The hexagon of France, though slightly smaller than Texas in the US, is chockablock with top travel experiences to suit every taste with many of the most popular attractions in Paris or an easy day trip from the capital. Although the temptation is to stay in city, autoroutes and a good rail system make it easy to get to every region, each with its own unique history, architecture, wines and cuisine. The peak season in most locations is July and August for both foreign tourists and French vacationers, but what France offers c'est magnifique in any season.
High in the Alps at the foot of Mount-Blanc, Chamonix is one of France's oldest ski resorts and site of the 1924 Winter Olympics. A primary mode of transportation is the cable car. The one from the town to the top of Aiguille du Midi - the closest you can get to the Mont-Blanc summit without hiking or climbing - is one of the highest in the world. Chamonix is a winter playground for skiing, snowboarding, dog sledding and ice climbing. Summer brings easy walks and more strenuous mountaineering, mountain biking and rock climbing.
The Chartres Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its Gothic architecture and magnificent 12th and 13th century stained-glass windows. One of the cathedral's relics is a veil, which it is said the Virgin Mary wore when she gave birth. The carefully preserved medieval town with its half-beamed architecture and narrow streets also makes Chartres well worth a day trip from Paris. By train, it takes an hour to an hour and 15 minutes with almost hourly departures from Montparnasse Station. When there, climb the towers for a view of the countryside, walk one of the few surviving prayer labyrinths in France, take a tour explaining the stories behind the stained-glass windows and lunch in the old town.
Seaside, Nice, France
Promenade des Anglais is an iconic promenade along the azure waters of the Baie des Anges. That wealthy Englishmen who favored Nice for balmy vacations paid to have it built in 1824 explains the name. Lined with hotels and cafes on one side and a pebbly beach on the other, the pedestrian way is popular with walkers, rollerbladers, cyclists, runners, skateboarders. Last century it was extended to run between the airport and the port, a distance of some seven kilometers (4 miles).
Toulouse-Lautrec, the crippled artist played so brilliantly by Jose Ferrer in "Moulin Rouge" in 1952, is forever associated with the Montmartre underbelly, but it is in his hometown of Albi in southwest France where you'll find the greatest collection of his art. The Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, 53 miles (85 km) northeast of Toulouse, has more than thousand works, many donated by his mother, the countess, after his death. The museum opened in 1922 in a 13th century fortress and also displays art of his famous contemporaries. Off-season between October closing hours vary and a two-hour lunch break is taken.
3rd & 4th Arrondissements, Paris, France
The gayest part of "Gay Paree" since the 1980s is Le Marais, a historic quartier filled with medieval buildings, chic boutiques and bustling cafés, spilling out on sidewalks and cobblestoned streets. Le Marais (named for the marsh it once was) by turns has been center of aristocratic, Jewish, bohemian and now LGBTQ life in Paris. More than a gayborhood, it is truly a gay village with some 40 per cent of all businesses gay-owned. During Pride celebrations, it attracts record crowds of revelers of all persuasions. The Paris Tourist Office actively promotes Le Marais as a LGBTQ destination.
The Verdon Gorge is a breathtaking limestone canyon stretching 16 miles (25 km) and almost a half-mile deep in some places. Cut by the turquoise-colored Verdon River, which flows into an artificial lake, it is one of the most beautiful river gorges in Europe. Visitors are drawn by its unique beauty and hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, paragliding, fly fishing and scenic walks. It can be reached by car or bus from Marseilles, Aix en Provence or Nice.
Built with graceful arches across the River Cher, the romantic Château de Chenonceau is one of the most famous and photographed of the Loire Valley castles. Construction began in the 16th century on the site of an old mill and is a mix of late Gothic and early Renaissance. Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henry II, is credited with planting extensive gardens. When Henry died, his wife Catherine de'Medici forced her former rival to trade for the Château de Chaumont and proceeded to put in her own gardens and to add the grand gallery across the river. Closing hours vary somewhat according to season.
The Lavender Route is over 900 miles (1,500 km) of roads passing by fragrant lavender fields where 80 per cent of the world's lavender is grown. The season runs from June to October with the harvest beginning in July. Along the way are all things lavender: distilleries, shops specializing in lavender products, workshops and tours on bike or donkey back. Villages hold lavender festivals, the biggest being in Sault and Valréas.
The medieval abbey-fortress Mont Saint-Michel lies a half mile (1 km) off shore, separated from the mainland except at low tide. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, it has long been a pilgrimage site, now visited by about 3 million tourists a year. The steep rocky island offers numerous choices for sampling omelettes, the local specialty, but La Mere Poulard near the entrance has the international reputation (and prices!). Usually a day trip, Mont Saint-Michel also has a few hotels for overnight. Hours may vary somewhat according to season, but whatever hour you go, keep the tides in mind.
Port de Clignancourt, Paris, France
The largest antique market in the world takes place every weekend as well over 100,000 people stream in the Les Puces de Saint-Ouen, commonly called "Les Puces" (fleas) or the Clignacourt market. Covering over 17 acres, the market is a hodgepodge of vendors, some in stalls, some in shops. There's an app you can download to help make sense of the various markets within the market. Metro: Porte de Clignancourt, Line 4. Open Saturdays and Sundays. Some shops are also open on Monday. Need we say watch your wallet, credit card and mobile and leave your passport at home?