Guests at Le Choiseul can walk to downtown Amboise. // © 2016 Small Luxury Hotels of the World
Feature image (above): Paris is Avanti Destinations’ No. 2 best-selling city. // © 2016 iStock
A lot can be revealed about a couple by examining how they arrange their travel.
My partner and I, for instance, refer to our method of domestic trip planning as spontaneity. But, to be honest, what typically happens is that a few days before the projected trip date, I let go of my secret desire that he will plan the entire trip and, instead, I overdose on research. He ignores my Web browser, which is neatly lined up with Internet tabs full of destination secrets, from the cafe serving the best almond milk latte to the hotel that hosted Brangelina. In newfound eagerness to solidify a plan, he contacts the first hotel he sees. We learn it’s sold out, and only the mediocre Airbnb listings are left. After a few hours of emotional turmoil, a weekend at home sounds lovely.
Fortunately, when it comes to international travel, we’ve been savvy enough to turn to the pros. When both of us had work in France this past February — in between Valentine’s Day and President’s Day — I knew we needed help organizing travel around our scheduled commitments.
Apparently, Avanti Destinations commonly receives this kind of request from its travel agent partners — even bonafide France experts.
“Often a travel agent will have clients who are going to Europe for something that’s already been planned or set by someone else, such as a family event, a wedding or a business meeting,” said Megan Ball, lead product manager for Avanti. “When the agent calls Avanti, we find out what is planned and what holes need filling, and then we offer suggestions to complete the clients’ itinerary.”
In our case, I told Avanti that we wanted to stay in Paris for a few days before work, and then explore a region conveniently located between Paris and my assignment in Brittany. When Avanti found out that my partner would be joining me and that the trip coincided with Valentine’s Day, the team excitedly matched me to its new “Chateaux & Wines of the Loire Valley” package.
“We strive to offer options that provide the traveler with the best experience, from recommending transportation options that are the most logical to suggesting tours that provide experiences the clients are most interested in — all while connecting the dots for one-stop shopping for the agent,” Ball said.
In Paris, which is Avanti’s No. 2 best-selling city after Rome in terms of the number of hotel nights sold, we were booked in a quintessentially Parisian four-star boutique hotel. Hotel Cambon, located conveniently in the 1st arrondissement, isn’t for families, and it’s unapologetic about that.
“Our owner thinks children will break the antiques,” one employee told me.
I like kids, but their absence was unnoticed over our Valentine’s. With only 40 rooms, Cambon feels intimate, and each room has its own unique setup and art. Our junior suite set the tone for a dreamy visit, with its quaint balcony overlooking Parisian rooftops and original paintings of flowers and a whimsical nude.
Also lovely was the tour Avanti suggested. My partner and I initially had our doubts since we have visited Paris a combined eight times, but we decided to give it a shot since Avanti also had filled our itinerary with free time for private strolling.
On the morning of our excursion, what rolled up to our petite hotel was an even tinier car — a classic Citroen 2CV that the company, Paris Authentic, had retrofitted to have an open top. Able to squeeze into alleys, the car literally offers an off-the-beaten path look at Paris. Our guide asked where we hadn’t been in a while, and we replied Montmartre. So, off we whizzed toward Sacre-Coeur, me imagining I was French New Wave cinema star Anna Karina starring in a feature film with my off-screen love interest.
For trips to and from the airport, Avanti hired a private transfer. But, from Brittany to Loire, Ball suggested it made the most practical sense for us to take the wheel. I have never enjoyed a road trip more. On a fluke, we stopped for lunch in Nantes, France, and stumbled into La Cigale, a brasserie established in 1895 that wowed us for its bistro fare and art nouveau decor.
After curating an exotic macaroon collection for the road, we drove toward Amboise, following the length of the Loire — France’s longest river — until we got onto the highway and the sun started to dip, illuminating the open, flat landscape that appeared golden against the rosy clouds. The fact that my partner and I were discovering all of this for the first time together added an exploratory feeling to the trip, but without the anxiety of having to figure out anything difficult on the fly.
Our next few nights were booked at another intimate property: Le Choiseul in Amboise, a 32-room chateau and Small Luxury Hotels of the World member that features stunning views of Loire river and Chateau D’Amboise. Our itinerary was full of firsthand forays into Loire Valley’s food, wine and chateaux — three things I knew would be best experienced with a local guide.
For our on-the-ground escort, Avanti paired us with Pascal Mineau, owner of Loire Valley-based France Intense, which offers both small group and private tours. Mineau, a Loire native and former sommelier, was among the most engaging guides I’ve met. He made sure not only to tell us the stories behind the chateaus and eateries he took us to — but also to connect us with the dedicated staff he knew at locations such as Les Caves Duhard, a cellar stocked with aged local wines, and Chateau de Blois, a former royal residence remarkable for its variety of architectural styles. Though we hadn’t planned any so-called “insider experiences,” Mineau told us that one of the pillars of his trips is meeting locals.
When we showed an interest in how to build and stock a wine cellar, Mineau invited us to his home, which we graciously accepted. After we peeked enviously into his subterranean cellar, Mineau popped open a special bottle of champagne and introduced us to his wife. The four of us openly chatted as the bottle gradually emptied, covering topics ranging from French business laws to success in relationships. A fitting conversation to be sure: We were only in Loire because Avanti had a partnership with France Intense and had handpicked Mineau for our private tours. It was another serendipitous moment shot straight from Avanti’s arrow.
What’s New at Avanti Destinations
For 2016, Avanti has made it even easier to match clients to what they want to do in France with 10 new customizable vacation itineraries, 30 new four- and five-star hotels and 15 new add-on excursions and sightseeing tours.
“Chateaux & Wines of the Loire Valley” is one of Avanti’s new itineraries and includes two nights in Amboise or Tours; daily breakfast; daily wine tasting and lunch; and chateau tours of Chinon, Langeais, Villandry, Blois, Cheverny, Chambord, Chenonceau, Amboise and Clos Luce ($895).
Avanti has also added three new shared sightseeing experiences in Loire including Chenonceau & Amboise Tour with Wine Tasting ($109); Chambord & Chenonceau Tour ($109); and Clos Luce, Amboise, Chambord & Cheverny Full-Day Tour ($225).