THE 50 BEST: LIBERTE! EGALITE!; FRATERNITE! 'OLIDAY!

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The Independent Culture
France was the most popular short-break destination last year among Britons. And now that summer's here at last, Anglo-French relations are getting warmer by the minute. Simon O'Hagan has challenged the experts to share their secrets. Retreat to a gite, chill out in the Alps, dive into the blue

waters of Corsica, or throw your cares - and clothes - to the wind on a naturist trip. Allez-y, les amis!

THE PANEL

This week's 50 Best was compiled with the help of: Jeremy Atiyah, travel editor of The Independent and Independent on Sunday; John Lichfield, Paris Correspondent of The Independent and Independent on Sunday; Kathryn McWhirter, wine writer; Amanda Kavalet, editor of Le Guide du Routard, France's leading travel guide; Sebastian Faulks, novelist and Francophile; and the invaluable Tony Woods. For more information on French breaks, contact the French Tourist Office at 178 Piccadilly, London W1 (0891 244123). Their Traveller in France is an invaluable guide to self-catering and tour operators in France.

1

GLACIER SKIING

Dedicated ski bums should make tracks to Tignes, 3,000 metres up in the Alps, which keeps up to 30 runs open throughout the summer. Get your ski legs on sweeping blue runs before tackling a range of reds and blacks. "Snowboarding in the morning, lounging in the sun in the afternoon - the scene here in mid-summer is like the easy-going lifestyle of the Caribbean," says Jeremy Atiyah.

Who's going: easyJet (0870 6000 000), around pounds 78 return to Geneva; for accommodation, contact Val Hotel (00 334 79061890), or self-catering chalet Balcon des Brevieres, in adjacent village Tignes-Les-Brevieres (0171-610 1929); day ski passes around FF140.

2

LA FRANCE PROFONDE

John Lichfield's favourite example of "empty" France is the Creuse region, in the West (main town Aubusson). "Mile after mile of rolling hills and fields," he says, "and little towns that haven't changed for decades. No real tourist attractions, which is an attraction in itself." Rent a gite in a village for immersion in a rural life that's all but disappeared in England. Listen out for barn owls, learn traditions from locals, send children off to the boulangerie for picnic essentials and rudimentary language lessons.

Who's going: Brittany Ferries gites brochure (0990 143537); weekly rentals from pounds 300 high season.

3

AIX-RATED OPERA

France celebrates opera with a wealth of houses and festivals around the country. Particularly feted is Aix-en-Provence's prestigious annual July offering, which attracts stars from around the world, and has strong associations with pioneering British composer and conductor John Eliot Gardner. This year's works include Offenbach's La Belle Helene and perennial Mozart favourites The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni.

Who's going: JMB Travel Consultants (01905 425628); opera weekends in Aix (trips, too, to Lyon, Monte Carlo & Nice) for pounds 519 incl flights, half- board & tickets.

4

CHATEAUX OF THE LOIRE

For all the events of 1789, France has not lost its royal roots, and you'll find them in the numerous chateaux that dot the Loire valley and are full of the treasures of the pre-Revolutionary era. Kathryn McWhirter adores the bustling town of Angers, with its medieval tapestries, while John Lichfield recommends the "charming chateau" at Blois, an irresistible, quirky mix of Renaissance, Gothic, classical and medieval.

Who's going: Page & Moy (0116-2507000); do a five-night tour of chateaux for pounds 399 incl flights & accommodation.

5

THALASSOTHERAPY

Taking to the waters is big in France - even former French rugby star Serge Blanco has his own thalassotherapy centre, near Biarritz. We recommend Brittany, where Belle-Ile, the largest of the Breton islands, is one of the most attractive centres offering the cleanse-and-purify treatment. Wallow in mud and salt-water baths and discover the joys of seaweed (upmarket beauty-therapy company Thalgo harvests its seaweed here). Thalassotherapy is acquiring a younger image; it's become a very popular way to reinvigorate yourself.

Who's going: Hotel Castel Thalasso, Belle-Ile, Brittany (00332 97318015); approx pounds 490 a week, full board.

