Beach Getaways with HomeAway

Not sure where you live, but here in the Midwest we’re still stuck with the tail end of winter weather. Spring cannot come soon enough! With another month or so before it hits, an escape down south sounds amazing right about now. Spring break, anyone?

An ocean breeze, sunshine and cocktails are the perfect cure for the winter blues. Florida is always an easy choice for a beach getaway, since it’s just a quick flight away. I always need to be sure to bring my necessities when packing for a beach vacation. Sunnies, a cute tote and reading material are always in my bag. Here’s what I’d take on my trip:Home Away checklist

The bag’s all packed, but one of the most important parts is finding the right place to stay! City center for nightlife? Oceanfront condo for beach access? HomeAway helps travelers with their vaca with over 1 million listings to pick from. Miami to Tampa to Destin, they’ve got Florida rentals covered. The company also has prime properties in the Florida panhandle area for those looking to relive their college spring break days in places like Panama City. There’s plenty of rooms to choose from – everything from high rise condos to beachfront bungalows that can fit a whole family. How beautiful do these places look? Check out all their offerings at HomeAwayHome Away Home Away

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Christmas in Europe

‘Tis the season for holiday lights, carols and Christmas markets. Visiting Europe during the holidays has always been on my bucket list. Holiday markets and cities all lit up in lights are sure to get anyone in the holiday spirit. While I’d love to book a last minute trip to Europe, I don’t think it will happen this year. There’s always next year, right? Here are some of the places that do Christmas to the fullest.


One of my favorite cities seem to get even more amazing during December when Christmas lights glimmer and winter festivals pop up all over the city. There’s the hanging decorations above Oxford Street and ice skating under the London Eye, plus festive events at Southbank Centre and Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. London Christmas

Cologne, Germany

Germany knows how to celebrate the holidays, as Christmas markets can be found all over the country. Cologne has some of the best, with numerous markets where guests can get in the holiday spirit while sipping mulled wine and enjoying traditional German holiday treats. Alter Markt is set in front of the city’s Cologne Cathedral, making for a magical sight.

CologneStrasbourg, France

The Alsace region oozes charm any time of the year, but comes even more alive during the holidays. Strasbourg was reportedly the home of the first Christmas market in 1570, and today the Christkindelsmarik market is the largest in Europe.strasbourg

Brussels, Belgium

The famous Grand Place gets even more beautiful during the holidays when a huge tree lights up the plaza. Christmas markets and an ice skating rink in the center of town keep the festivities going. Stay at the elegant Dominican Hotel for an easy walk to all the action.

Brussels at Christmas


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Eating My Way Through Brussels

Grand Place

I don’t know about everyone else, but one of the many reasons I travel is for food. I just love food. I know there are others like me who love to try new things that you can’t find at home. I like to call it “foodie travel.” Plus we all know that one of the best ways to really experience a culture is through its cuisine.

So when I visited Belgium for the first time, I had to get my hands on all the culinary treats that the country is known for. Did I mention that I was pregnant during this trip? That meant I was hungry A LOT, and Brussels did not disappoint. Thankfully my friend Lindsay was with me to share in the fun and help me satisfy my cravings.

We arrived in Brussels in the late morning from Paris.  After settling into our hotel, the Dominican, we were ready for lunch. First item on our wish list? Waffles! When in Belgium, right?Belgian Waffles

Did you know there are two types of Belgian waffles? Yep. Liege waffles and Brussels waffles. If you want to expand your knowledge of waffles, check out this post about the differences. We passed lots of stalls serving fresh waffles covered in everything from fruit to chocolate to whipped cream. I’d have to say the best waffle I ate in all of Belgium was a chocolate covered one I picked up at Maison Dandoy.

Chocolate shops are everywhere you turn in Brussels. You’ll even see employees in the windows mixing the chocolate by hand. Wanting to continue on our sugar high, we stopped in just about every chocolate shop we passed. Milk chocolate, dark chocolate, chocolate covered pralines, cherries, caramels…you can find it all. Pierre Marcolini and Mary were some of my favorites.

brussels chocolate

We continued on our tour of Brussels, taking the afternoon to explore and shop. When dinner time rolled around, we headed to the Grand Place. The central square is lined with restaurants, all overlooking the historic buildings. Just about all the restaurants I saw offered one of my favorite dishes – moules frites.

