First trip to France for 12 nights in early March 2017 with the wife. Will arrive in Paris in morning and then likely TGV to Provence (likely Avignon). Would like to base in one location and take day trips. Figure 6 nights in Provence region then TGV back to Paris for second 6 nights. Likely renting car. Seeking advice for base area in Provence. Given time of year, I was thinking Avignon is a good option, but also open to other ideas. We do like smaller, walkable villages/towns but would likely not want to base someplace that will be "dead" in early March. Thanks for the help!
My first recommendation is to fly into Marseille (decent size airport) and home from Paris. It would be cheaper and more convenient. Avignon is an easy hour train ride from Marseille. You might consider three nights in Avignon and move to Lyon for three nights. In early March you probably will find it cool and perhaps rainy.
If you're renting a car, look at staying in smaller places than Avignon. I stayed in Avignon because I was carless; I wouldn't have wanted to drive there.
I also agree that if you haven't yet booked your flights, look at flying into Marseille and out of Paris. Or, if you can fly Air France, you can get your train segment added to your flight; details here: http://www.airfrance.us/US/en/common/resainfovol/avion_train/reservation_avion_train_tgvair_airfrance.htm
Maybe it's just me, but I like the big city experience early on in the vacation when I'm fresh, and leave the relaxing, small town/rural experience at the end of the trip. I find it hard to get into the hustle and bustle of a large city after I've been relaxing at a slower pace.
I think your plan is perfect. You need to be in the town you fly from last otherwise you waste your whole next to last day rushing back to get a plane and it really takes the edge off the vacation. The day of arrival is sort of a jet lagged waste anyway -- use it to get to the region. We spent a month in the south and a month in Paris which is ending tomorrow. I would take the train to a major city like Avignon, spend the first jet lagged night and pick up a car the next day and head to a smaller town for a base. Usually cottages rent for a week Sat to Sat but that time of year is off season and you might find someone willing to rent for 5 nights. Otherwise, a hotel in a smaller town would be good so you can easily drive to the towns and parks in the region without negotiating a city each time. Weather this time of year is likely to be chilly and sloppy.
Being in Paris the night before our flight was exactly my thought. Our tickets were booked through reward travel a few months ago as into and out of Paris so we are set into that option. We like traveling at this time of year as we find it reduces tourist numbers. We did Italy 2 years ago and Ireland/Spain last year at the same time and liked it very much!
With a car, I am thinking L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue might be a nice base. What do you think?
We can second the suggestions for L'Isle sur la Sorgue as a base for touring Provence, in particular the Luberon region. It's centrally located, has plenty of shops and restaurants, is scenic and unusual with its canals and waterwheels. The historic/central section of town is compact and walkable, and we had no problems using the free and easily accessed parking lots just outside the ring that encloses the action. (And the Sunday market is a hoot if that works with your itinerary.) St. Remy might be worth a look as well. We enjoyed a morning of site-seeing and shopping there and would probably put it on a short list were we to return to the region. We avoided Avignon based on frequent comments regarding it being busy, hard to navigate, etc. For what it's worth, we picked up/returned our rental car at CDG (although we spent our first night at a hotel close to CDG, not wanting to drive in a jet-lagged condition.) Putting Paris at the end of your trip also makes sense; that strategy worked well for us.
We were in Provence in March 3 years ago and are glad we had rental car to get to several smaller villages. We ended up staying very close to Arles in a wonderful country hotel for several nights. Mistrals are always a risk, so be sure to pack some warm layers and coats/hats.
When I fly out of Paris, I stay at Rossy-en-France, near CDG on the night before our flight and fly out by United at mid-day. That saves the worry of a drive from Paris in the morning. Remember you need to be at least two hours early at the airport. Checking in a car at Terminal 1 is a piece of cake. Lots of chain hotels, but the food is universally bad!