When you think of visiting France, admit it, you think of the Eiffel Tower, a walk on the Seine, the Arc de Triomphe. And I absolutely think that a visit to the City of Lights is in order during anyones trip. But for a true vacation in France, there are many more extraordinary places to see. Just to the southwest of Paris (about an hour by train, two by car) is the Loire Valley. The untamed Loire River stretches out along the west of France, winding past dozens of elegant chateaus before meeting the Atlantic, and many of the cities on its route are worth a visit. PLANNING YOUR TRIP I recommend a full week (leaving Friday or Saturday and returning the following Sunday) to pack the most in. While numerous airlines fly nonstop from different parts of the country, those coming from the West Coast may want to take Air Tahiti Nui out of Los Angeles. It is one of the few nonstop carriers from Los Angeles to Pariss Charles de Gaulle Airport, and its service was great. From the moment I checked in, everyone was professional and courteous. The food was actually good, and the seats were comfortable for taking a nice nap during the flight (plus the in-flight movies were goodand everyone gets their own monitor no matter what class theyre in). NOTE: If you phone France from the States, note that the country code is 33, which you will need to dial before any of the numbers below. PARLEZ-VOUS? I wont lie to ya, France is a lot easier if you speak at least a little French. While many people do speak at least some English (and the younger people at stores and restaurants often like to practice on you), it is considered polite to learn a few key phrases. It shows that youre not just your average tacky tourist. I suggest getting French Phrasebook (Teach Yourself, $5.95), which has key words and phrases that you may need for traveling. THE LOIRE IS FOR LOVERS I wont lie to ya here either. Many of the sites, restaurants, and bars are very romantic, so it might be nausea-inducing to go to some of these places on your own or just with a friend. That said, all of the hotels covered here are gay-owned or at least gay-friendly, so you can feel comfortable checking in as a couple. France in general, I am told (and saw for myself), has a rather laissez-faire attitude about homosexuality (Paris does, after all, have a gay mayor!). However, with the right friend, this could also be a great nonromantic trip. And the gay men and lesbians I saw were all good-looking, so you could always go single and come back with a petit ami. WHAT TO BRING In deciding what to wear, you will have to look at reports because weather varies throughout the year (and I cant predict the weatherthough I try), but the best time to visit (if you like warmth) is from late April until September. Please note, thats also the most expensive time. Make sure you bring an alarm clock with you, as not one hotel I stayed in had a clock. You may not want to know what time it is when you come stumbling in from a bar, but you will in the morning. SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES Compared to the States, it seems like everyone smokes in France. So if you are averse to smoky bars, you have been warned. OTHER STUFF TO KNOW Lights and power in the rooms vary from hotel to hotel. In some hotels, there's a master light switch next to the front door, and none of the other lights in the room will go on unless that one does. In other cases, you push down (traditionally off in America) to turn lights on. Yes, it can be a little confusing, but Im sure you can handle it. With regard to eating, many of the restaurants offer prix fixe menus, which range from reasonable to, well, very expensive. You can also order la carte, but if youre on a budget, the prix fixe is the way to go. Many hotels will include breakfast if you ask for it when making your reservation. So go ahead, ask for it! ORLEANS Orlans is a city in the Loire region best known for being the place where Joan of Arc kicked some British butt in 1429. So she is all over the place. And who doesnt love Joan? The lady ranks up there with Mulan as a role model for drag kings across the globe. In the center of town is a tremendous statue of Saint Joan on horseback, but dont try to climb up for a Kodak moment. Its frowned on by the authorities. Not that I would know. WHAT TO DO IN ORLEANS Its easy to get around most of this city on foot. Doing so, you can see the Hotel Groslot (Place de l'tape), which isnt a hotel but rather the old town hall. The building is stunning and its adjacent gardens are lovely. Probably the most famous site in town is the Sainte-Croix Cathedral (Place Sainte-Croix), a mammoth structure with incredible, colorful stained glass windows inside (many of which depict the Joan of Arc story). Just outside the downtown area is the Park Floral de la Source (45072 Orlans Cedex 2m, 02-38-49-30, ). Its a lovely 70-acre garden, which is open year-round (although its best to go starting in mid April when the tulips bloom or, better yet, later in the summer when more flowers are blossoming). The park also has a butterfly house which you