (if they wish) their own bunked dormitory and games room. It’s like staying with a lively set of cousins — ones who have a beach to swim off 10 minutes away, the grandest European estuary at their windows, and a good chef to boot. Doubles with shower and WC from £45 per night, dormitory for under-14s, £13. Le Crotoy is 65 miles from Calais.
P?nestin offers the best of coastal Brittany, at that southeastern point where the region bangs into the Loire. The hammerhead peninsula has great beaches and little cliffs, wild marsh country, and, in P?nestin itself, a perky village to cycle to. The four-star Camping-des-Iles (02 99 90 30 24, www.camping-des-iles.fr) has July and August pitches from £24 per night, mobile homes from £440 per week and chalets from £518. Cross to St Malo (from where it’s 2½ hours to Penestin), or fly to Nantes.
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You’ve saved up hard for a luxury villa, but who will mind the nippers while you’re off surfing, sailing or golfing? A&K Chapters’ (0845 070 0618, www.villa-rentals.com) new “Playgrounds Programme” offers villas with two resident nannies, and it’s available at the Maison Tamarin farmhouse, overlooking the ocean, 10 minutes from St-Jean-de-Luz, the loveliest seaside town in Basque country. Sleeping 14, it costs £9,800 per week in early July, £12,495 mid-July to late August. Return British Airways flights to Bordeaux, through A&K, will add about £185pp.
Like the Basques, the Corsicans have a truculent side. But you won’t notice it on the island’s glorious southern beaches — Palombaggia, Santa Giulia and more — where the white sand shelves gently, the red rocks are rugged, and green parasol pines provide the shade. Explore them from the self-catering Villa Dolce e Serena, sleeping six, from VFB (01242 240310, www.vfbholidays.co.uk). In wooded grounds near Precojo, and five minutes from Santa Giulia beach, it costs £746pp per week (four adults sharing), and £229 per child aged 2-16, in August. Included are flights from Gatwick (or Birmingham, with supplement) and car hire.
The Fort de la Rade, on the Ile-d’Aix off Rochefort, was destroyed by the English in 1757, then rebuilt on mightier lines. Now it is the monumental setting for a family-holiday residence — so we can claim it back by stealth. The Ile is a car-free island of creeks and ace beaches, watersports, bikes and village life. Leisure Direction (0870 442 8930, www.leisuredirection.co.uk) has apartments for 4-6 people from £652 per week in July, £776 in August, including Eurostar crossing.
CLOSE YOUR eyes and I bet you can sense the French countryside right now: herbs and mineral heat in the south, lakes and encroaching greenery further north, mountains and forests all over the place. Plus villages and country towns with proper bakers, old blokes bantering in the Caf? de la Poste, and a mayor with a fitting sense of self-importance.
There’s a flip side of feuds and strange half-beliefs, but that comes with the territory. Much of rural France is infinitely more remote than rural England ever gets. Even so, the French have realised that visitors love their unchanged landscape, but not at the expense of indoor toilets, fully equipped kitchens and things to do. Increasingly, then, holiday accommodation is a lovely surprise in a lovely location. It’s a disarming combo.
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Lozère is France’s least populous d?partement, a mountain redoubt of forested uplands, rushing streams, isolated stone hamlets and, to the south, the craggier plunges of the C?vennes. Here you’ll find the Gorges du Tarn, all the wilder outdoor activities, a park for bison, another for wolves, and (on the mountainside right next door, near Marvejols) the eight stone gites of Sainte Lucie. They are simple but well equipped, and set among nature at its most starkly life-enhancing. For 4-6 people, they cost £334 per week in July, £393 in August; contact Lozère tourism (00 33-4 66 48 48 48, www.lozere-resa.com). Fly to Rodez (1hr 15min from Marvejols).
