01 of 10
The City of Lights, D-Day Sights and Castles on the Loire
Go Ahead Tours' Paris, Normandy and the Loire Valley tour takes you on a journey through northwestern France. The tour includes three nights in Paris, two nights on the Normandy coast, a night in Saint-Malo and two nights in the Loire Valley.
After spending our arrival day exploring Paris on our own and a second day touring Paris and Versailles with local guides, our group headed west, stopping in Rouen to have lunch and explore the medieval town center and spending a couple of hours in Honfleur's delightful harbor area. Just before arriving in Cabourg, where we spent two nights, we stopped at a local apple orchard, where we toured their Calvados distillery and tasted cider, Calvados, and local cheeses.
The next day was devoted to D-Day sites and the D-Day Museum in Arromanches-les-Bains. After leaving our Cabourg hotel, we spent most of the day at Mont-Saint-Michel, a medieval monastery that sits atop an island. We spent that night in Saint-Malo at a lovely seaside hotel.
Before heading to the Loire Valley, we had plenty of time to explore Saint-Malo, first with a local guide and then on our own. We spent two nights in Amboise, touring Chenonceau and enjoying the sights of Amboise itself. The group headed back to Paris via Chambord for a final night.
On the next 9 slides, you'll find the details of our trip.Continue to 2 of 10 below.
02 of 10
Paris: Travel Day and Paris on Our Own
We took an Air France flight to Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport. Go Ahead Tours provided instructions, so we knew that we had to clear customs and immigration and meet the Go Ahead representatives after we completed those processes. The representatives stood in a large crowd of people, holding up signs. In just a few minutes, the rest of the group arrived.
We boarded a Go Ahead van for the half-hour trip to our hotel. The other tour participants were traveling together, and we spent the journey introducing ourselves and talking about our plans for the trip. We arrived at our Paris hotel at about 9:30 a. m.
At our hotel, the Paris Marriott Rive Gauche, we met our Tour Director. He told us that our rooms would not be ready until after 3:00 p. m., which is typical for hotels in Europe and many other parts of the world. He arranged for us to safely store our bags and our carry-on luggage at the hotel and helped us plan out a Paris walk that would take us to some interesting spots. Our Tour Director was very organized; he had maps for each of us and used a highlighter to trace his suggested walk. The ladies from our shuttle van invited me to walk with them.
Our route took us up Rue Mouffetard to Place de la Contrescarpe, where Ernest Hemingway once lived. We continued on toward the Panthéon, where French luminaries such as Voltaire and Marie Curie are buried. I got some good photos of the outside, but my companions didn't want to go in, so we headed to the Luxembourg Garden (Jardin du Luxembourg). This garden, which surrounds a lovely palace, is beloved by Parisians. We were happy to finally see this famous garden, after learning about it in long-ago French classes.
We walked past one of Paris' most famous cafés, La Closerie des Lilas, which is just outside the Luxembourg Garden on Boulevard du Montparnasse. Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre and many others spent hours upon hours in La Closerie des Lilas.
By this time, we were hungry. We ate at La Terrasse Saint-Jacques on Boulevard de Port Royal. Choices included everything from salads to omelets to beef tongue. The prices were very reasonable for a large European city, and the service was excellent. We sat outside and quickly found ourselves adopting the French habit of lingering over a meal to watch the world go by.
After lunch, we walked back to our hotel. Our rooms were ready, so we checked in and unpacked. Go Ahead Tours arranged our dinner at L'Alouette, a restaurant near our hotel. Our first course included a wedge of quiche and a salad. The main course was duck, with potatoes and more salad, and we had chocolate mousse for dessert. Our waiters were friendly and efficient. After our tasty meal, we were happy to get back to the hotel and get some sleep.
Check guest reviews and prices for Paris Marriott Rive Gauche on TripAdvisor.Continue to 3 of 10 below.
03 of 10
Paris: Guided Tour and Optional Excursion to Versailles
Breakfast was served in a meeting/banquet room. A large buffet containing American-style and European breakfast selections allowed everyone to eat familiar foods and try new ones. After breakfast, we met our tour director in the lobby of the hotel and boarded our motor coach. It was very comfortable, and, with only 15 people in our group, we had plenty of room to spread out. Rain was falling as our tour began.
