With Europe set to reopen to Brits, the first place many will think of heading for a summer holiday is across the Channel. France has moved swiftly since the ending of lockdown, with a reassuring foundation of health and safety regulations.
The country is seriously open for summer holidays, and keen to welcome British tourists back. More French people will be holidaying at home this year, so classic summer resorts risk being crowded.
But the wonder of France has always been getting off the autoroute as quickly as possible, discovering small villages, vineyards and countryside and keeping away from major cities. Here are four ideal road trips.
COUNTRYSIDE: Sancerrois, eastern Loire valley
A trip to the Sancerrois, just two hours’ drive from Paris, offers a swift reminder of the delights of holidaying in France. Rolling vine-clad hills, castles and pretty villages surround the majestic town of Sancerre, on its hill looking over the Loire river. Sancerre winemakers have already reopened their cellars for tastings of their world-famous sauvignon and pinot noirs: with over 200 domains to choose from, rarely requiring a reservation in advance and proudly free of charge. Try Domaine André Dezat, in the sleepy hamlet of Verdigny, or Domaine Yves Martin in Chavignol, a village as famous for its delicious goat’s cheese.
Moulin des Vrillères also has accommodation (studio sleeping four from €59 a night, breakfast available, two-night minimum). There is usually a village fair every weekend throughout the summer, but this year they have all been cancelled. Instead, from 17 July until the end of August, Ciné Vignes offers outdoor movie screenings in vineyards (book online in advance). And, again to avoid crowds inside closed spaces, the weekend of 11 October will see all of Sancerre turned into an open-air Foire aux Vins, with wines from all over France for tasting alongside street food stalls.
For sightseeing, don’t expect the pomp and splendour of the more famous royal chateaux further up the Loire, like Chambord and Chenonceau, but queues and crowds are rare at romantic Château de la Verrerie, a little-known Renaissance jewel in the village of Oizon, once owned by Scottish knights fighting with France during the hundred years war.
For the perfect alfresco lunch or dinner, head for the bank of the mighty Loire at Saint-Satur, where tables at Le Ligérien sit right on the waterside beneath the trees, serving deep-fried Loire whitebait, omelettes oozing melted goat’s cheese and irresistible crispy frites. Next door is a basic and budget-priced campsite, Les Portes de Sancerre (tent pitch €32, mobile home for two €70, three-night minimum). For the ultimate foodie experience, book a table at C’heu l’Zib in the winemaking village of Menetou-Salon, and prepare to eat your way through homemade terrines, coq au vin, cheeses and an unforgettable charlotte au chocolat.
COAST: Les Landes, southern Aquitaine
This summer is likely to see crowds returning to favourite seaside destinations such as the Côte d’Azur. But for somewhere less busy, Les Landes is a quiet region on the Atlantic between Bayonne and Bordeaux, with never-ending sandy beaches, fringed by lakes and forests of huge pine trees. Known as La Côte d’Argent, the Silver Coast, Europe’s longest, straightest beach runs for over 200km. The giant waves and swelling breaks at certain key spots are cult meeting places for Europe’s top surfers, but peace and quiet are never far away. Head off from one of the surfer haunts by foot or bike and in 15 minutes you will find yourself alone, though don’t be surprised if you stumble upon a public nudist beach.
Unlike much of coastal France, which is lined with hotels and apartment blocks, Les Landes was made a conservation exception in the 1960s, and the pristine natural landscape of sea, sand dunes and pine trees – plus traditional villages inland – have been left unspoilt. Parents with children can choose from numerous beach camping sites, such as Le Saint-Martin (tent pitch €33, chalet for two €100, seven-night minimum). Or try a village B&B like Au Jardin (doubles €82, breakfast extra) 10km inland at Biscarosse, then head off each day on foot or bike for a beach picnic, swimming and sunbathing. For eating out, there are lots of pop-up summer beach cantinas – try Seignosse’s La Paillote du Lac or La Hitillère at Messanges. For a hearty Landes dinner – such as roast octopus or duck confit – head to a traditional bistro like Les Roseaux in Seignosse.