Slightly more sedate is the Loire Valley, where, if you’re with kids, you should attempt no more than three chateaux a week. On a first visit, go for Chambord (gobsmacking grandeur), Clos Luc? (home of Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions), and Valen?ay (the best furnished, and child-friendly). Then get down to the holiday business of cycling, canoeing and karting, all easily reachable from the four-star Camping de Dugny (02 54 20 70 66, www.camping-de-dugny.fr), near Onzain, between Amboise and Blois. Or else stay on site, for swimming, ponies and microlight flying. July and August pitches cost £8.60 per adult per night; mobile homes for up to six cost £472 per week; chalets for six, £515. Calais to Onzain takes five hours, or fly to Tours, 45 minutes away, with Ryanair.
The upper Saône Valley, in Franche-Comt?, is as little known as it is beguiling — and at the Saône Valley holiday park (00 33-3 84 92 72 70, www.saonevalley.com), near Traves, families get to explore it in their very own motorboats. Included in the price, these are moored by your chalet (pointy roof, terrace, simple but well equipped) and available for bespoke adventuring through woodlands and pasture and past cliffs to old-fashioned villages. If that palls, there is hiking, biking, canoeing — and the Jura Mountains are a drive away. Five- person chalets cost £847 per week in July and August. Calais to Traves is 5½hr, or fly to Basel Mulhouse (1½hr from Traves).
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Despite what we said about remoteness, there’s a good counterargument for taking a family holiday near a big city — Paris, say — so as to spice up the rurality with visits to theme parks and a ride up the Tower. The new Croix du Vieux Port holiday park, at Vic-sur-Aisne, is deep in the Compiègne countryside but 30 minutes by train from the capital, 55 miles from Disney and 45 miles from Ast?rix. Back at base, there are designer mobile homes and enough activities to divert any youngster. Thomson Al Fresco (0870 166 0366, www.thomsonalfresco.com) offers a week for six, mid-July to mid-August, for £1,172 (midweek ferry crossing included).
Then again, France profonde has its theme parks, too, and the best of these is Le Grand Parc du Puy du Fou, in the Vend?e. It is history-driven but Hollywood-style, featuring real chariot races (and lions and gladiators) in a Roman stadium; Viking attacks; medieval action, and more. This bit of the Vend?e also offers the Poitevin marshes, and the Atlantic coast is at hand. Base yourselves at La Launière, near Fontenay-le-Comte, a tranquil five-bedroom villa built around a pool. It’s available for £2,250 per week in July and August, from Individual Travellers (0870 077 1771, www.individualfrance.com), with peak weekend Channel crossing or local car hire included (fly to La Rochelle).
Now, everyone has doubtless heard that the Luberon, in Provence, is overcrowded, overglam and generally up itself to an inordinate degree. Take no notice. Gordes and Roussillon are, indeed, thronging in summer — but what else would you expect of such stunning perched villages? Beyond, though, lies a more elemental Provence of vineyards, lavender and wild mountains, and Les Maisons des Sablières, at Oppède-le-Vieux, are well placed to help you appreciate it. These three converted 18th- century houses (two have three bedrooms, one has two) share a sauna, a pool and gardens. Travelling in July and August with Inntravel (01653 617906, www.inntravel.co.uk), two people pay £645pp per week, plus £165 for each extra person, including Channel crossing.
FRANCE CAN lay claim to being Europe’s top adventure playground, whatever your definition of adventure. Whether you want to dash up mountains, bowl along in a boat or simply hoof it through regions apparently undiscovered by man, the French can generally oblige. Then they will sit you down and feed you up until your body has regained its normal, non- adventurous shape. It’s a contradictory approach, but, as has been remarked before, France is a contradictory country.
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The Alpes-de-Haute-Provence is the d?partement where Provence rises to meet the rocky rigour of the Alps. It’s a thrilling land, purpose-created for hairy-legged endeavour. The Verdon Gorges, Europe’s Grand Canyon, offer the wildest rock-climbing, canoeing and rafting in France. Further north, the surroundings are scarcely less stunning, and La Ferme La Bâtie Neuve (00 33-4 92 68 36 51, cheval. monges.free.fr), near the village of La Motte-du-Caire, is a real farm with a real gîte, and horses and donkeys you can take out for trots. The gîte is basic but fun, sleeps six and costs £350 per week in July and August. Nearby are forests, lakes, crags for hiking and a via ferrata route. Details on www.hautesterresprovence.com. Calais to La Motte takes 10hr. Alternatively, fly to Marseilles.
