With a 12-metre high mechanical elephant, a gigantic steampunk carousel, and copious art installations throughout the city, there’s something magical about Nantes, whatever your age. The city has reinvented itself in the last decade, and the centre of the action is the Ile de Nantes, an island in the Loire once used for ship-building. It is now the home of the Machines de Nantes (lesmachines-nantes.fr), an artistic enterprise that has created the amazing elephant, on which some 50 people can ride at once. There is also a 25-metre carousel, which was inspired by Jules Verne (who was born in the city) and his tale, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; on each of the three levels, you can ride on a fearsome creature from the ocean. Les Machines celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and the gallery charts the development of its other dazzling projects, the newest of which is a giant spider on which three people can take a ride.
Elsewhere, a green line painted on the pavement guides you around the city’s art installations and attractions, which include the fairytale Château des Ducs de Bretagne (chateaunantes.fr), whose interactive museum displays tell the story of Nantes from biscuits (the LU brand was founded here) to slavery. Another must-see is the striking St Peter and St Paul cathedral (cathedrale-nantes.cef.fr) where an exhibition in the crypt tells of its remarkable reconstruction after the Second World War and a fire in 1972.
For a bird’s eye view of the city, head to the top of the city’s tallest tower, the Tour de Bretagne where a bar named Le Nid (The Nest) takes the shape of a huge swan and the seats are its eggs (nantes- tourisme.com)
Getting there: easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), CityJet (0871 221 2452; cityjet.com) and Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) all fly to Nantes, while the train from London via Paris takes 5hrs 40min (03432 186 186; eurostar.com); Eurostar is currently offering a limited number of single fares from £47. If driving, sail to Saint Malo (from Portsmouth, from £298 for a car and two passengers) with Brittany Ferries (0330 159 7000; brittanyferries.co.uk) or Condor Ferries (0845 609 1024; condorferries.co.uk) and drive two hours to Nantes.
Where to stay: The four-star boutique Hotel Sozo (00 33 2 51 82 40 00; sozohotel.fr) is based in a converted chapel and is a short walk from the château. It has doubles from €127 (£98) room only.
For a dose of sunshine, head south to the Côte d’Azur where the town of Menton is a glorious place to welcome spring. Located just next to the border, the town has a distinctly Italian air and is home to many elegant villas surrounded by exotic gardens.
The Serre de la Madone garden (serredelamadone.com) was created in the 1920s by Major Lawrence Johnston, one of the master landscape gardeners in the Arts and Crafts style, and whose summer residence was Hidcote Manor in the Cotswolds. Here you can can admire many plants gathered from around the world, as well as rare species of butterflies and birds.
The Jardin Maria Serena, at the far end of the seafront before you step into Italy, is said to be the most temperate in France. The view of the sea, framed by magenta bougainvillea, palm trees and colourful exotic plants, is a riot of tropical textures (tours every Tuesday and Friday; bit.ly/MariaSerenaGarden).
Elsewhere, the Jardin d’Agrumes du Palais Carnoles (parcsetjardins.fr) has the biggest collection of citrus trees in the world, and has a fitting place in Menton given the town’s annual Lemon Festival (fete-du-citron.com; February-March), while the Jardin Fontana Rosa’s tangle of pergolas, wisteria and mosaic fountains was the haven of an eccentric Spanish playwright.
Away from the gardens, Menton is the perfect place to wander the narrow backstreets before indulging in the market and visiting the awe-inspiring museum (museecocteaumenton.fr) dedicated to Jean Cocteau, the writer, designer, playwright, artist and filmmaker who made the Côte d’Azur his playground in the 1950s (menton.fr).
Getting there: Fly to Nice with British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com), easyjet, Flybe (flybe.com), Jet2 (0800 408 1350; jet2.com) and Monarch (0333 003 0700; monarch.co.uk). Take bus 99 from the airport to Nice Ville station; Menton is 30 minutes by train (voyages-sncf.com).
Where to stay: The three-star Hotel Prince de Galles on the waterfront has doubles from €69 (£55) room only (00 33 4 93 28 21 21; hotel-menton.net).