Driving Tour of Paris
Our tour director introduced us to our driver and our local guide as we pulled away from the curb and began our three-hour journey through Paris. I've driven in Paris before – a terrifying experience – and it was nice to get my bearings without having to pay attention to traffic. Our local guide was amusing and informative. We drove past many of Paris' most famous sights, including Notre Dame, the Pont Neuf ("New Bridge," the oldest bridge in Paris), the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, the Palais Garnier and the Place de la Concorde. At the Eiffel Tower, we got off the coach for a photo stop and restroom break. Thankfully, the rain let up and we had plenty of time to take pictures and marvel at the size of Paris' most famous landmark.
As our tour resumed, we drove down the famous Champs Élysées. Our local guide gave us tips on using Paris's bike share system, Vélib, and shared his thoughts on visiting the famous Catacombs. The line for the Catacombs was extremely long, and I had to agree with our guide that standing in line for hours to see the skulls and bones – as opposed to seeing the Musée d'Orsay, the lovely stained glass at Sainte-Chapelle or the view from the hilltop basilica of Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre – might not be the best use of my personal sightseeing time. Clearly, though, the people standing in line with umbrellas and ponchos did not agree.
Our tour of Paris ended back at our hotel. Those of us who had signed up for the optional excursion to Versailles stayed on the coach while our tour director discussed sightseeing options with the other tour participants. This pattern was repeated over and over during my trip with Go Ahead Tours; no one felt pressured to stay with the group, and our tour director worked with everyone who wanted to explore independently, offering personalized walking routes, restaurant suggestions and sightseeing tips in each city.
It was still raining when we arrived at the bus parking lot for Château de Versailles, the legendary home of King Louis XIV and his successors. I joined some other members of our group for lunch at La Place, just steps away from the bus parking lot. This crêperie specializes in savory crêpes, or galettes, made Brittany-style. Galettes are made with buckwheat flour, while dessert crêpes are made with white flour. I had a delicious chicken crêpe with cheese.
I knew that I would not have enough time at Versailles to see everything. Versailles is huge. It takes quite a while to walk from the formal gardens behind the château to the smaller palaces on the property. In the rain, I would not be able to rent a bicycle and ride that distance, and there would not be enough free time for me to walk there and back after our guided tour. I decided to focus on the gardens instead and explore as many paths as possible.
Our Versailles visit included a tour with a local guide, who gave us an overview of the history of this famous palace and gardens and then took us through the ground floor rooms. We also had free time to explore. It was nice to skip the ticket line.
The rain let up just as our guide led us to a lovely overlook and told us how important the Versailles gardens were to King Louis XIV. Originally built as a hunting lodge, Versailles turned into the place to see and be seen when Louis took a liking to the château, added palace wings and surrounded Versailles with gardens, fountains and a rigid etiquette system that constrained and focused the nobility, forcing them to stay at Versailles to gain access to the king.
Our guide took us through the château's main floor, explaining the history of the building, pointing out artworks and telling us stories about Louis and his family. The fabled Hall of Mirrors still dazzles, and the state bedrooms, reception rooms, and chapel are filled with paintings, statues and golden accents designed to glorify Louis XIV, the Sun King. We learned about the reigns of Louis XV and XVI, the French Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles, signed here at the end of World War I.
After our tour, I headed out into the gardens. Because we were at Versailles on a spring Sunday, classical music played from speakers near the fountains. I soon found myself straying into the bosquets, which are orderly, formal plantings of trees along gravel pathways. Today, in addition to the statues and fountains, some of the bosquets are home to cafés and restrooms.
As the time to meet at our bus drew closer, huge raindrops began to fall. We dashed through the gift shop and tried our best to stay dry as we crossed the courtyard and found our coach.
Although our tour director recommended several restaurants, I decided to eat dinner in our hotel's restaurant so that I would not have to walk around in the rain. My meal was delicious and my waiter was attentive and polite. Although this was the most expensive meal of my trip, I thought it was fairly priced for a good meal in a Paris hotel restaurant.Continue to 4 of 10 below.
04 of 10
Normandy: Rouen, Honfleur, Calvados, and Cabourg
The next morning, we headed out early. Our objective was the Normandy coast. Our first stop was Rouen, a lovely town filled with half-timbered buildings, medieval streets and a very modern tribute to Saint Joan of Arc, one of the patron saints of France.
