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A French affair: France’s best accommodation

We’ve explored all four corners of the world’s top destination to bring you the best places to stay, from Parisian pads with dizzying design flair and vintage trailers that have sprung up in the Pyrenees, to a luxury barge, floating wooden cabin and a transparent ‘bubble’ for two on a lakeside jetty

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France accommodation - Pic du Midi Observatory

Pic du Midi Observatory, Midi-Pyrénées, France. Image: Camille Espigat.

Southern France: Une Nuit au Sommet, Pic du Midi Observatory, Midi-Pyrénées

Mussorgsky’s ominous, otherworldly A Night on Bare Mountain played itself over and over in my head as I rode the cable-car up to the Pic du Midi — at one point traversing a sheer valley between two peaks. I’m no fan of heights, but this is the only way to reach what may very well be the most spectacular place to stay in all France — the working observatory perched at 9,438ft from which NASA scientists took detailed photographs of the moon’s surface in 1963 in preparation for the Apollo landings. Forcing myself to keep my eyes open — partly so I didn’t miss the cute marmots scuttling around the mountainsides — I told myself it’d all be worth it.

The site is home to Europe’s highest museum — with displays of astrological discoveries through the ages — and the sunsets are sublime. Plus, this part of the Midi-Pyrénées became Europe’s first International Dark Sky Reserve in December 2013, so on a clear night you’ll have glorious stargazing opportunities. For these reasons, I’m intent on making the most of the trip by staying the night. And with room for just 27 guests, book well ahead and be prepared for a cancellation, as adverse weather — strong winds, in particular — can mean it’s too unsafe to operate the gondolas.

After touring the museum and watching the sun go down — as the griffon vultures circle — from deckchairs on the 360-degree-view terraces (bring woollies, whatever the weather at sea level), day-visitors take the cable-car back down to La Mongie, leaving overnighters to relax over an aperitif followed by a gourmet meal of local produce and wines.

Enjoyable as this is, it fades into insignificance with what’s to come next — the chance to observe the night sky and peer into one of the moon’s craters through a 400mm Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope in the Charvin dome. This is part of an evening-long presentation that includes a talk on what we’d seen through the telescope, solar activity, how telescopes work, and the history of the observatory, which took 80 years to construct, using donkeys, starting in 1878. It’s helpful to have good French for this, as the astrophysicist/lecturer’s English was minimal — non-French-speaking guests get a small booklet to help them out but miss out on much of what’s said.

The observatory’s double and single rooms — also used by visiting researchers — are small and quite basic, with sinks and shared bathrooms, but with surprisingly fresh modern decor that wouldn’t look out of a place in a boutique hotel. With darkness fallen and lights out, you feel like you’re floating in a cabin in the sky, the stars achingly bright and clear around you, the valleys and peaks bathed in moonlight, and the terrestrial lights spread out below, twinkling alluringly from as far away as Barcelona. It’s the kind of view that makes me never want to close my eyes again, but I finally forced myself to bed down for the night — it was the only way I’d be able to wake in time to watch the sun rise again over the Pyrénées.

A Continental breakfast was followed by a tour of the rest of the scientific facilities. Given sufficient snowy conditions, advanced skiers can make the descent from the Pic du Midi to the ski resort of Tourmalet below. I’m not sure if that’s as scary as those vertiginous cable-cars, but back down on earth I realise I’d been right — it was worth spending a night on top of the world.

More info: From €299 (£237) per person in a single room, €399 (£317) for two people in a double room. picdumidi.com

What to do: Mountain bike, hike or snowshow into the glacial valley of the Cirque du Gavarnie; climb a frozen waterfall.


France accommodation - Les Cabanes d’Echologia

Les Cabanes d’Echologia, Pays de la Loire. Image: Cabanes d’Echologia.

Western France: Les Cabanes d’Echologia, Pays de la Loire

Not only does this site have a cabin on a lake, but there are prospector-style tents, tipis and a natural swimming pool. Prices include organic breakfasts and canoeing or archery tuition. If it’s full, the Domaine des Vaulx, in the same region, also has a floating cabin, plus a ‘bubble star’ inflatable tent and treehouses.

More info: Floating cabin for four from €189 (£150) a night. nuit-logement-insolite-nature.fr   domainedesvaulx.fr

What to do: Visit activity park Le Bois-Francs for treetop fun and horse riding.


France accommodation - Champervan's VW Westfalia


Eastern France: Champervan, Brioche, Rhône-Alpes

This five-person VW Westfalia campervan, based near Chamonix, has an original interior, a pop-top with a small double bed, a full-size double and a berth downstairs, plus basic cooking equipment and an outside table and chairs. Optional extras are bikes, bike rack, GPS and awning. Several national parks lie in range, plus the imposing Bauges Mountains.

More info: Two nights from £225. champervan.com

What to do: Camp by Lake Annecy and rent canoes.


France accommodation - Huttopia

Huttopia, Rambouillet.

Paris & around: Huttopia, Rambouillet

Fantastic for a countryside stay with easy access to Paris for day trips and sightseeing, this car-free site, situated in a forest, has a variety of interesting camping and glamping options, including wooden trailers, cabins, huts, Canadian-style tents, wood and canvas ‘trapper’ tents and Bonaventure cocoon tents. Pitches are also available, plus there’s a natural swimming pool and activities like fishing, table tennis, volleyball and pétanque. Another Huttopia site at nearby Versailles is handy for Paris.

More info: Bonaventure tent for two from €59 (£46) a night. huttopia.com

What to do: Explore the Espace Rambouillet wildlife reserve.

Read more in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)