Tropez as she was. After a minute boat ride, I was gazing at the shoreline of Porquerolles, the largest of three islands in the Hyeres archipelago. I did a double take: there seemed to be a halo of diffused light surrounding it: "In the Mediterranean, the islands are known as the ties d'Or," my new friend explained, "because of the metallic sheen that glitters on the mica rock that is all over the island-So tiny are these islands, if you blink, you'll miss them on the map.
Little-known Porquerolles is a secret gem that the French want to keep for themselves. France recognized that urbanization and tourism were threatening its Mediterranean coastal areas and their indigenous rare flora and fauna, so in the government bought 1, of the island's 1, hectares and designated it a national heritage area, putting it under the protection of the Conservatoire Botanique. Legislation brought in included the banning of cars the only way to get around is by foot or bicycle and strict limitations on building.
Thus, there are few hotels and little space on ferries. This, by and large, restricts tourism mostly to day-trippers. Regretting immediately the thought of having to leave the same day, at the J - --fer " - it f' -.
As part of the French Mediterranean coast, the island is geographically on the same parallel as Corsica and, as such, is blessed with the same climate. Sun for plus days per year, mild winters rarely falling below zero and hot summers deli-ciously cooled by the sea breeze. As we alighted on the shores of Porquerolles, I could sense that this place held no likeness whatsoever to nearby St. There was a sense of wilderness to it, perhaps a result of the winds that seemed to blow with a gusty abandon through the pine trees.
The place is so small that after bidding adieu to the clerk, I walked not more than three minutes, passed a cafe and a bike-rental shop, and found myself in the square, the nucleus of the village.
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Against the backdrop of a 14th-century church, shirtless men played boules in slow motion with the concentration of chess-players. Gated, red-clay-roofed houses covered with vines and bougainvillea stood with a quiet dignity, and seemed to speak: do not disturb. The occupants of the cafes were more absorbed in their newspa pers or companions than in gawking, and women walked around in simple cotton frocks, in stark contrast to the haute couture and glitz that St Tropez offered.
Every time the wind picked up, I caught a whiff of lavender or eucalyptus, intermingled with the lamb that was be ing grilled for the lunchtime "crowd" at the cafes bordering the courtyard. I felt like I had stepped back in time.
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As I usually do when I am alone and enter a place for the first time, I headed directly to a cafe for a "fact-finding" mission experience has taught me that bartenders are always much more informative than any Michelin guide. Terracotta tiles, floral tablecloths and delicate wrought-iron furniture decorated this cafe. Taking a place at the bar, I ordered a paella from the bartender, who, as it turned out, was also the ownercookcleanerwaiter of the place, and a study in "le style Provencal. Our wine has its own special taste from the soil of the island.
As luck would have it, he was erudite in all mat ters concerning his home, and recounted the history of the island. I soon found out that other than archaeological finds pointing to a prior inhabitation by Liguri-ans, Etruscans, Saracens, Romans and Greeks, little is known about its ancient history. Not unpredictably, the convicts soon transformed the island into a base for their own plundering and pirating, only to end in the next century under the reign of King Louis XIV, who also built a number of forts to further secure the island.
The village in which we sat was created in for families of the soldiers sent there to recuperate from service in France's colonial wars. As recompense for staying in such a beautiful place, the families were obliged to build low houses and to plant a tree in front of their door. Thus, began a tradition of discreet, subtle housing and a reverence for nature. After passing through the hands of several owners, the island was bought at an auction in by a rich businessman named Fournier as a way to woo the woman he loved into marriage.
His strategy worked, and o his honeymoon he started work on a hectare vineyard.
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The family is still here; in fact, Fournier's granddaughter is the owner of a hotel, the Mas du Langoustier. Today, this vineyard bears the fruit for the well-regarded local wine I was sharing with my Pagnolian friend, appellation Cotes des lies, produced on the islands of Hyeres. The grapes are harvested by hand and, in the spirit of the island, are cultivated without weedkiller, chemical fertilizers or insecticides. In the Loire Valley, km of marked bike routes — flat and perfect for zipping between the valley's fairy-tale castles.
An insanely scenic, km route in Provence linking hilltop villages. This purpose-built bike path in Provence's Luberon Valley follows the route of a disused railway line for 28km, and there are future plans to extend it. Take your pick of idyllic islands to explore, both riddled with cycling paths and outlets renting every type of bicycle and children's trailer imagineable. On the Atlantic Coast, Europe's highest sand dune can be reached by a silky-smooth cycling path from nearby Arcachon.
As a rule of thumb, budget covers everything from basic hostels to small family-run places; midrange means a few extra creature comforts such as a lift; while top-end places stretch from luxury five-star palaces with air-conditioning, swimming pools and restaurants to boutique-chic Alpine chalets. The following price ranges refer to a double room in high season, with private bathroom any combination of toilet, bathtub, shower and washbasin , excluding breakfast unless otherwise noted.
Where half-board breakfast and dinner and full board breakfast, lunch and dinner is included, this is mentioned with the price. Midrange, top-end and many budget hotels require a credit card number to secure an advance reservation made by phone; some hostels do not take bookings. In the Alps, ski-resort tourist offices run a central reservation service for booking accommodation. Be it a Mongolian yurt, boutique tree house or simple canvas beneath stars, camping in France is in vogue.
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Thousands of well-equipped campgrounds dot the country, many considerately placed by rivers, lakes and the sea. If you fancy doing a Robinson Crusoe by staying in a tree house with an incredible view over the treetops, visit Cabanes de France www. Prefer to keep your feet firmly on the ground? Keep an eye out for ecoconscious campsites where you can snooze in a tipi tepee or in a giant hammock. Popular among students and young people, this set-up means you rent a room and usually have access sometimes limited to the bathroom and the kitchen; meals may also be available.
If you are sensitive to smoke or pets, make sure you mention this. Hostels in France range from funky to threadbare, although with a wave of design-driven, up-to-the-minute hostels opening in Paris, Marseille and other big cities, hip hang-outs with perks aplenty seem to easily outweigh the threadbare these days.
Hotels in France are rated with one to five stars, although the ratings are based on highly objective criteria eg the size of the entry hall , not the quality of the service, the decor or cleanliness. If you are planning on staying put for more than a few days or are travelling in a group, then renting a furnished studio, apartment or villa can be an economical alternative. You will have the chance to live like a local, with trips to the farmers market and the boulangerie bakery. Finding an apartment for long-term rental can be gruelling. Landlords, many of whom prefer locals to foreigners, usually require substantial proof of financial responsibility and sufficient funds in France; many ask for a caution guarantee and a hefty deposit.
Drop by lonelyplanet. Fleurs de Soleil www. Alistair Sawday's www. Logis de France www. Relais du Silence www.
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Small Luxury Hotels of the World www. In France, as elsewhere in Europe, 'ground floor' refers to the floor at street level; the 1st floor — what would be called the 2nd floor in the US — is the floor above that.
Few Western cuisines are so envied, aspired to or seminal. The freshness of ingredients, natural flavours, regional variety and range of cooking methods in French cuisine is phenomenal. The French table waltzes taste buds through a dizzying array of dishes sourced from aromatic street markets, seaside oyster farms, sun-baked olive groves and ancient vineyards mirroring the beauty of each season. Discovering these varied regional cuisines is an enriching, essential experience. No country so blatantly bundles up cuisine with its terroir land.
Yet it is the serene valley, tracing the course of the River Loire west of the French capital, which remains most true to the Rabelais image of a green and succulent landscape laden with lush fruits, flowers, nuts and vegetables.