6

RIDING IN THE LANGUEDOC

A dream holiday for the experienced rider whose love of the great outdoors extends to spending nights under canvas. Local horseman Roland Bec takes groups of about 10 along the rocky trails of the Languedoc, inland from the Mediterranean, rising to the Larzac plateau and then down through the pine-scented hills of the Monts d'Orb. Luggage and a mobile kitchen are brought on each day, with tents to sleep in during high summer, gites at other times of the year.

Who's going: Ride World Wide (0171-735 1144), pounds 455 for an eight-night tour, excl flights (Montpellier).

7

HOUSE SWAP

As a cost-saving way of immersing the family in the French way of life, house-swapping is popular, especially in cities. While a family might balk at the cost of a fortnight in a Paris hotel, the prospect of staying for free in someone else's home is appealing. Sebastian Faulks, who has lived in France, delights in the idea, but warns of dodgy French plumbing: "It's a ludicrous cliche, I know, but the fact is they just haven't cracked it."

Who's going: Intervac (01225 892208); an annual fee of pounds 80 gets you a list of thousands of properties and access to a viewing website.

8

FOOTBALL TOURS

Last year's World Cup educated many in the joys of watching football in France. Internationals are played at the fabulous new Stade de France in St Denis, just north of Paris. But best for atmosphere is Lens, only an hour's drive from Calais, currently boasting one of France's top teams. "There's a passion at Lens you don't find at other French grounds," says John Lichfield. Catch Le Shuttle at around 2pm and be back in London by 2am.

Who's going: Fan Fare Events (0161-437 0002) runs trips to the big clubs (eg Marseilles, around pounds 350 incl travel, tickets & lodging). The French Football League (00 331 53653800) has details of clubs & fixtures.

9

VOLCANIC FRANCE

It may be extinct, but the mysterious, desolate volcanic region of the Auvergne still has awesome appeal; former French president Giscard d'Estaing is even planning a volcano theme park for his home town of Clermont-Ferrand. The Puy de Dome, at 1,416m the hightest peak in the area, is a must. Take the toll road or one of the trails to the top for extensive views. "It's a very strange place," says John Lichfield. "Dark mountains with flattened tops like you've never seen anywhere else."

Who's going: VFB (01242 240340) has gites in the Auvergne for pounds 253-pounds 500 per week incl travel.

10

DREAM HOTEL

Forget Le Crillon in Paris and the film stars' favourite Hotel Cap in Cap Ferrat. For luxury with a difference, we recommend the fabulous Hotel de la Cite in the walled, medieval city of Carcassonne, in the Western Midi. Built in 1909, its 50 rooms and 11 apartments overlook the river Aude and Pyrenean peaks, with antique, gothic furnishings and plenty of tapestries. It's the last word in discreet opulence, with prices to match.

Who's going: Hotel de la Cite, Carcassonne (00 334 68719871), Jun-Sept around pounds 695 for three nights in a double room. Or try Elegant Resorts (01244 897777); approx pounds 1,190 per person per week in high season.

11

THE NOUVELLE VAGUE

To say that Biarritz was the Newquay of France would be to undersell the charms of this classic turn-of-the-century resort to which beach boys and girls flock in search of the best surf in Europe. "The beaches here are fantastic," says Amanda Kavalet. Or head north to Lacanau, near Bordeaux, where the 20ft-plus waves make this a prime site for the world surfing championships.

Who's going: return flights to Bordeaux from pounds 170. Or try Lagoondy surf camp at Bidart, southwest of Biarritz (00 335 59.24.62.86), which costs pounds 400 a week incl food, accommodation & tuition.

12

CAMPING

"Camping holidays in France are like drugs," says Jeremy Atiyah. "A lot more people are secretly addicted to them than you would ever guess." Which is why companies like Eurocamp, which has about 100 sites and reckons to sell about two thirds of all camping holidays to France, have become such big business. The Var, on the Mediterranean, and the Vendee and Les Landes, inland from the Atlantic, are the country's most popular camping destinations, and the best-equipped sites make it possible to live quite luxuriously under canvas.