MOUNTAINS: Cantal, Auvergne
The French love heading to the mountains in summer, pour se ressourcer – to recharge their batteries, prioritising wellness, hiking and biking, plus some hearty cuisine of course, with a healthy back-to-nature ethos that feels right for this strange year.
The towering peaks of the Alps are of course popular, but for a more intriguing, remoter and more affordable option it’s hard to beat the Cantal, in central France’s volcanic Auvergne.
The Parc des Volcans is a chain of peaks created some 13 million years ago. Outdoor sports including paragliding, hot-air ballooning and horse riding have opened up again, though it is difficult to beat the simple pleasure of a day-long hike with a mountain guide to tell you all about the geology, flora and fauna and advise on the best places to try Cantal cuisine. For cyclists, climbing the zigzag bends of the cone-like Puy Mary offers spectacular vistas, with the added reward of a delicious lunch of home-cured charcuterie and aligot, creamy mash with garlic and Cantal cheese, at rustic Chalet du Puy Mary, close to the top.
At the southern edge of the Parc des Volcans, the family-run Auberge des Montagnes (doubles from €87 room-only) offers comfy accommodation, gourmet cuisine and a spa that has rethought its sanitary and hygiene regulations. .
Over in the even quieter corner of Cantal known as the Châtaigneraie, whose rolling hills are covered with chestnut trees, the sleepy village of Marcolès boasts an old-fashioned inn, Auberge de la Tour (doubles €85 room-only) that has been fashionably renovated and whose owner-chef recently won a Michelin star. Nearby is the secluded Lac Saint-Etienne-Cantalès, perfect for swimming and kayaking.
Suitably uncrowded eating options range from Le Lac Sauvage at Dienne, where you can catch your own trout and get the chef to cook it, to the Buron de Chaussedier, an ancient stone shepherd’s hut whose terrace offers panoramic views of the volcanic peaks, shared just with grazing cows as you enjoy a chilled glass of wine with a garden salad or a juicy Salers steak.
LAKES: La Dombes, Rhone-Alpes
Holidaymakers are spoilt for choice in France when it comes to scenic lake districts, but few can compare to the little-known Dombes region north of Lyon, which merits its evocative name – Land of a Thousand Lakes. This labyrinth of étangs, small lakes and ponds that speckle the countryside, dates back nearly a thousand years to when these low-lying wetlands were adapted for fish farming. Today, they still teem with carp, pike and tench, as well as thousands of croaking frogs: surprisingly perhaps, a protected species, so won’t be ending up in the local bistros as garlicky cuisses de grenouilles.
Dombes is a carefully preserved nature sanctuary, with spectacular birdspotting at Parc des Oiseaux near main town Villars-les-Dombes – which is home to some 300 exotic and local species. The family-oriented Le Nid du Parc campsite (tent pitch €25, wooden caravan for two €115) is right nearby, while a more isolated option is glampsite La Domaine de la Dombes (tent pitch €18 a night, floating stilt cabin €115), with its own lake and sandy beach, birdwatching, fishing and canoeing, an animal park for kids and a wellness centre.
Ten minutes drive from Le Domaine, the casual Oh Boucheaux bistro has local specialities such as deep-fried carp, trout, crayfish and France’s most famous poultry, tasty poulet de Bresse, served in a rich creamy sauce. Many of the Dombes lakes have reasonably priced guinguettes (outdoor cafes), like the waterside La Paillotte at Sandrans and La Bicyclette Bleue on the other side of Villars, which also rents bikes and has announced that its dances and concerts will go ahead this summer following social distancing rules.
Although La Dombes is essentially an outdoor destination, offering lake fishing, road and mountain biking, and gentle rambling, there are also some impressive sights, such as the neo-Byzantine redbrick Cistercian abbey and ornate gardens of Notre-Dame des Dombes. If you feel like braving the crowds on market day, medieval Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne fills with stalls of local produce on Saturday mornings. As well as numerous campsites, there are rustic B&Bs costing under €100 a night, such as Ferme Passion (doubles €82), which also has its own riding stables.