Provider: Discover France
Length: Eight days
Price: from $1,722
One of Europe's most evocative destinations, Provence is meant to be experienced slowly, by all five senses: Time must be taken to smell the scent of lavender in the air, savor dishes delicately flavored with olive oil and herbs, hear the ringing of church bells, see the ancient towns still alive with everyday people, and feel the hilly landscape rising and falling as you travel across it. As such, traveling while encapsulated in a bus, car, or train is inadequate—only by cycling can you indulge your senses, and cover a decent amount of territory during a week-long vacation in the region.
Quite a few operators offer Provence cycling trips, but most tend to be high-end guided affairs involving kingly accommodations and "exclusive" activities, easily costing $600 or more a day. On the cheap side, there's always do-it-yourself planning and camping. For those whose budgets and tastes fall somewhere in between, consider booking a prearranged itinerary that's supported by a tour operator but self-guided. The France cycling and hiking outfitter Discover France puts together such trips, which give you the freedom of not being tied to a group while taking the work out of route planning, accommodation booking, and luggage transfers, not to mention giving you the peace of mind of having emergency support if you need it. And, at about $1,722 for seven nights (including comfortable to luxurious accommodations), it's a great deal. (Editor's note: As of December 9, 2008, this package is now priced at $1,350.)
On the company's Classic Provence itinerary, you'll bike about 186 miles from Avignon to Arles and back, passing through small towns such as St. Remy, where Van Gogh made more than 150 paintings. "The pace was ideal, the sense of adventure was exhilarating, and the ability to stop and 'smell the lavender' or just have a cup of coffee was rewarding and relaxing," says New Yorker Sylvia Stein, who went on the trip in May with her husband for their 25th wedding anniversary.
"We thoroughly enjoyed the time we had (evenings and early mornings) to explore the towns we stayed in along the way. Uzes is a gem we would never have visited otherwise. As bona fide foodies, we had one of the top three meals of our lives in Arles. The charming hotel in Arles, which doubles as an archeological site—a plexiglass floor reveals Roman ruins—truly grounded us in the region. In Saint Remy we followed the trail of Van Gogh. Having grown up singing the song, 'Sur le pont d'Avingon, on y dancez ... ' it was magical to finally explore the Papal city of Avignon."
You can start this tour most days through October 31; the lowest prices apply to trips departing on or after September 15. Rates include accommodations, daily breakfasts and two dinners, an orientation at the beginning of the trip, detailed maps and route and attraction notes, daily luggage transfers, and emergency support. You may bring your own bike or rent one for about $165. Other meals, activities, and transportation to the trip's departure point are extra. Round-trip October fares from New York to Paris start at $759, including taxes and fees, on Iberia. From Paris, you can take the TGV train to Avignon for about $68 one-way and then take a taxi to the first hotel in Villeneuve-les-Avignon for about €15 (about $22; for current conversion rates visit XE.com.)