Moules fritesAnother thing that’s a must for any Brussels visit? Belgian beer. Being pregnant and all, I stayed away from the alcoholic beverages and lived vicariously through Lindsay. Stores sell beer by the bottle that you can drink on the street, and there’s no shortage of breweries and bars to visit. We made a stop at the well known Delerium, which boasts over 2,000 types of beer.

beerWhile I had no shortage of fine foods during our short time in Brussels, I made sure to pick up some goodies to take home too. Check out my picks for the best brusselsfoodie items to take home from Belgium here.

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Hotel Review: The Fairmont Pittsburgh

As someone who loves to travel, I appreciate any excuse to do so, even for work. My job recently took me to Pittsburgh, which included a stay at the Fairmont. I’m a longtime fan of the Fairmont brand, having stayed at their hotels in Monte Carlo and Chicago, so I was excited to add one more to the list.

The Property: I immediately liked the clean, open lobby. It was full of modern furniture, with a lounge that made for a convenient spot cocktails. One of the things I loved about the hotel is that there was artwork everywhere you turned. I was told the sculptures and paintings are all from local artists, and there were even a few Warhol prints on hand. The hotel also has a resident canine ambassador named Edie that you can take on walks around the city. How fun is that?
Fairmont Lobby Hotel lobby

Accommodations: The room was what you would expect of a Fairmont – spacious and luxurious, with amenities like comfy robes, high-end bath products and a keurig machine. I was given a room on a higher floor, which offered great views of the downtown skyline and the river. Floor to ceiling windows and binoculars were a nice touch. I was pleasantly surprised with the bed. It was amazingly comfortable and made for a great night’s sleep.

Fairmont Pittsburgh pitt4 Fairmont Pittsburgh Bathroom Fairmont

Location: The downtown location meant lots of restaurants and bars were nearby. We discovered a great dim sum restaurant called Grit and Grace, and Market Square was a convenient 5 minute walk away for breakfast. We also took in a Pittsburgh Pirates game, which was a short jaunt just over the bridge.

PNC ParkThe staff could not have been nicer, and I’d say the hotel is great for business travelers or those visiting for a day to take in a ballgame. I noticed a mix of business travelers, families and even ran into the Atlanta Braves baseball team arriving for a series with the Pirates. Overall a perfect stay, and I would definitely come back if I find myself in Pittsburgh again.

We Have you stayed at a Fairmont? Which location was your favorite?

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5 Underrated Summer Vacation Spots

June is here, school is out, and people are taking to the skies and highways for summer vacation. There are the common spots that fill up with families and tourists, but if you want to avoid the crowds (and maybe even score a cheaper hotel in the process), check out these cities for your summer break.

1) Las VegasVegas

If you’re willing to put up with intense temperatures that can exceed 100 degrees, you can get hotels in Las Vegas for pretty cheap during July and August. You’ll be lounging by the pool or hanging out in the air conditioned casinos anyway, right? Make a road trip out of it and head to other desert attractions like Lake Mead or Red Rock Canyon.

2) New York CityWashington Square Park

Yes, it’s muggy and the city heat isn’t for everyone. But on the plus side, hotel prices decrease a little as the city’s residents head east to Long Island beaches on the weekend. Enjoy summer in Central Park and catch a nighttime breeze at one of city’s best rooftop bars.

3) Siesta Key, FloridaSiesta Key

Skip the craziness of Disney and South Florida and opt for the west coast of the state. Close to Tampa and Sarasota, Siesta Key brings warm gulf waters, beautiful beaches void of huge resorts and a more laid back vibe.

4) Charleston, South CarolinaCharleston

Many folks head to the Carolina coastal cities during the summer months, but don’t forget Charleston. This historical city offers great Southern food, museums, colonial architecture and tons of charm.