This year sees the third edition of Normandy’s Impressionist Festival (normandie-impressionniste.eu) with events taking place between April and September. A great base for the action is Honfleur, with its colourful harbour that has inspired many an artist, including Monet. The narrow, eight-storey buildings that line it are actually two residences on top of the other – the lower half housing restaurants and bars which are accessed from the quay, with the upper half offering galleries and boutiques accessed from the street behind.
The town is a great place to wander, exploring landmarks such as St Catherine’s, France’s largest wooden church, built as a temporary structure 500 years ago after the English destroyed the original stone church in the Hundred Years War.
Also worth a look is the Musée Eugène Boudin (musees-honfleur.fr), dedicated to the Impressionist artist who was born in Honfleur. Nearby are the dramatic cliffs at Etretat that inspired Monet and his contemporaries, as well as Le Havre with its Unesco-protected post-war architecture (en.ot-honfleur.fr).
Getting there: Brittany Ferries sails from Portsmouth to Le Havre, just over half an hour’s drive from Honfleur. Alternatively, fly to Caen (just under an hour’s drive) with Flybe or to Deauville (around half an hour) with Air France, Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), Cityjet or Flybe. The region can also be accessed by train with single Eurostar fares to Caen available from £37 for travel until 2 June.
Where to stay: The charming B&B La Petite Folie (00 33 6 74 39 46 46; lapetitefolie-honfleur.com) is a short walk from the harbour and has doubles from €150 (£116) with breakfast.
It’s an exciting year for Bordeaux: not only is the city hosting several Euro 2016 matches (10 June – 10 July), it will also unveil its impressive new mega-museum, the Cité du Vin (laciteduvin.com) in June. Set in a striking glass building with an observation tower from which to admire the city from above, the museum will tell the story of man’s relationship with wine throughout the world. June will also see the bi-annual festival Bordeaux Fête le Vin set up on the shores of the River Garonne, where a €21 (£16) tasting pass (€16/£12 in advance online; bordeaux-fete-le-vin.com) allows you to try up to 13 different appellations.
Even before June, there is much for the wine-loving visitor to enjoy in Bordeaux. In the Chartrons district, once the hub of the wine trade, small wine bars scribble their best vintages on blackboards outside, while a boat trip down the river can take you to the many surrounding vineyards and the charming village of St Emilion. Away from the wine-focused attractions, the city’s Unesco-listed streets are a joy to wander, with charming boutiques and top-notch restaurants, while the St André Cathedral and various museums and galleries deliver something for culture vultures too (bordeaux-tourism.co.uk).
Getting there: Fly direct to Bordeaux with British Airways, easyjet, Ryanair or Flybe, or take the train from London via Paris.
Where to stay: Mama Shelter’s Bordeaux hotel opened in 2013 and is at the heart of the city. It has doubles from €69 (£53), room only (00 33 8 25 00 62 62; mamashelter.com).
Forget the booze cruise, there’s another reason to take the car to Le Perche in Normandy, and that is antiques. This little-known area of northern France is a bolthole for Parisians in search of peace and quiet, and that unique objet d’art for their pied-à-terre. Treasure hunters will love pootling through the rolling countryside, celebrated for its horses and cider farms, whose orchards will be in full, dazzling, white bloom over the coming weeks.
In the quaint villages of Bellême, Mortagne-au-Perche and Mâle, a trove of bargain bric-a-brac awaits in various shops – known as brocante – which offer everything from antique furniture to baskets, picture frames and mirrors. The spring also brings the so-called vides greniers sales (literally “empty attic”, the French version of a car boot sale) which are advertised locally and held in market places and streets on a given day. When the hunt is over, dip into the many cider farms to pick up some cider and calvados with which to toast your most treasured finds (normandy-travel.co.uk).
Getting there: Brittany Ferries sails from Portsmouth to Ouistreham/Caen. Alternatively, take the train to Le Mans from London via Paris.
Where to stay: The Hotel le Tribunal in Mortagne-au-Perche has rooms from €74 (£57) and one of the best restaurants in the area (00 33 2 33 25 04 77; hotel-tribunal.fr).