From La Rochelle to the Bordeaux wine district, the southwest of France is often just a quick stopover for visitors driving from Paris to Spain. However, this area is well worth a more in-depth visit for its Atlantic beaches, medieval and Renaissance ruins, Romanesque and Gothic churches, vineyards, and the increasingly dynamic city of Bordeaux. A new high-speed rail link from Paris to Bordeaux has cut travel times down to this corner of France substantially.

This intriguing region merits a detour inland to sample cognac in Cognac and to visit nearby art cities such as Poitiers and Angoulême. If you can manage it, allow a week here—enough time to sample the wine, savor the cuisine, and see some of the sights.