France, a two week summer vacation

A recap of our summer vacation in France, including major destinations and attractions we visited

France, a two week summer vacation
Paris Downtown as seen from the Eiffel Tower

While on the topic of travel with the recent Maui travel guide addition, I may as well record some other travels completed. One such escapade was our summer vacation to France last year which started in Southern France on the Côte d'Azur and finished in Paris about two weeks later. We managed to squeeze in a lot towns, villages, attractions and destinations, so let's get started.

We flew into Nice via an overnight flight where we picked up our rental car shortly thereafter. Our rental car turned out to be a Peugeot 5008 3-row Crossover SUV. It was specious, comfortable, had a manual transmission of course, and was larger than expected. Initially we were excited about having such a spacious car as traveling with kids and multiple suitcases is no small feat. And to be fair, on highways and even twisty mountain roads the Peugeot was right at home. The one place where we did regret having it was parking garages. Most parking garages we encountered in older city centers were simply not designed for cars of this size. Did we make it fit? - yes. Was it fun? - absolutely not. Next time around we would opt for something just a little bit smaller, simply because of that.

Our target destination after picking up our car was La Croix-Valmer. Let me give you a little bit of context as to why. When I was younger and lived in Wuppertal, Germany, my family used to vacation on the Mediterranean frequently during the summer months. Over the years, the area around La Croix-Valmer became one of our favorite destinations because of the reasonable drive. Since moving abroad, I've not been back in over 30 years, and so while part of this trip was to introduce a new generation to France, a more personal reason was to see how much things have changed in that part of the country and what I may still recognize after all these years.

I'm happy to report that while there are many things that have changed on the Côte d'Azur, the village of La Croix-Valmer and the surrounding areas are as charming as ever. We spent our first week in a rental property located on a mountainside close to the city center with fantastic views of the Mediterranean. The closest beach, Plage du Débarquement, was about 1.5 miles away and quickly became our favorite beach destinations. It had plenty of parking, was not very crowded, the sand was soft and the entry into the water was nice and shallow which made it great for kids. There are several restaurants to choose from right on the beach. We ate a couple times at Le Nautic Beach Restaurant and enjoyed the food and the service.

The city center has not changed much from what I remember as a kid, which is a good thing - a roundabout and a small main street with various shops and restaurants. A few which stood our were the following: Les Palmiers Boulanger Patissier with absolutely delicious bread and pastries, Café Valmer served scrumptious dinner entries and drinks, Restaurant Le Patio was a favorite with our kids because of their pizzas, while we did not mind the rest of the food selection or the drinks one bit either. Another good option is Pizza House as it stays up later than most establishments in La Croix-Valmer, in case you are in a pinch for a late night snack. For a lovely wine experience be sure to stop by Domaine de la Croix right down the street from the city center, while the kids can go explore the lush greenery, you can treat yourself to a wine tasting, which unlike stateside was complimentary.

We did a little bit more than eat and lay on the beach for a week, as there are many interesting places to explore in the near vicinity. A spectacular village to visit nearby is Gassin. It is perched on top of a 200m high rock and likely has one of the best views of the Gulf of Saint-Tropez. It is a tiny little village, where you leave your car on the outside as you arrive. The charming and little streets inside the city are something out of a medieval fairy tale. It is not overrun with tourists and small enough that kids can roam freely while you take in the city sights. Grab a nice lunch or dinner at one of the hilltop restaurants and enjoy the panoramic views.

Another nice daytrip is a visit to Le Château de Grimaud. The drive is very lovely, the village of Grimaud is charming with quaint street, old churches, and beautifully painted houses, and finally the castle is well worth the visit. It is a bit of a climb to get to the castle so be sure to put on some comfortable shoes, but you will be rewarded with some amazing views. You will also find an old windmill nearby and a well preserved cemetery, all of which are bonus stops for the visit.

A view from Grimaud Castle

Of course, no trip to the Gulf of Saint-Tropez can be complete without visiting Saint-Tropez itself. As can be expected, Saint-Tropez was swarmed with tourists, and picking a good time to visit can be a bit of a challenge. We decided to check out the Saint-Tropez Market which is held on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8am to 1pm. The key to enjoying to market is getting there early and finding a parking spot at one of the large parking lots - which means you need to be there by 7:30am or so. The market itself is amazing, you can find anything from fresh fruit to vintage furniture. Once done shopping, stop by one of the many port-side restaurants for breakfast, unless of course you are friends with someone who has a boat docked in the harbor. I'm not going to lie, those yachts are very impressive, and although I've never though about owning one, it does make you fantasize about being out at sea on one of them. On a side note, when you go to Saint-Tropez early in the day, many of the fancy restaurants will not be open - so you may need to come back another time for some fine dining.  

There are several other places worth mentioning in this area, which you may want to visit if you have time: Port Grimaud is a sort of miniature Venice. It is a bit touristy, but the building have lovely colors and some delicious restaurants can be found along the waterways. Sainte-Maxime was a lovely surprise. Located across the bay from Saint-Tropez it has a nice walking area with many shops and a great selection of restaurants. If you don't want to deal with Saint-Tropez traffic and parking, consider visiting here and taking Les Bateaux Verts across the bay which depart every twenty minutes. Also consider a drive along D559 from La Croix-Valmer towards Le Lavandou. It is a stunning drive along the Mediterranean, with may twisty turns, beautiful views, and lovely little towns along the way.

If you know me, you know I could not forego the opportunity to hit some tennis balls on the terre battue in France. It has been a long time since the last time I had a chance to do so, as most tennis courts in the US are either hard courts, or green clay courts - both of which play very differently than traditional red clay courts. Fortunately, I was able to book time with Gilles Mahieu at the Tennis Club la Croix Valmer and get some hitting in to help me offset a few of the calories from the fine dining and drinking. The courts were in great condition, I got a super workout, and playing on red clay after all these years was an absolute treat.  