We gathered in front of the Rouen Cathedral, which is dedicated to the assumption into Heaven of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Impressionist painter Claude Monet helped make this Gothic cathedral one of the most famous churches in the world by creating a series of oil paintings showing Rouen Cathedral at different times. Our tour director showed us the detailed sculptures on the walls and doors and talked about the cathedral's history. Because we were in Rouen on a Monday morning, we could not go inside the cathedral to see its stained glass windows. As in many parts of Europe, French churches, museums, and attractions tend to remain closed on Monday mornings.
There's plenty to see in Rouen on Mondays, however. Our tour director guided us through the narrow streets, pointing out historic spots. One of the highlights of our walking tour was the Gros-Horloge or Great Clock. This 14th-century clock sits atop an arched arcade that was built in 1529 to house this enormous timekeeper, which tells not only the hour and day but also the days of the week and the phases of the moon.
Our tour director then led us to the Vieux-Marché. This historic marketplace contains the ruined foundation of an old church, the new (1979) Church of Saint Joan of Arc, a large cross in the garden of the church and a small marker indicating the place where Joan was burned at the stake. I was very impressed by our tour director's knowledge of Joan's story and even more impressed by his obvious love for Joan's church. It's a hard church to love from the outside. In the heart of old Rouen, the church's undulating slate roof with its fish-scale shingles looks, well, bizarre. Our tour director encouraged us to go inside. Since we knew he was not Catholic, that endorsement was enough to convince everyone in our group to follow him through the narrow doorway. Inside, the glow from multiple stained glass windows transformed the modern, minimalist sanctuary into a truly spiritual space.
We spent quite a while in the church, looking at the stained glass, asking questions and taking photos. Afterward, we had about an hour and a half to eat lunch and walk around on our own.
Rouen lends itself to wandering. I spent some time shopping for gifts for my family and hanging out in a grocery store. I bought a sandwich and enjoyed my picnic lunch at the Place du Vieux-Marché. I was pleased to discover that I was not the only tour group participant who skipped a restaurant meal in favor of a picnic. Even convenience store food is fresher and tastier in France, so it's easy to eat well on a budget.
Our next stop was Honfleur. We parked near the harbor. Dozens of sailboats were moored there, their white masts poking up into the clear blue sky. Our tour director gave us a brief walking/orientation tour, which ended at the Church of Saint Catherine. After that, we were on our own.
Honfleur is very popular with tourists, and it's easy to see why. One side of the harbor is lined from end to end with restaurants and sidewalk cafés. There's a carousel – popular with local students on sunny afternoons – and a plethora of souvenir shops and stands. I spent most of my time walking around, enjoying the sunny afternoon and taking pictures.
We got back on the motor coach and headed to our next stop, a distillery tour and Calvados tasting at Manoir d'Apreval in Pennedepie. Our group tasted cider, Pommeau de Normandie and Calvados Pays d'Auge at outdoor tables overlooking apple orchards and pastures. We also sampled three classic (and delicious) types of Normandy cheese.
We finally pulled into Cabourg in the late afternoon. This pretty coastal town is well known in France but seldom makes it into English-language guidebooks. Our hotel, the Mercure Cabourg Hippodrome, was just outside of town next to Cabourg's harness racing track. The hotel's lobby area features a small bar with comfortable seating. The breakfast room is large, sunny and colorful. Everyone on our tour enjoyed staying at the Mercure.
After freshening up, our group walked to downtown Cabourg to have dinner at Le Bistrot des Arts. The restaurant is decorated in a safari theme, with animal head hunting trophies on the walls. There's even a giant snake skin pinned across the ceiling. My meal was excellent; I had a big salad as my first course, cod for my main course and a slice of fruit tart for dessert. After dinner, we walked back to the hotel.
Check guest reviews and prices for Hotel Mercure Cabourg Hippodrome on TripAdvisor.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
05 of 10
D-Day Sites on the Normandy Coast
The Mercure served up a tasty breakfast. We could choose from bacon, scrambled eggs, cold cuts, bread, cheese, yogurt, cereal, fruit juice and more. I'm told the coffee was very good.
We grabbed cameras, water bottles, and jackets and headed to our motor coach. Our driver greeted us with a huge smile. One of the best parts of our journey with Go Ahead Tours was having the same driver from the time we left Paris until the day we returned to Paris. Our driver was incredible; he could steer our giant motor coach along narrow, curving village roads and hold his own on the Périphérique, Paris' "Beltway." It's much easier to relax and enjoy the scenery when you have an amazing driver.
