Vive la Loire
By Jeffrey Epstein
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 anyone's 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 Paris's 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 good'and everyone gets their own monitor no matter what class they're 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.
I won't 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 you're 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 won't 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 can't predict the weather'though I try), but the best time to visit (if you like warmth) is from late April until September. Please note, that's 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 I'm 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 you're 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!
Orl'ans 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 doesn't 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 don't try to climb up for a Kodak moment. It's frowned on by the authorities. Not that I would know.
WHAT TO DO IN ORLEANS
It's easy to get around most of this city on foot. Doing so, you can see the Hotel Groslot (Place de l''tape), which isn't 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 Orl'ans Cedex 2m, 02-38-49-30, www.parcfloral-lasource.fr). It's a lovely 70-acre garden, which is open year-round (although it's 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 nature's loveliest insect in all its glory. The 'source' in the park's name is Loiret, a river which starts in the center of the park and feeds into the Loire. Close to the Source is Les Baln'ades (275 All'e des 4 Vents, 02-38-69- 77, www.les-balneades.fr), 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. Baln'ades features an aqua-vitality spa, which centers many of the treatments around water, but there's 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 spa's 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, www.restaurantlesantiquaires.com) offers 'fooding and conviviality' (only one of which I think is a real word). There's 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, www.les-quatres-saisons.com) is not quite the Four Seasons, but it offers a truly lovely, romantic atmosphere right on the Loire. While it's 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 P'tit 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. It's also the only bar in town open on Mondays, so keep that in mind. It's 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 town's queer bathhouse (although it's mixed on Tuesdays, which I'm sure is interesting). The place is small but the men are very good looking (and apparently have 0% body fat'if that kind of thing matters to you).