Bordeaux, Brie, Dijon. Ever notice how the French countryside seems to be responsible for half the items in your pantry? While the lush, forested Loire Valley may not be known for any single edible import, it does have regal chateaux, trendy shops, and excellent cuisine galore.
From medieval security systems to sprawling lawns, the French nobility sure knew how to build a summer home. Château de Langeais has ramparts, a working drawbridge, and 10th-century-style scaffolding. At Château du Clos Lucé, look for the tunnel through which Leonardo da Vinci received visits from King Francis I and don’t miss the exhibit of the inventor’s futuristic contraptions. “Backyard” doesn’t cut it when describing the medicinal plants and flowering fruit vines in the kitchen gardens at Château de Valmer Vins & Jardins. The love garden at Château & Jardins de Villandry, named for its heart- and dagger-shaped hedges, has a nearby ice cream stand where you can sample its herby bounty in flavors like lemon-thyme and verbena-mint.
Just as fascinating as the Loire’s chateaux are the cold, dark caves from which limestone was quarried. Les Grottes Pétrifiantes is a spectacular catacomb where stunning bas-reliefs, tiny cameos, and intricate figurines are left for years to petrify in mineral-rich pools. You can buy one as a souvenir or just sample the rosé in the cave’s wine bar. Wander through Carrière de Vignemont (52 ter rue des Roches, Loches; +33-02-47-91-54-54), a three-mile-long, 98-foot-deep excavation with sleeping nooks carved by miners. When you’re ready to resurface, the hot-air pilots at BalloonRevolution will set you up with the ultimate aerial view.
Back at street level, spend a day at Puy du Fou, a kitschy medieval theme park where reenactors perform castle stormings, jousting matches, elaborate festivals, and parades in a meticulously recreated old-world village of foundries and woodshops. Musée Maurice Dufresne in Marnay has turn-of-the-century airplanes, turbines, looms, steam tractors, and guillotines. Cool!
For boutiques of a more modern flavor, head to Tours. A lot of French clothing chains have outposts here, but your shopping time will be best spent at high-concept design stores Atemporel (2 ter rue de Lucé; +33-02-47-61-39-39) and La Factory (24 rue de la Scellerie; +33-02-47-20-22-01).
Whether served in an elegant dining room or under the shade of a boysenberry tree, the Valley’s fresh, local fare is a standout. For a white-glove, two-Michelin-star experience, head to Domaine des Hauts de Loire, for John Dory, baby lamb, and sea urchin mousse served in its shell. Stumble upstairs to a room beset with flowery chintz fabrics, gnarled log rafters, and antiques. Break out the straw hats and nonessential footwear for lunch at L’Etape Gourmand. Located on a working farm, it’s the kind of place where you can eat a tomato salad while gazing on the vine from which it was picked. Visit the goats, rabbits, and chickens while awaiting your entree of veal sweetbreads or gnocchi with shavings of Emmental.
Take that, Chablis.