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.

After looping around Cézanne's famous ridge, Montagne Sainte-Victoire, and chickening out on asking to join the seven retired men who were tossing bocce balls on a village square, I decided to cold-call Liisa, the painter, the next day. I figured the worst-case scenario was she wouldn't see us, but maybe she'd have some killer travel secret to share.

"I met Liisa and mentioned her paintings of a blue-green inlet with pale yellow cliffs. She said the actual spot was near Cassis, 10 miles up the Mediterranean."

The following morning, after checking out of the overpriced inn in Aix and returning to the place de Verdun for espressos, I drove the half hour to Marseille's thousand-mast Vieux Port harbor, as clusters of tourists walked about. When I met Liisa—briefly, since she was headed to a big show in Paris—I mentioned her paintings of a blue-green inlet with pale yellow cliffs. She called the dreamy fjord a calanque and said the actual spot was near Cassis, 10 miles up the Mediterranean. So off to the calanque we went.

The 10 miles between Marseille and Cassis was mostly undeveloped limestone ruggedness, as if the wine hills were trying to fight off, rather wickedly, the Mediterranean submersion. Thankfully, for preservation's sake, the calanques require what many tourists lack: patience and energy. After getting directions from a gray-haired gas-station attendant, we parked the car near Port Miou, a slender fjord operating as a sailboat marina, and started the 90-minute trek. We weren't alone, but the solitude wasn't bothered. Viewing our calanque, En Vau, honestly made me forget about everything I'd experienced in France. The movie stars can have the Riviera. Odysseus would have anchored here.

"The movie stars can have the Riviera. Odysseus would have anchored here."

Looking back, we should have stilled ourselves in the crystal waters of Cassis. My gut was begging me to find a cheap room and just relax. But standing on En Vau's smooth stones put us a 10-hour drive from Charles de Gaulle, where we were to fly out the next afternoon. Back in Paris when all this began at the wine shop, Johan had handed us sage advice. Suivez vos sentiments. "Follow your feelings." Everything in me wanted those calanques, a mom-and-pop motel, some pan-seared octopus. Maybe the drive cracked the door, maybe this was why we lost our edge, maybe. Because we did. After living off the kindness and travel savvy of strangers for four days, we turned on our Wi-Fi. The risk of botching our last night in France consumed us like a storm cloud. A voice crept into our heads: There has to be some cobbly town just over those hills, some dreamy inn with complimentary Côtes du Rhône. Don't waste this.

"The risk of botching our last night in France consumed us like a storm cloud."

So instead of searching by back roads, I searched with Google. I found what I wanted in a town between Aix and Lyon. Pulling up to Vaison-la-Romaine, a picture-perfect Bronze Age hamlet on the northern edge of Provence; checking into La Fête en Provence, the exact boutique hotel you wish sold $110 rooms in every French village (Place Vieux Marché, 84110 Vaison-la-Romaine,, rooms from $106); buying cherries and watching the sunset—somehow, it all felt false. Some of that, unsurprisingly, came from simply breaking the five-day tradition. Holding fast makes for a better bar story. Some of the bummer also came from my Google choice: Vaison's old town was stone quiet after sundown, when we were in the mood for a clinking-glass cafe. But the main source of remorse, I decided, was that once I took the trip back into my own hands, I felt like I'd stepped back onto a metaphysical tour bus, tinted windows, American DVDs, and all. To put it bluntly, the decision I made myself brought along a slightly plastic, unreal feeling. Hollow even.

"Having zero plan is almost as valuable as speaking the language."

Don't get me wrong, my rebellion from all things guidebook didn't convert me. I do believe in scheduling the roof over your head, only because the Web allows for amazing in-home deals, especially in less populated regions. I'm also not against mapping driving routes to save time and toll costs. But what I learned with no reservations was that having zero plan is almost as valuable as speaking the language. The result is a feast of neighborly interactions, impromptu conversation, and hospitality just when you need it. Which, no matter where we travel, is always what we remember most.



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