5) Flagstaff, ArizonaFlagstaff

Phoenix has great summer deals if you can stand the heat, but those looking for a break from the desert heat should try Flagstaff. A higher elevation means cooler temperatures, and visitors can take advantage of the town’s mountains, national parks and outdoor activities.


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Best Buys From Brussels 

One of my favorite things to do when traveling is visit local shops, stalls and boutiques. I love picking up local finds for myself and friends. Brussels was no exception, and I was able to score some cute (and tasty) gifts. Here’s a rundown of my best bets when visiting Brussels.

Chocolate: Belgian chocolate is known throughout the world as being some of the milkiest, creamiest chocolate goodness there is, so this was an obvious choice. You can even see it being made first hand in some of the shops across the city.chocolate


Lace: You’ll see a lot of small boutiques across the city selling handmade lace items. You can find everything from dresses, bonnets, pillows and doilies. Everything is beautifully done, and there’s sure to be something within your price range.

Waffles: Did you know there are two types of waffles in Belgium? I definitely had my fill of the larger Brussels waffles, which are covered with everything from bananas to chocolate and whipped cream. There’s also the smaller Liege waffle, which is  thicker and covered with an amazing layer of crystallized sugar. I picked up a few packages to take home from an adorable shop called Elisabeth near the Manneken Pis. (These traveled surprisingly well too, due to their crisp top later). You can even find chocolate covered varieties! Many come in cute ribbon-tied packages, making for some very yummy gifts.waffles

Local Beer & Mugs: Brussels is definitely a beer drinking culture. You can visit one of the city’s many beer stores, get a great recommendation on a local brew, then take it to go and drink it as you explore. How cool is that? Specialty local beers and their glasses make great souvenirs for any beer lover.Beer

Speculoos: These crunchy little cookies made from brown sugar and spices are seriously addictive! You can find all sorts of types in Brussels – classic, vanilla, even in a spread. Once home, I found that they go prefect my with my morning coffee. High end bakery Maison Dandoy sells them in beautiful packaging for easy gift giving.



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Checking Into the Dominican in Brussels

Hotel Dominican

I recently visited Brussels on the tail end of a trip that saw stops in London, Paris and Belgium. I had heard that Brussels was relatively small, and I was looking forward to having a low-key 24 hour visit before heading back home on an early morning flight. With limited time to explore the city, a centrally located hotel was a must. I came across the luxury Dominican through an online search, and its great reviews made it the obvious choice.

The Location

After taking a cab from the the train station, my friend and I were a little confused when our taxi driver dropped us off in an alley. (He explained that the street was closed to cars, and was thus unable to drop us off at the hotel’s entrance). After checking in and getting our bearings, we soon discovered that the property was actually very close to the first place we wanted to see, the Grand Place (or Grote Markt).  A short walk south took us past small streets filled with restaurants and bars, which filled up with lots of people come evening time. The Grand Place was a ten minute walk at most. The streets surrounding the Grand Place is where we ended up spending most of our time in the city, and it was nice to have it within walking distance. Not having to take the metro to get around was a welcome break after exhausting days navigating Paris and London. The convenient location also made it easy to stop back at the hotel for a mid-day break to freshen up before dinner.

Hotel's location

The Property

The hotel’s luxury could definitely be felt in the main lobby. Sleek furniture and elegant touches like mirrors, glass accents and flowers added to the overall glamour. The lobby and the rest of the first level are mostly open, which allows you to see the hotel’s lounges and seating areas. Being pressed for time, we were unfortunately unable to experience any of the dining options. We did notice lots of people having an evening cocktail in the lobby bar, and there was also a beautiful courtyard restaurant that looked like a wonderful place to have drinks or dinner.

Europe 2015 807flowers

Europe 2015 810 Europe 2015 811The Rooms

We stayed in a Deluxe room, which was cozy but had enough space to fit two people comfortably. The hotel’s underlying religious theme was present in the room, notably from the old church music that came from the TV speakers and within the carpet designs. My favorite part was the bathroom, which was sleek and modern. It had a masculine vibe, with black finishes and contemporary elements like a chrome hair dryer, not to mention an amazing shower.

