Luxury hotels, a rental car, and an adventurous spirit add up to one unforgettable family vacation. Follow along as this family embarks on a 10-day road trip from Paris to the French Riviera, stopping at a few villages along the way. The kids got a history lesson, everyone soaked in the breathtaking scenery, and they met some incredible locals. The key to all of those memories? A rental car that offered freedom to let the family immerse in the culture and travel down roads you can’t get to any other way (not to mention room to store the mementos they bought along the way).
The writer was hosted for all or part of this trip.
Road Tripping in France
We have been to Paris many times, but we wanted to see more of France. To see what we wanted to see required making it a road trip, so to speak. We weren’t concerned about driving — the French drive on the same side of the road as we Americans do — directions were easy to follow, and the roads were all in great condition. This wasn’t an inexpensive adventure, however. We went in style, staying at top rated hotels along the way. There were no regrets.
Family Tip #1: Have the kids learn a few phrases in French before you leave and have them use what they learned at a restaurant, when shopping, or asking for directions. It’s not only educational, but a lot of fun.
We flew into Paris to begin our journey. The city is ideal to visit and easy to navigate with kids of any age. You can walk or take a Batobus, the Metro, or a taxi. Paris is filled with such history and fun for all family members and you should not have any language issues. Do some homework before you go and decide which museums or sites you wish to visit and if you want to stay on the Left or Right Bank. We stayed in a quiet neighborhood on the Left Bank in the Hotel Montalembert, a boutique hotel within walking distance of what we wanted to see.
Family Tip #2: We strongly suggest booking a separate room for the kids on a road trip through France. You will plenty of together time.
Some of our favorite sites include, of course, the Louvre, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur for the incredible views of the city, and the Eiffel Tower. But, we also love Musee d’Orsay to see Rodin’s Gates of Hell, Musee d’Orangerie to see Monet’s enormous Water Lilly paintings, and the Pompidou Center for its modern and interactive art.
Family Tip #3: We highly recommend taking a guided tour in the museums or at least using the audio headphones to really learn about the paintings rather than just walking by. You could also create your own game to play with the kids before you go to keep them engaged.
Riding a Carousel
If you have little kids, they should love the abundance of carousels. Two of the most notable are at the Jardin des Tuileries, where you can also rent toy sailboats, and Jardin des Plantes. The city is also filled with zoos, parks, playgrounds, and circus shows and don’t forget to take a river cruise if you don’t use the Batobus.
One of the wonderful things about Paris is that you can always count on finding the unexpected, like coming upon a group of violinists playing outside the Place de Vosages. We just sat on a bench and listened for a long time with many other people. This is also why walking the city is the way to go if you can.
In terms of dining, you will find American standards, but please, you are in Paris. At the very least, sit outside at a cafe and have a grilled cheese sandwich or pastry and hot chocolate with the kids! Hop into a bakery and get a loaf of bread, find a cheese shop and get some cheese and ham if you like, or find a farmer’s market and take it all down along the Seine or into one of the parks and have a picnic.
Family Tip #4: Paris is the perfect city to do a game we call “get lost”. The winding streets, safe neighborhoods, and hidden gems are perfect. Stand on a street corner and starting with the youngest, have them pick left, right, or straight. When you get to the next corner, the next oldest gets to pick and continue until you find someplace the family wants to stop and enjoy. We have found some of our favorite restaurants and shops this way.
Family Tip #5: We find when navigate with kids of any age in general, it is best to rent a smaller car. We suggest getting the smallest car that will keep your family comfortable. Make sure the kids have space in the back seat, so you are not hearing “she’s touching me”. If you have kids who need their space, set boundaries in the car and set up expectations of behavior ahead of time. This is a time that setting the kids up for success is best for everyone. Get a great night’s sleep the night before, have snacks available, and car activities prepared.
So, it was off on the next leg of our adventure. We had the rental car delivered to the hotel, bid adieu to Paris, and set out for the Burgundy region, an easy 2 1/2 hour drive on the autoroute. We spent 2 nights at Chateau de Vault du Lugny, between Avalon and Vezelay, a huge chateau on 100 acres surrounded by a moat. Chickens, roosters, ducks, dogs, and a peacock run on the property – all pets.
Pulling up, we felt like we had taken a giant leap back in time. The iron gates opened and two people greeted us, champagne in hand and escorted us to our room. We stayed in Le Roy suite, which is a huge room with a fireplace and a combination of antique furnishings, with its four-poster canopied king bed and modern bath with Jacuzzi. Apparently, we slept in the same bed as Eric Clapton!
The owners were more than happy to recommend activities with the kids, such as rafting and kayaking, truffle hunting with the dogs, tree climbing with rope ladders, or touring the many surrounding medieval towns, most of which we managed to cram into two days. I think the only activity we didn’t manage was horseback riding.
Family Tip #6: We feel it’s very important to schedule an adult evening on vacation. We often traveled with our own sitter when the kids were little, but many hotels now offer child care services, so you can have some alone time. Just plan this ahead of time, so you have a sitter lined up.
For our adult evening, we chose a balloon ride at sunset over the Burgundy valley. We drove to Vezelay, a quaint town with shops lining a steep street ending with a church. The 1 1/2 hour balloon ride – my first – was phenomenal and when we got back to the chateau, a romantic dinner for two was ready. The kids had a wonderful night too, exploring sans parents.
Dining here is such an experience between the atmosphere and the food and they do have a children’s menu. I seriously can’t think of anything negative to say about Chateau de Vault du Lugny. It is a bit isolated, but that’s just part of the charm. The food, service, and accommodations are all top-notch and I would stay again without any qualms.
