At first I was reluctant to travel to France without spending time in Paris but in the end, it worked out perfectly. My husband and I spent 16 nights in southern France from 6 May until 23 May, 2013. Our rough plan was to visit the Dordogne River region for 5 nights and then decide on the rest of our itinerary from there with the last 3 nights booked in Toulouse. Our flight on KLM was $1224 from Atlanta -> Bordeaux (via AMS) and Toulouse -> Atlanta (via CDG.) Our small Peugeot ($250 for 13 days rental plus $93 for taxes and fees) was equipped with a GPS which was invaluable! We found that in some cases, we could avoid toll roads by changing the GPS setting in the car without too much additional travel time.
Bordeaux (1 night): We picked the Hotel Ibis Bordeaux Centre Gare Saint Jean (78 EUR per night) as it was a short walk to pick up our rental car at the rail station. Also, close to public transportation which made it easy to explore the city center in the afternoon and for dinner in the evening. Overall, Bordeaux was more interesting than we expected and we could have spent at least one more day there.
To La Roque-Gageac (6 nights): It takes about 2.5 hours to drive from Bordeaux to La Roque. We stayed at Hotel La Belle Etoile in one of the 55 EUR rooms which was acceptable - we considered staying in Sarlat but liked the idea of a smaller village with easy, free parking (the hotel provided a parking pass.) We added one additional night for a total of 6 - our extra day we drove through Cahors to St. Cirq-Lapopie for lunch and on to the Pech-Merle Caves. It was an easy day trip from La Roque. We dropped off our laundry in Cenac-et-Saint-Julien in the morning and picked it up on the return trip in the afternoon. There is so much to do and see from this location. Here's roughly what we did: Thursday morning market in Domme with drive through villages of Cenac and Daglan; to Les Eyzies-de-Tayac for nearby Abri du Cap Blanc and Montignac for nearby Lascaux II; Marqueyssac Gardens and Chateau de Castelnaud; Saturday market in Sarlat; and if the weather had better, we would have rented a canoe or hiked nearby. There were plenty of dinner options nearby--a few in La Roque including dinner at the hotel which was lovely. We also enjoyed dinner at La Petite Tonnelle in Beynac.
To Saint-Jean-de-Luz (4 nights):
For a change of pace and some seaside ambiance we spent 4 chilly nights in Saint-Jean-de-Luz at Hotel Ohartzia (72 EUR per night.) A great location for exploring the Basque region of France and Spain. Here's what we did: Day trip to Bayonne with stops in Basque villages of Sare/Sara and Ainhoa; daytrip to San Sebastian for tapas at Bar Aralar (just one of many amazing options); drive to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port for a short hike on the Camino de Santiago; walk around the beach in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Our favorite restaurant in Saint-Jean-de-Luz was Chez Maya Petit Grille Basque.
To Pau With a Detour to Saint-Lary-Soulan (2 nights): We reserved a room at the Ibis in Pau but upon arrival had a change of heart and kept driving. The advantage of booking at the Ibis was the cancellation policy which allowed us to cancel until 6 pm on the day of arrival. At our lunch stop we used the data connection on the phone to cancel the reservation and headed south from Tarbes toward the snow-capped Pyrenees. With a good map and some guidance from a friendly woman in a tourist office along the way, we spent two nights in Saint-Lary-Soulan at Les Arches Hotel (50 EUR per night.) Saint-Lary is a small ski resort village with some spectacular scenery and excellent hiking trails nearby. The Tour de France frequently runs through Saint-Lary-Soulan.
Toulouse (3 nights): It's a bustling city with many good restaurants and a nice city center. Before we dropped off the rental car at the Train Station, we drove to Albi to visit the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum - we wish we'd had more time in Albi. In Toulouse, Hotel St. Claire (89 EUR per night) made a good base for exploring the city. We liked the quirky Fondation Bemberg with many works by Bonnard and minor works by other Impressionist painters. From Hotel St. Claire it's a 3-minute walk to the Airport Bus which made it convenient to get to the airport for our return trip.
Combining Dordogne with the Basque region gave us an itinerary with a variety of stops that included rivers, cave art, mountains, seaside, castles, markets, and more. We imagined this would be a relaxed trip but were surprised at the number of things to do! We kept very busy and with the exception of a couple of disappointing meals along the way, it was all good. The weather was cool and chilly as much of Europe was during this time in May but it didn't dampen our enthusiasm! We'd recommend a similar itinerary!
Nice report, Sharon! Thank you for posting.
What a wonderful report-just chock full of good information. I am going to Pin to my France folder. Thank you.
Great trip report! Thanks for sharing.
That's worth knowing about Ibis, Sharon, thanks!