We (me, my husband, his brother, in our 30s/40s) are thinking of spending a week in France in May 2012 & have been offered a cottage in La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast. Using that as a base, I'm looking for essential day trips & must-see places, either by train or car. We've never been to France before & don't want to fold Paris into this trip. My brother-in-law speaks a little French.
Hi Mindy - I have visited Arcachon and Cap Ferret which are farther down the coast, probably too far for a day trip. I'd get the Michelin green guide for the Atlantic Coast of France for info about the area around La Rochelle. The western coast of France isn't that popular with Americans but is a popular weekend and vacation spot for the French and British and other Europeans. I haven't been to La Rochelle or the Ile de Re yet but hope to get there someday. A week in a cottage would be wonderful!
Mindy: Ile de Re is the closest and easiest, of course. We drove around it one day after we had spent a night in La Rochelle and it seemed to be a place for the French to have summer houses, not a tourist destination, but I may be wrong. I think Royan and Cognac would be interesting day trips , though.
If you have access to a car, you may want to drive to San Sebastian, Spain. It's just over the border and is a beautiful seaside city. The beach and inner city are fascinating. That would be a 4 hour drive each way, which would make it more of a two day trip if you were to see anything much in San Sebastian. Been there twice, driving from the Rennes, France area, and loved it both times. May will be off season yet, so you could get some good prices on lodging near either side of the border.
The Ile de Ré is a fantastic place to visit. You can take a bus and then rent a bike to get around. On the Ile de Ré I would recommend visiting Saint Martin. It's a port city that is walled and very charming but also very upscale. If you're up to it you can really spend a few days biking around the island itself. The island is famous for its salt marshes and bike paths. There seem to be a lot of Brits so I think the merchants probably know enough to help you out. You can also visit the tourists offices and they can give you some insight into things. We also visited the Ile of Aix. (Ré has a bridge that you can drive over Aix you have to take a boat.) This is/was a fortified island and was the last place that Napoleon lived in France before his exile. There isa museum there that is supposed to be interesting - but when we went it was closed. You could easily visit this in a half day but have to time it right with the boats.
Mindy, Can't offer daytrip suggestion, but had to comment on La Rochelle. My first-ever trip to France, in the mid-'80s, I foound myself in La Rochelle. Absolutely gorgeous!!! Unfortunately, it was Bastille Day, and I had no reservations...so had to take a train out that night. I've dreamed of returning ever since. Have a lovely trip!
Thanks everyone I appreciate your thoughts and experiences it makes me wish I could just sit down at a table, glass of wine in hand, & hear your stories! :) The reason for our trip (a PhD graduation ceremony in England) has been delayed for a bit but when that does happen & if circumstances are similar your thoughts will be invaluable. Thanks much!