The kings of France ditched Paris for the Loire Valley during the Renaissance, leaving the region littered with glorious châteaux. And who could blame them? This lush valley is a regal backdrop for elaborate castles, its fertile vineyards and farmlands supplying royal feasts. Local pears and goat cheese, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé still end up on restaurant tables in Tours, where several young chefs are sharpening their knives: Julien Perrodin marries seafood with a touch of exoticism at BarJu, and chef Olivier Arlot does modern magic—veal in pistachio-oil-flavored jus—at his Restaurant Olivier Arlot. Tuck yourself in at Domaine des Hauts de Loire, a fairy tale of a hotel whose antiques-filled rooms overlook 178 acres of forest. Les Hautes Roches, between Tours and Vouvray, conjures a different fantasy: it’s France’s only luxury troglodyte hotel, with rooms carved out of the cliffs that abut the 18th-century manor house. Indeed, the valley is riddled with caves, their luminously white, soft tuffeau stone mined to build dreamy castles like Chenonceau, whose arches cross a river, and Azay-le-Rideau, a turreted bauble surrounded by water. Fly above them all in a hot-air balloon with France Montgolfières, which ends its one-hour rides with a traditional toast: a chilled glass of Touraine.
Loire Valley Active Tip: Ride from château to château on the Loire à Vélo, a 373-mile bicycle trail that follows the river from Sancerre to the sea. For bike rentals, maps, and tours, try Detours de Loire, which has four shops in the region as well as some 20 associated outlets along the route. 35 Rue Charles Gille, Tours; 33-2/47-61-22-23; half-day bike rentals from $11.
Loire Valley Family Tip: Explore the region’s geologic charms at the Rochemenier Troglodyte Village (Louresse-Rochemenier; 33-2/41-59-18-15), a centuries-old hamlet built into the Loire Valley’s white rock, and at the nearby Mushroom Museum (Rte. de Gennes, St.-Hilaire, Saumur; 33-2/41-50-31-55), dedicated to the area’s cave-grown fungi.
Loire Valley, France: World’s Best Scorecard
Domaine des Hauts de Loire Onzain 91.05
BarJu 15 Rue du Change, Tours; 33-2/47-64-91-12; barju.fr; dinner for two $150.
Château d’Azay-le-Rideau Rue Pineau, Azay-le- Rideau; 33-2/47-45- 42-04; azay-le-rideau.monuments-nationaux.fr.
Château de Chenonceau Chenonceaux; 33-2/47-23-90-07; chenonceau.com.
Great Value Domaine des Hauts de Loire Rte. de Herbault, Onzain; 33-2/54-20-72-57; domainehautsloire.com; doubles from $185.
France Montgolfières 24 Rue Nationale, Montrichard; 33-2/54-32-20-48; franceballoons.com; from $270 per person.
Les Hautes Roches 86 Quai de la Loire, Rochecorbon; 33-2/47-52-88-88; leshautesroches.com; doubles from $300.
Restaurant Olivier Arlot 33 Rue Colbert, Tours; 33-2/47-66-33-08; restaurantolivierarlot.fr; dinner for two $175.