Who's going: Eurocamp (01606 787878); around pounds 889 a fortnight for two adults & a number of children for a fortnight at Royan, nr La Rochelle, on the coast (incl Dover-Calais crossing & tents).

13

CORSICAN HILL VILLAGES

"If you haven't been to Corsica, then you must," says John Lichfield. "You might expect a dry Mediterranean landscape, but, in fact, some of it is very lush. It reminded me of Scotland. Definitely one of the most beautiful parts of France I've ever been to." Follow winding trails up to the hill villages, many of which date back 1,000 years. In an effort to retain younger inhabitants, grants have been offered to artisans, with the result that, in some areas, musical and crafts societies are flourishing. Details of summer concerts in the Haute-Balagne area are available from the Calvi tourist office (00 334 95651667).

Who's going: Corsican Places (01424 460046), a choice of four or five houses to rent in the Corsican hills, from pounds 291 a week in high season.

14

GARDEN TOURS

Think of a classic French garden, and the lilies of Monet's Giverny may spring to mind. But very different, and no less fabulous gardens exist along the Riviera, many of them created by British people in the 19th century. Monte Carlo, Grasse, Antibes and Menton are all stops on a week-long Page & Moy gardens tour that would make even Charlie Dimmock's eyes stand out on stalks. A highlight is the Foundation Ephrussi de Rothschild at St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, home to the collections of Baroness Rothschild and some artefacts associated with Marie Antoinette.

Who's going: Page & Moy (0116-2507000); around pounds 845 per person for a week's tour, incl flights, half-board accommodation.

15

BIKER HEAVEN

Slip into your leathers and head for roads that don't come much more open than those in France. "There are stretches of motorway with so few cars they are almost like test tracks," says biker Gerard Gilbert, who owns a home in Normandy. "From vast prairies to twisting mountain climbs, France has everything. It's also pretty devoid of hedgerow, so you can see what's coming for some distance ahead."

Who's going: MCi Tours (0161-941 2121) has a three-day tour departing 9 Sept, passing through Dijon & the Ardeche Gorge, returning via Sisteron & Grenoble, for pounds 345 per person, inc ferry crossing & B&B.

16

GO WILD IN THE COUNTRY

French is home to some of the most varied wildlife in Europe, providing many splendid opportunities for getting out the binoculars. Join one of the trekking parties that head for the Pyrenees to seek out the chamois (a cross between a goat and a deer) or the rarer ibex; and keep your eyes peeled for golden eagles and griffon vultures, ring ouzels and lammergeiers. "In some way the Pyrenees are more beautiful than the Alps," says John Lichfield. "Because it's further south there's much more vegetation."

Who's going: Wildlife Worldwide (0181-6679158); eight-day tours for around pounds 645 per person (pounds 95 single supplement) incl food & accommodation, or four-day weekends for pounds 525.

17

ISLAND FRANCE

Away from the French mainland lies an entirely different world. The Ile d'Yeu, the Ile de Re and Ile d'Oleron, all on the west coast, are old-fashioned havens of calm, where the bicycle is king and mass tourism has been kept in check. The alluvial 28km-long Ile de Re, accessible by a 2km-long bridge from La Rochelle, is a popular destination for the Parisian bourgeoisie, while the smaller, granite Ile d'Yeu, 17km out to sea, attracts mainly fishermen. "Wonderful beaches and sailing," recalls Sebastian Faulks. The perfect family holiday.

Who's going: take a Brittany Ferry (0990 360360) to St Malo. The Hotel de la Maree, at Rivedoux Plage on the Ile de Re (bookable through VFB on 01242 240340), is recommended.

18

CATWALK PARIS

If fashion's your forte, grab your passport and pashmina and make a date with Paris Fashion Week. Next Saturday, design divas will witness the new couture collections, while pret-a-porter ranges will make their catwalk debut on 3 October. For light relief between shows, cruise ave Montaigne in the 8th for the luscious likes of Prada and Ines de la Fressange.