can walk through and see natures loveliest insect in all its glory. The source in the parks name is Loiret, a river which starts in the center of the park and feeds into the Loire. Close to the Source is Les Balnades (275 Alle des 4 Vents, 02-38-69- 77, ), a full-service spa where you can actually spend a week at a very reasonable price. Compared to spas in the United States, treatments in France are much more affordable, so many more people take advantage of them. Balnades features an aqua-vitality spa, which centers many of the treatments around water, but theres also a fitness center so you can work out, an 18-hole golf course, and a restaurant. They have an adjacent hotel, where you can get packages for a week. This summer they are offering a special of just 543 Euros (under $700) per person (double occupancy), which includes seven nights at the hotel, three spa treatments a day for five days, and one additional day of using the spas facilities (their pool, the gym). A great deal. WHERE TO EAT AND PLAY IN ORLEANS FOOD: NEXTdoor (6 Rue au Lin, 02-38-62-4000, ) offers fooding and conviviality (only one of which I think is a real word). Theres an excellent salmon starter, and the both the fish and veal are delicious. All served in a contemporary, gay-friendly atmosphere by adorable waiters for an affordable price. No (195 Avenue de Bourgogne, 02-38-53-44-09) has a pub-like feel and sumptuous pumpkin soup. The restaurant is located on Bourgogne, which is a pedestrian street with many shops. Les Quatres Saisons (351 Rue de la Reine Blanche, 02-38-66-14-30, ) is not quite the Four Seasons, but it offers a truly lovely, romantic atmosphere right on the Loire. While its traditional in France to eat on the late side, you may want to make an exception here for the view. The food is lovely including a hearty rouget (a delicious red fish), and a melt-in-your-mouth poached pear. DRINK: Le Ptit Caf (255 rue de Bourgogne, 02-38-62-58-86) is a gay bar and caf which is open late into the night after the clubs close. Its also the only bar in town open on Mondays, so keep that in mind. Its small, but everyone was friendly. We were told Le Bel Air (44 Rue de Poireier, 02-38-77-08006) was also gay, but found we were the only gay folk in the trendy joint. We learned the gay-owned establishment is definitely gay-friendly (and offers unusually named cocktails like a vodka-infused Red Purple), but it marketa to everyone because the gay crowd can be fickle and often prefers to go into Paris for nights of heavy drinking. FUN: For those looking for a more than a cocktail, the Savon Sauna (Rue des Grands Champs Angle Rue d'Illier, 02-38-68-11-98) is the towns queer bathhouse (although its mixed on Tuesdays, which Im sure is interesting). The place is small but the men are very good looking (and apparently have 0% body fatif that kind of thing matters to you). WHERE TO STAY IN ORLEANS Do you remember the hotel in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert where every rooms was themedand the decor was so loud that it made the drag queen main characters seem demur? Well, thats what Hotel de lAbeille is like (64 Rue Alsace Lorraine, 02-38-53-54-87, ). Its sort of a cross between a hotel and a whorehouse from the Old West. And thats not a negative. But those desiring a W had best stay away. The lobby features numerous statues of Joan of Arcthat should give you a hint as to whats in store. Every room is different, and they range in size from small to spacious (so make sure you ask for the spacious if that matters to you). And while some rooms nestled in the back are very quiet, some near the stairs echo with every step taken in the halls. There's complimentary wi-fi in the lobby-lounge, which is a great place to set up shop for a while and watch passersby. AMBOISE Amboise is a small town down the Loire from Orlans, and if Orlans is best known for being the place where Joan of Arc fought the British, Amboise is best known for being the town where Leonardo da Vinci kicked the bucket. It's a lovely small town with delightful small hotels and great chateaus to visit. WHAT TO DO IN AMBOISE First, you must visit Chateau du Clos-Luc (02-47-57-62-88, ), which is where Leonardo spent the last three years of his life after moving here from Spain on the invitation of King Franois I in 1516. It is amazing to realize just how much Leonardo produced in those final years, from great works of art (Mona Lisa, anyone?) to over 40 machines that were ahead of their time (including a prototype for a helicopter). There are replicas of his art and his designs throughout the luscious estate (with stunning gardens). Even if you don't break the Da Vinci Code, you will appreciate your visit. Definitely visit the Chateau Royal d'Amboise (33-2-47-57-00-98,), where the remains of the towns 15th-century castle are open to explore. Carrying on the Leonardo theme, it is where the visionary is buried, although because of wars, which ravaged the chateau (forcing reconstruction), its not quite certain where he is. There are excellent views of the Loire from the castle as welland plenty of