Sheep amble on hillsides, roads lead to Camembert farms, people actually ride bikes with baguettes in their baskets – the idyllic French countryside of your lavender-filled fantasies is out there. Sure, you’ll get there quicker if you take the train (all hail Le TGV), but the most memorable discoveries are made when you hit the road, get lost and take time to explore the French countryside from the wheel of a Citroën 2CV.
Best for: foodies and first-timers
The region’s 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 north for a tasting or two in the venerable vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and then up into the hill towns of the Luberon mountain, whose light beguiled artists from Van Gogh and Cézanne. The region brims with picturesque Provençal villages – and it’s always market day somewhere. Saunter through Gordes on a Tuesday or Ménerbes on a Thursday to pick up fresh goat cheese and a jar of local lavender honey. You’ll have no trouble finding a scenic picnic spot. Continue your journey east via the great Verdon Gorge river canyon, which you can explore on foot or by canoe.
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 the coastal commune of Ramatuelle. Drive past Cannes to the old town of Antibes for a peek at the Picasso Museum and a languid 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, and end in Eze, a spectacularly scenic hill town perched high above the French Riviera. Tour the exquisite Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in seaside 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 the port city 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 hotel in Camembert country, from where you can comb the fleamarket 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 be sure to stash a bottle).
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 Chartrons neighbourhood to take in the Musée d’Art Contemporain and hit the boutiques before venturing to the wine château or two. Drive south through sprawling Landes de Gascogne natural park. Hop out for a hike amid the pine forests or just drive on 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 both beginners and experts. 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 – or better still, the night – in San Sebastián, 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 all of 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 Patrimonio wine country to taste complex Corsican varietals. From there, head deeper into the rugged, untamed interior, roamed by wild boar and punctuated by mountains, to explore swathes of forest and the ramparts that surround the town of Corte. Stop in the Musée de la Corse, set in a 15th-century citadel, then head south to bask on the beach at U Capu Biancu. Allow someone else to take the wheel and hire a boat to explore the rocky wonder of the untouched Lavezzi Islands – the southernmost point of France.
To continue your road trip, explore the rest of our boutique hotels in France.