Move your family to France for a week—or three—and stay in a house that's cheaper than a hotel room. Here, a renter's guide to where to go and everything you need to know, plus just-back reports from two families.
So you've dreamed of taking your family to France. You picture your kids wearing blue-and-white-striped shirts, curled up on a window seat reading Tintin (never mind that your kids can't read French) in your Provençal mas surrounded by lavender fields. Or your stone cottage in the Dordogne. Or your terra-cotta-roofed château in the Loire. Okay, maybe not a château, but what about the little guesthouse next to the château? Too pricey? Too far? Too afraid of the French?
Wait—before you book a room at the resort you always go to—your fantasy is not so unrealistic. Extraordinary rentals in France can start at $550 a week. And picky eaters, skeptical teens, nighttime howlers, and the overly energetic are encouraged to come. Yes, they can cope with jet lag; after all, you'll be able to spread out, sleep or raise a rumpus, and raid a kitchen stocked with village market fare and enough croissants to keep everybody content. Think of it: no sharing a room, plus a per-day cost far less than that of a hotel—especially when you factor in everyone who'll decide to come along. Best of all, renting a house lets your family see what it's like to live in France: castle tours, fields of sunflowers, great french fries, and neighbors who will most likely disprove all those nasty French stereotypes, especially if you attempt to speak their language.
Related: Best Villa Rental Agencies
Of course, there are bound to be some surprises, such as the Gallic idea of a shower (kind of like squirting yourself with a hose), but most pitfalls can be avoided—if you know what to look for and what questions to ask. So, s'il vous plaît, allow us to show you the way.
Planning Your French Vacation
ZERO IN ON A REGION Peter Mayle's tales aside, so many people choose the south because the weather is practically guaranteed to be good. More northerly regions, such as Normandy and Brittany, have lots to offer, including gorgeous coastline and far fewer Americans, but the temperature fluctuates and the ocean is brisk. For help finding the right area for you, see our annotated map of France below. Then start to fine-tune what you're after. Village abodes offer a window into French life; you can walk to the boulangerie and the café. Country houses are ideal for younger kids who need room to run, but a nightmare for most 15-year-olds. And how much would you give for a backyard pool?
SET YOUR DATES The French usually take vacations between July 15 and August 30, so if that's your idea too, book as far in advance as possible. May is the second-busiest time for French tourists, thanks to several national and religious holidays. There are more crowds during peak getaway weeks, but at least they're French crowds. You'll find festivals and itinerant circuses, and you can pretty much count on a nearby manège, or carousel. Bargain-lovers, take note: Low-season rates generally run from October through mid-May.
LET THE HOUSE-HUNTING BEGIN French rental options are so widely available on the Internet that researching them can take over your life. Word of advice: For the most seamless experience, go with an established agency. Many have Web sites that make it easy—plug in the region, the number of people, the amenities you want (pool, garden, dishwasher), and your price range, and a list of choices will appear. Often you'll be able to take a virtual tour, not only of the exterior but of all the rooms. And once you've found some houses of interest, you can talk to a knowledgeable agent and ask questions—you'll have many (see the starting list, below).
Ready to sign on? Typically, you'll be required to pay in full, plus a security deposit, eight weeks prior to departure. Be warned that refunds are hard to come by. For the best protection, use a company that accepts credit cards (most don't), and take out trip-cancellation insurance.
Three Top Rental Agencies
RENTVILLAS.COM This group, which also specializes in Italy, handles about 600 houses in France, the majority of them in Provence. Customer service is a priority; a "travel adviser" rather than an agent will assist you. Rentvillas.com rates its properties on a scale of one to five stars, based on quality of the view, garden, rooms, and noise level. Clients' comments are posted uncensored on the Web site. Special tours, baby-sitters, maid service, and chefs are available at many properties, for a price. And, yes, credit cards are accepted. 800/726-6702 or 805/641-1650; www.rentvillas.com; cottages for four from $550 a week in low season, $750 in high; villa for seven (with pool) in high season from $3,200.
VILLE ET VILLAGE With some 850 properties all over France and the able guidance of its owner, Carolyn Grote, this agency based in Berkeley, California, is ideal if you're not sure which region is for you. Grote knows them all. She even has houses on Île de Ré, where it's notoriously hard for outsiders to get a foot in the door. A catalogue of all the rentals is available. One drawback: no credit cards. 510/559-8080; www.villeetvillage.com; cottages for four from $600 a week in low season, $1,000 in high; villa for six (with pool) in high season from $3,500.