fantastically tacky souvenir shops at the base. Since youre in France, a little wine tasting may also be in order, so you may consider visiting Loire et Terriors (1 Bis, Quai des Violettes, 02-47-23-41-52), for a sampling of some of the valley's superior wines. Call ahead, of course. WHERE TO EAT AND PLAY IN AMBOISE FOOD: For a bite after visiting the Chateau dAmboise, visit Restaurant lEpicerie (46, Place Michel Debr, 02-47-57-08-94), which is just across the way and features decent eats. There are also several shops on the side streets worth a look for their baguettes and quiches (not to mention the delicious pastries). If you are starving while visiting Clos-Luc, there is a restaurant there. But the must-dine event of the city is dinner at Le Pavillion des Lys (9 Rue d'Orange, 02-47-30-01-01, ). This gay-owned establishment is both a hotel (with four rooms) and a gourmet restaurant, and it was the culinary highlight of my visit. But leave yourself plenty of time (especially if you enjoy the sumptuous and reasonably priced tasting menu) because my dinner lasted nearly four hours. You had really better like the people youre eating with, but the food is so great you could just end up talking about it all night. DRINK: There arent any gay bars in Amboise, but Le Shaker (3 Quai Franois Tissard, 02-47-23-24-26) is popular with the towns hip crowd. And any place that has a martini shaker as its emblem is all right by me. WHERE TO STAY IN AMBOISE Le Pavillion (mentioned above) has just four rooms, so you would need to book there very early. The advantage, of course, is a world-class restaurant at your feet (literally). Le Manior les Minimes (34 Quai Charles Guinot, 02-47-30-40-40, ) is also gay-owned and located nearby (pretty much everything in town is within walking distance). The beautiful hotel has only 15 rooms (which also book quickly) and fantastic amenities including great showers, comfy beds, televisions with DVD players, and more. The place is owned by an adorable gay couple, Eric and Patrice. If you want to go on the cheaper side, theres the lesbian-owned Caf des Arts (32 Rue Victor Hugo, 002-47-57-25-04), which is just up the street from the chateau, but you will have to share a bathroom. However, there is a caf downstairs, and the hotel is centrally located. A little more off the beaten path is the exquisite Le Chateau des Ormeaux (Route de Noizay, 33-02-47-23-26-51, ), which is also gay-owned. Here, you truly get to stay in a castle. Each room is gorgeous and delightfully appointed, and theres a pool in the summer. The grounds are magnificent and lush, offering great hiking opportunities. TOURS More so than any other city on my trip, Tours has the feel of a city. That is not to say the town doesnt have rich, classic architecture, but there are high-rises circa 1970 and the town is crawling with university students, giving it a more urban feel. One of the good things about the city is that many of the sites (and bars) are walkable, if not from where you stay, definitely from each other. WHAT TO DO IN TOURS Like Orlans, Tours boasts a stunning cathedral: St. Gatien Cathedral (Place de la Cathedrale), which took over 300 years to built. The process took so long, the designers ended up topping off the structure with a Renaissance design that blends well with the bases original medieval look. Much of the vibrant stained glass in the cathedral is original. Theres the Muse de Beaux Arts (18 Place F. Sicard, 02-47-05-68-73), a fine art museum that boasts many 17th- and 18th-century paintings, but theres a smattering of modern work as well. A bit more amusant was our visit to Vieux Four, a boulangerie-patisserie (meaning a bakery for both bread and tasty pastries), located toward the old center of town (7 Place Petites Boucheries, 02-47-66-62-33). If you call ahead, you can get a tour of the centuries-old oven and see how the crustiest, most flavorful baguettes in town are made, and if youre lucky, theyll give you some samples. We got rich three-chocolate muffins, which tasted just incredible. WHERE TO EAT AND PLAY IN TOURS FOOD: Theres a covered market in the center of town, which offered mouthwatering baguettes, quiches, and dont even get me started on the desserts. Its a great spot for a quick lunch. For dinner, we dined at the gay-friendly restaurant L'Hdoniste (16 Rue Lavoisier, 02-47-05-20-40), where I enjoyed the most robust escargot Ive eaten in years, accompanied by a garlic butter sauce I virtually sucked up with a straw (what, isnt that was the French do?). DRINK: There is a significant gay scene in Tours (bigger than pretty much any city in the Loire Valley), no doubt thanks to all the cute university students in town. There is even a gay group in town called the Tours Angles, and you can visit its Web site for more information about its monthly meetings and other activities , but beware, its all in French for now). The group is made up of men and women, so everyone feels welcome. Angles held its monthly party when we were there at La P'tit Chose (32 Rue de la Grosse Tours), which is just off the main square. Its a small but fun