1. Barcelonnette, Provence
"It’s as delightful as it is surprising," says Anthony Peregrine. "At first sight, Barcelonnette is such an archetypal spot in the southern French Alps that you’d expect it to yodel. Come festival time (August), it is not yodelling you hear, but mariachi music. It’s as close as you can get to Mexico without leaving Europe, as in the 19th century, locals fled the valley to make their fortunes in Mexico, then returned, full of Latin ideas and cash."
2. Colmar, Alsace
Another of Anthony Peregrine's favourite spots. "It's among the best (and prettiest) bases from which to cover Alsace, especially now its famous Musée Unterlinden has re-opened," he says. "It lies at the hinge of the Vosges mountains and the Alsace Plain – the loveliest wine route in Europe, with stand-out villages like Eguisheim, Riquewihr and Obernai."
3. Le Grau-du-Roi, Languedoc
"There is a case to be made for isolated creeks, deserted beaches and dinky fishing villages unchanged in a millennium," says Frank Preston. "But there is a quite separate argument for letting rip with a full-tilt seaside holiday - ice-creams, blow-up dolphins, a bit of noise, a lot of activity and a happy hubbub in streets, cafés, and also when the sun goes down.
"This gives youngsters the impression that they've found a place where things are happening. And it can be rewarding for parents, too, to be among people with their sunny sides out. Such considerations lead you to Le Grau-du-Roi."
4. Grand Site des Deux Caps, Nord-Pas-de-Calais
"This was my big discovery last year," says Natasha Edwards. "At Wissant, between Boulogne and Calais, there is probably the largest stretch of unspoiled sandy beach that I’ve ever seen in France, plus rolling countryside, cow filled meadows, dunes, little ash woods, all dotted with concrete bunkers from the German Atlantic Wall and with a couple of more traditional resorts like Wimereux, close to Boulogne, nearby. Mention the name Calais and the UK press doesn't want to cover it, yet thousands of British pass right by here as they get off the ferry or out of Eurotunnel."
5. Beaujolais, Burgundy
"The most famous unknown bit of France," reckons Anthony Peregrine. "Famous for the wines, unknown because no-one goes there. Serious mistake. To the north of Lyon and west of the Rhône, it’s a grand land of hills, vineyards on near perpendicular slopes, fine little villages and much over-indulgence. Some of the villages – notably the 'golden stone' ones to the south of the region – would be standing room only, were they in Provence or Tuscany. But they aren’t."
6. Guéthary, Aquitaine
Frank Preston writes: "Arrive in Guéthary, and you know the holiday's going to have character. There is nothing vague or undefined about the French Atlantic coast as it bangs into Spain: this is Basque country. Cliffs, heathland and woods drop to beaches harder-won than the vast stretches of sand of the flat littoral zone to the north. The ocean rolls in over rocks, chucking surfers about like incompetent seals. Sea and sky are huge. The Mediterranean coast seems effete by comparison."
7. Figeac, Languedoc
"Without any doubt, the finest small town in France," according to Anthony Peregrine. "It's in the Lot department, brilliantly preserved but also lively, with good history (Champollion, the man who deciperhed Egyptian hieroglyphs, was a native), good river, good eating, a great sinuous centre. Use it as a base for exploring the Lot and Célé valleys, the Pech Merle cave paintings and Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, HQ of surrealists."
Of the Lot, Nicola Williams writes: "Right next door to the Dordogne (Périgord) it's the perfect snapshot of La Belle France: Gorgeous little villages, markets, excellent food, the ancient hilltop pilgrimage site of Rocamadour, great farms where you can taste and buy the local cheese, and some excellent and highly atmospheric accommodation starting with fairytale castle, Château de la Treyne."
8. Portbail, Normandy
"In high summer, and on market day (Tuesday), Portbail fills up with day trippers, but the rest of the time, you may have the place to yourself," says Greg Ward. "Short walks from the town, at the mouth of the Ollonde river, lead to two pleasant beaches, backed by grassy dunes. Come at high tide and you can venture into the water; at low tide, when the sea all but disappears below the horizon, you’ll just have roll up your trousers and go hunting for shellfish."
9. Puy de Dôme, Auvergne
The name of both a dormant volcano (with new-ish rack’n’pinion train to the top) and the county around it, one of the loveliest stretches of the Auvergne, which features splendid uplands, lakes, churches, old-fashioned villages, and the startlingly good Vulcania volcano theme park.
10. Lozère, Languedoc
"La France profonde at its deepest – and highest," says Anthony Peregrine. "At southern end of Massif Central, the county has highest mean altitude of any in the country. There are glorious uplands with no-one about, bar a few peasants, a real here-I-am, here-I-stand landscape, which includes the Cévennes hills and Causses limestone plateaus, plus the fabulous Tarn gorges. I simply can’t tell you how much I like this little region."