Who's going: Marie France Inc. do a packaged fashion tour of Paris visiting the shows, with hotels starting at pounds 75 a night. E-mail them at mfinc@cybercable.fr or visit their website, www.mariefranceinc.

19

BATTLEFIELD TOURS

Last year's 80th anniversary of the Armistice, plus Saving Private Ryan, boosted interest in the battlefields and war cemeteries of northern France. All the sites - from the Normandy landing beaches to the Belgian cemetries - are within an easy drive of the Channel ports, so most people travel independently, but there are organised tours. "Verdun is well worth a visit," says Sebastian Faulks. "You can go inside two French forts which have been preserved from the First World War. They are very spooky." For Second World War history, he recommends Vichy, the spa town from which Marshall Petain ruled. "Big hotels around a sandy central square, not many tourists, and very good food."

Who's going: specialists Holts Tours (01304 612248); four-day trips around pounds 400 incl half board & travel.

20

HOLISTIC RETREATS

The stresses of modern life have been a boon to retreat holidays, and the Devon-based Ashburton Clinic, which organises retreats all over the world, has one at Villa Sausses Nord in the newly fashionable Gascony region. Set amid sunflower fields and rolling hills, it offers the perfect haven in which to try a range of disciplines from yoga to shiatsu, pottery to creative writing.

Who's going: Ashburton Clinic (01364 652784) one-week courses throughout Jul & Aug at pounds 345 per person, excl travel. Charter flights from Heathrow to Toulouse from pounds 168.50 return.

21

WALKING

The fashion for rambling means there is no excuse for not strapping on your boots and exploring some of Europe's most beautiful landscapes, ranging from volcanic undulations of the Auvergne to rhododhendron trails in the Pyrenees. Try the Jura, the little-known mountain range northeast of Geneva, the gentle hills and green valleys of the Lot, or the Cevennes. "The Cevennes are as wild as Scotland, but with a couple of advantages," says Jeremy Atiyah. "The food and the wine."

Who's going: HF Holidays (0181-905 9558) has seven nights (incl flights) from around pounds 475. Ramblers' Holidays (01707 331133) are a leading specialist who offer two-week walking holidays to the Cevennes for pounds 630 incl half board & travel.

22

DISNEYLAND PARIS

Who will be with us as we munch our Coco Pops this morning? Dumbo? Tigger? Disneyland Paris, opened in 1992, has 12 million visitors a year, and the "character breakfast" is one of the most popular experiences on offer. A "multi-sensory misadventure" is a recent addition to the 50 or so rides, shows and attractions that appeal to the five-year-old in all of us (or not, as the case might be). Everything's on site, including six hotels and its own railway station, Marne La Vallee, served directly by Eurostar from Waterloo.

Who's going: Disneyland Paris (0990 030303); two nights for two adults & two children staying at the Newport Bay Club is pounds 816, incl breakfast, park passes & Eurostar travel.

23

WHERE THE LIVING IS EASEL

Amateur painters will feel at home in France; nowhere more so than at the holiday centre in Roquebrune-sur-Argens near St Raphael, inland from the Mediterranean. Draw inspiration from the glorious location on the edge of the Esturel national park, a striking red-stone landscape, and the Plaine du Var, on a week-long painting course. Other educational delights are also on offer: improve your French language, or take a course in "cultural discovery".

Who's going: week-long painting courses through specialists LSG (01509 231713) cost from pounds 535, incl full board & tuition.

24

CAVEMAN FRANCE

France has some of the oldest examples of human civilisation in Europe, with cave paintings dating back 25,000 years. While many sites are too precious to allow visitors access, some of those in the Dordogne, numbering among the most richly decorated in Europe, may be visited through upmarket travel operator Andante. In the company of a lecturer, you'll discover the red and black outlines of ibex and extinct megaceros, plus paintings of mammoth and dappled horses. Cromagnifique!

Who's going: Andante Travels (01980 610555) offers one-week cave-painting tours for around pounds 1,050 per person incl accom, transport & meals.