Our tour director gave an excellent presentation on D-Day as we made our way from Cabourg to the Omaha Beach area, and he continued to elaborate on the importance of D-Day as our journey continued. His thoughtful comments on D-Day, World War II's origins and key battles, and the French Resistance made this day truly special for me.
Our first stop was Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument. On D-Day, an elite group of Army Rangers from the Second Ranger Battalion took on the daunting task of scaling cliffs and seizing German artillery positions. Today, Pointe du Hoc is still a battle-scarred field, pockmarked with craters.
Next, we pulled into a parking lot across the road from Omaha Beach at Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. The first thing I noticed was the enormous rudder-shaped monument overlooking the sand. Flags of eight allied countries line the walkway that runs along the water line. Close to the waves, a memorial made of curved steel shapes arcs toward the sky. Walking on the sand was an overwhelming emotional experience for me. The contrast between the peaceful rhythm of the waves and the images of D-Day I carry in my mind brought tears to my eyes.
We continued on to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer. Walking among the neat rows of headstones is a sobering experience. The Memorial, with its detailed D-Day map, puts the sacrifices of the men who stormed Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold and Sword Beaches into perspective.
Our final stop of the day was at Arromanches-les-Bains, a small seaside town that played a big part in the post-D-Day landings. The Allies created "mulberries," complex structures that could be assembled into not only artificial harbors but also piers for mooring ships and roadways for bringing combat vehicles ashore. Today, visitors to Arromanches can see parts of a mulberry just off shore.
We had lunch in Arromanches; several members of our group followed our tour director's lead and ate at the Hôtel de Normandie's restaurant. After lunch, I did a bit of souvenir shopping and then met our group at the D-Day Museum (Musée du Débarquement). You'll find D-Day museums all over Normandy, but the one in Arromanches is the oldest of the bunch. This means that the museum is small and a bit on the low-tech side, but it has a fantastic, enormous model of the Arromanches mulberry, complete with undulating "water."
With so much history and, at least for me, emotion, packed into one day of sightseeing, it was nice to be on my own for a while once we got back to the Mercure. I walked to a local grocery store, bought some snacks, went back to the hotel and organized myself for dinner. I found a crêperie, Crêperie des Oursons, that was highly-rated on Trip Advisor. My galette (buckwheat crêpe with savory fillings, in this case, chicken and spinach) was delicious.Continue to 6 of 10 below.
06 of 10
Normandy and Brittany: Mont-Saint-Michel and Saint-Malo
The next morning, we left our hotel after an early breakfast and headed to Mont-Saint-Michel. During our drive, our tour director told us about the monastery, the small town at its base and the forces of nature that helped shape Mont-Saint Michel. The bay's tides are Europe's most extreme.
We parked at the shuttle bus stop at the edge of the bay and boarded the shuttle, which took us to the pedestrian bridge. From there we walked about ¼ mile to the entrance gate.
The walk to the gate is easy and offers breathtaking views of the Mont. In fact, it's tempting to spend a lot of time taking pictures. We had a date with a local guide, however, so we kept walking and gathered just inside the entrance gate.
There are two ways to get to the top of Mont-Saint-Michel. Most visitors walk up the main drag – the only street on the island – and deal with crowds. The other way is to go up approximately 300 steps, taking a series of staircases that go up the side of the hill behind some of the village buildings. We went up the stairs. I was a bit concerned about my ability to keep up with the group, but our guide paused frequently to point out landmarks, so the climb turned out to be less stressful than I had anticipated.
According to UNESCO documents, Mont-Saint-Michel was founded in the year 966, but our guide told us that Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, built a church dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel on the island in 708. The official founding date for the monastery is indeed 966, because that is when a group of Benedictine monks moved to the island and began building their church and abbey. The monks had to haul stones to the island by boat, contend with extreme tides, avoid quicksand and hoist the stones to the island's highest point in order to shape and place them. With little more than their hands, simple tools, and the hoist, they created "La Merveille," (The Marvel), the local name for the monastery.
We walked quietly through the back of the church so we would not disturb the people praying during noon Mass. Our guide led us out into the cloister, a sunny, peaceful garden surrounded by a covered arcade.
We stopped briefly in the refectory, the large, airy room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling where the monks ate their meals. Next, we walked down some stairs. On the wall at the bottom of the staircase, we paused to look at an enormous bas-relief of Saint Michael appearing to Bishop Aubert of Avranches, ordering the bishop to build a church.
Our next stop was the Guests' Hall, which sits directly underneath the refectory. This large hall, with its vaulted ceiling, was the place where the abbot and his monks received important visitors.