HOMES AWAY In need of coddling and willing to pay for it (with a credit card)? This Toronto-based firm represents 42 top-of-the-line French villas, some with chefs and all with housekeepers—and the services of an English-speaking host-concierge, three half-days per week. The latter, on request, will not only stock the fridge and lay out a welcome buffet, but also organize bike trips, hot-air balloon rides, even fireworks displays. You can also expect swimming pools, terraces, and superb views. 800/374-6637 or 416/920-1873; www.homesaway.com; three-bedroom houses from $6,000 a week in low season, $6,500 in high.
GOOD VALUE WHERE THE FRENCH FIND THEIR RENTALS A French government agency, Gîtes de France, oversees a nationwide system of rural house and cottage rentals. Gîte means shelter in French, and these dwellings span the range of comfort levels, from single rooms in farmhouses to well-appointed estates. They're rated accordingly on a scale of one to five épis (ears of corn). The good news: you can snag a great place for $600 per week in summer, and for considerably less if you're open to undiscovered locales. To find a place, explore the agency's Web site, www.gites-de-france.com, by region. Or request a catalogue for a particular region (call the Paris office at 33-1/49-70-75-75). Alternatively, the British company Brittany Ferries (44-8705/143-537; www.brittany-ferries.com) produces a free compendium of Gîtes de France properties with descriptions in English. Also consider gîtes that don't belong to the official network. Find them on www.gite.com or by going to a search engine, such as Google, and typing in a town or region, plus "gîtes." An unofficial gîte to check out: Aux Deux Soeurs, near St.-Rémy-de-Provence (www.auxdeuxsoeurs-provence.com), on the grounds of a 19th-century bastide, with a pool, baby-sitters, and helpful English owners.
LEASING DIRECTLY FROM RAOUL To hook up with individuals trying to rent out houses, do a Web search by region, or try a global rental site such as choice1.com, cyberrentals.com, or vrbo.com, all of which allow you to specify where you're looking and what you're after. Tread cautiously: Request pictures in addition to those posted, ask for room measurements (photos can be deceiving), probe for hidden costs, and try to pay with a credit card.
HOW ABOUT TRADING LIVES? Scores of French families are dying to swap houses with you during school vacation times—for nothing. Some even have city and country pads.
REALITY CHECK You were hoping for a washer and a dryer? Time to alter expectations a bit. Dryers are rare in France. Ditto automatic coffeemakers: most houses will have a French press. French towels are thinner and smaller than American ones, pillows much less plush. And with some rentals, if you want linens, it'll cost you.
TIME TO GO Weekly rentals typically start on a Saturday and are often not ready until late afternoon. That means that by the time you settle in, nearby stores will most likely be closed until Monday. To avoid finding yourself without soap, pick up essentials en route. You can try asking the owner to leave milk, bread, and coffee in the fridge. But bring your own bonbons.
Key Questions to Ask the Rental Agent
• Have you visited or stayed in this property?
• How big is the house, and is it freestanding? The garden? (Village dwellings can be right on top of one another.)
• Is there a pool? How big? Private or shared?
• Does the house have a phone we can use? (For more on phones, see below.)
• How is the kitchen equipped? What kind of staples? Is there a washing machine? Are linens included?
• Is a list of emergency numbers posted? (If not, ask for one, including whom to call in case of a problem. And see if the owner will give you the scoop on favorite sites and sources.)
RENTER'S REPORT A Family Reunion in the Dordogne
The Wish List "We wanted a house for a week in April, large enough for eight: me; my husband, Thierry, who is French; our son, Wylie, five; Thierry's parents, who live near Bordeaux; and Thierry's brother with his two kids, ages 13 and 16."
Locale "The Dordogne, specifically the area around Les Eyzies-de-Tayac (a village with a wealth of caves, grottoes, and prehistoric art) and Sarlat (the largest town, home to a famous twice-weekly market in a medieval square)."
First Rental Agency "Homeaway.co.uk—I fell in love with a farmhouse, 10 minutes outside of Les Eyzies, and paid in full—$1,050, including a 2 percent surcharge for using a credit card. Then, a week before we were to leave, the agency e-mailed to say the house wasn't available after all. Instead, I was being 'rewarded' with a 'more expensive' place well out of our target location. In a snit, I requested—and received—a full refund. But now we had plane tickets and no place to stay."
