Planning ahead

Written 14 April 2007

It's spring; let the planning begin!

A busy travel year this time around! I've never before had five itineraries lined up on my Delta Skymiles web page. I am, as I write, camped in the lobby of the Hadley, Massachusetts, Econo Lodge, in anticipation of niece Julia Fox's senior vocal recital at Amherst College this evening. But that's another story. My subject here is this coming summer's vacation trip to France. It'll be a short one this year—just two weeks—because this year's International Meiofauna Congress will be in Recife, Brazil, and will take up a week of my leave time. But that's another story, too (to be, in the fullness of time, the subject of a travel diary of its own).

It will also be different in that our young friend CJ, who by June will be a newly minted college graduate, will be coming with us. The original plan was for CJ to spend a couple of months traveling Europe this summer with her friends Rose and Melissa. They would start with England, then rendezvous with us for a while in France, then go on to Italy. But then Melissa got engaged, and Rose's budget suffered a setback, so in the end, after months of waffling, off-again-on-again planning, and whatnot, CJ's on her own. The plan now is for her to fly directly to Paris the same day we do and, after her two weeks with us, to fly on to Italy, where her mother will meet her (the outcome Mom was hoping for all along, I suspect, as she's been scheming to get back to Italy for years).

So, as is his wont in the February lull, David started studying maps and restaurant guides, and we settled on a visit to the north of France—World War I country. David has wanted to tour it for the history for a while, but the lure of more culinarily celebrated regions had drawn us away. This year, though, an additional attraction is that friends of ours from Tallahassee, a young French woman and her Indian husband, will be spending his sabbatical in Lille, near her parents (whom we've met when they visited the U.S.), and we'll have the chance to spend a day seeing Lille with them (and their new baby).

So David did his usual thing of opening the GaultMillau restaurant guide and studying the regional maps for the distribution of the good restaurants. Once he had settled on an itinerary and chosen likely-looking hotels (preferably the ones with highly rated restaurants right on the premises), he passed the list to me, and I did my usual thing—getting on the phone, fax, and e-mail to make reservations. I wasn't working as far in advance as usual, partly because I got started a little later but mostly because we're traveling earlier than usual. Therefore, rather to my surprise, some of the hotels were already booked up (and, in one puzzling case, where I couldn't seem to get in touch with a quite-famous restaurant, it turned out simply to have closed up shop, for good, three weeks earlier)! When that happens, I just toss the restaurant guide back to David and say "Pick another one," while I carry on reserving the rest. Even when the hotels were full, we were able to get reservations at the restaurants that had drawn us there to begin with.

The only real difficulties were the B&B that didn't take credit cards and the Restaurant Jules Verne. The first, Au Fou du Roy, in Fère-en-Tardenois, asked that we wire them a deposit of 77 euros. I accordingly e-mailed all their banking info (an impressive array of international account numbers, "swift" numbers, identification codes, and so on—they clearly did this all the time) to our banker. Because his assistant was adamant that these numbers were not sufficient (and was in doubt that "77" was correct; was that really all we wanted to send?), it took another e-mail exchange with the B&B proprietor to get the name of his bank and the name on his account. Once that was squared away, though, the money was transferred in a mere four days.

The Jules Verne is the restaurant on the second level of the Eiffel Tower. I'd always assumed it would be a tourist trap, but at least this year, Gault and Millau speak very highly of it, so we decided to give it a try. They don't take reservations by e-mail, so I called them up. In addition to really annoying background music, you get a phone tree that starts with "For English, press 1." I thought, what the heck, let's do this the easy way, so I chose English and listened through the recording. The translation and recording are very good; I would have believed that the speaker was British except for a couple of constructions like "The restaurant benefits of a private elevator . . . ." I learned from the recording that they only took reservations two months in advance, and because I was calling on 7 April, I was too early to book for Sunday, 10 June. So I did the simple math and made a note to call first thing on 11 April. I also thought better of opting for English, lest we be seated in the "American ghetto" section and be given badly translated English menus. So bright and early on 11 April (actually mid-day in France, since they're some hours ahead of us), I called 'em up and was told (in French) that they were booked solid for 10 June. Reservations opened on 10 April and were snapped up within the first six hours. Well, drat! Study the schedule, consult hastily with David, call them back, and I got reservations for Monday, 11 June. That meant ditching one of David's other choices (because it's not open on Sunday and couldn't be moved into the Jules Verne's old spot), so I tossed him the guide, and he's picking another.

So aside from that Sunday and Espadon (the restaurant in the Paris Ritz), which hasn't answered my e-mail, we're squared away. I think the highest-rated restaurant this year is a GM 16/20, but since that's quite a few points higher than anything Tallahassee has to offer, we're not complaining! It should be a blast, especially with CJ along for the ride.

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