Amidst the crypts and chapels underneath the Guests' Hall, enormous columns support the upper levels of the monastery. A huge wooden wheel fills part of the lowest level. Originally, a smaller wheel stood here, and monks turned it in order to hoist heavy objects up into the monastery.
In the early 1800s, after the French Revolution, the Benedictine community disbanded and the monastery was used as a prison. A larger wheel was constructed, and prisoners powered the wheel by walking on it, hamster-style. The prison closed in 1863.
In 1874, Mont-Saint-Michel became a national monument, thanks to the intervention of French notables who wanted to see the site preserved, not only because of its religious significance but also because the monks and townspeople had successfully defended the Mont against English forces during the Hundred Years War. What better symbol for France than this gorgeous fusion of spiritual and secular strength?
The Mont still attracts pilgrims, but it also draws millions of people who want to see "The Marvel" and experience a medieval French town. In spite of the plethora of crêperies and souvenir shops, Mont-Saint-Michel does feel medieval, almost magical. I found a bit of the medieval in the crêperie I chose for lunch, La Sirène. The restaurant is small; one employee makes the crêpes and the other waits tables. My spinach and cheese galette was piping hot and tasty. As is the local custom, I drank cider with my meal. In a totally touristy town, my meal was appetizing and authentically "normand" (Normandy-style).
Our group had plenty of time to explore, shop and eat. At the appointed time, we walked back to the shuttle bus stop and made our way back to our motor coach. About an hour later, our driver parked the coach on a street one block from our hotel in Saint-Malo.
Saint-Malo turned out to be one of my favorite stops on this tour. Saint-Malo is not only an important tourist attraction, it is also a popular summer beach getaway destination. Whether you stay "intra-muros" (inside the walls) or "extra-muros" (outside the walled city) as we did, you will feel connected to Saint-Malo's history.
Our hotel, the Best Western Hotel Alexandra, was perfectly situated next to the beach. Our rooms featured balconies, patios or pretty sitting nooks. Our dinner restaurant, La Bisquine, is one of many restaurants that line the walls of Saint-Malo. We could choose between mussels or a ham, cantaloupe and tomato salad for our first course. For our main course, we could choose either cod or pork in a cream sauce. Since I had already eaten cod on this trip, I selected the pork. It was served with a delicious potato and carrot purée. For dessert, I opted for Far Breton, a traditional local dessert. It is a bit like a custardy cake with prunes, but drier.
After dinner, we returned to the hotel. Some of us enjoyed watching the sunset from the hotel's bar, which overlooks the bay. Others went for a walk on the beach or relaxed in their rooms.
Check guest reviews and prices for Best Western Hotel Alexandra in Saint-Malo on TripAdvisor.Continue to 7 of 10 below.
07 of 10
Saint-Malo and the Loire Valley
The next morning, we ate breakfast at the hotel and boarded our motor coach for the short drive back to the walled city. We met our local guide there and took a walking tour of Saint-Malo. Our guide had a great sense of humor and told us many stories from Saint-Malo's colorful past. For example, curfew-breakers who tarried too long at the port found themselves facing a pack of hungry guard dogs; this practice continued until the early 1770s.
During the Middle Ages, the locals, dubbing themselves "Les Malouins," looked to their city's government to represent and protect them, often ignoring or overlooking any influence the national (France) or regional (Brittany) government might have wished to exert over Saint-Malo. In fact, Saint-Malo declared itself an independent republic in 1590. While les Malouins could only maintain their independence until 1593, they passed their fierce loyalty to their city to every generation that followed.
Saint-Malo became famous for its corsairs, privateers carrying government authorization who attacked and captured enemy ships. The Corsairs continued to ply their "trade" for centuries. Legitimate trade also added to Saint-Malo's wealth; skilled ship captains from the walled city brought trade goods from around the world to France, via Saint-Malo. Even today, schoolchildren learn to sail in school. From atop the walls, we watched a group of 10-year-old sailors tack around the rocky harbor under the watchful eyes of their teachers.
After our tour, we had the afternoon to ourselves. I spent a lot of time atop the walls; the views are spectacular and it's a great place to people-watch. I met some of the ladies from my tour group for lunch. We ate at an outdoor table at Le Lion d'Or (The Golden Lion) on Place Chateaubriand. I ordered a salad, which was large and very fresh. Several other people in the group ordered hamburgers. The burgers were enormous!
