France held its spot as the number-one tourist destination in the world this past year, with more than 79 million foreign visitors reported in 2008. Travelers are intrigued by France's glorious past as well as by its cutting-edge cuisine, style, and fashion. We preview some of the country's latest developments. Note that most of the old favorites are still going strong for returning visitors to enjoy once again -- or for new arrivals to discover for the first time.
Where to Stay -- The former mansion of Balzac has now been restored and reopened as the Hotel Balzac, 6 rue Balzac (tel. 01-44-35-18-00), right off the Champs-Elysées in the heart of Paris. Bedrooms are elegant and decorated in various styles, many of them quite romantic. Balzac himself is honored in the decor. For those who demand government-rated, five-star luxury in Paris, this is one of the most appealing of the palace hotels.
In the 18th arrondissement, Hotel Particulier, at 23 av. Junot (tel. 01-53-41-81-40), is one of the special hotels of Paris, nestled in a "secret" passageway with a hard-to-find entrance. Each suite has a different personality, some of them a bit bizarre. Various artists supplied the decor, which includes, among other offerings, an "erotic window."
Where to Dine -- The Caribbean island of Guadeloupe is part of France, so it seems only fitting to open a restaurant, La Table de Babette, 32 rue Longchamp (tel. 01-45-53-00-07), dedicated to Creole cuisine. Babette De Rozières, an islander, is celebrated by local foodies for the tastes and flavors of the West Indies. Her cuisine harmoniously blends ingredients and spices in such specialties as stuffed roast suckling pig.
The fabled chef Alain Ducasse has brought renewed life to Rech, 62 av. des Ternes (tel. 01-45-72-29-47), a time-honored seafood brassiere from 1925. Under new management, the chefs still respect the founding father's tradition, complete with an oyster shucker on the sidewalk and a limited but succulent menu, including, for example, half a dozen different kinds of oysters.
Closed for 3 years for renovations, Hôtel Cézanne, 40 av. Victor Hugo (tel. 04-42-91-11-11), has reemerged as the smartest boutique hotel in this old Provençal city. The trappings of the 21st century have been installed, and the interior design is innovative and colorful. The bedrooms are spacious and up-to-date, with "tropical" showers.
A farmhouse from 1746 has been turned into Ferme Hégia at Chemin Curutxeta at Hasparren (tel. 05-59-29-67-86), an elegant yet rustic restaurant avec chambres with a Michelin-starred chef. It lies 34km (21 miles) inland from Biarritz. Wooden beams and timbers coexist with a strikingly modern design. Guests enjoy a glass of champagne in the kitchen while the chef creates his specialties.
Deep in the heart of Burgundy, Bistro de L'Hotel, 3-5 rue Samuel Legay (tel. 03-80-25-94-10), attracts the movers and shakers of the wine industry to this first-rate dining spot in L'Hotel de Beaune. The chef and owner takes advantage of the rich produce of the countryside and prepares sublime dishes. Summer diners enjoy his creations on a terrace.
In one of Normandy's most charming fishing ports, Le Manoir de Butin, Phare du Butin (tel. 02-31-81-63-00), receives guests in a villa built at the turn of the 20th century, with half timbering and dormers. The bedrooms are some of the most beautiful in the area, with four-poster beds along with marble-clad bathrooms. In spite of its old pedigree, the manor has been brought completely up to date.
The French Riviera
At chic Cap d'Antibes, La Jabotte, 13 av. Max Maurey (tel. 04-93-61-45-89), is a complex of bungalows in a citrus garden. The hosts are among the most hospitable in the area, naming their rooms after themes -- birds to angels -- and preparing homemade breakfasts served on their inviting terrace. Original paintings and flea market furnishings add a homelike touch.
In the Loire Valley, the former house of the Marquis de la Fayette, the Château de Reignac, 37310 Reignac-sur-Indre (tel. 02-47-94-14-10), has been entirely renovated and is today one of the most luxurious châteaux hotels in the Loire. Its 12 luxuriously furnished bedrooms bear the names of historic figures who have lived here or visited. You can have drinks in the 18th-century living rooms and later go for a walk in its surrounding park.
In the Rhone Valley, Le Phénix Hotel, 7 quai de Bondy (tel. 04-78-28-24-24) stands in Old Lyon. It was created from several structures, some of which date from the 1500s. Today, 36 stylishly furnished bedrooms await you, each decorated in an intimate style with warm colors. Private jazz concerts are staged in the bar.
This rich little principality, former abode of the late Princess Grace, is bursting out with new restaurants, including Beefbar, 42 quai Jean-Charles Rey (tel. 97-77-09-29), serving the best steaks in the area to a chic crowd of patrons. Raw fish from the Mediterranean and succulent beef from the pampas of Argentina await your palate. There's even something on the menu for noncarnivores.
A Japanese chef, Keisuke Matsushima, 22 rue de France (tel. 03-82-26-06), has become the darling of local foodies, earning a rare Michelin star. He's imaginative, and his dishes are intensely flavored, ranging from caramelized pigeon breasts with a wasabi emulsion to Sisteron lamb from the distant mountains.
In the Port Palace Hotel, La Mandarine, 7 av. President J.F. Kennedy (tel. 97-97-90-00), offers not only the most panoramic view from its sixth-floor precincts, but a savory French and Mediterranean cuisine based on market-fresh ingredients. Some 20,000 wine bottles await your selection.
In this major city of Brittany, an impressive revitalization is occurring, as once dreary industrial neighborhoods are taking on a new chic. The newly restored Château des Ducs de Bretagne is open once again, containing a city museum and a first-rate restaurant. Evocative of the change, Le Lieu Unique, a former biscuit factory, has been converted into a modern complex housing art exhibitions, a restaurant, a bar/cafe, and fashionable shops.
The acclaimed chef Alain Boutin had opened a new restaurant bearing his name in this ancient capital of Aquitaine. The modern French cuisine at Alain Boutin, 65 rue Carnot (tel. 05-49-88-25-53), is among the finest in the area. He uses the rich produce of the region to create his specialties such as quail with braised raisins or shellfish soup laced with saffron.
Outside the capital of Perigord Noir, La Maison des Peyrat, Le Lac de la Plane (tel. 05-53-59-00-32), has been installed in a stone structure that dates in part from 1343. Exposed beams and original artwork give the hotel character, and the bedrooms are done in bright pastel colors and rattan furnishings. Meals are served on a terrace shaded by chestnut trees.
The best boutique hotel in this city is Les Bains-Douches, 4 and 4 bis rue du Point Guilheméry (tel. 05-34-42-09-98), the latest word in modernity. Bedrooms are tasteful and stylish, and the cocktail lounge is already a chic rendezvous. In summer there's a terrace.
The enfant terrible of English chefs has opened the self-named Gordon Ramsay, a deluxe restaurant in the Hotel Trianon Palace, 1 bd. de la Reine (tel. 01-30-84-55-55). He clearly shows that he is also a master of French cuisine, which he serves in a modern style, frequently changing his menu to take advantage of the best in any season. No one does pork belly as well as Ramsay.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.