Europe 2015 675 Europe 2015 677 Europe 2015 680

The Dominican really was the perfect hotel for a one day stay in the city. The greatest selling points of this property really are its location and lux features. The staff was also very friendly and accommodating. Rooms start at 140 euros a night, and more info can be found on their website.

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My Initial Thoughts About Punta Cana

Hello from Punta Cana! As I write this, I’m sitting on a lounge chair at the Melia Caribe Tropical Resort looking at the ocean. It’s my second day in the Dominican Republic. It’s also my first time here, and admittedly I not know what to expect. I’ve heard a lot of things about the Dominican Republic, good and bad, but here are my initial thoughts on Punta Cana.

Punta Cana

It’s Very Popular: With more flights serving Punta Cana, including our recently-started route on Southwest, our plane was filled to the max with couples, groups of girlfriends and families ready to start their vacation. Maybe I was just unaware of how popular it has become in recent years. With the amount of tourists I saw at the airport, it was obvious that it’s definitely become a huge tourist spot.

Every Resort is All Inclusive: …and you’ll never need to leave yours. Riding through town, you’ll pass mega resort after mega resort. I usually like to leave my hotel to explore local restaurants and nightlife, but everything I wanted was inside my resort. And since all the resorts offer all inclusive packages, all your meals, drinks and entertainment are included. If all you’re looking for is sun, sand, relaxation and good food, you’ll find everything you could ever need within your resort’s walls.

The Food is Awesome: One of the best parts about staying at an all inclusive resort is the amazing food. It’s a great opportunity to taste the best that the island has to offer, from fresh fruits to classic Dominican dishes like mofongo and sancocho.

Dominican Food

The Scenery and Weather Are Perfect: With blue water, perfect temperatures and tropical landscapes, I can see why people come here for vacation.


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A Lovely Stay in London

A friend and I planned a 2 day stay in London during a week long European vacation and were in need of a hotel . This was my second time in the city, but there was still a lot on the agenda. We planned to take in a few tourist attractions, but mostly wanted to get off the tourist track and explore London’s various neighborhoods. On a previous trip, I stayed near the Tower of London. While it was had a tube stop and was near the Thames, it offered few options for dining, shopping or entertainment. This time we chose Kensington for its location and neighborhood amenities. After a lot of online research, we decided to go with the Millennium Gloucester.


The area surrounding the hotel seemed mostly residential, but had ample restaurants, coffee shops and a few grocery stores. We were easily able to walk to a late dinner or pop into the Tesco across the street to pick up water or snacks. The Gloucester Road tube is less than a block away, and runs on the green and yellow line. This made for easy access to pretty much anywhere in central London. And if you’re like me and can’t resist the lure of a casino, there’s a small one around the corner.

The Room:

We arrived early in the morning from oversees and were lucky enough to have a room ready for us. We were kindly upgraded to a Club Room, which is located on the hotel’s Club Level. The room was the perfect size for two people and luggage, and somewhat large by London standards. 
Treat from the hotel

The Highlights:

One of the perks of our Club Level room was access to the hotel’s breakfast. It was located in a quaint room overlooking a charming South Kensington side street. The breakfast spread was pretty standard, with hot and cold items and fresh juices. An espresso machine made for a nice addition. Europe 2015 371
Complimentary wifi was also a plus (even though I think it should be standard these days!), and the front desk staff could not have been friendlier.

The Millennium Gloucester is located near the intersection of Gloucester and Courtfield Roads in Kensington. More information can be found on their website.


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Quick Tips for Visiting Paris

Courtesy of Wikicommons

Travel is definitely a learning experience. Over my last few visits to France, I’ve picked up a few pointers along the way. Before making a trip Paris, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Buy Your Tickets Online: Who wants to waste time waiting in line? Save time by purchasing tickets online before hand. This one applies to other cities too, but it’s a must in Paris, given the amount of visitors it sees every year. Major attractions like the Eiffel Tower may sell out weeks and sometimes even months in advance, so locking in tickets ahead of time is always a smart choice.