25

YACHT CHARTER

You don't need to know your jib from your mainsail; just worry about looking the part as you stretch out on deck and your 80-foot ketch glides along the Cote d'Azur. That's one of the holidays offered by Peter Deilmann River and Ocean Tours. "This would be my dream holiday," says Amanda Kavalet. A crew of 25 cater for the whims of up to 50 passengers, ensuring plain sailing for a deluxe clientele.

Who's going: Peter Deilmann River and Ocean Tours (0171-436 2931); from pounds 1,508 per person for a week (two sharing a cabin), incl flight to Nice, transfers & insurance.

26

GRAPE PICKING

Robust food, unlimited wine and a glorious tan... If this sounds like the perfect break, head for Bordeaux in September, where willing workers will find hard but rewarding graft among the vineyards, wielding secateurs and carrying baskets. Check if food and lodging is deducted from your wages, in which case consider bringing your own tent. "It was the toughest work I've ever done," recalls a one-time grape-picker, "but I enjoyed it for the camaraderie, the wonderful peasant food and the feeling of being physically exhausted. I left very fit and healthy, and fluent in colloquial French."

Who's going: contact the Agence Nationale pour l'Emploi (ANPE; www.anpe.fr), or French Tourist Information (0891 244123), or look in Summer Jobs Abroad 99 (Vacation Work Publications, pounds 7.19).

27

CLASSIC SEASIDE HOTEL

The Cote Granit Rose is one of the prettiest stretches of the northern Brittany coast. There, on a headland above the little resort of Trebeurden, is a hotel of immense charm. The Ti Al Lannac is a country-house hotel that is old-fashioned but not stuffy, with a dining room that looks straight out across the sea and serves memorable food. A great place for children, with its own beach at the bottom of the cliff.

Who's going: Ti Al Lannac (00 332 96150101); Brittany Ferries (0990 360360) to St Malo, then a two-hour drive. Apartments for two adults & two children cost from pounds 230 a night half-board (no weekly rates).

28

ART LOVERS' PARIS

It's all here - from old favourites like the awesome Louvre (forget the Mona Lisa and discover the Egyptian section) and intimate Rodin museum, plus the Impressionists paradise Musee d'Orsay and the quirky, excellent Picasso museum. As the recent sell-out Rothko show at the Musee de l'Art Moderne illustrated, Paris still gets many big exhibitions of visiting art that London misses out on: equip youself with a museum pass and some comfortable shoes, and prepare for sensual overload.

Who's going: Eurostar weekend return pounds 89 (0990 186186); Eurostar Holidays Direct (0870 167 6767) will also arrange a hotel (two sharing from pounds 143 for two nights). Visit the tourist info office at 127 av des Champs Elysees for a Carte Musees et Monuments, valid for around 65 museums.

29

PILGRIMAGE TO LOURDES

In the far southwest of France, Lourdes is still one of the most important Christian pilgrimage centres in Europe. Founded on the spot in which the Virgin Mary appeared to peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, it's now a haven for canny stallholders selling everything from flashing madonnas to hologram Christs. But Lourdes is still a strangely moving place: invalids seeking miracles join in nightly torchlit processions, while the underground basilica, which can hold 20,000 people, is simply awesome.

Who's going: St Peter's Pilgrims (0181-244 8844) have eight-day tours incl flights & full board from pounds 409.

30

GAMBLERS' FRANCE

Casinos abound all the way along the coast from Nice to St Tropez. You don't have to be mega-rich to go in (though it helps), but you do need to look the part. In some places, jacket and tie are more or less obligatory, but far from being restricting, dressing up is part of the fun. The casino in Monte Carlo is one of France's most stunning buildings, a palatial extravaganza of fine antiques and decor which you can visit without going anywhere near a roulette wheel.

Who's going: British Airways return to Nice from pounds 146 (0990 444000 or 0345 664477 for special offers); easyJet (0870 600 0000) around pounds 108.

31

CANOEING

French rivers can be magical places, around which life revolves in timeless fashion, and canoeing is one of the best ways to discover them. The river Creuse (see "France Profonde", No 2) takes you past chateaux and through wooded gorges, while the wilder Ardeche is wonderful canoeing country for those who like a challenge. Beginners should try the Dordogne, where Headwater have an eight-day round trip starting from St Julien, passing lots of caverns and gorges on the way.