After a week on the Mediterranean, it was then time to slowly make our way inland towards Paris. Our intermediate stop on that journey was the ancient city of Nîmes. Looking back at our trip, we would have liked an additional day in Nîmes as the city is full of attractions, history, culture, and delicious food. The old-town is very walkable and once you park your car you won't need to move it again. In the very center of the city you can find the Arena of Nîmes. While not as large as the Colosseum it Rome, it is just as old and it is remarkably well preserved. It still hosts music concerts during the summer time - catch one if you can for a unique experience. Right across from the Arena, you can find the Museum Romanité, which really exceeded our expectations. The displays were very well designed, and there were many interactive items for kids to explore, giving us time to enjoy what we were interested in. Another Roman marvel is the Maison Carrée temple which is just a few blocks away from the Arena. It is over two thousand years old and in excellent condition - definitely a sight not to be missed. Finally, venture just a few miles outside the city, and you will find another feat of Roman engineering, namely the Pont Du Gard aqueduct. It is a marvelous sight and has been on my bucket list for a long time, so I was delighted to finally have seen it. Be sure to bring some swimwear when you go, as you can swim in the river below it, and even rent some kayaks if you want to. You will need to arrange for a private tour if you want to walk the top most level, but even without that access, it is a splendid experience.

From Nîmes we took the high-speed rail up to Paris. We booked the tickets directly via SNCF which was easy enough and fairly cheap for a whole family. The trip was a bit less than three hours long and our girls enjoyed some of the beautiful French countryside before we arrived at the Gare de Lyon. The train and seats were nice, but not as nice as the Renfe high-speed rail we took in Spain a fear years earlier. In Paris we met up with my sister and her family and we all stayed together at a wonderful flat near the Palais Garnier opera house. This location was great, with a convenience store right around the corner and an abundance of great restaurants. The Place de La Concorde, Jardin des Tuileries, and the Louvre Museum were all within walking distance. Although, with kids we needed to resort to using the bus and the metro at times. I mention the bus and the metro specifically, as getting an Uber or Taxi in Paris was a rather challenging matter. The former was notorious for cancelling rides on us, and the latter were really hard to come by. The bus on the other hand, was comfortable, air conditioned, and had dedicated lanes which allowed it to skip the ever present traffic.

As you can imagine, we did quite a few things during our few days in Paris. It goes without mention that we had to visit the Eiffel Tower. While we had tickets for the tower, we did not have lift tickets, as these sell out way in advance - get yours early if you plan on going. With four kids, two of which needed to be carried, and a stroller, climbing up the stairs to the second floor was a herculean task, but we were rewarded with unforgettable views. Not everything was this strenuous, as a matter of fact our visit to the Louvre Museum was the exact opposite, and probably as close to a miracle as I will witness in my lifetime. I'm still not sure how my brother in-law pulled this one off, but he managed to sort out a private tour of the Louvre for us and a few lucky friends who happened to be in Paris on that day. Let me explain how monumental this was - other than a few artists tending to paintings and our extremely knowledgably tour guide, there was not a soul at the Museum as the Louvre is officially closed on Tuesdays. It was just Mona Lisa and us, and nobody else. Our children were a little too young to appreciate this moment, but it is something we will never forget!

While our children enjoyed the Louvre, they absolutely loved the Jardin d'Acclimatation and I can't really blame them. It is what every amusement park strives to be but very few end up being. It does not have all the latest and greatest roller coaster rides, but it has so many classic rides, charming carrousels, and simple bumper cars. All of this at a reasonable price, in a lovely park setting, is superbly clean, and without crazy crowds. No upsells of speed passes and long queues, just an enjoyable afternoon with the kids - a place we will gladly visit again with the kids each time we visit Paris. This is in stark contrast to most other amusement parks which we will visit at most once just to check a box for the kids.

The Jardin des Tuileries was also a fun place to explore, and of course a ride down the river Seine in one of the many water Taxis is a great option when the time comes to take a break and kick up your feet for a little bit. With that said, all this exploring made us a bit hungry, but thankfully Paris is a great place for finding some delicious food, even with large parties. Since we are in France, let's start with crêpes and La Crème de Paris Notre-Dame which was a lovely place to grab some. As it is located near Notre-Dame it can get busy at times, so get there early and avoid the crowds if you have a large party. Another great place to eat is B.O.U.L.O.M, which is a restaurant in the back of a bakery. You will need to grab a metro from the city center to get there, but the exquisite all-you-can-eat buffet that awaits is well worth the travel time, and the ambience with large communal tables is fantastic. Should you be in the mood for some Italian while in Paris, then you may want to check out Daroco Bourse. While the food was pretty good, it is the interior which earned the high marks, with the restaurant repurposing the space of what used to be one of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s stores. On the other hand, if you want a taste of Parisian style working-class cooking you can hardly go wrong with Bouillon Pigalle, but you better get there early or make reservations, as the queue to get in gets long quickly.

Panoramaic view of Paris from the Eiffel Tower

Unfortunately, after all this it was time to pack up and get back home. Getting to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport from the city center seemed to take an eternity, easily over an hour. Things did not improve much once we arrived at the airport, where checking in bags and finding the proper lines to stand in was chaotic to say the least, but somehow we managed to make it home - once again, like with most things in Paris, give yourself plenty of time. Don't get me wrong, Paris is absolutely great, but when all is said and done, I'm more of a southern France type of guy. Anyhow, hopefully after reading all of this you may have found a few new places to visit next time you are in France.