Kiwi travellers are flocking to France in record numbers this year, drawn to the fabulous food, wine, culture and shopping. With so much to do and a lot of ground to cover, what's the best way to spend two weeks in the land of fromage and foie gras?
Experts recommend pairing an escorted group tour of Paris with a luxury river cruise in Provence. The combination of big-city sophistication with charming village life offers an irresistible feast of French experiences.
Collette's Spotlight on Paris itinerary fits many of the City of Light's greatest hits into six action-packed days. Travellers are advised to arrive a day early in Paris to rest and recharge with a croissant or two before the tour starts. This is a busy, active itinerary with plenty of walking and early mornings. Comfy shoes are a must (but please, leave the jandals at home).
Naturally, there's a guided visit to the Louvre museum to say hello to Mona Lisa. At a group dinner in a cosy Parisian bistro, the Sancerre and souffle is laid on. And during an outing to the magnificent Palace of Versailles, the over-the-top bling of King Louis XIV's reign redefines opulence.
Now in its 100th year of escorted group travel, Collette knows what guests want: the convenience of a tour director to handle on-the-ground logistics, the comfort of coach travel (forget driving in Paris) and the insider knowledge of local guides. Some included meals at well-chosen restaurants add value to the tour without locking guests into eating with the group at all times.
Guests on the Collette tour stay at the lushly appointed Le Meridien Etoile hotel, not far from the postcard-perfect Arc de Triomphe. A tour director is on hand to offer advice on everything from where to withdraw euros to the best place to pick up flea-market finds.
The first evening is designed to dazzle with a leisurely sunset cruise along the Seine, followed by a three-course dinner at the Eiffel Tower. Lit up like a Christmas tree with a dynamic light installation, the grand monument leaves even the most jaded traveller speechless.
With plenty of free time for independent exploration, this tour isn't just for Paris first-timers. I found a spare afternoon to revisit the Tuileries gardens next to the Louvre, stopping for an icecream and to take photos of the summer carnival and Ferris wheel. Early one morning, I rode the Metro to Bastille for what I consider to be the best open-air market in Paris. Strolling the aisles and chatting with stall-holders about their truffle salt, fresh cherries, just-baked brioche and creamy goat cheese, I was reminded of the way the French infuse life with daily pleasures.
My quest to leave no cheese behind continued 700 kilometres away at the covered food market, Les Halles, in the city of Avignon. An earlier visit to the Palace of the Popes, the striking 14th century medieval seat of the Catholic Church's papacy, had worked up an appetite for earthly delights. Les Halles is where Avignon's chefs shop; browse the counters of pate, cheese, charcuterie, seafood, breads, fresh fruit and vegetables to understand why everything tastes so good in this part of the world.
Foodies and wine connoisseurs are well catered for on Viking River Cruises' Lyon & Provence seven-night cruise. The ship ambles along the Rhone from Avignon to Lyon with stops in charming medieval villages and some of the loveliest cities in the south of France.
Days are filled with outings to Beaujolais wine country, olive oil tastings, truffle hunts and cooking classes where the secrets of Provencal cuisine are revealed. I couldn't go past a guided walking tour of Lyon, with mouthwatering tastings of pastries, small-batch chocolate, local cheese and salty saucisson.
On another day I boarded a bus to visit the famed Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine region. Prized around the world for the bold, strong reds it produces, the region is home to around 2000 people and most of them are involved somehow in the wine-making business. Many of my fellow cruise guests — "CDP" aficionados — declared the experience of visiting the vineyards and cellars as a life goal, realised.
Back on-board the Viking ship, all meals are included, as well as wine and beer with lunch and dinner. The house red and white comes from Famille Perrin, one of the leading winemaking families in the southern Rhone Valley. Expect plenty of local specialties from the kitchen too, with an emphasis on regional cuisine, such as salad Lyonnaise (frisee lettuce, a poached egg, hot bacon, croutons and Dijon vinaigrette), zesty bouillabaisse and coq au vin casserole.
The extensive programme of included and optional shore excursions is a hit with nature lovers and those who appreciate art, with options to visit the Camargue region or take an art class in the town that inspired Vincent Van Gogh.
Viking River Cruises' ships are designed for comfort and relaxation, with a clean, elegant aesthetic derived from the line's Scandinavian roots. In place of the razzle dazzle of larger, ocean-going ships, these vessels feature blonde wood, pared-back decor and a well-curated library that will entice book-lovers to linger. Guests can choose to take their meals in the main restaurant or on the open-air Aquavit terrace. When the weather is pleasant, it's a great spot to sit and enjoy the beauty of Provence.
Collette's 6-night Spotlight on Paris tour includes many of the city's best attractions, some meals, an expert guide and luxury accommodation. See gocollette.com.au or call 1300 792 196. Viking River Cruises' Lyon & Provence itinerary is a 7-night cruise along the Rhone River from Avignon to Lyon (or vice versa) with daily shore excursions. See vikingrivercruises.com.au or call 0800 447 913.