Who's going: Headwater (01606 813333) eight-night trip on river Creuse, incl travel & half board, for pounds 439.

32

MULTI-ACTIVITY BREAKS

Boundless energy and constant demands can make children a drain on a summer break. With this in mind, Esprit Holidays have designed a summer holiday in the French Alps (Morzine or Chamonix) to suit all family members. For three days, kids are spirited away, fully supervised, to try everything from mountain biking to rock climbing, leaving parents free to chill out. There's a nursery for toddlers, and nature trails to occupy four- to six- year-olds. How you organise the rest of your week is up to you. Accommodation is in chalets, and the air and scenery are fantastic.

Who's going: Esprit Holidays (01252 616789), adults from pounds 328 incl Channel crossing & accommodation; two- to 17-year-olds go half-price.

33

TOUR DE FRANCE

An institution, the Tour de France may have been tainted by a drugs scandal last year, but it remains a key event in the French cultural calendar. Averaging 25mph, cyclists cover more than 2,000 miles in three weeks, passing through towns and villages in a celebration of national identity. An estimated 17 million fans witness the race from the roadside: the most dramatic vantage points are at the top of the most celebrated climbs - at Alpe d'Huez in the Alps and the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees. The Tour is entering its second week today, with the Alpine and Pyrenees stages still to come.

Who's going: for up-to-date info on the Tour, visit the website www.letour.fr/1999/us/

34

ABBEY HABIT

Fontevraud, about 10 miles southeast of Saumur, in the Loire, is the site of a 12th-century monastic complex that's one of France's most renowned national monuments. Here lie the regal remains of Richard the Lionheart, and writer Jean Genet was one famous inmate during the abbey's incarnation as a prison. Within the complex, the Hostellerie du Prieure St Lazare offers 52 rooms - the decor is described as sober - and as contemplative an atmosphere as you could wish for, with a small orchard and a herb garden.

Who's going: Hostellerie du Prieure St Lazare (00 332 41517316); dinner, B&B for two sharing is FF750. VFB (01242 240340) offer packages incl Channel crossings, eg pounds 814 for a couple for seven nights.

35

SPA TURN

For the extravagant man and woman's thalassotherapy, the ultimate health farm is probably at the five-star Domaine du Royal Club Evian, located in the town where the water comes from. Can something this luxurious really be good for you? A vast range of cures is on offer, including saunas, plunge pools and mud and seaweed treatments. A one-week Tonic course includes a daily massage, full accommodation and breakfast and dinner.

Who's going: Elegant Resorts (01244 897777) pounds 1,326 per person includes flights to & from Geneva and transfers to the health farm.

36

FAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

France is a golfer's dream destination. Course-building has been a boom industry in recent years, so there are hundreds to choose from, and relatively few people wanting to get on them. Sebastian Faulks has a theory about why the courses are so underused. "I think the French were drawn to golf by what they saw as `le style anglais'. Then they discovered that it's harder than it looks." Courses, he says, are much more "designed" than those in, say, Scotland or Ireland, accommodating moderate players without boring the plus fours off the experts.

Who's going: Golf in France (01737 211818) do a range of golfing holidays, from around pounds 234 incl two nights B&B & ferry crossing for two people in one car.

37

CLUB MED

When this, the original all-inclusive holiday, got going 49 years ago, you stayed in army tents and enjoyed, if that is the word, the simple life. It's rather more luxurious now, as you can discover at any of the 15 Club Med centres in France, where the food and wine (included in the price) are notably good. Try La Lavandou on the Mediterranean coast, where the communal spirit is still intact, and everything's on site, including a children's club and a wide range of activities, among them tennis, golf, water sports and even dance tuition.

Who's going: a week at La Lavandou Club Med (0171-581 1161 for bookings, 01455 852202 for brochures) costs about pounds 1,500 for a family of four excl flights.