Perhaps you prefer your mountain adventure Pyrenean-shaped? If so, head for the Bar?tous Valley, on the B?arn-Basque border. Here is a soaring land full of forests and torrents and limestone summits, where your tendency to poetry will be tempered by the shepherds, who have heard it all before. There is caving, climbing, canyoning and an adventure park with aerial challenges.
Base yourselves at Camping Bar?tous (05 59 34 12 21, www.camping-baretous-pyrenees.com), at Aramits, a site for the active who occasionally feel like being passive. High- season, two-person pitches cost £11 per night; canvas bungalows sleeping five are from £229 per week; and mobile homes for four to five people from £354. Calais to Aramits takes 11hr 30min, or fly to Pau.
Canal-cruising might not sound too adventurous, but there’s a real sense of discovery as you glide through the landscape from an unorthodox angle. France’s loveliest artificial waterway is probably the Canal du Nivernais, in Burgundy, along which pretty villages cluster as if painted into the landscape. British-owned France Afloat (0870 011 0538, www.franceafloat.com), at Vermenton, has top-end EuroClassic 139 boats (six berths, three bathrooms, the works) for £2,454 per week in high season. More modest, couple-plus-child vessels cost £987. Calais to Vermenton takes 4hr 45min.
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Youngsters aged between 12 and 15 are neither one thing nor the other: they grow sullen hanging around with mum and dad all day, but are not quite ready to be let loose on the mountains alone. Which is why Esprit Alpine Sun (01252 618300, www.esprit-holidays.co.uk) is launching a Teen Rangers programme in the Alps this year. This will whisk adolescents off for sessions of white-water rafting, ice-climbing and summer skiing, followed by accompanied nights out in town.
Esprit also looks after the under-12s, leaving oldies free to tackle the truly spectacular surroundings of Chamonix and Tignes — we’re talking rafting, climbing, hiking and more. A week’s half-board in three-star chalet-hotels, including Channel crossings, costs £399 per adult for mid-July through mid-August. Prices for youngsters up to 17 start from £199. Add £95-£160pp for the activity programmes.
A similar round of relentless family action is available in the gorges of Ardèche, in the Massif Central. Acorn Family Adventure (0800 074 5149, www.acornadventure.co.uk) lays on abseiling, archery, caving, rafting and a great two-day canoe descent of the gorges, from a tented village at Labeaume. The accent is on togetherness — communal meals and so forth — and there’s a special welcome for one-parent families. Peak season, it costs from £419pp for eight nights, including ferry.
The folks at Explore Worldwide (01252 760177, www.explore.co.uk) are terribly ecominded. They send you to the Dordogne by train and then set you off to tackle the river-rich region by canoe and bike. Good for the ozone layer and good for you, too, this is the best way to appreciate the warp and weft of gorges, chateaux and citadel villages. The peak-season price is £425pp (£400 per child: minimum age eight), including train and other travel, seven nights’ B&B camping, all activities and a tour leader.
Now with no juniors in the back seat
From coastal glamour to Pyrenean adventure, this is adults-only France
France for grown-ups sounds jolly saucy — all ooh là là, frilly knickers and “May I help you place that ostrich feather?” Of course, such a grown-up France exists — but the vast majority of French people ignore it. They are far too grown-up for adult entertainment. Instead, they direct their holiday attentions towards luxury hotels that would be wasted on the kids; to isolated spots miles away from the nearest McDonald’s; or to activities that would test youth beyond its physical or cultural tolerance threshold. And we will follow them …
IT’S IMPOSSIBLE to outrun the seaside throngs entirely — but you can give it a go. A good bet is to head for the islands off the Provençal, Breton and Norman coasts. These are less mobbed than the mainland by day, and any crowds tend to depart on the last ferry. Thus you are left (relatively) alone, with the sea, the sky, the stars and your companion for company.