Second Rental Agency "My friend Susan Jamison (see her Renter's Report, below) had had luck with California-based Rentvillas.com, so I begged them to find me a desirable spot fast. Three days before departure we secured a four-bedroom house near Sarlat for $1,400."
Arrival "We drove into La Roque-Gageac, a village built into a cliff along the Dordogne River, picked up keys at the bar-tabac, and climbed a steep path to the house. Wow. Our 700-year-old stone rental was much prettier than the photos we'd seen: a living room with a big fireplace, a terrace, and, in the kitchen, a farm table with a bottle of Cahors wine and a round bread to go with the platter of cheese in the fridge."
A Great Day "We cruised the Dordogne in a traditional river barge, and dined that night at La Meynardie, a farmhouse-restaurant set in the middle of vineyards."
What I Loved "The marché at Sarlat, where I picked up amazing strawberries, white asparagus, and fresh goat cheese, among other things. After exploring Domme, a medieval bastide, we had an extravagant picnic dinner on our terrace."
What the Kids Loved "The grottoes; riding the steam train along a truffle route; and, most of all, Château de Castelnaud, a 13th-century castle with a museum of medieval military history."
Food-Shopping Tip "Buy bread and croissants at a bakery; shop for cheese, fruit, vegetables, and cured meat at outdoor markets; and discover that supermarkets are great for everything else, including wine."
—Leslie Brenner, Los Angeles
RENTER'S REPORT The Classic Provençal Experience
The Big Plan "A three-month sabbatical is one of the perks offered to partners in my law firm. When my turn finally came up last summer, my husband and I wanted to spend three weeks in Europe with our children, Sarah, 13, and Joe, nine—including a week in Provence in a rented house."
Locale "The Vaucluse area of Provence, near Avignon, seemed ideal—close to Roman and medieval towns, great food markets, and Rhône Valley vineyards. Richard and I are both oenophiles and love to cook."
Rental Agency "I found countless Web sites devoted to rentals, but my inquiries were rarely answered. Ultimately, I landed on the extremely efficient Rentvillas.com site, and secured a four-bedroom mas—a Provençal stone house—with a pool and within walking distance of the medieval hill town of Gordes: $2,140 for a week in early July."
Arrival "There was a four-acre olive and cherry orchard (with ripe fruit!) in our yard, and views of vineyards and sunflower fields, a well-equipped kitchen, and a good outdoor grill. We were thrilled—and the town of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, with its famous food-and-antiques market, was only a few miles away."
A Great Day "We saw families canoeing down the tree-lined Sorgue River and decided to try it. The water was extraordinarily clear and infused with an unforgettable pale green light. The paddling was easy."
What I Loved "Mornings spent driving to nearby towns—Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Châteauneuf-du-Pape—where we tasted wine while the kids explored on their own and had ice cream. Afternoons spent making cherry pies, cherry clafoutis, and duck with cherry sauce—all from our own fruit."
What the Kids Loved "The Roman ruins, the museum, and the hilltop fortress in Vaison-la-Romaine."
Downside "A chemical in our pool made the kids' eyes sting. We splurged on a place with a pool and then didn't use it much."
Best Souvenirs "A tablecloth, of course, and also little bottles of truffle oil, old brass candlesticks, and vintage fashion ads, all from the market."
Motherly Wisdom "You go to Provence to appreciate the cuisine, the antiquity, the scenery—things that blow past a nine-year-old boy. Our teenage daughter, on the other hand, adored it all, and made it her mission to sample every crème caramel along the way."
—Susan Jamison, San Francisco
What Will My Kids Eat?