Skip the Metro: Sure, the Paris train system is efficient and economical. But instead of only using the metro to get around, try one of the city’s many hop-on, hop-off boats. They conveniently stop throughout the city AND offer amazing views. There are many tour operators offering everything from all day passes to dinners to champagne cruises. I recently used Batobus and at 16 euros a person, it’s an economical way to get around. I was a little disappointed that our boat was enclosed with windows, so opt for an open air one if you’d like to feel the breezes from the Seine.

Be Courteous: It may seem like a common courtesy, but it’s expected and highly valued in France to say bonjour or bonsoir when walking into a shop or entering a cafe. It seems to me that proper manners are valued more in Europe than in the United States. Even with my (very) minimal French, I’ve never had a negative experience in the city, and I think that has to do with the friendly greeting.

Be Prepared: In my experience, it seems as though very few taxi drivers in Paris speak English. You’ll want to be prepared when hopping in a taxi to go to your hotel, a certain restaurant or lesser-known street. Be prepared by having your hotel’s name and address printed out. Know what arrondissement you need to be in. Street signs will list the arrondissement, so keep your eyes open to confirm you’re going the right way.

Visit the Eiffel Tower at Night: The Eiffel Tower is a sight to behold at any time of the day, but at night it’s magical. Starting at sundown, the tower twinkles every hour on the hour. It’s truly the best time to take in Paris’ most famous attraction.

Don’t Pay for Water!: It’s common for restaurants to give tourists bottled water, often for exaggerated prices. I recently learned that there’s a law in France that requires restaurants to provide tap water to those who ask. Save yourself from paying for expensive bottles of Evian and ask for une carafe d’eau. 

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What to Pack for a Spring Trip to Europe

Spring TravelIn just a few short weeks, I’ll be jaunting off for a girls getaway to Europe. London, Paris and Brussels are on the itinerary, where the weather can be unpredictable. So what does one pack for a trip in April? Rainy, windy days and changing temperatures make these items packing necessities.

Umbrella: A full-cover umbrella in a cute pattern will come in handy when spring showers hit.

Infinity Scarf: This Lily Pulitzer scarf is not only great for the plane, and also if the weather gets a little chilly.

Trench Coat: A classic trench is the perfect lightweight jacket option for spring weather.

Rain Boots:  I learned from past experiences that wet feet make for a very unhappy traveler.  Bright Hunters are the stylish and practical solution.

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5 Foods to Try in the South of France

From Marseilles to Nice, it’s safe to say I’ve eaten my way across France. I learned that Southern France’s food culture is much different from that of Paris and the rest of the country. Beef bourguignon and macarons give way to seafood dishes and Provencal flavors. The area’s best recipes utilize fresh fruit and vegetables from local markets and Mediterranean ingredients. These are some of my favorites I’ve had along the way.

Nicoise Salad: Although you’ll find variations of this well known salad all over the world, the classic version can be found in Nice. This colorful recipe brings together tuna, eggs, olives, tomatoes, potatoes, French beans, lettuce and a vinaigrette dressing. The ingredients can also be found in sandwich form in its spinoff, pan bagnet.

Nicoise Salad
Socca: Every city has its street food, and socca is Nice’s. This pancake-like specialty is made from chickpea flour and served hot, and can be found throughout Nice. Socca
Provencal Honey: Provence produces some of the most high quality honey out there, flavored with unique items like chestnuts and lavender. It smells and tastes amazing, and also makes for adorable gifts.
Calissons: The town of Aix en Provence is known for its tiny candied fruits covered in icing. Made from almond paste, candied melon and orange peel, these candies can be found in every shop and market in Aix.
Bouillabaisse: No list would be complete without Southern France’s famous stew. It’s a flavorful fisherman’s stew flavored with herbs de Provence that has to be tried at least once.  Although attributed to Marseilles, but it can be found in towns all throughout Provence.
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Checking Into Barcelona’s Alexandra Hotel

This winter weather has me reminiscing of warmer days. Thinking back to this past summer takes me back to one of my favorite hotels I’ve stayed at in recent years, the Hotel Alexandra in Barcelona, Spain. Why is it one of my favorites? The hotel had everything one could want – roomy accommodations, modern amenities and a convenient location.

