Lessons Learned From a Vacation Without Reservations
What would happen if you took a trip without any plans? No itinerary. No guidebooks. No GPS. No cell phone. No hotels booked. Travel the old-fashioned way: using advice from folks you meet along the way. We dropped our reporter in France and told him: Wing it! How’d he do? Let’s just say he returned with almost no reservations.
It cut through the Amboise Forest, but the road had no name, none that we knew anyway, which was perfect. As my wife, Robin, and I drove south between two rivers, the Loire and the Cher, spotted sunlight warmed the tunneled lane. Signs said to watch for cyclists and tractors. A particularly French pairing, I thought. We'd also been told, by the helpful wine seller back in Paris who had pointed us to this very spot, to watch for small dirt drives with markers for vineyards. "You have to follow your feelings," Johan Pascaud-Blandin, the young man, had advised.
Follow our feelings—that's something I've long thought was a lost art in travel. Everything now is so digitized, geo-located, Instagrammed, ranked by a gauntlet of faceless trip advisers. And that's before we've even left home. Never before have travelers had more information and more possibilities. Our wanderlust has been corrupted by a kind of anxiety for the Ultimate Experience.
In fact, my five-day trip to France was meant to buck the overdigitized state of travel. I asked myself, What if I spent a whole trip with no reservations? No Lonely Planet, no Airbnb, no iPhone. I had traveled without plans in Andalucía four years back and ended up in the greatest little whitewashed village in the middle of their running-with-the-bull fest (that's one bull, singular). And I'd recounted the adventure a hundred times. So what if I unplugged, truly, and leaned on locals for my every next move?
"The ground rules I set were simple: Start in Paris. Progress via face-to-face suggestions."
The ground rules I set were pretty simple: Start in Paris. Progress via face-to-face suggestions. Every single decision would come from a local source, unaffiliated with any official tourism gig, beginning with what area and town to visit each day. Inns, cafes, art galleries, fresh markets, hiking trails, back roads. This little experiment was risky, perhaps even disastrous, especially for a guy with nil language skills. But I figured there were worse places in the world to be lost.
Which is how we ended up—well, somewhere near the Loire Valley, a two-hour drive southwest of Paris. We had asked Johan for his favorite stretch of Sauvignon vineyards, and the deal was to trust the local wherever he took us. So we rented a little hatchback (picked up directly under the Louvre) and hit the road. Famous for both its grapes and its châteaux, the pastoral Loire wedge east of the city of Tours rolled out exactly as I imagined. Stonewalled villages. Boucheries and patisseries flanking Gothic churches. Corduroy hillsides fanning outward everywhere. And women, normal-looking women, not the casually luxurious sort found in Paris.
We stopped at a crossroads in Saint-Georges-sur-Cher. Here we were, in Johan's favorite cut of wine country, with no next move, when a goofy kid wearing a soccer jersey, 17 years old maybe, hopped out of his coupe with a look of uninitiated friendliness on his face. His name was Florian. In choppy English and with hand signals, we asked him if he could recommend a small hotel or, better, anyone nearby with a back cottage. A glow came over his face. There was a place, the old mill, a rich man and his wife, two rooms, not far. Florian seemed more than pleased as he drove us the mile to the right road.
"We ended up at a place called Le Moulin du Mesnil, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me believe in a god."
The place was called Le Moulin du Mesnil, a limestone mill turned respite, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me believe in a god (41400 Saint-Georges-sur-Cher, moulindumesnil.com, rooms from $92). Even in the bliss of Amboise's Sherwood-like forest, a tiny fear had breezed into this optimistic journey: What if I ended up in a crummy town and a damp motel? What if I wasted a full day in France—on my first trip?
Yvonne David's bucolic bed-and-breakfast (or omelet supper if you play your cards right) was affirmation of my anti-planning travel. Robin and I arrived near sundown and slept with the windows open to a private patio and listened to the mill brook at daybreak. Before heading to work, Yvonne, a bubbly, part-time schoolteacher, delivered fig bread and coffee, then pulled out two bikes from her barn, penciling out a route along the Cher to her favorite small village, Bléré.
Surely, rural France is best viewed by bike. Four easy miles took us by an early-season poppy field, crumbling homesteads, and an amazing château, Chenonceau, which arches across the Cher like a kingly aqueduct (37150 Chenonceaux, chenonceau.com, tickets from $15). A onetime country manor for royalty, the 16th-century castle is predictably opulent inside, but surprisingly cozy as well . Five miles farther, Bléré (population: 5,000) was one camera shop bigger than a village. The young guy who sold us a new battery charger pointed us to lunch at a sidewalk cafe called La Sarrazine, where the 20-something chef hand-delivered our meals (21 rue du Pont, 37150 Bléré, 011-33/2-47-30-33-52, salted scallop crepes, $15). From there, we rode on to meet Yvonne's favorite Loire vintner, Bruno Curassier of Domaine de la Grange, for a quick six-bottle tasting. The tasting is free, though you have to agree to buy at least one bottle (Rue de la Grange, 37150 Bléré, lagrange-curassier.fr, bottles starting at $6). In his honor, I named our red rental car Rosie, pronounced happily like the pink wine.