My wife and I are going w/ family (4 adults + 2 teens) to France for 2 weeks in the 1st half of July. The consensus is after a few days in Paris hitting some high spots to head south. Roman Provence, a castle or two (overnight in Carcasonne?) and a decompression day or two on the Med are on the menu. We travel Britain a lot and use the trains and rental cars as well, but I know I'll probably need a 6 person van to get around for some of what we want in Provence. That said, what are good cities to travel to by train from Paris and pick up a vehicle for the Provence portion. My first guess was Toulouse, down through Carcasonne, to Collioure, kick back on the beach, then Nimes + Arles, turn in the car and head back to Paris on the train. Or is the train good enough down there to stay with the train except for specific day trips? Is this nuts, given the time of year? With 6 people, I'll need to find a rental car agency big enough to have a good size vehicle. At least in England, I had difficulty w/ some small town car rentals not having an available minivan when we did this sort of trip.
I don't know that a minivan will hold 6 adult sized people and their luggage. Not to mention the challenges of driving on the small roads and tight parking spaces. You might need 2 cars.
As for kicking back on the beach in Collioure, you should know that the beach there is rocky, not sandy. A little further north in Canet en Rousillon (just east of Perpignan) the beach is nice and sandy, but the area itself felt very rundown to me. Many French people vacation in Canet en Rousillon, but it certainly doesn't have the charm of Collioure. If you are staying in Collioure with a car you could just drive up to the nicer beaches.
I have to agree. I am a veteran of dragging 6 people around Europe in a van. It is very tempting to go for a smaller vehicle that is advertised as holding 6 people. Unfortunately, these ads are more than a little over-optimistic. Especially with luggage, you will likely need a full-sized van. The first time we did the "traveling circus" routine we had to do a last-minute trade-up to a full sized van because the original vehicle we had reserved was simply too small. It all worked out fine, but it was an unnecessary complication to our trip. Main downside to the big van is narrow streets and parking. Makes for some good war stories, though. As far as jump-off points, we always take the TGV to Avignon. There is a Herz office right next to the train station. (I believe it is Herz.) Of course our destinations are always in the direction of Nice.
Bradley, you have two weeks with the first "couple of days" in Paris. Then the southern swing. I don't know whether this is anticipated to encompass the balance of the two weeks. Because you have made no contrary mention, I will assume this to be the case. Also, as it is 6 months distant, I will assume that you have not yet made plane reservations. It is not stated, but implied that you will return to Paris for no reason other than to fly home. You mention "an overnight" in Carcasonne but do not state whether it is a major point of interest. First recommendation: fly into Paris and out of Nice. Second: unless there is a strong desire to see Carcasonne, skip it. It is a wonderful sight, but out of the way. It takes almost twice as long to get to Toulouse as to get to Avignon. Then you have the drive to Carcasonne and on to Provence. I would recommend the TGV to Avignon where you could pick up on or two vehicles. Stay 4 to 5 nights at some place near Avignon. From there you can comfortably cover everything from Orange to Vaison la Romaine to Rousillon, to Arles, to Nimes. Then drive to the coast at Cassis and east through St. Tropez, Frejus, Cannes to Nice. You might want to stop and spend a night or two at either a famous resort town or a smaller town with a nice beach. Turn in the car at the Nice airport which is on the west side of town and take the bus into town. Stay several nights in Nice, using bus/train transport to see surrounding towns. Fly home from Nice.
Pick up the van in Avignon.
Spend the bulk of your time in Provence, probably in the general Rhone valley area. Think small town or country rental. A van will be no fun in Avignon. Day trips to Roman antiquities and other delights.
Return the car in, and fly home from, Toulouse. Many interesting possibilities enroute. Read a few good guide books, pick the best, and have a blast.
We'll probably spend 5 nights in Paris to hit highlights in and around Paris then head south to Provence.
Yes, I am concerned about getting the gang in one vehicle. In point of fact, I'd figured on getting a 7 passenger like a Ford S-Max. That's pretty much a "full size" van for UK anyway, even though it's a "minivan" by US standards. I've put the gang in a smaller MPV (a Renault as I recall) for day trips in England, but then there's the bags, even though we try to stick w/ Rick's "pack light" style. Unless the roads are significantly smaller and more treacherous than the B roads of Wales, I should be OK w/ the driving.
