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Just 2 hours south of Paris, the Loire Valley enchants visitors with a stunning landscape of castles and vineyards straight out of a fairy tale. King François I and his Renaissance court left a spectacular cultural legacy, earning the entire valley a place on the World Heritage Site list. History buffs can trace Joan of Arc from Orléans to ­Chinon; romantics fall in love with the storybook châteaux of Chenonceau, Azay-le-Rideau, and Ussé; garden lovers revel in the verdant paradise of Chaumont and Villandry; gastronomes tantalize their palates at Michelin-starred restaurants and rustic auberges; and outdoor adventurers can see it all by bike.

As its name would imply, the region’s rolling hills and forests hug the winding Loire River, encompassing 800 sq. km (308 sq. miles) of land south of Ile-de-France, from the city of Orléans and extending west to Nantes on the Atlantic coast. Most visitors use Tours or Orléans as their starting point; however, the towns of Blois, Amboise, or Saumur make excellent bases for exploring the region.

Most visitors to the Loire arrive via Paris; there are about six direct trains daily from the TGV station at Charles de Gaulle airport to the Tours TGV station Saint-Pierre (1 hr., 40 min; 39€–70€ one-way). At least one high-speed train (TGV) an hour runs to both Orléans and Tours, convenient starting points for anyone not renting a car directly in Paris.

You can also seek additional assistance planning your trip via the Loire Valley’s main regional tourist offices: Comité Régional de Tourisme du Centre-Val de Loire, 37 av. de Paris, Orléans 45000 (www.valdeloire-france.com; tel. 02-38-79-95-28) or through the various local tourist offices listed in the towns throughout this section.

Sightseeing

Start your tour of the châteaux of the Loire Valley at Château d'Ussé, whose magnificence inspired Perrault to write Sleeping Beauty. Or trail Joan of Arc to Chinon, where the martyr begged the Dauphin to fight the English during the 100-Year War. Château d'Amboise intrigues with the 15th-century Tour des Minimes, a medieval structure with a spiral ramp; while Villandry wows with elegant ornamental vegetable patches. 

Hotels

As one of the most visited regions of France, it’s not surprising to find a great variety of accommodation options. Sleep like a king or queen in one of the Loire’s many châteaux hotels, from the medieval Hostellerie Gargantua to the opulence of the Château d’Artigny or the Château de Marçay. The valley is dotted with thousands of unique gîtes (B&Bs) including medieval towers, houseboats, and even troglodyte caves. For details and reservations, go to http://en.gites-de-france.com.

Eating and Drinking

Rarely a meal goes by in the Loire without a glass of Bacchus's best. The Loire Valley has some of the world's most prestigious wine appellations, from sparkling Vouvrays to rounded Saumur-Champignys to dozens of others in and around Saumur, Angers, and Tours. The dining is world-class as well, from smart Michelin-starred restaurants to rustic auberges, where you can sample scrumptious regional specialties like pikeperch in butter, rillauds (pork belly marinated in red wine) and roast game.

History

The valley of French kings abounds in history. Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud is the largest, most intact medieval abbey in France. Its haunting Romanesque church contains the remains of four members of the royal house of Plantagenet including Richard the Lionheart. Angers' striped slate and tufa château houses the Apocalypse tapestry. Jumping forward several hundred years, the Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci is buried in Amboise's château; his former home, Clos Lucé, nearby, is a museum containing models of his inventions.

Loire for Kids

The Loire is a wonderful family holiday destination, and the highlights, of course, are the castles (Valençay, Langeais, and Loches being the best to include for children). But the two most frequently visited attractions for families are located at the same address: the Aquarium du Val de Loire (www.decouvrez-levaldeloire.com; tel. 02-47-23-44-44) and the Parc des Mini-Châteaux (www.parcminichateaux.com; tel. 02-47-23-44-57), 9.5km (6 miles) west of Amboise, near the village of Lussault-sur-Loire.

The Parc des Mini-Châteaux (daily early Apr–May 10:30am–7pm; June–Aug 10am–7pm/8pm; Sept–Nov 14 10:30am–6pm; closed mid-Nov to early Apr) holds replicas of France’s most famous castles, built at 1/30 the size of the originals. Chambord, for example, is less than 3.5m (11 ft.) tall. It’s all very patriotic—a sort of learning game that teaches French schoolchildren the glories of their patrimoine (heritage) and collects some of the most celebrated architecture in Europe. Admission is 14€ adults, 10.50€ students and children ages 4 to 14, and free for children 3 and under; for a full day of fun get a discounted joint ticket with the Aquarium 22€ and 17€. The aquarium is home to some 10,000 freshwater and saltwater fish. Admission is 14€ adults, 10.50€ children ages 4 to 14 (daily Jan–Mar and Sept–Dec 10:30am–6pm; Apr–May 10:30am–7pm; June to late July 10am–7pm; and late July to mid-Aug 10am–8pm; closed 2 weeks in Nov and Jan). 

The area also offers plenty of activities for outdoor adventures. Take a break from navigating the castles of the Loire by paddling it. The Canoe Company (www.canoe-company.fr; tel. 06-37-01-89-92) rents canoes daily on both the Loire River at Rochecorbon and on the Cher at the foot of the Château de Chenonceau (from 14€ per person for 2 hr.).