After leaving Saint-Malo, we had a relatively long motor coach ride from Saint-Malo to Amboise. When we arrived at the hotel, we had about an hour to rest and unpack before dinner. Our hotel, the Novotel Amboise, was modern, clean and comfortable. It appeared to be very popular with tour groups, but I could see that it was designed to appeal to families, couples, and solo travelers, too. My room overlooked the pool and the Loire Valley.
That night, we had dinner at our hotel. The restaurant was attractive, with one wall made entirely of large windows and sliding glass doors. We had boeuf bourguignon served with noodles for dinner. After dinner, I relaxed in my room with the window open, enjoying the view and the fresh air.
Check guest reviews and prices for Hotel Novotel Amboise on TripAdvisor.Continue to 8 of 10 below.
08 of 10
Château de Chenonceau and Amboise
Château de Chenonceau
Our day of châteaux began with breakfast at our hotel. The breakfast area was busy because the hotel was fairly full, but there was plenty of food for everyone. We boarded our coach and headed to the Château de Chenonceau.
We met our local guide at the entrance gate. We walked past the carriage house and outbuildings as our guide explained the history of Chenonceau.
The château's interior is formal and elegant, but not overwhelming. Versailles overpowers, as Louis XIV intended, but Chenonceau invites you to explore. Richly-colored tapestries, warm wood ceilings, and portraits of the people who lived in the castle made me feel almost at home.
The highlight of our tour was the famous gallery, built by Catherine de'Medici atop the arched bridge Diane de Poitiers commissioned. Compared to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, it's almost stark, with live shrubs set into the niches between the windows and a black and white tile floor.
Bedrooms at Chenonceau are state apartments, created to impress. Colorful wallpaper, gold accents, and costly furniture let us know that Chenonceau is a royal residence. One room stands in stark contrast to the rest. Queen Louise, the wife of King Henry III, retreated to Chenonceau after his assassination. She redecorated her bedroom in black; only white symbols of mourning alleviate the gloom. A portrait of Henri III adds to the mournful atmosphere.
After our tour, we had some free time before we had to meet at the motor coach. Most of us chose to explore the kitchens, which are located in the castle's basement. I had enough time left after my kitchen visit to walk through some of the formal gardens.
Afternoon in Amboise
We boarded our motor coach for the short drive back to Amboise, where we had the afternoon free. On the way, our tour director explained our alternatives. We could visit the Château d'Amboise, a favorite residence of several French kings and burial site of Leonardo da Vinci. We could walk around the town of Amboise, shopping, visiting churches, taking photographs and enjoying the sunny day. We could walk up the hill past the castle and visit the Château de Clos Lucé, Leonardo da Vinci's last home. And, of course, we could have lunch in the shadow of Château d'Amboise.
The other solo traveler in our group and I decided to spend the afternoon together. She wanted to try a particular local cheese, Sainte-Maure. This log-shaped goat cheese has a piece of straw running down the middle. We found what we were looking for at Bistrot L'Atelier on Place Michel Debré, just across the road from the walls of Château d'Amboise. We each ordered a glass of rosé wine and a "planche," a generous spread of sausages, spreads, cheeses, pickles, and bread. While we ate, we decided to visit Leonardo's home that afternoon. (By the way, all the cheeses, including the Sainte-Maure, were delicious.)
We walked up the hill and bought entrance tickets for Clos Lucé. The ticket agent gave us English-language maps of the manor house and gardens. Leonardo da Vinci lived there from 1516 until his death in 1519. Leonardo brought the Mona Lisa and two other paintings with him to France, and King François I bought the Mona Lisa after Leonardo's death. It is, of course, now on display in the Louvre. A replica hangs at Clos Lucé.
Clos Lucé focuses not only on da Vinci's last years but also on his amazing inventions. In the manor house and in the gardens, visitors can see models of Leonardo's ingenious devices. The models in the garden are to scale. It was fun to watch children on a field trip try out some of da Vinci's inventions.
After our visit to Clos Lucé, my friend and I walked back to the town of Amboise and spent some time shopping.
Loire Valley Wine Tasting and Dinner
That evening, I joined an optional excursion that included a Loire Valley dinner and wine tasting. At first, I wasn't sure I would have enough energy for this outing, and, as a native Californian who has lived in Italy, I have toured plenty of wineries. However, since our hotel was located so far out of town, my other options would have been dining at the hotel or taking a taxi to and from Amboise. I would have been happy with either of these alternatives, but I am glad I chose to go on the excursion.