I hadn't considered an open airline flight to fly back from Provence so we'll think about that, but we'll have to look at the price differences vs travel back to Paris.
I spotted Collioure in Rick's guide and was attracted to it, but didn't have any direct knowledge. We aren't a lie-on-the-sand crowd as much as we are a bunch of fishermen, wildlife spotters and beachcombers. We went to the Cornish coast with the teens a couple of years ago and they spent the whole time exploring every rock and tidal pool from St. Michaels Mount to Mousehole. Or took them via small boat to dive on the reefs of Bahamas out islands.
That said, I might look further east...what suggestions might there be for family friendly beaches and accommodation between Narbonne and Arles? Given that we'll be there in the middle of July, I'm not sure I'm ready to tackle the crazier (and pricier) places around St. Tropez.
Collioure will also be crazy (and expensive) in mid July. We were just there the end of October and it seemed full, though we definitely got low-season rates. We enjoyed our two nights there, but it's definitely more of a resort-type spot than I had actually anticipated.
Just throwing this out there... Having driven both a full-size van and a mid-sized car in Provence, this is what I would do. I would rent a vehicle that comfortably fits your family of 6 and not particularly worry about the luggage. I would stay in one central location for the time you are in Provence, so that you are not hauling luggage around with you. Take the TGV to Avignon and pick up your vehicle there. It may be a bit crowded and uncomfortable for the short trip from Avignon to the place you decide to stay with the luggage, but once your rid of it, it would make it easier to drive around for the week in something other than a full-size van. The towns and streets of Provence were not built for vans. I know this may sound crazy, but I would rather ride from the train station to my rental/hotel with my luggage in my lap (or make two trips from the station to the hotel) than ever drive a van in Provence again. Two cars is also an option, assuming that you have two people willing and able to drive...
I'd like to hear Ed's opinion but wouldn't it be a heck of a lot less expensive to rent the van in Paris and drive to Provence? After getting to the train station, waiting for the train and the train ride it wouldn't be a lot less time than driving. Taking a train and then renting a car in the same day seems to be less then efficient travel planning.
Sorry, I'm not Ed. But while we wait for his response, here's my opinion (having done both driving and train)...
When I drove, I stopped overnight between Paris and Provence, so I didn't drive straight through. But ViaMichelin gives a drive time of 6+ hours and a cost (toll & gas) of about 125 euros. The TGV from Paris to Avignon takes less than 3 hours and there are several car rental agencies located at the Avignon TGV station. So, for me anyway, the train was way more convenient than driving. For six people, I'm sure it's less expensive to drive, but you'd have to look at all of the costs to compare and determine if the savings are worth it. Depending on what your pickup and drop off times are, you could be paying for an additional day on the car rental. Driving out of Paris isn't really much fun, either.
Anyway, let's wait and see what Ed thinks...
Bradley, one nice place to pick up a rental car is the Nimes train station. We've done that. Three rental car agencies are right in the station and the cars are below in the underground parking garage. We then drove to Avignon where we based for 3 days as we drove all through Provence. In the evening, we parked at the large underground parking garage called Jean Jaures. About 20Euro/day but its safe and better than parking on streets (which is hard to do). From Avignon Centre, you can catch the very fast TGV train back to Paris. 2hr39min if you get the right train.
If you don't want to drive from Paris (its really not that hard...just follow signs to the freeway) then I would take the train from Paris to Avignon and rent the van there. I have driven a 9 passenger van all over southern France a few times and while there are some challenges, there are places for vans and buses to park. I would stay someplace central (like my all time favorite town St. Remy) and make day trips from there and not be hauling the luggage every day. I have also gone with a group of 8 and we had two cars... while the driving and parking were easier trying to keep together was a real challenge. We also had that problem with the vans as we had 3 of them...once in Vancluse (sp) only two of the vans could find parking so once I tired of looking we just drove on elsewhere and found some old churches and lavender fields to photograph... worked out for our group but could be a problem for some.