The Tarn gorge Credit: AP/FOTOLIA
11. Cancale, Brittany
Greg Ward writes: "Ten miles east of St-Malo, the little port of Cancale has been famed for centuries for ostreiculture – cultivating oysters on terraces flooded and flushed by the tide. The tides here at the western tip of Mont-St-Michel Bay – yes, the namesake abbey stands silhouetted on the horizon – are among the largest in the world, leaving scores of fishing boats stranded on the silty seabed. Just above, superb seafood restaurants jostle shoulder-to-shoulder along the quayside, so despite the summer crowds you’re sure of getting a good meal. Walk it off afterwards with a bracing hike to the dramatic Pointe du Grouin."
12. Pays d’Auge, Normandy
"Home of calvados, camembert, horse-raising [sic], half-timbered villages and a rich, green, double cream countryside which evokes slight memories of an Englishness now gone," says Anthony Peregrine.
13. Valence, Rhône-Alpes
Another of Anthony Peregrine's picks. "It's an unsung spot in the Rhône valley with an unexpected wealth of fabulous restaurants, including Maison Pic, with its three Michelin stars," he says. "It's perfect for exploring the equally unsung Drôme department, which is Provence-lite: all the beauty, better mountains (Vercors massif), fabulous lavender, but sans the crowds."
14. Île de Batz, Brittany
"There's something about driving off a cross-Channel ferry on a sunny French morning that makes you want to head straight on south for the rest of the day," writes Greg Ward. "Do that at Roscoff, though, and you've missed a holiday under your very nose: the Île de Batz, and the wonderful Grève Blanche beach stretching along its east-facing shoreline."
15. Lens, Nord-Pas-de-Calais
One of France's most overlooked cities, according to Anthony Peregrine. "It's an ex-mining town whose charmlessness is itself charming," he says. "Now equipped with the brilliant Louvre-Lens museum (the Louvre’s branch office), and also handy for many Great War sites of particular relevance in this centenrary year of the Battle of the Somme."
16. Trémolat, Dordogne
"A tiny but perfect gold-stone village in the lower Dordogne Valley, ideal for lounging and long lazy walks in the French countryside, gourmet dining and seasonal truffle hunts," says Nicola Williams. "Le Vieux Logis can organise everything from trips to the local market to buy truffles, to hunting for truffles with a local truffle hunter and his dog."
Calanques National Park Credit: AP/FOTOLIA
17. Calanques National Park, Provence
An expanse of amazing limestone cliffs and hiking routes just south-west of Marseille. "It's utterly spectacular," says Chris Leadbeater. "I reckon I'm the only Briton who's ever been there."
18. Chateau de Flaugergues, near Montpellier, Languedoc
"Within easy driving (and bus) distance of Montpellier, is a sublime 17th-century house filled with paintings and tapestries, surrounded by botanical gardens with an orangerie, giant sequoia trees and a bamboo grove," says Andrew Purvis. "It's an aristocrat's countryhouse, still owned and run by Count Henri Colbert and his family. There were only half a dozen visitors when I was there in August, all French. You can taste and buy the estate's Coteaux du Languedoc wines, and there's a good restaurant."
19. Loir valley, Pays de la Loire
Anthony Peregrine writes: "Confusing, no? The Loire is the big, grand one. The Loir is its tributary running roughly parallel to the north, before ducking down to join up around Angers. It is both more discreet and a lot more charming than its featureless big sister. Quite arbitrarily, I'm taking the valley to start at Vendôme - where the Loir has come off the prairies to steeper-sided settings. In town, it splits into dinky little channels, criss-crossing alongside lovely old buildings and gardens, walkways and trees.
"Farther on, the valley chalk cliff walls close in to such an extent that, until relatively recently, locals built their houses and villages into the rock face. The most impressive can be visited in Trôo. There are châteaux here, too (notably, Le Lude), churches with magnificent frescoes (Bazouges) and leisure lakes for the incurably active. But the real Loir Valley experience is to wander from village to small town, beside curving river, field, rock and woodland - feeling that few have been this way before. Of course, lots have, but it doesn't feel like it. Stop at Château-du-Loir and La Flèche - where the Loir meanders up to quays and castle - and, by the time you arrive at the Loire, you'll be tempted to come straight back again."
20. The Basque villages
"I adore the French Pays Basque," says Natasha Edwards. "The main resorts for architectural heritage, restaurants and surfing are of course Biarritz and St-Jean-de-Luz, but I particularly like the inland villages like Sare, Ainhoa, Espelette and Ascain, with their beautiful galleried churches and pelota courts, countryside with giant oxblood farmhouses, Pyrenean cross-border smugglers’ trails and mountain-top venta shops."