This weekend over a million of us will leave for France. Yet there are still plenty of bargains on the less well-travelled routes. Simon Calder rounds them up
IN YEARS to come, we will look back at the summer of '99 as the optimum time to travel to our nearest neighbour. Everything is going right for the cross-channel traveller: fares for air and rail are lower, in relative terms, than they have ever been; the pound is still clinging to the 10 franc level; and there is much that is fresh and exciting to be discovered.

This is the busiest weekend of the year for travellers to France. About one million British people are heading for the world's most popular tourist destination, using a combination of tunnels and hovercraft as well as the usual trains, boats and planes.

The travel industry has been dreading this July for years, fearing that the ending of duty-free would mean that interest in cross-Channel concord would diminish. Those fears have been unfounded. But there is still huge overcapacity for travel to France, meaning that those who have yet to decide where and when to travel still have masses of choice.

The Independent has chosen a series of journeys, asked each destination to justify a visit, and asked travel professionals to come up with expert recommendations for how to travel. The good news, as far as accommodation is concerned, is that the intense competition between new, no-frills hotel chains has spilled over to the small, traditional family hotels. To visit France this year is a study in joie de vivre: seize the summer.


Raison de voyage: "From African coffee to West Indian rum, a range of aromas blends the whiff of exotic spices with the subtlety of wines that tell the story of a thousand emotions."

Expert advice: McNeill Rigby Travel (01232 663184) of Belfast recommends a flight on KLM. Even in August, the airline has a fare of pounds 194 for adults, pounds 124 for children for a return flight via Amsterdam.

Budget option: The agency suggests the Rosslare-Cherbourg ferry crossing for pounds 426 for a family plus car, but once fuel and tolls are taken into account, the plane works out a much better deal.


Raison de voyage: Un hommage to Jules Verne; the writer who launched a thousand travel dreams (and TV spin-offs) was born in the Breton city, and you can visit the museum to his memory, "celebrated through posters, books from the period, objects and portraits".

Expert advice: Skyplane Worldchoice of Norwich (0500 221588) suggests the funniest flight in Britain - Norwich to Luton, which takes less than 20 minutes. After a brief touchdown, the Suckling Airways flight continues to Paris Charles de Gaulle, where you change planes for a Air France domestic connection, for pounds 225 all-in.

Budget option: "The best value using your own car is via Eurotunnel for around pounds 249; the bad point is the six-hour drive from Calais."


Raison de voyager: "This region has a soul. A soul you feel in the little streets of an old village, in a craftsman's expression or in exquisite recipes with a delicious Catalan influence." (NB this description refers to Perpignan, not Peterborough.)

Expert advice: The Thomas Cook European Timetable is published in Peterborough, and its editor, Brendan Fox, suggests a rail itinerary via London and Lille. Note that availability on trains from Lille is limited. A pounds 20 Apex ticket on GNER (0345 225 225) gets you to London King's Cross, a pounds 1.40 Tube journey (Victoria and Bakerloo lines) takes you to Waterloo, where you can relax and enjoy a journey to and through France for only pounds 129 return. A two-hour ride to Lille gives you a quick connection to the Perpignan train. In 11 hours, you will be close to the Spanish border for a total of pounds 151.80.

Budget option: You might get a cheap flight on Ryanair (0541 569 569) from Stansted to Carcassonne; there's a summer special of pounds 48 return. Hitching is good from Peterborough to Stansted and from Carcassonne to Perpignan, but is bound to take longer than 11 hours.


Raison de voyager: The Notre Dame of the South: "The high point of the city, at 154m. The present Basilica, which is in the Romanesque-Byzantine style... forms part of the major projects undertaken under the Second Empire and was consecrated in 1864."

Expert advice: Self-drive camping specialist Eurocamp (01606 787878) recommends the standard M6, M1, M25, M2 route to Dover, a P&O Stena ferry and the autoroutes all the way south - a total of close to 1,000 miles. A holiday based at the Canadel site, 60 miles from Marseilles, is available for as little as pounds 166 for a family of five for a week - if you can wait until 5 September.

Budget option: They don't come much cheaper than that.


Raison de voyager: On 11 August, Strasbourg will enjoy a minute and a half out of the sun when the total solar eclipse occurs. Sheffield won't. And besides, "Strasbourg is the home of the Council of Europe and European Parliament".

Expert advice: If the presence of all those Eurocrats doesn't deter you, Moores Faraway of Sheffield (0114-272 2561) can fix you up with an Inghams Eurobreak for three days in the city for pounds 370 including accommodation at the three-star Monopole Metropole. The one drawback is that you will have to cross the Pennines to Manchester airport.

Budget option: Take the train via London and Paris for around pounds 149, and camp.


Raison de voyager: "The region of Beaune is an area of contrastes and flamboyancy [sic]."

Expert advice: The AA, whose HQ is in Basingstoke, offers fantastically detailed itineraries for members; the full version is 51 pages long. This includes directions, tourism information and details of facilities at autoroute service stations.

Budget option: Stay in Basingstoke, buy a bottle of Burgundy and spend the fortnight reading the journey brief.

Additional research by Stuart Kirby