I AM THE sort of disciplined, organized fellow who tries to plan everything so far in advance that I am the perpetual despair of close friends who believe in the ineffable charm of spontaneaity. I am particularly obsessed with planning far in advance when it comes to the vacation my wife and I take to Europe each summer. I began planning our 1982 vacation, for example, in the middle of our 1981 vacation. We were in southwest France at the time -- at Michel Guerard, a three-star restaurant and resort spa in Eugenie-les-Bains, about 65 miles from the Spanish border--and I was passing the final moments of a rainy afternoon glancing at a map of France, looking for some of our future stops.
The more I studied the map, the more I realized how little of France we had seen, despite having visited different parts of the country for two to four weeks for each of the four previous years.
"How about spending five weeks just in France next year?" I asked my wife.
When she nodded her enthusiastic assent, I quickly took to my various regional maps and sightseeing and hotel and restaurant guides. In previous years, we had visited Normandie, Brittany, the Loire Valley, Burgundy, Provence, Alsace and the Riviera. But we'd never been to the central areas of France--Auvergne, Dordogne, Limousin, Perigord--nor to the industrial North.
Since eating well is always my first priority in France, I immediately took out my Guide Michelin and Gault Millau--the two French national dining guides--and made a list of the best restaurants in those areas. Then I began trying to find nearby hotels and other sites--cathedrals, chateaux, ruins, charming villages, forests, lakes, mountain ranges, caves. For the next week of our vacation, whenever I had a spare moment, I hauled out my maps and guides and added to and refined my list.
By the time we left for home, I had a tentative itinerary for our next vacation all written out. But that was just the beginning of my planning.
We had decided to take a week-long barge cruise as part of our 1982 vacation, so a month after we returned home from the 1981 vacation, I began writing to barge companies for information and rates. I figured there were probably just a few barge companies, all with fairly identical itineraries. Choosing the one that most appealed to us would, I thought, be a relatively simple matter.
There are almost a dozen companies, and one alone has 10 different itineraries. From August to October, I corresponded with all these companies, filing and categorizing their replies and making large charts listing all the various alternatives--dates, routes, prices, number of passengers, sleeping arrangements, quality of accommodations. All the while, I was refining further my list of hotels and restaurants for the rest of the trip, based on conversations with other travelers and on my own reading, and I was beginning to make inquiries about the cheapest air fares and car rental rates.
About the time I settled on a specific barge cruise--in mid-November--I also made my airplane reservations and began writing to hotels in France. We wouldn't be leaving until early June, but by early December, mail from France was beginning to arrive in my mailbox on an almost daily basis.
What fun. My summer vacation had become a year-round diversion. Also, since I speak and write a little French, I was writing my letters in French, and this gave me an opportunity to practice the language a bit each night when I translated the various replies I received.
By mid-January, I had sent more than 60 letters to France, I had reserved my rental car and I was eagerly awaiting publication of the 1982 French dining guides so I could be certain that none of the restaurants I had already selected had drifted into complacency and mediocrity. I also wanted to know if there were any new--or newly recognized--restaurants that I should adapt my itinerary to include.
I received my copy of the 1982 Gault Millau in early February and, sure enough, one restaurant/hotel we'd planned to stay at for three days had been severely downgraded. I immediately switched to another, nearby. More seriously, the guide had given its top rating to a restaurant in Nice--Le Chantecler. We'd been to Nice in 1980, but we hadn't eaten at Le Chantecler and we had no plans to be anywhere near Nice in 1982. I got out my maps and did some quick calculations. To eat at Le Chantecler, I figured, we would have to drive 443 miles out of our way.
Should we do it? Or should we leave it for some future trip?
I decided to wait until the Guide Michelin was published in mid-March. In 1981, Michelin had given its top three-star rating to 21 restaurants, and we were proud of having eaten in every one of them between 1978 and 1981. If Michelin gave Le Chantecler three stars, I decided we'd drive the extra 443 miles to eat there--for the pleasure of the dinner and also to keep our three-star record perfect. Otherwise, we'd wait until we were next near Nice.
March 5, 1982. Michelin announces its new ratings. Three-star restaurants? The exact same 21 as in 1981. No new winners--not even Le Chantecler. What a relief. Now I could safely begin the truly serious part of planning our vacation: writing to every restaurant we would eat in every night we would be in France. Most restaurants we'd visit just once; some we'd eat in two or three times. I wanted to make reservations at all of them. Two or three months in advance.
Is that really necessary? No. A few days in advance is sufficient for most of the best restaurants. But I am not the sort of fellow who likes to leave anything to chance--or, worse, to the last minute. I even type out, before leaving on vacation, address labels for all the post cards I will send to friends and family back home. and to avoid any potential problems with lost luggage, I carry all my luggage on board with me--and mail ahead, to my first stop, all my maps and guidebooks. Besides, I like to have written confirmations on all my reservations. So I wrote to 29 restaurants, making dinner reservations and asking for written confirmation. (Astonishingly, two of the better-known restaurants said they were all booked up, three months in advance, for the nights I wanted. So I shifted nights and began another round of letter-writing.)
Friends enjoy kidding me about my planned vacations. They say I leave no room for spontaneity and relaxation. They're wrong. I can relax on vacation precisely because I've planned, reserved and confirmed everything. There's nothing to worry about. And there's plenty of room for spontaneity every day. I only make airplane, rental car, hotel and restaurant servations in advance; I leave all our day-time sightseeing decisions until breakfast each day of the actual trip. That's when my wife and I discuss and decide which museums and chateaux and cathedrals to visit or which scenic drives to take.
Moreover, making hotel and restaurant reservations in advance doesn't irrevocably commit me. I can always change my mind if I learn something new or don't like what I see when I arrive.
Last year, for example, we left two different hotels earlier than expected, arrived at another a day early and stayed at a fourth we hadn't planned on going to at all. Every year, we cancel a restaurant reservation or two along the way as well. But by carefully selecting our hotels and restaurants and by making our reservations well in advance--and by insisting on written confirmation of everything--we greatly minimize the possibility of disappointment and of the difficulties that often arise when traveling. We know we will have a nice, clean place to sleep every night. We know we will have a toilet and a shower in our hotel room. We know we have a very good chance of having a splendid dinner every night. (Once, at the celebrated Tour d'Argent in Paris, the maitre d' tried to turn us away because, he said, we didn't have a reservation. Whereupon I whipped out of my inside coat pocket the restaurant's confirmation of our reservation. The maitre d' apologized and took us to our table.)
So how did all my meticulous planning turn out in 1982? Wonderfully. As usual. Several proprietors and concierges even made mention, with obvious pleasure, of my having written so far in advance. The chef-owner of one restaurant was so delighted that I had done so, from so far away, that he insisted on meeting us after dinner for a drink and a chat. When he learned that one of our next stops would be a restaurant in which he had apprenticed, he eagerly wrote out a note of introduction to the chef-owner there. In another restaurant, the chef-owner was so pleased to see us that he got up early the morning after our dinner to come to our hotel and help guide us out of town.
About the only problem we had on our trip was one we couldn't have anticipated; the weather became unbearably (and unprecedentedly) hot during the final two weeks of our stay in France. Since most provincial hotels are not air-conditioned, we did a lot of sweating and a lot of grumbling--and drank a lot of ice-cold Perrier.
Maybe next year, I should write in advance to weather forecasters--and to clairvoyants--as well as to restaurants and hotels.