Couple plans to tour Paris, then cycle through nearby parts of France

By K.C. Summers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 27, 2010

Who: Carol Abrams, 45, and Steve Orlovitz, 49, of Alexandria

Where: Paris and the surrounding countryside

Why: 50th birthday present for Steve

When: April/May 2011 for 10 days

Budget: $6,000

"We want a romantic, active trip. We hope to soak up the neighborhoods in Paris along with the culture. Then we'd like to rent bicycles, hike and see the beauty and age-old history of the countryside."

One of the smartest things I ever did was fly to Paris for my 50th birthday. For three glorious days, I feasted on steak au poivre and Berthillon ice cream, spent approximately four times my shopping budget, perfected the art of tossing my scarf over my shoulder, and totally managed to ignore the fact that I was a half-century old. I recommend it.

Carol Abrams and Steve Orlovitz of Alexandria are even smarter, since they're planning on spending 10 whole days in and around the City of Light to celebrate Steve's 50th. In addition to exploring the capital -- it's Steve's first visit -- they'll have time to take some day trips and to tour the countryside via bicycle, their preferred mode of transportation.

Getting there: It's hard to predict with any certainty what airfares from Washington to Paris will look like a year from now, but it's probably safe to say they won't be any cheaper. As always, sign up for fare alerts from a site such as Smarter Travel (http://www.smartertravel.com) or Airfarewatchdog (http://www.airfarewatchdog.com) and watch the sales. For planning purposes, though, figure on spending $950 each round trip -- $100 less if you travel in April rather than May. Just remember that April in Paris -- despite the song -- can be pretty darn cold.

Where to stay: For small-scale charm in lively and historic surroundings, stay on the Left Bank in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres area.

Splurge for a couple of nights on a boutique charmer such as the Hotel de l'Abbaye Saint-Germain (10 Rue Cassette, 011-331-45-44-38-11, http://www.hotel-abbayeparis.com; rates from $290 per night double) or opt for something more affordable, such as the equally well-located Hotel Abbatial Saint Germain (46 Boulevard Saint Germain, 011-331-46-34-02-12, http://www.hotelabbatialsaintgermain.com; from $146).

Other options: a short-term apartment rental from a company such as Citadines (011-338-25-33-33-32, http://www.citadines.com; rates from $170) or an urban B&B (try Good Morning Paris, 011-331-47-07-28-29, http://www.goodmorningparis.fr; from $83).

What to do: Any good guidebook will list the must-do's on a first trip to Paris, but let me just say that the stained-glass windows of Sainte Chapelle, the sculpture garden of the Rodin Museum and the gorgeous Jardin du Luxembourg are a lovely way to start out. And sure, it's touristy, but have a glass of wine at Les Deux Magots, Cafe de Flore or La Coupole, where Hemingway, Picasso, Josephine Baker and other characters hung out.

Then, pick a neighborhood -- the Marais, Montmartre, Montparnasse -- and make your own discoveries. Wander at will, join a guided walking tour or take a self-guided tour (Frommer's has a good selection at http://www.frommers.com/destinations/paris).

Paris Walks is recommended by the Paris tourism office and offers daily tours in English, including "Hemingway's Paris" and a chocolate-themed romp. Most walks last about two hours and cost about $14 per person. Info: 011-331-48-09-21-40, http://www.paris-walks.com.

By the way, if you think you'll hit a lot of museums, consider buying a Paris Museum Pass, which gets you into more than 60 places in and around the city. Depending on how many you visit, you can save some money (a two-day pass costs about $39 per person, a four-day $58 and a six-day $77), and you get to skip the (usually long) entry lines. Buy the pass online before you leave the United States, or at major museums after you arrive. Info: http://en.parismuseumpass.com.

Biking in the city: With the city's Velib system (http://www.velib.paris.fr), you can borrow one of the sturdy government-owned bikes that are strategically placed around town. Sounds simple -- you swipe your credit card at a kiosk, unlock a bike and, when you're done, leave it at any station in the city -- but many U.S. visitors have reported that their American credit cards don't work because they don't have the proper chip. Might be easier to rent from a commercial agent such as Fat Tire Bike Tours, which also offers guided tours. Rentals are $5 an hour, $30 for 24 hours and $120 for a week (866-614-6218, http://fattirebiketours.com/paris).

Biking in the country: Get warmed up with a day trip to Versailles, says Katherine Johnstone of the French Government Tourist Office (http://www.franceguide.com). It's one of her favorite things to do when she wants to get out of the city: Take the RER-C line to the Versailles-Rive Gauche station (30 minutes, about $7 round trip), rent a bike near the palace's Grand Canal (about $7 an hour) and cycle through the woods and parks (not the palace garden!). Or join one of the many guided bike tours that leave from Paris. Fat Tire's Versailles tour is $85 per person and takes about eight hours total.

For a longer option, Johnstone raves about biking the Loire Valley on the 500-mile Loire a Velo, a system of bike paths, tracks and little-used roads that take you past the region's famous chateaux, through small towns and villages, all the way to the Atlantic coast.

"There are stores and hotels along the way," she said. "It's really easy, flat and paved mostly, no scary highways." Bike as many sections of the trail as you like, and stay at campsites, B&Bs, hotels or furnished apartments. Download maps, lists of accommodations, brochures and more at http://www.loireavelo.fr.

Find more ideas for bike trips at http://www.mayq.com, a lovingly detailed site by one Q. May that has info on how to cycle in and out of Paris safely, French bike types and repair vocabulary, and recommended bike routes and tours from central Paris into the countryside.

Cost: Airfare will run about $1,900 and lodging from about $1,500, leaving $2,600 for food, bike rentals or tours, and incidentals.

Definitely doable.

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