Your Vacation in Lights

A One-Horsepower Tour of Provence

The village of Saignon provided water for the horses, coffee for the riders.
The village of Saignon provided water for the horses, coffee for the riders. (Provided By Joseph W. Mckinney)

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Joseph W. McKinney of Brandy Station, Va., is the latest contributor to our "Your Vacation in Lights" feature, in which we invite Travel section readers to share the dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. Your hot tip could be the next guy's daymaker; your rip-off restaurant, the next family's near miss. To file your own trip report -- and become eligible to win a digital camera -- see the fine print below.

THE TRIP: An inn-to-inn horseback ride through Provence, France.

WHO: My wife, Rose, and I, both avid riders.

WHEN: March.

WHY: We received an e-mail from Cross Country International (800-828-8768, http://www.equestrianvacations.com) offering a two-for-one discount on horseback riding vacations. We decided to go before we get too old for such strenuous activity. (I am 59; Rose is 55.)

COST: For the two of us, we spent about $2,400 on airfare to Paris and first-class tickets on the high-speed train between Paris and Aix-en-Provence; $263 on one night's lodging in Aix; and $2,294 for CCI's "Perched Villages of Provence" trip, which included meals and lodging for five days, horses, guides and more.

SADDLING UP: At the Mas de Recaute equestrian center, we took a two-hour get-acquainted ride with our horses. The next morning, we hit the trail for a four-day ride -- a total of about 25 hours in the saddle -- through the Luberon region. We rode in two flights of eight riders each. The equestrian center moved our bags by van to each night's stop.

LANDSCAPE UNDERHOOF: We rode through mountains, forests, vineyards and lavender fields. Our route took us past ocher cliffs, down the streets of medieval villages and along ancient Roman roads.

THE HORSES: The horses were well-mannered, sure-footed and fit, but, naturally, some had quirks. My horse, a gelding named Loustic, would occasionally kick at another horse, so I was relegated to the back. Rose's mare, Eureka, was unhappy if she was not in the front, so Rose and I didn't have much opportunity to chat on the trail.

EQUINE PEOPLE: Over the years, we've found that horse people enjoy a good time, and that was certainly true in Provence. The group was great. They came from Canada, Bermuda, Michigan, the West Coast and New England. In addition to us, there were two other married couples, three mother-daughter duos and two pairs of friends. We keep in touch via e-mail.

MOST PLEASANT SURPRISE: Rose and I usually don't linger over meals, but it was easy to spend three hours each night enjoying the family-style dinners. In addition to salad, cheeses and dessert, each meal featured a main course of classic French country cooking. Rose discovered an affinity for fresh goat cheese, and I learned that sauces and tarts taste much better when made with real cream and butter.

WE KNEW THE TRIP WAS WORTH IT WHEN . . . after about three hours of riding one day, we reached the top of Petit Luberon, a prominent ridge along the Mediterranean. A hearty picnic set in a cedar forest awaited us. Basking in the sun with full stomachs, drinking pastis (a local specialty of anise liquor mixed with ice water), enjoying a magnificent view -- life doesn't get much better.

MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT: After one lunch, Rose's horse broke loose and galloped away up the road. Our wallets -- with all of our money and credit cards -- were in the mare's saddlebag. Fortunately, a guide caught the wayward horse after it joined her flight, about a mile ahead.

ARE WE ALMOST THERE? After we had been more than seven hours in the saddle, the sun began to set, the temperature dropped and the region's famous mistral wind started blowing. No one had any regrets when that day's ride came to an end.

GO WHERE? There were no public toilets or porta-potties on the trail. At halts, our guide, Pascal, would ask in his French accent, "Does anyone have to pee?" With all the coffee we drank at breakfast and the wine at lunch, most riders did have the urge. The drill was to dismount, hand your horse's reins to another rider and head for the nearest tree. Pascal usually stopped in secluded areas, but we still had to watch for hikers.

GIDDYUP AGAIN: We intend to book another inn-to-inn ride, maybe next year in Tuscany.

* * *

Want to see your own vacation in lights? We'll highlight one report on the last Sunday of the month. To enter, use the categories above as a guide (use as many as you wish or add your own; for a list, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/vacationinlights) and send your report to Your Vacation in Lights, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071; or e-mail vacationinlights@washpost.com.

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