France: Fun Finds in Paris, and the Romantic Riviera

I set out to write about France today—but before I do, I want to extend a huge “thank you” to all of our travelers who responded to Condé Nast Traveler’s annual Readers Choice poll: We just learned that Grand Circle Cruise Line was ranked #1 World’s Best River Cruise Line in 2012! Needless to say, Alan and I are thrilled—this is the first time we’ve earned the top spot—but above all, we’re honored that so many of you took the time to vote for us. You can read more about the award in News & Views—and again, thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

That said, we’re focusing on France this month—so of course I immediately think of Paris. I rented an apartment there for a month several years ago, so I’ve done all the must-see things—and quite a few offbeat ones, too. I always see the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Luxembourg Gardens. But the wonderful thing about Paris is that no matter how many times you visit, there’s still something new to discover. There a little museum on the Boulevard de Strasbourg that’s completely dedicated to fans—which I happen to collect, because they’re beautiful and I love all the rituals behind them. This tiny museum has uneven wooden floors and an old, musty smell. In fact, it’s a bit creepy—but in a good way. I loved that there were so many beautiful things in such a random, dark space. I also found a tea shop in the 6th arrondissement called Mariage Frere, which has a little museum downstairs. They have hundreds of different teas—and it smells just fabulous.

While Paris can easily fill a whole trip for me, of course there’s more to France, and I’m so excited that Grand Circle’s newest Small Ship Cruise Tour is visiting the Riviera. Alan and I have a close friend who lived in Villefranche who we visited a couple times. It’s a surprisingly casual place, with pastel-colored houses and gardens filled with bougainvillea that seem to tumble down to the sea. We ate so much fresh seafood—if there’s one thing that’s constant wherever you are in France, it’s that the French do not eat bad food. I loved pulling little periwinkles out of their shells with a pin—though you could probably eat a thousand of them without getting full.

If Villefranche feels casual, Cannes is definitely not—though it can be if you visit in the off season. It’s filled with little cafes, where it seems like everyone has a tiny dog in tow. I loved walking the promenade on the water, finding a nice bench, and taking in the fabulous people-watching.

Of course, I always go back to Paris—where I look forward to finding more and more offbeat attractions over the years. Do you have a favorite destination where you’ve had time to discover the lesser-known restaurants or museums? I’d love to hear about it. We’ll be talking about our most popular river cruises on the Rhine, Main, Danube, and Mosel next month in Harriet’s Corner, but I look forward to all of your stories.