An alternative strategy is to use the middle of the day for cultural stuff, hinterland hikes or simple siestas, and get to the beach in late afternoon, when the families are leaving.
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Imagine the Riviera as it must have been before tourism rolled in: scented forest, rugged headlands and spacious beaches; no cars or apartment blocks, but enough commerce to sustain community. Now, open your eyes and head for the Ile de Porquerolles, off the Giens peninsula near Hyères. At the western tip of the island, where forest topples over rocks to the sea, the Mas du Langoustier (00 33-4 94 58 30 09, www.langoustier.com) is the isolated hotel you’ve been dreaming about. There’s a semi-private beach, tracks to hike and bike, and, above all, the feeling of being in the right place with, let’s hope, the right person. Between June and August, half-board doubles start from £140pp. Five-day breaks, April 24-June 3 and August 28-October 14, cost from £493pp, half-board. Fly to Marseilles, then it’s 1?hr by car to La Tour-Fondue, where you catch the ferry.
If Porquerolles is a distillation of the Riviera, the Grande Ile de Chausey is Normandy in an even tighter nutshell. A granite rock apparently hurled out to sea off Granville, it is scarcely grande at all, measuring a mile by 500 yards, tops. Fifty minutes from the mainland, the island has one small stone village, a hotel-restaurant, a couple of forts to keep out the English (hah!), and La Ferme de Chausey (02 33 90 90 53, www.ileschausey.com), which now supplies gîte accommodation.
Nothing fancy: the luxuries here are peace, panoramas, quiet beaches and a general feeling that time and space belong to you. Two- and three-room duplexes from £372 per week March-June or September- November; £590 in July and August. Ferry to Cherbourg, then ?hr by car to Granville.
Known by some for anchovies, by others for fauvism, and by all as the prettiest little port on the Roussillon coast, Collioure is mainstream, mainland Med, and can get pretty packed. But down an alley in the town centre, the Hotel Casa Païral (04 68 82 05 81, www.hotel-casa-pairal.com) is a haven of classy Catalan calm — just the place to rest your head after beach, mountain or sightseeing adventures. Doubles from £62, June-September. Fly to Perpignan, then it’s a 40-minute drive.
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There is a photo of Bill Clinton in the bar of the Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat at St-Jean-Cap- Ferrat. Lots of distinguished people have been there, and no wonder. This great frothy palace of a place stands imperiously on its headland, the incarnation of the Riviera’s grande ?poque. Reviewed and corrected for the modern age, it has lost not an ounce of panache. Walk the vast gardens, swim the infinity pool overlooking the Med, and then flit to nearby Nice or Monaco. Seven nights’ B&B, with BA flights and car hire, starts from £1,803pp in June, £1,812 in July and August, from French Expressions (020 7433 2640, www.expressionsholidays.co.uk).
But perhaps that’s all too sedentary. You’d rather see the sea on a walk. Make for the glorious Granite Coast of northern Brittany and spend a week ambling cliffs and creeks, beaches, estuaries and hamlets. Inntravel (01653 617906, www.inntravel.co.uk) has seven nights’ dinner and B&B in decent hotels and chambres d’hôtes, with baggage transfer, flights and connections, for £768pp in low season, £838 in July and August. With ferry instead, the prices are £638 and £712 respectively.
Or why not try one more island? The low-slung Ile-de-R?, off La Rochelle, is speckled with flower-fringed villages. There are oysters, saltpans, vineyards, good beaches (especially to the northwest) — and, in St-Martin-de-R?, the thinking sailor’s St Tropez. French Affair (020 7381 8519, www.frenchaffair.com) has a set of simple, two-bedroom wooden cottages, complete with pool, beach, boats, bikes and — here’s the grown-up bit — sauna, masseurs and beauticians. Prices from £589 per week (low season) to £969 (high), including ferry crossing.
