Exploring France on your own
Exploring France on your own needn’t be as daunting as it sounds. Whether you’d like to meet new people or simply fancy spending some time alone across the Channel, there are plenty of ways to make solo travel as easy, fun and stress-free as possible
BY BUS The stalwart of the group tour, coach trips are still a popular way to explore France. And for solo travellers, catching a bus and loading your luggage at a destination in the UK and not getting off until you reach your chosen spot in France, can be a godsend. Touring by bus is also a way to save money and can help you make new acquaintances.
GROUPS For the solo traveller, group travel by bus means you can see large chunks of the country without any planning worries at all. Driven from place to place with hotels booked, meals prepared and itineraries set in stone, it’s certainly a stress-free experience. You will also meet many other travellers – with up to 50 people on some of the larger coach tours, it would be hard not to find someone you get on with! The dreaded single supplement is never far away, but many of the larger tour operators offer room-share matching’ services that pair you up with a suitable person of the same sex in a twin room. Of course, the traditional tours often leave little room for spontaneity and are sometimes criticised for their whistlestop visits to places that deserve to be explored further. As a result, a new breed of tour operators is emerging that mixes smaller groups with flexible itineraries. For solo travellers who want the convenience and sociability of a coach tour, but without the herd mentality, this may be the best option.
WHY NOT TRY...? The Back-Roads Touring Co. has a number of itineraries in France. With a maximum group size of 15 and a pledge to find unusual and unique accommodation and places to eat, rather than the usual faceless hotels, they are a refreshing alternative to the big operators. Tours of the Loire and Champagne are popular, while the 12-day La Belle France’ tour is a whirl of wonderful places, delicious food and fascinating people.
Tel: 020 8566 5312 www.backroadstouring.co.uk
INDEPENDENT Taking a bus from the UK to destinations in France is an inexpensive and hassle-free option. Many of the larger bus operators offer pick-ups from various destinations in Britain, meaning that you can get on the bus close to where you live, load your luggage, and not have to worry until you reach your final destination – great for solo travellers concerned about transfers or carrying heavy bags on their own. The main disadvantage is the restricted number of destinations in France for travellers coming from the UK. If you want to explore further and don’t mind venturing into backpacker territory, you could try www.ze-bus.com, a great hop-on, hop-off’ service that lets you create your own itineraries throughout France. With a banner saying No age limit’ across their website, it seems you need only be young at heart.
WHY NOT TRY...? Eurolines is the largest coach operator in Europe and the best bet for bus travel from the UK, with lots of pick-up points around the country. Destinations in France include Paris (a cheap alternative to Eurostar), Lyon and Chamonix.
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Tel: 08717 818 181www.eurolines.co.uk
BY FOOT While you might not be able to cover the whole of France (in one trip, at least!), striking out on foot helps you to experience its landscapes and cities up close. While solo travellers looking for an escape need look no further – miles and miles of empty countryside to explore while giving your head a good clear-out – those looking for a bit of company are also in for a treat. Dozens of specialist companies, both in the UK and France, are on hand to provide walking tours for groups, and they are one of the best ways to meet fellow Francophiles.
GROUPS Walking tours for groups help you get to know fellow solo travellers with lots in common. Not only can you join groups that just want to ramble, you can join specialist themed walking tours – how about walking in the footsteps of France’s most famous artists? The structure of these tours can vary but often groups are based at a single place, with an itinerary of tours throughout the holiday. Single supplements are still an issue as far as accommodation is concerned, but many tour companies are now offering walking especially aimed at solo travellers, with very low or no single supplements at all.
WHY NOT TRY...? Activity travel specialist, Headwater, has some great walking itineraries in France, with many specifically chosen for solo travellers. The Valleys and Volcanoes’ walk, based in Les Estables, has no single supplements on certain dates. Eight days of dramatic landscapes, with deep gorges, ancient volcanoes, splendid views and lots of wonderful wildlife to spot, it won’t be difficult to find things to talk to your fellow travellers about!
Tel: 01606 720 199www.headwater.com
INDIVIDUAL Just because you’re on your own doesn’t mean you need to wander aimlessly along the highways and byways of France. If you need to be pointed in the right direction, but relish the solitude of walking by yourself, there are plenty of self-guided walking tours on offer. With your itinerary carefully planned ahead, including places to stay, places to eat and a nice van driver who will carry your luggage from hotel to hotel, you simply turn up and follow the maps and instructions that are laid on for you. While lone walkers might enjoy their own thoughts when they are walking in the great outdoors, the reassurance of a welcoming smile, meal and bed at the end of the day makes self-guided tours a good compromise.
