Our experts' pick of the top 10 self-catering and villa holidays in France for 2015/16, including villas in Normandy, Brittany, Languedoc, Provence and the Dordogne
All prices are for property rental for a week in spring or summer unless stated otherwise. They are subject to availability.
1. Earthship Perrine, Normandy
Just outside the village of Gers, in the rolling farmlands of south-westNormandy, stands the only "Earthship" in Europe available as a self-catering holiday rental. A glorified greenhouse with a capital G, Earthship Perrine was constructed to a model developed in Taos, New Mexico, as an eco-friendly “home of the future”.
Its walls, half-buried in the rich Norman soil, consist of used car tyres rammed full of earth; its south-facing façade is entirely glass, enclosing a plant-filled conservatory corridor off which lie three large, warm (and somewhat dark) bedrooms plus a kitchen, bathroom and living area. The whole structure is off-grid, and self-sufficient for power and water, without stinting on things like comfortable beds and a wood-burning stove.
From £78 a night through Canopy & Stars (0117 204 7830;canopyandstars.co.uk).
2. Château du Bec, Normandy
Circled by a broad, tranquil moat, overlooking its own lake and swathes of woodland, the thousand-year-old Château du Bec is 14km south of the seaside resort of Étretat. Though repeatedly rebuilt since the 10th century, it remains a magnificent vision, with its turreted towers and forbidding gateway.
Its interior spaces have been radically transformed, however, to give it two ultra-modern, architect-designed self-catering apartments, each capable of sleeping four, and two b & b suites, L’Atre and La Rotonde. The latter on the ground floor, does indeed have a round bedroom, encircled by curving walls of ancient exposed stonework. There’s also a b & b cabin in the grounds, with its own lakeside terrace.
From £110 a night; self-catering suites from £430 per week, £280 for a weekend (00 33 6228 32 417; chateaudubec.com).
Chateau du Bec in Normandy
3. Châteaux of Brittany
Countless rental homes and cottages are available along the Breton coast. For something truly exceptional, though, how about renting a castle? The easy-to-use Oliver’s Travels website lists a dozen genuine châteaux in Brittany, capable of accommodating from 10 to 35 guests; all are ideal for hosting large-scale get-togethers. Among the pick of the crop are the Château de Moulin, commanding views of both St-Malo and Dinard from a seafront hill-top; the Manor de Chalandes, set in magnificent gardens near the Loire which comes with its own spa; and the imposing Château le Bois near Rennes, which has a private fishing lake.
Château de Moulin from £7,991; Manor de Chalandes from £5,486;Château le Bois from £1,448 (0800 133 7999; oliverstravels.com).
4. Grabels, Languedoc
As in Provence, so in Languedoc it makes sense to take one’s country break near a big town. Thus, when the need arises, one may get away from getting away from it all, and get back in among it. Montpellier’s the place for this. It’s among the liveliest and most elegant of all French cities, with a full roster of culture, bars and restaurants dotted about a superb old centre, a magnificent main square and, in Antigone and beyond, France’s most ambitious modern developments. Grabels, a charming village about seven miles out, is where we find the Villa Emma - a contemporary spot of decadently luxurious standards: loads of glass, light and air, lawns, pools, four fine double bedrooms, lolling areas for eight and more. Beyond Montpellier, the Med is but a hop. Behind Grabels, the Hérault high country leads quickly to the Cévennes. This is, in short, a great base - and a pretty smart place to return to.
From £1,826 with French Country Cottages (0345 268 0796; french-country-cottages.co.uk).
5. Pézenas, Languedoc
Maison du Pézenas has the sort of contemporary gleam you see in design magazines, plus mandatory terraces, gardens, big pool and a built-in sense of entitlement. Pézenas centre is under a mile away, with its period drama of narrow streets distinguished, in the past, by Molière and Clive of India (though, sadly, not together). It’s 30 minutes to the beach or the shellfish of the Etang-de-Thau, rather less to the Hérault hills and Héric gorges so remote that they get yesterday’s sunshine.
