Review by Fiona Duncan, published 13th May 2003.
More than 20 airports across France are served by Easyjet and Ryanair, as well as British Airways, which often offers prices that match or better those of the no-frills airlines. Book at the right time and the fares are bargains at best and affordable at worst, which begs the question of what to do with the money you save getting to your destination. This being France, a sizeable portion might go on eating out, but often the thing that makes or breaks a weekend away is the hotel. So I have chosen 10 destinations served by direct flights from the UK - some are relatively unknown, but all have plenty to see and do (one is to Geneva, just over the Swiss border). I have then selected the hotels and restaurants that will make the best use of your travelling windfall. In most places you'll want to stay in the city itself, while others are more suited to the countryside nearby.
The best place to stay in Biarritz at a reasonable price is Maison Garnier, a sophisticated, coolly elegant guesthouse five minutes from the beach in a central but calm part of town. Jean-Christophe Garnier is a charming, professional host who has paid great attention to detail (superb showers, proper storage space, comfortable beds, excellent breakfast).
For dinner, try Tantina de Burgos (0033 5 5923 2447), an authentic Basque restaurant with simple, generous cooking, red-check tablecloths, bold paintings on the walls and a busy kitchen open to view. Les Viviers des Halles (05 5924 5866) is a large warehouse near the fish market with a modern interior, and a long bar where you can have an aperitif. The atmosphere is one of animated bustle and the food makes good use of the day's catch: fish soups, seafood platters and so on.
Biarritz is served by Ryanair from Stansted. Maison Garnier, 29 rue Gambetta (05 5901 6070; www.hotel-biarritz.com). Doubles from £55.
Within the perfectly restored citadel, Hôtel de la Cité is a neo-Gothic edifice with a lovely garden and a swimming pool tucked under the ramparts. It is the most luxurious place to stay, though somewhat soulless in its rather pompous grandeur. It has two restaurants, the serious Barbacane, and the more amenable brasserie, Chez Saskia. In the ville basse, Le Languedoc (04 6825 2217) is an old favourite, with a patio and fountain for summer dining. L'Ecurie (04 6872 0404) is also recommended.
Fifty minutes' drive from Carcassonne airport, and 40 minutes from Toulouse, is captivating Cuq-en-Terrasses. The view from the terraced gardens, one of which contains the swimming pool, is breathtaking; the house, an old presbytery in a hilltop village square, is decorated freshly and with flair. The food is delicious. An ideal place for relaxing and enjoying the peace.
Ryanair flies to Carcassone from Stansted. Hôtel de la Cité, place de l'Eglise (04 6871 9871; www.hoteldelacite.orient-express.com). Doubles from £200. Cuq-en-Terrasses, Cuq-le-Château, Cuq-Toulza (05 6382 5400; www.cuqenterrasses.com). Doubles from £64.Geneva For a weekend in the mountains, head for the pretty old town of Annecy, about 30 miles from Geneva airport. Nearby, on the shores of Lac d'Annecy, is the calm Demeure de Chavoire, with a remarkably elegant interior (marquetry floors, panelled walls, coffered ceilings, fine furniture) and romantic, individually decorated bedrooms. Only breakfast is offered, but you could treat yourself to dinner at l'Auberge de l'Eridan (04 5060 2400) in nearby Veyrier-du-Lac, the restaurant of the culinary star of Savoy, Marc Veyrat.Or you could make for the mountains that surround Annecy, staying at the gorgeous Chalet-Hôtel de la Croix-Fry, run by Marc Veyrat's sister, Marie-Ange. Cosy and welcoming, the hotel has sheepskin-covered sofas and armchairs around the hearth, and both the bedrooms and the annexe-chalets (with kitchenettes) are attractively rustic. The restaurant, with spectacular views of peaks and valleys, serves nourishing mountain food - including a wonderful tarte aux myrtilles - and in summer the Guelpa-Veyrats invite guests to picnic in the pastures that surround the hotel. In winter you can ski.
British Airways flies to Geneva from Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester and Birmingham (service provided by Maersk Air); Easyjet flies from East Midlands, Liverpool, Gatwick and Luton. La Demeure de Chavoire, 71 route d\'Annecy-Chavoire, Veyrier-du-Lac (04 5060 0438; www.demeuredechavoire.com). Doubles from £86, excluding breakfast. Chalet-Hôtel de la Croix-Fry, Manigod, Thones (04 5044 9016; www.hotelchaletcroixfry.com). Doubles from £92.