WHY NOT TRY...? Inntravel is a well established independent walking tour company and has some great itineraries in France. All the walks are graded according to difficulty, so you won’t be caught unawares and your luggage will be transferred from hotel to hotel. Picnics are even provided on certain walks. Our favourite is the seven-night, 70-kilometre meander through the Loire vineyards and ch�teaux.
Tel: 01653 617 949www.inntravel.co.uk
BY BIKE Like walking, cycling offers fresh air, great views and the chance to explore France’s tiniest nooks and crannies. There’s something very French about pedalling along country lanes and taking picnics with your bike at your side. For solo travellers, there are all the same benefits as you would find on a walking tour. You just go a bit faster…
GROUPS Like walking tour groups, cycling tours offer the chance to get out on the open road with like-minded people. With all the accommodation, meals and bikes taken care of it’s a fun and stress-free way to spend a few days. You might even get a little fitter along the way. Bike tour companies are setting up all over France – it seems to be very popular at the moment. Whether you’re after a challenging mountain bike trek in the Alps, or a gentle itinerary of rides from your B&B base, there will be something for you. Some companies offer week-long journeys that see the group staying in a different place every night (Chain Gang Cycle Tours is great for this. Tel: 01392 662 262 or log on to www.thechaingang.co.uk ). You can really get to know your fellow holiday makers as you all take on the challenge together and can track your achievement each night on a map. Alternatively, many hotels and B&Bs offer group tours that follow a daily itinerary in the area.
WHY NOT TRY...? Velo Velo is a boutique cycling company, run by British couple Lorna and Andrew Kirkwood, based in Burgundy. Staying at the beautiful Ferme de La Lochere in the small village of Marigny-le-Cahou�t, the group’s itinerary is very much a meander, with a few (gentle) hills thrown in. Things are very relaxed – if you’d rather spend an afternoon lounging by the pool, that’s no problem – and the food and company are delightful. www.velovelo.co.uk
INDIVIDUAL The self-guided cycle tour is a perfect way to explore France, without the constraints of fellow cyclists. Unfortunately, most are geared towards groups of two or more, with hefty single supplements often being applied. An alternative idea is to book a bespoke tour. It may cost a little more at the outset, but getting the experts to create a tour specifically for you, staying at accommodation with single bedrooms could balance the budget.
WHY NOT TRY…? Not only do Veloloco organise bespoke cycling tours, but it has the facility to advertise your proposed trip if you’d like to find others to share the adventure. Based in the foothills of the Pyr�n�es, it could be the starting point for a two-wheeled trip of a lifetime.
www.veloloco.com Tel: (Fr) 5 61 04 42 97
BY RAIL In these times of eco-conscious travel, the train is king. It is also the perfect way to enjoy a solo adventure, whether on your own or as part of the growing number of rail tour groups that start and end at London’s lovely St Pancras Eurostar terminus. Not only is it eco-friendly, the other benefits of rail travel include comfy seats, lots of toilets, no traffic jams, the chance to stretch your legs en-route and, of course, an endless vista of towns and countryside flashing past your window. Add to that the wonders of the French rail network – stations in most popular destinations, prompt service and reasonable prices – and you can expect a pretty stress-free trip.
GROUPS Most rail tours start in London, so you’ll have a chance to meet your fellow group members before you’ve left the UK. Once you get to your first destination, the structure of a week’s tour will usually involve a few nights’ stay in two or three base towns, so you won’t be on trains all the time. Itineraries might include coach excursions and walking tours from your base hotels, with a train journey between each base. It is easy to opt out of activities if you’d prefer. Solo travellers are usually well catered for, with many tours specifically aimed at people travelling on their own. Welcome drinks to break the ice and meals in local restaurants make socialising easy and on free days’ there are often optional extra tours. While single supplements are not always avoided, there is usually the opportunity to be paired off with a fellow group member to share a twin room.
WHY NOT TRY…? Great Rail Journeys’ French Riviera Tour is a fantastic itinerary exploring the jewels of the C�te d’Azur. Travelling to Nice, which will be your base for the week, the tour also takes in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Grasse and �ze.
Tel: 01904 521 936www.greatrail.com
INDEPENDENT Travelling by train to and around France is safe, quick and good value – perfect for the independent traveller. And, thanks to the internet, it’s easy to plan your journey ahead and buy all your tickets in advance.
WHY NOT TRY…? Rail Europe is the best place to start if you’re thinking of exploring France by train. View timetables, book tickets and choose berths on overnight trains – there are even destination guides to some of the best places to visit in France by train. Tel: 0844 848 4064, www.raileurope.co.uk Or you could try the French railways website, www.sncf.fr . There is lots of upto- date information on rail services, plus details of station facilities. www.tersncf. com gives you the smaller, more local routes that make much of La France Profonde accessible by train.