THE GREAT thiNg about tackling the French countryside without children is that you’re free from those whose attention span is computed in nanoseconds. You can afford to be boring — linger over lunch or in a village church; study standing stones or how to make aïoli — without having to worry about upsetting grumpy juvenile expectations. What’s more, you can try recapturing your youth — perhaps thrashing about on a horse or a quad bike — without real youths gurning in embarrassment.
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Off the beaten track we go, first to Beaujolais, the most famous unknown region in France — famous for its wines and unknown because hardly anyone goes there. North of Lyons and south of Burgundy, this is a zone of mountain roads twisting around vertical vineyards, of plump hills, nestling settlements, banquets and bonhomie. To the south there are golden-stone villages, while to the north, at Romanèche-Thorins, is Plaisirs en Beaujolais (00 33-3 85 35 22 22, www.hameauenbeaujolais.com) — the best wine visitor centre in France.
Roughly halfway between them, at Denic?, is the Domaine de Pouilly le Châtel (04 74 67 41 01, www.pouillylechatel.com), where Sylvaine and Bruno Chevalier provide contemporary chambres-d’hôtes in their rambling old wine farmstead. At £58 a double room and £18pp for dinner, you’re well placed to discover a region that leaves everyone smiling. Calais to Denic? takes 7hr. Or fly to Lyons, 45 minutes away.
The Gers, in Gascony, has a similar effect. As the land rolls this way and that towards the Pyrenean foothills, an enveloping sense of sunlit wellbeing is inescapable. This is the land of foie gras, armagnac and d’Artagnan, and of arcaded village squares where farmers and housewives rewrite country life. Near Condom, Gascony Secret (01284 827253, www.gascony-secret.com) has the two-bedroom Petite Maison, with pool, for £800 per week in July and August, £530 during the rest of the year. Calais to Gers takes 10hr. Alternatively, fly to Pau or Toulouse.
The Loire is the majestic one; whereas the Loir (without an “e”), running parallel to it to the north, is the river’s smaller and more charming brother. It flows through forests, vineyards and graceful old villages. At times, it opens out for watersports; at others, it squeezes between cliffs into which people once dug their homes. Don’t miss Trôo, which still has cave-dwellers, though today they tend to be trendy metropolitan types rather than hard-up locals.
This is old France, but sprucely dressed, and it has considerable grandeur. It is made for gentle cycling. The Vall?e du Loir tourism people (00 33 2 43 39 95 00, www.vallee-du-loir.com) can sort out a week’s pedalling between farm guesthouses £243pp (half-board), plus £35 bike hire. Calais to Vendôme takes 4hr 45min; or travel by TGV to Tours, 45min from Vendôme.
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So, what do you want from a grown-up mountain holiday? Stupendous scenery, good hiking, rafting and possibly golf, an unspoilt Alpine town, and a characterful hotel for the end of the day? Then make for Samo?ns, in the Giffre Valley. Between Mont Blanc and Lake Geneva, it is the only town in France to be classed in its entirety as a historic monument.
The family-run Hotel Neige et Roc is chalet-style, but with a pool, a sauna and fitness and beauty treatments. Peak Retreats (0870 770 0408, www.peakretreats.co.uk) has a week’s half-board in June for £414pp (£526pp in August), including Channel crossing. The Calais to Samo?ns drive takes 8hr 15min.
Or perhaps you’d prefer to give your brain a gentle work-out. For a week loaded with ancient history, join Andante Travels’ (01722 713800, www.andantetravels.co.uk) guided tour of megalithic Brittany. The small-group trip, departing on May 16, costs £1,150pp, including flights, transfers, accommodation, meals and a guide.
Alternatively, Martin Randall’s (020 8742 3355, www.martinrandall.com) May 29 tour will spend a week rooting deep into medieval Normandy — from Rouen to Bayeux and beyond. It costs £1,250pp, including Eurostar and connections; dinner, B&B accommodation; and lectures.