38

WINE TOURS

There's still nowhere better in the world for seeing how wine is made, and for "degustation". From Burgundy and the Loire to Bordeaux and the Rhone, wine is the route to all France. Of many wine-tour specialists, we like Arblaster & Clarke. "They are very good people who really know their stuff, and have the best wine tours going," says Kathryn McWhirter. She does point out that visitors to caves are expected to buy at least a case of wine; purchase of the odd bottle or two will not be too highly regarded.

Who's going: Arblaster & Clarke (01730 893344), a week's Sancerre & Chablis tour for pounds 999 per person incl travel, most food & acommodation; or go it alone with Michael Busselle's Discovering the Country Vineyards of France (Pavilion Books).

39

CHATEAUX B&B

Anyone with princely pretentions will appreciate the delights of chateau accommodation. The publication Bienvenue au Chateau lists 114 chateaux and grand private homes, many with splendid grounds, offering dinner cooked with produce from the kitchen gardens. One has the comtesse herself doubling as a historian and local tour guide. Another assures you that the ghost of a knight will appear in the tower "on Tuesdays".

Who's going: Bienvenue au Chateau is available from the French Tourist Board; places from 350FF to 1,000FF a night for a double room incl breakfast.

40

LET LE TRAIN TAKE LE STRAIN

One of the best ways to view rural France is from the comfort of a TGV. It's a holiday in itself. SNCF has attractive deals offering unlimited travel over a set period. Trains are clean, air-conditioned and fast, with buffet bars to make BR regulars weep, though dining cars are rare. Jeremy Atiyah says: "Few Brits who have sat in trains speeding soundlessly aross France at 300kmph can avoid a sense of shame about the state of their own rail network."

Who's going: Rail Europe (0990 848848) has Eurodomino tickets permitting unlimited second-class travel on any three days in a month for pounds 119 for over-26s, pounds 99 for under-26s; any eight days in a month, pounds 239 or pounds 189 (small supplement for TGVs).

41

BIRD-WATCHING IN THE CAMARGUE

Famous for its semi-wild horses, the Camargue is also one of the most important areas for birdlife in Europe, home to the rosy-hued greater flamingo and thousands of waders. Early September is the best time to visit this 85,000-hectare national park at the heart of the vast Rhone delta, when indigenous flocks are swelled by migratory birds. Even if you are less than passionate about ornithology, the Camargue is still one of the most magical regions of France - with a wonderful beach at Les Stes-Maries de la Mer.

Who's going: Limosa Holidays (01263 578143), an eight-day bird-watching tour to the Camargue & Pyrenees in Sept, incl flights, meals & accommodation, for around pounds 1,195.

42

BARGE PAST

There are few better ways of seeing France than at the sedate pace of a barge as it chugs along the Canal du Midi from Carcassonne to Beziers, in the midst of the Herault wine-growing region. "This is the nearest thing to experiencing the world of impressionist painting," says Amanda Kavalet. "The perfect holiday for those who like to be on the water but don't want the hustle and bustle of coastal resorts." Eurowaterways has a fleet of converted Dutch trading hulls accommodating up to 12 passengers and crew, and if a few days afloat have you craving dry land, use the bicycles on board for brief excursions along the 60-mile route.

Who's going: Eurowaterways (01784 482439) have week-long barge trips for approx pounds 1,400 per person (excl flights).

43

COOKING IN BURGUNDY

Putting on an apron was never so exciting as on day one of learning to cook - or refining culinary skills - in the kitchen of a beautiful old farmhouse in the small Burgundy town of Grancey-le-Chateau. Tuition is by English chef Penny Easton and her French counterpart, Michel Robolin, with the emphasis on learning the art of "classic, but not heavy" Fench cooking. A day out to the market at Dijon is a highlight. There are also visits to Beaune and local caves. You stay in the farmhouse and eat the food you've cooked yourself.

Who's going: a week's course, incl food, accommodation & travel, is pounds 795 (01304 841136).

44

VOYEZ L'ECLIPSE

For those living in southeast England, northern France is almost as convenient a place as Cornwall in which to witness this historic moment - the solar eclipse on 11 August. The "totality" line crosses the Channel into France on the Normandy coast between Le Havre and Dieppe and continues in a south-easterly direction towards Beauvais and on to Alsace. John Lichfield says: "There has been a lot of interest here and a Normandy hotels are being booked up. My advice would be to try to stay nearby and then drive into the area of total eclipse."