Hotel Alexandra balcony

Bathroom Hotel Alexandra

Location:  I always like to stay in the city center when visiting a big city. Part of the reason we chose this hotel was its location in the Eixample neighborhood. This area’s well connected by the metro, with the Diagonal and Passeig de Gracia stations a mere 5 minutes away. We were able to easily walk to landmarks like La Pedrera and Casa Batllo. The area is also home to busy streets full of cafes, shops and high end shopping.

Accommodations: The hotel’s modern vibe is noticeable when first entering the hotel. The lobby is full of sleek seating and houses a bar in the lounge area. We scored a room on the top floor, which made for nice views of the surrounding neighborhood. The room was pretty big by European standards, with one of the sexiest bathrooms I’ve ever seen. The shower was ah-mazing. The room opened up to a spacious patio that was the perfect place to start the day or unwind after hours of wandering the city. We were able to enjoy the warm night air and check out the lively rooftop bars across the way. And the best part? There was a full size BATHTUB on the terrace! Yes, a bathtub.

Perks: We were immediately greeted by the friendly staff when arriving. They were knowledgeable and extremely helpful, which was much appreciated since we were new to the city.  There was free wifi throughout the hotel and in our room – always valuable. The in-room Nespresso machine didn’t hurt either.

Overall I loved this hotel and would definitely recommend it. Given its location, beautiful accommodations and economical cost at under 200 euros a night, it’s worth a stay to anyone visiting Barcelona.


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NYC for Free

New York may be one of the most expensive cities in the world, but there are also plenty of things to see and places to visit for little or no cost. Here’s a roundup of the tricks and tips to help experience the city on the cheap.

Wander Through Central Park: Exploring the park on foot will cost you nothing, and is the perfect way to spend an afternoon. Check out the Conservatory Garden, lounge on the Great Lawn or people watch in Sheep Meadow.

central park

Ride the Staten Island Ferry: Sure, it’s far from glamorous. But there’s no easier (or cheaper) way to get picturesque views of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.

Take Advantage of Free Days: Many of the best museums and attractions in the city offer free admission on certain days. The Museum of Modern Art opens its doors for free for limited hours on Fridays. The 9/11 Memorial & Museum is free on Tuesdays, and the Bronx Zoo is open to the public at no cost on Wednesdays.

Walk the High Line or Brooklyn Bridge: It’s free to check out the High Line and take in a view of the Hudson River. If you’re feeling ambitious, walk the mile or so across the Brooklyn Bridge. Brooklyn Bridge

Bonus: While not entirely cost-free, certain museums do offer suggested admission prices, essentially allowing you to pay what you wish. You can find this option daily at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and at the Guggenheim and the Frick Collection during select hours. This is a nice perk for students, and I definitely took advantage of this when I was a broke 20-something living in the city.

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5 Reasons Why You Should Move to France

Ahh, France. Just the mention evokes thoughts of the beauty of Paris, the charm of Provence and the sunshine of the Cote d’azur. I have fond memories of the towns I’ve visited, its sights and its people. Here’s why I find it the idyllic place to live, and why you should too.

1. The Food: The French have a passion for food that shows. They appreciate the art of cooking and presentation and value quality meals. And you have to love everything that’s sold at local patisseries and boulangeries. Beyond that, do cheese, bread, crepes and wine really need an explanation?cheese

2. The Culture: There’s the art, architecture and the elegant language. There’s also something to be said about the often forgotten ways of proper manners and dressing well.

3. The Laid Back Lifestyle: Enjoying long, leisurely meals and seeing shops closed on Sundays are common. It’s the opposite of the hectic on-the-go days that are the norm in the US. Don’t forget about the 35 hour work week and generous vacation time.

4. The Scenery: Of course the architecture and monuments of Paris are a sight to see, but there’s much more. France really has it all – picturesque Mediterranean coastline, lavender and sunflower fields in Provence, châteaux in the Loire Valley and adorable villages in Alsace.provence

5. The Weather: Sure, maybe the weather’s not always so great in the north. However, the South of France boasts about 300 days of sunshine a year, and it’s always an easy train or plane ride away.Antibes


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