bar that had a great mixed crowd, and we even ran into our adorable tour guide from the Da Vinci museum there. The GI (13 Rue Lavoisier, 02-47-66-29-96, ) is supposedly a fun dance club, but it doesnt get started until later. We ended at Le Stud (yes, thats really the name84 Rue Colbert, 02-47-66-62-70, ), a leatherish bar with gay porn playing on the TVs and a virtually empty back room (although it could have been because it was Thursday). But any and all of these places are worth checking out for a drink. WHERE TO STAY IN TOURS The Hotel de l'Univers (5 Blvd. Heurtloup, 02-47-05-37-12, ) is well located, close to just about everything you would want to see. But while the rooms (with their twin beds) were spacious, something about the place lacked the character of several of the other places I had seen or stayed in. It felt a little more like a business hotel (it does conferences) and less like a cozy place. That said, it was a warm bed with a pillow to rest my head. PARIS Now, even if you plan several days in the Valley, odds are you will still want to see Paris. And given the City of Lights proximity to the Loire Valley, its easy. Id recommend giving yourself (at least) two days in Paris at the end of your trip to soak up some city life. WHAT TO DO: For you to see the town, LOpenTour () operates three different, open-air double-decker. One hits many of the major hot spots, including the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe, the Paris Opera House, and the Louvre. For 25 Euros you get headphones for the audio portion of the tour. You can get on and off the bus as many times as you like over the course of the day, and there are buses that come around every 15 minutes so you never have to wait too long (just remember where it drops you off!). Another fantastic thing to do is a boat ride on the Seine. Try the Bateaux Parisien (), which leave every half hour or hour from the base of the Eiffel Tower (depending on the season). Its a great trip up the Seine to see many of the sites and the architecturally splendid bridges. FOOD: If you happen to go to the newish Opera House by the Bastille (commemorated with a giant pillar in the middle of a roundabout that is topped with a character who looks remarkably like Tinker Bell), I suggest grabbing a bite at Les Grandes Marches (6 Place de la Bastille, 01-43-42-90-32). The setting is sleek, and the service was great and efficient (I feel like I can endure only so many three-hour dinners). From the flaky rolls topped with cheese to the restaurants version of a rice pudding, infused with caramel and pears, everything was great. And yes, there are about a bazillion gay bars close by in the Marais, which is Pariss gay district, but if you have never been, its definitely a must-see. Its like all the gay people from Chelsea, Provincetown, West Hollywood, and the Castro all combined to form a gay mecca in Paris. I was certain we were done after walking by over a dozen gay bars and stores, only to find out that was just the Little Marais, a smaller nearby street, which is nothing compared to the big Marais. And the guys and girls were all hot. I think there are a disproportionate number of good-looking people living in Paris. WHERE TO STAY IN PARIS The Hotel de Sers, a cozy boutique hotel located just blocks from the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, is reminiscent of Ian Shragers better places like the Royalton and the Delano, with a nod to French heritage. The rooms in this four-star deluxe hotel (the star system here goes to four, but those that would qualify as a five-star are called four-star deluxe) range from Superior (which are smallish but lovely) and Deluxe (which are just perfect) to the more outrageous Apartment, which I doubt anyone would need unless they were a rock star or planned to stay in Paris for a month. The rooms are well-appointed with ridiculously fluffy comforters, comfy pillows, high-speed Internet access, well-stocked minibars, and state-of-the-art Bang & Olufsen televisions with built-in DVD players. The bathrooms are stunning and all have separate tubs and showers. Theres a tiny fitness room as well as a steam room and sauna. The hotel bar is lovely, and its restaurant serves three meals a day (including a very filling continental breakfast with mouthwatering croissants and fresh squeezed juices). And I should mention that every member of the staff I encountered was not only kind and helpful but also as cute as all get out. (Not that it should matter, but it certainly doesnt hurt.) Just off the Arc de Triomphe is Hotel Splendid Etoile (1 Ave. Carnot, 01-45-72-72-00, ), which is literally steps away from the etoile (which means star in French; because the roundabout around the Arc is so big, the many streets that feed it form a star, hence the name). The rooms are lovely, and many afford a stunning view of both the Arc and the Eiffel Tower (its pretty cool to lounge in your room looking out your window at those landmarks). The amenities are nice as well, even if the twin beds were a little lumpy, and theres a good bar and restaurant downstairs.