Who's going: book now for Le Shuttle (0990 353535), as demand is already heavy on 10 & 11 Aug; pounds 159 return for car & passengers.

45

BACK TO NATURE

For that flawless all-over tan, there's only one way to go. Get your kit off in the naturist resort of Cap d'Agde for a holiday that caters for everyone. This purpose-built resort on the Mediterranean has restaurants and cafes, bars and a disco, the history of Cathar-stronghold Carcassonne nearby, and every sport you could ever want. It's not all naked pleasure, however; most guests, according to operator Sunlovers Emsdale, slip into something a little more demure for dinner.

Who's going: Sunlovers Emsdale (01708 472715) do one or two week holidays from pounds 380 per person, incl transport, self-catering accommodation & use of the pool & club house facilities.

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DIVING IN CORSICA

One good excuse for visiting Corsica is the opportunity it offers for sub-aqua diving. Explore the crystalline Mediterranean waters that team with sealife, then relax in sandy bays infused with the scent of pine trees. The centre for sub-aqua is Bonifacio, on the southern tip of the island. John Lichfield recommends it as a fascinating and beautiful old port with steep, narrow streets.

Who's going: Corsican Places (01424 460046) offers extensive diving in the waters off Bonifacio, incl tuition, travel, accomodation & equipment, for pounds 555

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ON YOUR BIKE

Cycling is so much part of the fabric of French life that climbing on to the saddle is one of the best ways to acquire a sense of belonging. Brittany is great cycling territory for all the family - neither too hilly nor too flat and boring. "The fabulous thing about cycling holidays in France is breezing past queues of frustrated car drivers waiting to board or disembark from cross-channel ferries," says Jeremy Atiyah.

Who's going: European Bike Express (01642 251440) transport cyclists & bikes between dozens of pick-up points. For organised tours, try Cycling for Softies (0161-248 8282); their easiest holiday is seven nights in Mayenne, south of Normandy, for pounds 616 high season, incl half board, bikes & guide.

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FUTUROSCOPE

Much more than a theme park, Futuroscope: le Parc Europeen de l'Image, just north of Poitiers, is a scientific research and educational centre that also offers visitors such dazzling attractions as 360-degree movies, a cinema screen the size of a seven-storey building, laser displays, and journeys into virtual reality. You can stay for days.

Who's going: Futuroscope (0033 5 49493080); one-day entry is 195FF, three days 390FF. The nearby Novotel (00 335 49499191) has a package comprising one night plus two-day entry to the park for 975FF.

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ART-HISTORY TOUR

A Nadfas (National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies) tour of Aquitaine and Gascony provides the chance to see an extraordinary range of art - from Roman sculptures in Toulouse to works by Toulouse- Lautrec in the artist's birthplace, Albi. The tour, for a week in October, also takes in Carcassonne, Foix, Flaran, Moissac, Auch and Cahors, and comes complete with lecturer. Sebastian Faulks confesses he is no expert in French ecclesiastical architecture, but has visited Moissac and says he would be "happy to recommend" the cloisters in the Romanesque abbey there.

Who's going: Cox & Kings (0171-873 5027) handle Nadfas tours. The one to Aquitane & Gascony costs pounds 775 incl travel & accommodation.

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RHONE-SAONE CRUISE

A great way to see the Pont du Gard at Avignon - built by the Romans in 19 BC and one of the wonders of antiquity - is from the deck of a luxury cruiser as it makes its stately progress down the Rhone. Peter Deilmann River and Ocean Cruises offers a week-long round-trip from Lyon that takes in both the Rhone and the Saone, stopping at, among other places, Macon, Arles and Vienne, with the option of various excursions along the way.

Who's going: depending on the location of your cabin & whether you share or not, high-season seven-night cruises with Peter Deilmann (0171-436 2931) cost between pounds 1,170 & pounds 1,574, excl flights.

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