Ah, Paris… We love it too. But if it's your second or third trip to the City of Light, it may be time to branch out (there are other exciting parts of France, you know). For a first taste of the French countryside, we recommend a jaunt to the Loire Valley. An hour from Paris on the high-speed TGV train, the region has it all: castles, great food, incredible wine, charming villages, cycling paths — basically, something for everyone, particularly those who love food and drink. Below, our guide to making a grand old weekend of it in the Loire — a perfect addendum to your next visit to Paris.
The Loire Valley region runs across the middle of France, from Nantes, near the sea, to Sancerre
in the East, following the Loire River. You're not going to be able to see the whole region in a weekend, but your best bet for packing a lot in is to base yourself in or near Tours. For one thing, that city is just under an hour from Paris on the TGV (upon arrival, you may want to rent a car for easier navigation in this largely rural area). Once in Tours, you'll be in the midst of château country, within easy reach of the most celebrated castles, including Chenonceau and Chambord. There are excellent restaurants in the area, and, for faltering Francophones, it's said that Tours has the cleanest (i.e., easiest to understand) French.
As long as you're checking out châteaux this weekend, why not check into one as well? Domaine de la Tortiniere (from $160 per night), 9 miles south of Tours, has antique furnishings and its own wooded park, along with luxury amenities like a heated swimming pool and on-site spa. Another option, Chateau d'Artigny (from $148 per night), also about 9 miles south of Tours, is even grander, decorated in a classical fashion and with a gourmet restaurant on site.
Wine lovers will be thrilled to find themselves smack in the midst of the Touraine wine appellation, and just next to Vouvray (Chinon is not far either). The whites in Touraine are headlined by Sauvignon Blanc (the same grape used in Sancerre), while Gamay, Cabernet Franc and Cot (the local term for Malbec) dominate the reds. One award-winning producer worth visiting is the fourth-generation Domaine Desloges, whose eponymous wine took the top price at the Concours Mondial de Sauvignon in its 2012 vintage.
While vino-tourism is not as advanced here as it is in, say, Napa Valley, California, some producers have really gotten the hang of it. At Domaine de la Chapinière near the tiny, picturesque village of Châteauvieux (home to its own château, naturally), former software engineer Florence Veilex is as delightful a hostess as she is a winemaker. On nice days you can opt to have a tasting outdoors in view of the on-site horse corral. You're also invited to hike around the vineyard, check out the contemporary "clubhouse" or art installations scattered around the property, and have a nibble of cheese if you're hungry. On a recent visit, Veilex led a fun experiment, offering a taste from a freshly opened bottle of her 2009 Garnon wine and then another from the same wine that had been open a week. The latter was the more pleasing to drink, fragrant with red fruits and velvety on the palate. Malbec (or Cot) as Veilex explained, will keep in the bottle for a long time after it's open.
In between drinks, try to squeeze in some châteaux. Be sure to visit Chenonceau, the jewel of the region that was once famously tussled over by Henri II's favorite mistress, Diane de Poitiers, and his wife, Catherine de Medicis. The palace juts dramatically into the Cher River, surrounded by elaborate gardens. You can tour its fascinating interior, including the bedchambers of the various past royal inhabitants. There's even a wine cave on the grounds offering some delicious, easy-to-drink Touraine wines, for those who can't get enough. Chateau de Chambord, another spectacular palace not far from Tours, was built as a residence for the king of France (it's said Da Vinci may have had a hand in its design, which credits both Medieval and Renaissance inspiration). You may be familiar with the raspberry liqueur called Chambord, a key ingredient in the apéritif drink known as a Kir Royale; it's said that King Louis XIV visited Château Chambord in 1685 and sampled such a spirit — and you should make sure to try some raspberry liquor, either Chambord or a more artisanal variety, while you're in the area.
Since this is the country that invented the Michelin Guide, hit up at least one star-studded eatery while you're here. In Tours proper, there's La Roche Le Roy, which is styled as a traditional country house and offers hearty yet refined fare paired with local wines from Vouvray and Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil, another Cabernet Franc–dominated red grown near Chinon. In Vouvray, Les Hautes Roches, housed inside the luxury troglodyte hotel by the same name, turns out delightful dishes that marry land and sea, and boasts an impressive regional wine list. Since Vouvray is thought to pair excellently with charcuterie as well, don't miss a stop at some village charcutier, who'll be happy to slice you some of the region's bounty for a riverside picnic.