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.
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).