LE PETIT DÉJEUNER (Breakfast—popularly known as "p'tit déj")
• Pain au chocolat et un chocolat chaud Chocolate croissant and a bowl of hot chocolate, for decadent mornings
• Les tartines Toast, best dunked in hot chocolate
LE DÉJEUNER (Lunch)
• Sandwich jambon-beurre Ham on a buttered baguette
• Pizza À la provençale Pizza with tomatoes and mozzarella. Look for the pizza trucks
• Croque-monsieur Grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich
• Sandwich À l'américaine Ground beef with french fries and ketchup in a baguette
LE GOÛTER (Snack)
• Les frites French fries. Look for the frites trucks—during road trips this is what families nibble on
• Pain aux raisins Raisin bun, a boulangerie best-seller
• Beignets Jelly doughnuts—get 'em at the beach
• Les Chocos BN The French Oreo
• Yaourt Yogurt—check out the stunning variety for kids at supermarkets
LE DÎNER (dinner—request the menu enfant, or kids' menu; meals typically include a syrup drink and ice cream)
• Saucisson sec Dry salami—an appetizer
• Steak haché (ou poulet) frites Burger without the bun (or chicken) and fries
LES BOISSONS (drinks—des glaçons, ice, on request)
• Sirop Syrup (in dozens of flavors) diluted in water—the French Shirley Temple
• Diabolo Carbonated lemonade mixed with strawberry or other syrups
• Citron pressé Fresh lemonade—add your own sugar water
• Gervais The French Good Humor: inventive ice cream-truck fare, sold at cafés, bars, and groceries
• Crêpes au chocolat Thin pancakes with Nutella
• Une boule de glace A scoop of ice cream
• Tarte Tatin Caramelized apple tart
• Profiteroles Cream puffs filled with ice cream and covered with chocolate sauce. Betcha can't eat just one!
France at a Glance
The Atlantic coast is the place for fishing villages, ports with parti-color boats, and rocky seashore. OUTINGS Explore Mont-St.-Michel, the walled city of St.-Malo, and the capital, Rennes. Along the quays in Douarnenez, visit the workshops of boatwrights and sailmakers. PICKY EATERS REJOICE There isn't a kid who doesn't love the Breton specialty, crêpes, sold at markets by women in lace caps. WEB SITES www.brittany-guide.com; www.arts-et-culture.com
The shell-strewn "invasion beaches" on the east side of the Cotentin Peninsula are terrific for families. OUTINGS For an affecting history lesson, go to Caen Memorial; it even has a playroom. In Coutances, there's the Cathédrale Notre-Dame and Jardin des Plantes, with landscaped mazes. Bayeux's famous tapestry stretches a record 230 feet. In Villedieu-les-Poëles, watch coppersmiths making pots and pans. WEB SITE www.normandy-tourism.org
3 LOIRE VALLEY
The crucial selling point: it's pastoral, yet only 100 miles south of Paris. OUTINGS At the Château de Chambord, the Loire's largest with 365 chimneys, explore the moat by boat and go horseback riding. In Amboise, climb the Pagode de Chanteloup, an 18th-century lakeside folly. disneyland paris A 40-minute train ride from Paris, the park is a 1 1/2-hour TGV ride from St.-Pierre-des-Corps, next to Tours. DISNEY ALTERNATIVE Futuroscope, outside Poitiers, a 60-minute drive south of Tours, shows 3-D films on giant screens and has hands-on virtual-reality simulators. WEB SITE www.loirevalleytourism.com
4 LA ROCHELLE AND ÎLE DE RÉ
Follow the bridge from lively La Rochelle to one of the Atlantic coast's most idyllic islands. No Americans here—this is strictly French territory. OUTING Follow the multigenerational families biking (with tiny dogs in baskets) across the island, through vineyards, salt marshes, and pine forests. BEFORE OR AFTER ÎLE DE RÉ See La Rochelle's 14th-century port: on Thursday nights in summer, a guide in medieval costume leads the Ronde de Nuit walking tour. RAINY DAYS The Automaton Museum and Museum of Scale Models are in town. WEB SITE www.charente-maritime.org
A gastronomic paradise for adults, it's also hard to find a better place for kids—prehistoric painted caves, stalactite-filled grottoes, rivers galore, castles, troglodyte villages. OUTINGS In Les Eyzies, the Musée National de Préhistoire has real caveman bones. See how sabots (wooden clogs) are carved at the Village du Bournat, a re-creation of a 19th-century Périgord town. HEAT ADVISORY In the warm months, you'll want a place with a pool—or just jump in a river. WEB SITE www.dordogne-perigord.com
Located in the small corner of France that borders Spain along the Mediterranean, Languedoc-Roussillon is wine-tasting heaven. It's also great for hiking, horseback riding, fossil-hunting, and frolicking in the surf. OUTINGS The fairy-tale-like (if tourist-packed) city of Carcassonne is where "Puss in Boots" is set. Matisse and Derain loved the fishing village Collioure, on the stunning—yet sparsely visited—Vermilion Coast. WEB SITE www.sunfrance.com
