Biarritz, Perpignan, Avignon, Toulon-Hyères, Rodez, Corsica.
Synonymous with glamour, sophistication and the ultra-rich, the French Riviera bustles with celebrities, and has been a booming destination since Queen Victoria’s time. Today, even if your budget doesn’t stretch to private beach clubs, superyachts or casinos, the region is popular with sunseekers of all ages. If all that glamour and bustle is too much, head inland to unspoilt Rodez, or the ancient town centre of Avignon on the river Rhone, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to seven popes in the 14th Century. To the west, Perpignan is the gateway to the border region of Pyrénées-Orientales, an area of France heavily influenced by Spain and sometimes referred to as Northern Catalonia. On the Atlantic coast, another much-loved destination near the Spanish border is Biarritz, a Mecca for surfing and sunshine, and also home to some world-class golf courses – relaxation central! If none of that’s far enough south for you, Corsica looks and feels Italian but is actually a French island in the heart of the Mediterranean, perfect for an activity break or just a spot of sun worshipping.
Stunning to look at, exhilarating to ski or snowboard and only 140 minutes from Southampton, the French Alps are a world-class centre for winter sports. You’re spoilt for choice for resorts near Chambery, with the ski areas of Three Valleys, Espace Killy and Paradiski all nearby. Don’t worry though, It’s not all Olympic-standard downhill racing -plenty of resorts are geared towards mixed abilities and family fun. If you don’t ski, Chambery itself is a hidden gem, with uncrowded yet charming street, a major Savoy chateau and two regional parks nearby.
Bordeaux, Bergerac, La Rochelle and Limoges
Some French place names are best known to us as types of wine, and none more so than Bordeaux and Bergerac. With mild winters and hot summers, this region is dotted with world-class vineyards and wineries, some dating back hundreds of years. Bordeaux is near the coast – why not base yourself in Lege-Cap Ferret to combine your wine appreciation with the beach? To the east, Cyrano de Bergerac is celebrated with two statues in the town of his name (Although the real-life Cyrano was from Paris). Wine from Bergerac is among the most celebrated in the world, with more than 1200 growers in this area alone. Many will organise shipment of your favourites home to the UK, so what better excuse for a wine-tasting? Heading northwards, Limoges is a foodie’s paradise, crammed with Michelin-starred restaurants serving local freshwater fish and beef on the finest Limoges crockery. The hometown of the artist Renoir is as pretty as a painting and set in an area of outstanding natural beauty, the Limosin. If a digestif is more to your taste, the home of cognac is close to La Rochelle, a favourite resort of French holidaymakers. Try a beach café, stocked daily with fresh and delicious seafood by the town’s fishing fleet.
4. The wild west
Nantes, Rennes and Brest
Thinly populated but with the major cities of Nantes, Rennes and Brest, the west encompasses Brittany and the Western Loire region. In parts rugged and with ancient standing stones a common roadside sight, you can venture inland from the coast to chocolate box-villages, lush woods and rolling hills. Brittany’s Celtic heritage extends to dual-language signposting and pride in local cider and all things Breton. France’s longest river, the Loire, joins the Atlantic Ocean west of Nantes. Historically an important trading route to inland France, its banks are home to many beautiful chateaux.
5. The capital
What can you say about Paris that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? Rich in culture, history and watched over by the iconic Eiffel Tower, a trip to the city of love is on just about everyone’s bucket list. Take the kids to Disneyland or say hi to the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, before eating the best meal of your life in a top class restaurant or neighbourhood bistro. Flying from Southampton, you’ll get there in just an hour – quicker than a train up to London!