Plou et Fils ("Plou and Sons") began making wine in 1508. To put this into perspective, Jamestown Colony, Virginia, was founded in 1607. Today, Plou et Fils is managed by two Plou brothers who clearly understand and appreciate the family legacy entrusted to them. We toured their winery, located in a spacious cavern, and learned a lot about the wine making, bottling, and aging processes. We also met the family dog and a young nephew/future winemaker. At the end of our tour, we tasted several Plou et Fils wines. The wines I tasted were nuanced and surprisingly affordable.
We left the winery and headed to Restaurant Les Closeaux in Vallières-les-Grandes. Owners Sophie and Christophe Lunais have transformed a 16th-century hunting way station into a welcoming restaurant that features the finest local ingredients. Our waitress brought out a flavorful soup as our first course. Our main course, veal served over herbed mashed potatoes with a mushroom cream sauce, and our dessert, a vanilla roulade with raspberry sauce, was absolutely delicious. The restaurant itself is beautifully decorated and is surrounded by a peaceful forest. Les Closeaux is the kind of restaurant you visit when you want to share a wonderful, unhurried meal with special friends.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
09 of 10
Back to Paris Via Château de Chambord
The next morning, we packed and boarded our motor coach for the trip back to Paris. Along the way, we stopped at Château de Chambord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This was primarily a photo stop, as we did not have enough time to tour the interior of this splendid château. I did, however, have time to walk to the stables, where staff members were preparing for that day's equestrian show, and through part of the formal gardens. The estate itself is enormous, encompassing an area as large as the entire city of Paris.
Chambord's architecture is a fusion of elements common to French medieval castles – round towers, a central keep and so on – with Renaissance innovations, including the château's famous double helix staircase. Most visitors remember the amazing towers of Chambord, which jut into the sky in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes. It would be fun to return to Chambord and spend a day; in addition to touring the castle, visitors can rent bicycles, electric vehicles or rowboats and explore the park.
We made one more stop on the way to Paris, at a rest stop with a huge convenience store. I bought a sandwich, but I could also have purchased clothing, hats, and souvenirs. The sandwich was the tastiest convenience store food item I have ever eaten.
We arrived back at the Paris Marriott Rive Gauche at lunchtime. As on the first day of our tour, rooms would not be ready until 3:00, but the hotel staff stored our bags and carry-on items as they had done previously.Continue to 10 of 10 below.
10 of 10
Au Revoir, Paris!
On the day we returned to Paris, the group had the afternoon free. Our tour director helped everyone who asked decide where to go and what to see. Nearly everyone signed up for the optional excursion that evening, which was a dinner and Seine River cruise. For family reasons, I had to cut my tour short by one day, so I transferred to Charles de Gaulle Airport and flew home that afternoon instead.
I am sure the excursion was wonderful; Paris is gorgeous at night, and there's nothing like a Seine River cruise to make you feel as though you are truly in the heart of the City of Lights.
My journey to the airport was uneventful. I cleared security quickly and headed to my gate. I didn't have much time for shopping or dining in the terminal; buying a sandwich en route to Paris was definitely the right choice. My flight departed as scheduled and arrived on time.
I really enjoyed my Go Ahead Tours experience. Go Ahead's customer service was exceptional at every turn. Our tour director went above and beyond for every tour participant, designing walking tours, suggesting restaurants, seeking feedback and offering solutions – in addition, of course, to organizing our days, telling us about French history and culture, ensuring our comfort and safety and working with an excellent group of local guides and coach drivers. This commitment to customer service made our tour not just enjoyable, but special.
My fellow travelers were friendly and welcoming. They were more than willing to invite me to go with them to lunch and dinner, so I always had company when I wanted to be with people. It was fun to get to know them and hear about their travels and future plans. Several people in our group had already booked or were planning to book their next trip with Go Ahead Tours.
I worried a bit about the cost of meals before the trip began, as my tour included all breakfasts and most dinners, but few lunches. When I got home, I added up all of my meal costs and was pleasantly surprised to discover that I spent less than $20 per day on food, excluding alcohol. I picnicked twice and splurged on one dinner, and I never had a bad meal. Even my convenience store sandwich was tasty. It's definitely possible to eat well in France without breaking the bank.
Would I travel with Go Ahead Tours again? Absolutely.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary tour for the purpose of reviewing those services. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.