The area owes its popularity (especially among Americans) partly to familiarity and partly to the trademark fields of lavender and sunflowers, temperate clime, and marvelous, relatively uncrowded Roman hill towns. OUTINGS Look for Course Camarguaise bullfighting—the bull actually survives. Hit the Palace of the Popes in Avignon and the Pont du Gard near Uzès. HEAT ADVISORY It's steamy in summer and air-conditioning is rare; if you plan to go then, nab a house with a pool. WEB SITES www.avignon-et-provence.com; www.armchairfrance.com (for information on Uzès)
Alpine flowers, lakes, and snowcapped mountains (even in July) make the region as popular in summer as it is during ski season. Sporty Parisian families head to the town of Annecy for swimming and boating on Lake Annecy, and hiking and mountain biking in the surrounding hills. OUTINGS From the village of Le Fayet, take a tram up Mont Blanc, Europe's highest peak; hop on a cog railway for a ride from Chamonix-Mont Blanc to a glacier called the Mer de Glace; and ascend the 12,600-foot Aiguille du Midi via the téléférique, a cable car. WEB SITE www.hautesavoie-tourisme.com
La piscine Pool
La plage Beach
Château de sable Sandcastle
Écran solaire Sunblock
Avez-vous du ketchup? Do you have any ketchup?
Une serviette en papier A paper napkin
C'est dégoûtant Yuck!
On est presque arrivé? Are we there yet?
C'est chouette! This is cool!
Final Details to Know Before You Go
To Get in the Mood
• Log on to www.frenchculture.org, a site produced by the French Embassy that's devoted to highlighting French art exhibitions, performances, and TV movies that are on view right here in the U.S.A.
Give up hope of a house that comes with an answering machine. And plan to use a phone card to make long-distance calls from your rental (France Télécom prepaid cards can be good deals). If you absolutely must be reachable, rent or buy a tri-band GSM cell phone, a global mobile phone that you can lease by the week or month and use in 115 countries. In addition, you'll have to buy a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card, which stores your personal information and minutes. Two-week rentals, including SIM-card purchase and prepaid shipping, start at $135. GSM-phone and SIM-card packages for purchase start at $225 through Planet Omni (800/858-4289; www.planetomni.com). N.B.: The way to answer the phone in France is "Allo!"
• Soap and toilet paper Your rental house may not have any.
• Tissues Your rental house definitely won't have any.
• Children's Tylenol The French equivalents, Doliprane and Efferalgan, don't come in chewable form.
• Film and batteries They're cheaper in the States.
• Phone-line adapter If you plan to go on-line with your laptop.
• Walking shoes that aren't sneakers (unless they're Adidas, and worn with dark socks) To avoid feeling like an American stereotype.
• Beach towels and swim goggles Yours will be better than what the house has. Give them away at the end of your trip to make room for souvenirs.
• Moist towelettes Paper napkins don't grow on arbres.
• Hair dryer with an adapter or dual current Ce n'est pas le Ritz.
• Michelin Green Guides (Michelin Travel Publications). The ultimate companions to each region. Nothing's better for quick rundowns on villages and descriptions of sights. Also invaluable: Michelin Hotels & Restaurants guide, and Michelin maps, for tackling France's complicated but well-marked highways.
• The Most Beautiful Villages of France, by Dominique Reperant (Thames & Hudson). A coffee table grand tour
of alluring towns.
• Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (Sélection du Reader's Digest). In France, pick up this guide by a French association devoted to selecting standout towns.
• DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Provence & the C&ociirc;te d'Azur (DK). A state-of-the-art guide to the most popular region.
AFFORDABLE TICKETS TO FRANCE
Alas, there's no secret source. The best thing to do is book well ahead or watch for airline sales; check the major on-line agencies (such as Orbitz.com), and consider consolidators/wholesalers that have their own blocks of seats—you can access these via www.usaca.com (but for help finding a reputable one, go to a trustworthy travel agent). Also check out New Frontiers (www.newfrontiers.com), one of France's largest travel companies, which owns Corsair and offers good air and hotel packages. Bonnes vacances!