Planning Ahead

Written 3/24/06

March is vacation-planning month.

First, we rough out the times: This year's travel is centered on the week-long deep-sea meetings in Southampton, U.K. (second week of July), and a two-day planning meeting in Paris (for a different purpose entirely) that immediately precedes it. Rather than spend the time and trouble to cross the channel twice, we therefore decided to do our two-week vacation in France first, then to spend a few days in Paris for the short meeting, then to move to Southampton for the deep-sea meetings, and finally to stay a few days afterward in the U.K., perhaps to travel with friends.

Then we choose our destination in France. David usually has a hypothesis, which usually coincides with mine, since we're more or less working our away counterclockwise around France, region by region. This year, he proposed two—the next area counterclockwise and an unprecedented proposal to proceed clockwise from the point where our progress joined the western coast, many years ago. Both were tempting, but I had been looking forward to arriving, after not too many years, at Biarritz, where my maternal grandparents were married in 1918, in the aftermath of WWI, so we settled on the first: visiting the extreme southwest corner of Franc—the Basque coast and the area around Biarritz, Bayonne, and inland to Pau.

Then David plots a route. He more or less opens the GaultMillau restaurant guide to the appropriate regional map, on which the locations of all the highest-ranked restaurants are plotted, and plays connect the dots. That process results in a calendar of our travels, on which he has written in the name of the hotel, the name of the restaurant, and any relevant travel on each day.

The next step is my job. While David makes the plane reservations and has our travel agent arrange any rental car and train tickets, I set out to make all the hotel and restaurant reservations. Yes, we make them in March, even when our trip is scheduled for August, because many of the establishments, especially the higher-ranked restaurants, are often booked solid several months in advance. I set up a checklist that gives, for each establishment, all its contact info and what I need to reserve (two nights starting on 6/21/06, say, or 8:00 p.m. dinner for two at a nonsmoking table). The process of contacting all these places&Mdash;this year, just six hotels (because those for Southampton and Paris are already taken care of) and nine restaurants--has gotten much easier over the years with the advent of e-mail and on-line reservation pages. This year, only one restaurant had no e-mail address, so I sent them a fax (which I can do directly from my computer). No answer yet, but I hope they'll reply by e-mail (they do have a website, so they ought to have e-mail).

E-mail really speeds things up. I had responses from the majority of the hotels and some of the restaurants the next morning (I tend to send my messages at about 1 a.m., French time). Some always want confirmation, so I fax them my credit card number or make note on my checklist that they want a phone call 24 hours before.

The replies range from "Thanks very much; see you then" to elegant and flowery six paragragraph encomiums to our great kindness in thinking of them, repeated assurance their desperate desire to ensure that we have a pleasant stay, and listings of the many, many optional services they can provide. In general, the more pretentious the establishment, the flowerier the language.

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