Maison du Pézenas
6. Var, Provence
Stick a pin in a map of Provence and it will land in a pleasant villa somewhere lovely. The truth is that in Provence, prettiness, warmth and, hence, villas are ubiquitous. So I’ll simply choose one of my favourite bits - the hill country around Fayence, where the Var département starts to rise towards the Alps, strewing gorges, vines, rocks, torrents and perched villages as it goes. British-run Pure France has an outstanding collection of top-end properties in the area (and, if you’re not going top-end, why go at all?). These include the stone-built, 10-sleeper Bastide de Cavaroux, far up a hill and with a wow factor (pool, gardens, general sumptuousness) to convince the meanest among us that we are fleetingly part of the élite.
From £2,930 (0203 514 2359; purefrance.com).
7. Aix, Provence
It’s an excellent idea to spend one’s Provençal country holiday not too far from a fine town so, when it arises, the craving for culture, shops, bars and hubbub may be assuaged. Step forward Aix-en-Provence, brainiest city in France, most civilised in the south. A past involving Good King René, nobles, jurists and Paul Cézanne informs present elegance, enhancing everyone. Walk along the wide, tree-lined Cours Mirabeau and you’re a better person already. Villas du Monde has some cracking properties in the surrounding countryside - not least an eight-sleeper (romantically termed B398) with great pool and gardens, nine miles from Aix centre. Deeply bucolic itself, it’s also within hailing distance of the Luberon and the Camargue, to assuage further rustic cravings. Ideal, really.
From £1,650 (0033 800 800 565; villasdumonde.com).
8. Rocamadour, Dordogne
Few properties plunge guests into the heart of la belle France quite like Château de Cantecor in the Lot, south-west France. Snug between chestnut forests three miles from the town of Rocamadour, this château means business. It has turrets and watchtowers. It has history harking back to the 12th century. And the valley view from its self-catering gîtes is magnificent. The holiday house in the former watchtower sleeps three. But the real thrill is the luxurious tree-top cabin with two stylish double bedrooms and a decking terrace for starlit dining and view swooning. Gîtes share the swimming pool and barbecue built in the chateau’s former bread oven.
From £890 for the treehouse, £420 for the watchtower (0033 5 65 33 73 50;amadour-hotel.com/fr/gites-de-cantecor.php).
Rocamadour (Photo: AP/Fotolia)
9. La Clusaz, French Alps
It can be hard to get away from it all in the French Alps. Not so at Les Ecotagnes, a romantic cluster of treehouses and 18th-century chalet with hot tub in the forest not far from La Clusaz. So off the beaten track is it that guests park in Les Villards-sur-Thônes and tackle the final off-road climb up to 1,350m by 4x4. At the wheel is Hugo, a ski teacher and first-rate chef who runs Les Ecotagnes with passion and care. The luxurious treehouses built by his father have wood-burning stoves and sleep two. Water comes from a mountain spring, and flaming torches light the forest path leading to the main chalet, where dinner is served around a shared table. Les Ecotagnes is open from May to mid-November.
From £130pp a night half-board in a treehouse, including 4x4 shuttle, is £130 a night in a treehouse (0033 6 70 02 10 14; ecotagnes.com).
10. Montreal, Burgundy
Burgundy’s medieval villages make a great base for exploring the local area. In the golden light of midsummer they are picture-postcard perfect, with panoramic views across the wild Morvan national park. Better still, they are low-key lively, with bars, restaurants and cafes on your doorstep. Vezelay is the most famous of these villages, but accommodation can be hard to find in the summer months. Better to head to nearby Montreal, which is less visited but equally picturesque, with 600-year-old houses, a remarkable church and a view to die for. From here you’ll be able to explore the Morvan, the local chateaux and basilicas and the region’s vineyards. Casamundo has villas for rent across Burgundy, including a lovely three-bedroom cottage in Montreal.
From £480 (020 3514 9377; casamundo.co.uk).
For our other expert holiday selections in France see our top 10 beach holidays in France, activity holidays in France, culture holidays in France and food and drink holidays in France.
This article was first published in November 2014 and updated and republished in July 2015