YOU’LL KNOW WHAT the French mean by la douceur de vivre (the sweetness of living) after spending time (with your sweetie) in Southwest France, where the wine is spectacular, the countryside is lush, the hilltop medieval towns are postcard-perfect, the country cooking is rib-stickingly delicious — and the sparkling city of Bordeaux is just like Paris, if you squint.
BY DAY: Make Bordeaux your home base for exploring the region. Two rivers flow out of the city: the Dordogne, heading east, and the Garonne, southeast. Rent a car, and follow a river; both are flanked by well-preserved medieval villages (bastides) that host excellent weekend markets. Sarlat, about two hours east of the city, is a good pick for local delicacies like goat cheese, foie gras and, of course, wine. Along the Dordogne, there’s Château des Milandes, where Joséphine Baker, the American entertainer, lived mid-20th century. It’s now a museum complete with over-the-top Art Deco bathrooms. Visit a wine château (a.k.a. a vineyard) or two around the village of Saint-Émilion. Just outside Bordeaux, the town is home base for the area’s most prestigious vineyards. In the city of Bordeaux, get lost in Saint-Pierre, the oldest district, where tiny, winding streets are lined with boutiques and open unexpectedly onto intimate squares ringed with lively cafes. Make sure to stop at Karl’s on Place Parlement for coffee and a canelé.
BY NIGHT: Near sunset, ride a hot-air balloon high over Dordogne’s rolling hills and winding river, and get a bird’s-eye view of the area’s many castles. In the city of Bordeaux, see an opera at the Grand Théatre. Afterward, cuddle up and toast your ’moon with some of that French wine opposite the Place de la Comedie at the Regent Grand, a hotel recently refurbished by French design guru Jacques Garcia, who took inspiration from the Grand Théatre. Then, walk hand-in-hand to the riverside to check out Miroir d’Eau, a twinkling reflecting pool that periodically sprays curtains of mist for dramatic effect.
WHAT TO EAT: La Maison sur la Place, in the tiny village of Penne d’Agenais, about two hours southeast of Bordeaux, has romantic touches like drippy candles and rococo picture frames. The menu features a section called “the duck in all its states” with eight preparations, from confit to a salad made with foie gras, smoked duck breast and figs. Le Bistrot d’en Face in Tremolat, close to Sarlat, is a cozy spot with blue gingham tablecloths; specialties include omelettes aux cépes, made with cépe mushrooms foraged nearby. In Bordeaux, dine finely at Le Pressoir d’Argent at the Regent Grand Hotel. Choose from seafood dishes like red tuna served with foie gras in a coconut emulsion spiked with truffles, and several incarnations of Bréton lobster, prepared tableside.
WHERE TO STAY: Foodies should book a culinary adventure at Kate Hill’s Kitchen at Camont, near Penne d’Agenais. Accommodations are in a charming 18th-century farmhouse. Charming is also the mot juste for two countryside B&Bs, Le Château des Baudry and Château du Rayet. If your aim is to feel like you’re visiting your aristocratic French friends, stay at Hotel Le Vieux Logis in Tremolat. The property has impeccable grounds and a Michelin-starred restaurant. In the city of Bordeaux, there’s the newly renovated Regent Grand Hotel Bordeaux. A modern alternative is Seeko’o Hotel, clad entirely in white Corian, a short tram-ride from city center.
WHAT TO PACK: The weather is temperate year-round, so layers are the way to go, since evenings can be chilly even in summer. Bring proper attire (think a cocktail dress) for the opera in Bordeaux.
BEST TIMES TO GO: The summer days are lovely and long — in June and July, the sun doesn’t set until 10-ish — and the region is lively with French vacationers from mid-July through August. Spring and fall are warm, too, though early fall wine harvest means many châteaux are closed to visitors then.
NEWLYWED NEWS: Château des Baudry’s “Nuit de Charme” includes champagne, a five-course candlelit dinner and breakfast in bed — an amazing deal for 135 euros (about $200) per person. The same package, called “Romantisme in Périgord” at Hotel Le Vieux Logis, is 350 euros (about $520) per person. The Regent’s Newlywed’s One Night Delight includes daily breakfast at the Brasserie l’Europe, and a VIP newlywed welcome, featuring a bottle of champagne and rose petals in your room upon arrival. Rates start at 420 euros (about $620) per night.
GETTING THERE: From Philly, connect in Paris to Bordeaux (Mérignac) for the 90-minute plane trip, and rent a car. A high-speed train from Paris to Bordeaux takes three hours. The drive is five and a half hours.