Lyon In the restored old quarter of Lyon you will find narrow cobbled streets and passageways, tempting shops, two Roman amphitheatres, museums, exquisite Renaissance mansions, superb restaurants and lively bouchons (authentic bistros serving Lyonnais specialities).
Here, too, in Vieux Lyon is La Tour Rose, with 12 spectacular bedrooms, each designed to illustrate a period in the long history of Lyon\'s silk industry. The heart of the hotel is a pink tower, and there are balustraded galleries, ornamental ponds with waterfalls, and terraced gardens. The dining room - one of Lyon's best restaurants - in a former 13th-century chapel, has a fabulous glass extension that opens to the sky in summer. For a more modest base I would choose the Hôtel des Artistes next to the Theatre des Celestins. It is friendly, serves good breakfasts, and is a favourite with actors and artists.
Easyjet flies to Lyon from Stansted. British Airways flies to the city from Heathrow and Manchester. Ryanair flies to St Etienne from Stansted. La Tour Rose, 22 rue du Boeuf (04 7837 2590; www.slh.com/tourrose). Doubles from £145. Hôtel des Artistes, 8 rue Gaspard-Andre (04 7842 0488; www.hoteldesartistes.fr). Doubles from £48.
You find La Perouse at the eastern end of the seafront beneath Nice's Château. It's a welcoming, stylish place, decorated in a charming mixture of Provenal fabrics, pale floor tiles, warm sunny colours and country prints. The terrace lies beneath the overhanging cliff; here you can eat under the lemon trees in summer. All the rooms have a balcony or terrace; many have fabulous sea views.
A cheaper option is the Grimaldi, a classy b & b opened in 1999. Occupying an elegant 1920s townhouse with white shutters and wrought-iron balconies, it's in a lively area of stylish shops, bars and restaurants, with the beach just a 10-minute walk away. There are two types of rooms, both decked in bright Soleido fabrics and wallpapers; the "superiors" have space for an invitingly squashy sofa.
Eating well in Nice is not a problem. Chantecler (04 9316 6400), the Negresco's fabulous restaurant, has affordable weekday lunch menus; Château des Ollieres (04 9215 7799), a Belle Epoque folly surrounded by a park in the centre of Nice, has good food and an astonishing interior; Coco Beach (04 9389 3926), in business since 1936, offers a warm welcome, the freshest of fish and the most stunning view on the eastern Riviera.British Airways flies to Nice from Gatwick and Heathrow. Easyjet flies from Bristol, Gatwick, Liverpool, Luton and Stansted. La Perouse, 11 quai Rauba-Capeu (04 9362 3463; www.hroy/la-perouse). Doubles from £106. Le Grimaldi, 15 rue Grimaldi (04 9316 0024; www.le-grimaldi.com). Doubles from £56.
With its southern flavour and combination of superb Roman monuments and innovative modern architecture, Nimes is well worth a visit. Its most interesting hotel is La Baume, set in a remarkable Renaissance town house in the vieille ville whose centrepiece is a magnificent stone staircase that meanders around the core of the building. Designers have fitted 34 simple bedrooms into this shell in off-the-peg contemporary style. Breakfast is taken at wrought-iron tables perched on the stone flags of the entrance hall. Dine at Le Lisita (04 6667 2915) with its veranda and terrace overlooking the arena.
For a really comfortable night, and a hotel full of panache, head 20 miles down the road to Arles, another Provenal town with a Roman past and a passion for bullfighting. Anne Igou's imaginative renovation of the Grand-Hôtel Nord-Pinus recalls the hotel's bohemian past, when bullfighters and artists such as Picasso and Cocteau were entertained by its charismatic owners, a cabaret dancer and a tightrope-walking clown. The famous yellow bar, in particular, remains a homage to those times.
Bedrooms come in three sizes (the large ones are huge) with the original wrought-iron beds, Provenal fabrics and antique wardrobes. Or consider splashing out on suite 10, from the window of which legendary matador Dominguin would greet the crowds below. The hotel is run in a laid-back but professional way, and it incorporates its original brasserie, under separate management.
A cheaper option in Arles is the Calendal, which has the great advantage of a garden, a shady haven of trees including a 400 year-old nettle tree, and small but colourful bedrooms.Ryanair flies to Nimes from Stansted. New Hôtel la Baume, 21 rue Nationale, Nimes (04 6676 2842; www.new-hotel.com). Doubles from £58 per night. Grand-Hôtel Nord-Pinus, place du Forum, Arles (04 9093 4444; www.nord-pinus.com). Doubles from £90. Calendal, 5 rue Porte de Laure, Arles (04 9096 1189; www.lecalendal.com). Doubles from £30 per night, excluding breakfast.