Family Tip #7: Make sure you are prepared to be back in the car with the kids. Clean the trash from your first leg. Look at what worked and what didn’t on the first leg and make adjustments. Also, spend some time reviewing the map with the kids, so they are aware of what they need to keep their eyes peeled for.
With a fond farewell, we headed for Provence, where we spent three nights at La Bastide de Marie, a 15 room hotel outside Menerbes. It took us about five hours and we only got lost once, but made an adventure out of it. We stopped in Menerbes and, using the twins’ middle school French and my four years of high school French, asked an elderly Frenchman for directions. He threw up his hands, laughed, and went “La Bastide de Marie, simple.” He proceeded to chat with the twins, en francais. We could fake and understand just enough to both make him laugh at us AND find the hotel.
We made our way down a stone filled driveway lined with cypress trees. The hotel is an old stone farmhouse (bastide) that sits in a vineyard surrounded by cypress and olive trees and lavender fields. Our room was on the edge of the hotel by one of the pools. We enjoy when traveling as a family, to have this true family time and the kids loved having the pool so close. The room was stunning with a combination of antiques and modern amenities, including free wifi which thrilled the kids after not having wifi for the car ride. You can get a children’s bed or crib for the room at an extra cost.
Essentially, everything is included and that means dinner and wine from the hotel’s vineyard. From aperitifs to dessert, you are well taken care of. There is plenty of room for the kids to explore while you enjoy the sunset. And the kids, no matter the age, are made to feel like true guests. A hot breakfast is set out to have at your leisure.
Family tip #8: Make sure you give the kids time to be kids, no matter the age. Staying in hotels like this is perfect, where they can safely wander and roam, while you keep a watchful eye on them.
Over the next few days, we hit the small villages in the Luberon region – Menerbes, Gordes, Rousillon, Bonnieux, and La Coste. Menerbes, a fortified city with a citadel and castle, is very cool and historic. Gordes sits in all its splendor on a hill that glistens in the sun. But our favorite was Roussillon.
We loved the outdoor market we stumbled upon and the glorious colors from yellow to purple and all shades in between that envelope the streets and homes of the village. Driving the area was quite easy and the roads were in great condition. The hotel also has bikes you can borrow to explore.
Family Tip #9: Teach your kids to be friendly travelers. I highly encourage you to strike up conversations with fellow tourists. You never know what great tidbit of information you will learn or what lifelong friends you will meet. This is another reason why renting your own car is so worth it. We met a lovely couple from New York, who told us to go to the Fondation Maeght in St. Paul de Vence to get Matisse prints. Vacation is not the time to be shy… as we say, teach your children by example.
On our last day, we drove down to St. Remy de Provence and Les Baux, stopping at Les Baux, which is a combination of an “alive” and “dead” city. The town itself sits high up with views of the entire valley and rocky cliffs below and is what’s left of life thousands of years ago, complete with catapults. It is a perfect stop for kids of all ages. After lunch, we headed back to La Bastide de Marie for our last night.
The French Riviera
Our final two nights of this magical trip were spent in Beaulieu sur Mer at La Reserve de Beaulieu right on the Mediterranean. I opted for a hotel slightly outside of all the action, but still easy to navigate. The trip took several hours, but OH, WHAT SCENERY. Even the kids were in awe and kept going “Mom, did you see that”?
Family Tip #10: Be flexible and take time to just enjoy.The greatest reward of having your own rental car is being able to stop where and when you want. On this leg, we stopped often, generally at the kids’ request. Make sure to build in time for this and don’t put yourselves under too much of a time crunch.
La Reserve de Beaulieu is an absolutely gorgeous hotel. We had lunch by the pool and the kids took a dip while our room was readied and then, were escorted to a room with two equally gorgeous views – one of the sea and one of the sea and garden courtyard. You can get a second room for the kids or if you have little ones, have an extra bed or crib for a small fee.
Very important Family Tip #11: You are in Europe and sunbathers are allowed to go topless at the pool and beach. Prepare the kids in private, not once you hit the pool or beach.
Dinner at the hotel, which is Michelin rated, is a must. You sit in the courtyard for a pre-dinner glass of wine for the adults and maybe a uniquely French non-alcoholic drink for the kids, then order your dinner, and later are taken to the table, which is all set up for you on the patio overlooking the sea. All I can say is it is not overrated!
On our last day, we drove up to St. Paul de Vence way up in the hills overlooking the coast. WHAT A DRIVE. We passed by Monaco, Monte Carlo, and the village of Eze, where the kids looked over the cliffs with wide eyes and a bit of fear! We went to the Fondation Maeght, an indoor/outdoor gallery, before venturing into St. Paul de Vence, a steep, walled city filled with shops and art galleries. To top off the day, a drive through Nice seemed warranted and a visit to the Musee Matisse, a beautiful villa surrounded by olive trees.
We were all getting a bit travel weary, so opted to dine at the hotel again. The next morning, we left our rental car at the hotel for pick up and took a taxi to the Nice airport for the long eight hour flight home.
Family Tip #12: Ever since our children were little, we opted for buying meaningful souvenirs and found that in art. It does not have to be super expensive. In Paris, the kids loved the small, hand painted postcards from the street vendors. In markets along our adventure, our daughter found a beautiful fabric she later made into a skirt. Their rooms reflect their adventures and they have collected treasures, not junk. Having a rental car allows you to shop freely and not worry about having to carry your items. We highly suggest bringing an empty, hard-shell suitcase to get everything home.
I don’t think this vacation could have gone any better. The weather was perfect and each hotel was superb and unique with excellent staff. It was the perfect combination of sight-seeing and relaxation. Everyone found activities to do that we loved as individuals and a family. We collected more artwork, which we like to do when we travel, so when we roam our house, all the memories are rekindled.