Sheep amble on hillsides, dirt roads lead to family-owned cheese farms, people actually do bike with baguettes in their baskets – the idyllic French countryside of your lavender-scented fantasies is most definitely out there. Sure, you’ll get there quicker if you take the train from one city to the next (all hail Le TGV), but the most memorable discoveries are made when you hit the road, get a little lost and take the time to explore the French countryside as it was meant to be seen – from behind the wheel of a Citroën 2CV.
Even if you can’t get your hands on a vintage deux chevaux, the following five French road trips have the sights and scenery to more than make up for it.
Best for: foodies and first-timers
Lavender fields burst into bloom in June and July, but September marks the harvest. Grapes are heavy on the vines and colours are warm. Start in the walled city of Avignon with a tour of the Palais des Papes, the seat of the Catholic Church in the 14th century. In the afternoon, head up north for a tasting or two in the venerable vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Explore the Luberon, whose light beguiled Van Gogh and Cezanne. The region brims with picturesque Provençal villages – and it’s always market day somewhere. Visit Gordes on a Tuesday or Ménerbes on a Thursday to pick up some fresh goat cheese and a jar of lavender honey. You’ll have no trouble finding a scenic locale for a picnic.
Continue east to explore the great Verdon Gorge river canyon by foot or canoe, and don’t miss a leisurely lunch at Alain Ducasse’s romantically rustic La Bastide de Moustiers hotel.
Best for: sun seekers and art lovers
For more French frolicking, continue east into the Côte d’Azur. Spend a day or two sipping rosé at the beach clubs in glitzy St Tropez. Stay in the city proper to be at the heart of the hedonism or, for something more serene, head 15 minutes away to Ramatuelle.
Drive past Cannes to Old Town Antibes for a peek at the Picasso Museum and lunch on the cobblestones. Those craving beach time can stay put, but for a hit of culture, head inland to artsy Saint-Paul de Vence. Visit the Fondation Maeght modern art museum and the Rosary Chapel, designed by Matisse.
End in Eze, a spectacularly scenic hill town perched high above the Riviera. Tour the exquisite Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Cap Ferrat, live large with the high rollers in Monte Carlo, or just soak up the view poolside.
Best for: history buffs and brandy swillers
Normandy may be famous for its military history, but there’s more than conquest to uncover. Start with a climb up the island abbey of Mont Saint-Michel (technically across the border in Brittany), one of the most dazzling, if touristy, sights in France.
Follow the coast to the D-Day sites: the Musée du Débarquement at Utah Beach, Pointe du Hoc, the American Cemetery and Omaha Beach. It’s a whirlwind of a day, so unwind with an impeccable dinner at Le Botaniste in Port-en-Bessin.
In the morning, hop on the Route du Cidre to the east of Caen. The route winds through a series of charming towns and hits the best cider and Calvados producers along the way. Continue south to Château de Saint Paterne in Camembert country. Comb the flea market in Alençon and then drive from farm to farm tasting gloriously gooey home-made cheeses (Calvados is just the thing to cut through the richness, so make sure you stashed away a bottle earlier).
Bordeaux to Biarritz
Best for: surfers and oenophiles
The Bordeaux region is synonymous with wine, but the city itself is a charmer. Head to the cool Catrons neighbourhood to take in the Musée d’Art Contemporain and hit the boutiques before venturing to the wine château of your choosing.
Drive south through sprawling Landes de Gascogne park. Hop out for a hike through the pine forest or just drive through the marshland, spotting wildlife from your window. Further west, a string of seaside towns runs along the Atlantic coast. If you’ve strapped your surfboard to the roof, stop in Hossegor, which offers breaks for beginners and experts alike.
Continue on to Biarritz, a resort town where you can swim in the mornings and roam the Basque countryside in the afternoons. Drive to charming St. Jean de Luz or cross the border into Spain for lunch in San Sebastian, just because you can.
Best for: adventurers and beach snobs
To see the wilder side of France, fly to Corsica, a spectacularly scenic island off the coast of Cannes with an identity entirely its own. Start your engine in the north near Calvi with the mountains at your back. Arm yourself with a picnic of local charcuterie and cheese and head up for a hike. End the day at lovely Aregno Beach to wash it all off.
Drive north into Patrimonia wine country to taste the complex Corsican wines. From there, head deeper into the rugged, untamed interior – watch out for wild boar – to explore the swaths of forest and the ramparts that surround the town of Corte. Stop in the Musée de la Corse, set in a 15th-century citadel.
End south, basking on the beach at U Capu Biancu. Allow someone else to take the wheel, and hire a boat to explore rocky wonder of the untouched Lavezzi Islands – the southernmost point in European France.
Featured image is the coastal road in Les Calanches on the island of Corsica