In the vibrant, brightly painted capital of Roussillon, with its strong Catalan identity, affordable luxury is on offer at Villa Duflot, whose comfortable, spacious bedrooms all open on to a lovely flowery patio or a large tree-filled park, where there's an inviting swimming pool. Best budget choice in Perpignan is the simple but cosy Hôtel de la Loge, in the heart of town, close to where the traditional Sardana is danced twice weekly in summer.
As an alternative to staying in Perpignan, consider taking a taxi or the quick shuttle from the airport to Perpignan station and then a train for the 18-mile ride to Collioure on the Côte Vermeille. Famed for its bright colours and the luminous light that attracted Matisse and other Fauvists, this fortified fishing port has a calm, elegant, nostalgic hotel, Casa Pairal, whose lush interior garden is filled with palm trees, pines, a 100-year-old magnolia and, slightly separate, a pool. Make sure you book a room in the main house. For dinner try Collioure's famous anchovies stewed with onions and peppers at La Balette (04 6882 0507), and for a traditional Catalan lunch sit on the pretty terrace at La Marinade in the town square (04 6882 0976).
Ryanair flies to Perpignan from Stansted. Villa Duflot, rond-point Albert Donnezan (04 6856 6767; www.villaduflot.com). Doubles from £68. Hôtel de la Loge, 1 rue des Fabriques-Nabot (04 6834 4102; www.hoteldelaloge.fr). Doubles from £30. Casa Pairal, impasse des Palmiers, Collioure (04 6882 0581; www.roussillhotel.com). Doubles from £58.
This chic and pretty seaside town, centred on its historic cobbled and arcaded vieux port, makes a perfect place for a weekend visit. There are beaches and boat trips, and the delightful Ile de Re, with its salt marshes and oyster beds, is connected by a two-mile long road bridge. Food is a highlight: try the fish at Les Flots (05 4641 3251), at the foot of the Tour de la Chaine, or eat simply at La Solette (05 4641 0633) under the shade of a huge paulownia.
The most distinctive hotel in town is France Angleterre et Champlain, a 17th-century former convent with beautiful public rooms - stuccoed walls, period woodwork, elegant furniture, a sweeping staircase rising from the pillared hall - and a lovely garden where you can breakfast on sunny days. The bedrooms are more predictable, but comfortable; ask for one overlooking the garden. On Ile de Re, stay at Le Chat Botte, decorated with delightful beach-chic simplicity, with fitness and beauty facilities, a large garden and an excellent restaurant of the same name down the road.
Ryanair flies to La Rochelle from Stansted. Hôtel France Angleterre et Champlain, 20 rue Rambaud (05 4641 2399; www.bw-fa-champlain.com). Doubles from £48. Le Chat Botte, place de l'Eglise, St-Clement-des-Baleines, Ile de Re (05 4629 2193). Doubles from £45.Strasbourg I like the Hôtel du Dragon, an 18th-century mansion in a quiet corner of the old city, overlooking the river and the magnificent cathedral. The decoration is resolutely contemporary, but the rooms are calm and comfortable and a pretty interior courtyard softens the effect. As for food, Strasbourg's traditional winstubs are a great draw, especially S'Meunsterstuewel (03 8821 9602) and Le Clou (03 8832 1167). Maison Kammerzell (03 8832 4214) has an enchanting 16th-century interior, and Au Crocodile (03 8832 1302) is the city's best gourmet address.Ryanair flies to Strasbourg from Stansted. Hôtel du Dragon, 2 rue de l'Ecarlate (03 8835 7980; www.dragon.fr). Doubles from £52.
A 15-minute taxi ride, followed by a 40-minute ferry (or boat taxi) will take you from Toulon airport to one of the last unspoilt places on the Riviera: the island of Porquerolles, a National Park with pine, heather and myrtle fringing sandy beaches. With its whitewashed walls and azure blue shutters, the Auberge des Glycines is like the car-free island itself: simple, natural and very pretty. And when the daytrippers go home, you have the island to yourself. Dine at the Auberge, or perhaps cycle to the Plage d'Argent (04 6882 1610), returning by moonlight. For a gourmet meal, try Michelin-starred Le Mas du Langoustier (04 9458 3602).British Airways' franchise partner GB Airways flies to Toulon from Gatwick. Auberge des Glycines, place d'Armes, Ile de Porquerolles (04 9458 3036; www.aubergedesglycines.net). Doubles from £65 per person, including breakfast.