At the end of an unpromising lane in Provence, the British-owned Château de Berne opens up like a lost kingdom. The chateau has its own wine-making operation, plus an auberge just made for the contemporary squirearchy. Beyond, the rugged Haut-Var stretches softly down to the sea at Fr?jus. The chateau has cookery and perfume-making classes, a gym and pool, tennis and quad bikes. A week’s basic B&B, with flights and car hire, costs from £1,040pp in June, £1,130 high season, with French Expressions (020 7433 2640, www.expressionsholidays.co.uk).
ACTIVITIES FOR adults can either be boisterously energetic or seriously cerebral — hiking, as it were, through the canyons of the mind. As you would expect from the country of Molière and Maurice Herzog, France offers ample opportunities for both.
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We’ll start with a great week paddling down the C?l?, one of the wildest little rivers in France. On its way to join the Lot, it threads through remote countryside, castle-topped gorges and lost villages apparently unvisited for decades. Near the finish is the prehistoric painted cave at Pech Merle — astounding. The Midi-Pyr?n?es tourist board organises the trip from St-Cirq-Lapopie: opt for the “formule confort” for £265pp, including B&B, canoe, and baggage transfer. For details, contact Marie-Laure Brasseur on 00 33-5 34 25 05 05. Calais to St-Cirq takes 8hr 30min; or fly to Rodez or Toulouse — each is 90min away.
Now for a spin back in time. For 60 years, the defensive qualities of the Maginot Line have been belittled, but, in fact, it worked well — as far as it went. Trouble is, the Germans came around the side. The Line’s forts — immense underground settlements — are thus largely intact, and fascinating to visit. Stay at the Hotel l’Horizon, in Thionville (03 82 88 53 65, www.lhorizon.fr, doubles from £75), where the boss, Jean-Pascal Speck, is an unstoppable Maginot enthusiast. Calais to Thionville takes 4hr 10min; or fly to Strasbourg, 1hr 50min away.
Or how about a brush with painting? The recently launched, British-owned French House Party (01299 896819, www.frenchhouseparty.co.uk) offers drama, ceramics, painting and photography courses against a backdrop of convivial company, Cathar castles, Carcassonne and cassoulet. Five-day courses in the converted farmstead outside Pexiora are £290pp, or £490pp with accommodation and most meals (based on two sharing). Fly to Carcassonne or Toulouse.
– Go packaged
Hop onto the stalwart little Train des Pignes at Nice, and chug up into the Provençal highlands through a landscape guaranteed to lighten the soul. Hop off again in the tough mountain villages, where you’ll find hiking trails and your hotel for the night. Then continue by train to Digne. Your itinerary is flexible, but six nights’ B&B (plus some dinners), including Eurostar and TGV to Nice and the Nice-Digne return, costs £536pp from French Travel Service (0870 241 4243, www.frenchtravelservice.co.uk).
Once in Digne, why not stay put for a three-night, four-day mix of mountain adventure (quad-biking, hang-gliding, biking) and pampering at the town’s thermal spa? All this, plus half-board in a two-star hotel, costs £240pp, but must be booked separately via Digne tourism office (04 92 36 62 68, www.ot-dignelesbains.fr).
The Alsace wine route is arguably the prettiest in France. At the hinge of the Vosges Mountains and the Alsacien plain, vineyards sweep right down to the gates of small towns and half-timbered villages, each lovelier than the last. Fortified Riquewihr has barely moved on a millimetre from the Middle Ages, while Haut-Konigsberg is one of the zaniest chateaux in France. Walking the hillside trails is a delight; do it for a week with Sherpa (020 8577 2717, www.sherpa-walking-holidays.co.uk), staying in hotels of character. It costs £759pp, half-board, with flights, transfers and baggage transfer.
And finally, to horse. Deep in the Tarn Valley at Les Juliannes, European Riding Holidays (01653 617906, www.europeanridingholidays.co.uk) will mount you up for a week of all-level courses and/or hacking. Later, you can recover by the pool, go cycling, or drive off to discover Cordes-sur-Ciel and Albi. Accommodation is in a 17th-century stone farmhouse, and meals are taken together, ensuring jollity. Half-board, with flights, transfers and 10 hours on horseback is £689pp per week. The riding weight limit is 16 stone.