How does $2,500 a week sound, including the flight across the pond?
The quest begins with a Mediterranean port, then on to a Spanish cultural powerhouse, an English water-sports mecca, and a gem of a Portuguese city. Plus — the art of tracking the best deals for flights to get you there.
The Côte d'Azur without the attitude — or the price tag
Near: Marseille, Provence's underrated rough-diamond metropolis
Here was a good place to test the thesis of unsuspected values: that right next to one of Europe's most legendary playgrounds, the French Riviera, you can find a jewel of a seaside hideaway which, in turn, leads to a dreamy corner of Provence and a gutsy port city — all at a cost that's as soothing as the experience, with authentic B&Bs for under $200 a night and stellar restaurants with prices that won't induce heartburn.
Unlike the magnets of the Côte d'Azur — St-Tropez, Cannes and Nice — Cassis, a former fishing village, remains a low-key, glitz-free Provençal getaway that's a favorite of French insiders. In fact, the very absence of celebs is a matter of civic pride.
And Cassis's position, tucked under the spectacular red rocks of Cap Canaille, means that development is relatively limited, with the main action centered along the waterfront. Getting there from neighboring La Ciotat reinforces the sense of isolation: The Route des Crêtes is a dizzying mountain pass with the sea on one side and white sculpturelike rocks that look plucked out of the American West on the other.
When you do break away, it's less than an hour's drive to cultural centers such as Aix-en-Provence and Marseille and to the excellent vineyards surrounding Bandol.
The perfect itinerary combines the beach, the countryside, and Marseille, a port town that's quickly becoming a gastronomic center and is one of the most culturally diverse cities in southern France.
The traffic gets snarled in summer, but the roads are easy to navigate outside the peak months. And if you avoid high season, hotel room rates are a fraction of their usual cost, especially if you book into the family-owned (and often charmingly eccentric) chambres d'hôtes that lie among the olive trees.
Sleep: There are several atmospheric, affordable bed-and-breakfasts in the area, but be warned: Most owners don’t speak English. The simple dinner at the three-room Le Clos de la Chêvre Sud, near Cassis, was the best meal of the trip (33-4-94-32-31-54; closdelachevre.com; doubles, $114–$134; three-course prix fixe, $40). Near Aix, in the pretty village of Peynier, Mas Sainte An has two rooms and a pool (44-1275-395430; sawdays.co.uk; doubles, $120–$134).
Eat: Find incredible fresh produce for picnics at farm stands — including one right by Domaines Ott (domaines-ott.com) — and at Aix’s markets. At Cassis’s Poissonnerie Laurent, you choose your seafood at the counter (5 Quai Barthélémy; 33-4-42-01-71-56; entrées, $20–$40). In Aix, Le Zinc d’Hugo has a delicious cheese plate for $9, and the entrées include rump steak (22 rue Lieutaud; 33-4-42-27-69-69; entrées, $16–$25). Splurge on bouillabaisse, Marseille’s signature dish, at Chez FonFon, overlooking the fishing boats (140 Vallon des Auffes; 33-4-91-52-14-38; bouillabaisse, $61).
See and do: Les Calanques stretch 12 miles along the coast from Cassis to Marseille and are great for hiking — the most picturesque are Port-Pin and d’En-Vau. Or take a boat tour from the harbor (cassis-calanques.com; $17–$28). In Marseille, check out the bookshop and art gallery at the restaurant Les Arcenaulx (25 Cours d’Estienne-d’Orvres; 33-4-91-59-80-37) and the exhibitions at the Centre de la Vieille Charité, in the old city center (2 rue de la Charité; 33-4-91-14-58-80).
Cutting-edge architecture courtesy of Santiago Calatrava, a laid-back lifestyle at a fraction of the price of Barcelona and Madrid
A harp. A dinosaur skeleton. A viking helmet. A human eye.
It's hard, standing in the middle of Santiago Calatrava's City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, looking at the work of the town's most famous architect, to find a reference equal to his imagination.
The local politicians hoped that these buildings would do for Valencia what Frank Gehry's Guggenheim did for Bilbao — and they have. In addition to drawing architecture buffs, the project has become a portal to the rest of the city.
Valencia's culture is deep, spanning the Roman occupation to the twenty-first century. Add to that a relaxed attitude, a charming network of bars and cafés, and prices far lower than in Barcelona and Madrid.
Sleep: The Hotel Puerta Valencia is a 20-minute walk from the main attractions — the price, service and comfy rooms make up for the inconvenience (34-96-393-6395; hoteles-silken.com; doubles, $75–$100), while the Hotel Neptuno has brought style to the waterfront (34-96-356-7777; hotelneptuno valencia; doubles, $166–$194).
Eat: In the heart of medieval Valencia, Tasca Ángel is a tiny 1940s bar with the best sardines in town (1 Calle Purísima; 34-96-391-7835; tapas, $3–$12). Local favorite Tasca el Botijo serves delicious tapas like goat cheese with marmalade (Calle San Miguel; 34-96-323-9890; tapas, $6–$18). My favorite tapas were at Bodega Montaña, in El Cabanyal (69 Calle José Benlliure; 34-96-367-2314; tapas, $5–$25). For avant-garde fare, try the $29 five-course lunch menu at Seu-Xerea (4 Calle Conde Almodóvar; 34-96-392-4000; entrées, $22–$28). For paella, hit the beach: Ernest Hemingway made La Pepica famous (6-8 Paseo Neptuno; 34-96-371-0366; entrées, $20–$28); La Rosa is more of a local favorite (70 Paseo Neptuno; 34-96-371-2076; entrées, $15–$25). For Valencian fartons and horchata, go to Horchatería de Santa Catalina (6 Plaza de Santa Catalina; 34-96-391-2379).
See and do: Rent a bike at Do You Bike (34-963-155-551; doyoubike.com; from $3–$5 per hour). At the 90-acre City of Arts and Sciences complex (inset), the buildings are more impressive than the collections (34-902-100-031; cac.es; admission, $40). In the old part of town, don’t miss the Cathedral, the Mercado Central and the Silk Exchange.
Miles of wild coastline with superlative surf, a new wave of top seafood restaurants
Cornwall, the dramatic southwest tip of England, is blessed with a unique combination of bucolic countryside and beaches perfect for water sports.
The weather is warmer and the days sunnier here than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, and over the past few years the Cornish coast has been experiencing a new incarnation as one of the hottest surfing spots in Europe.
As soon as you get near the sea, the sight of battered 1970s VW vans with surfboards strapped to their roofs is as commonplace as the herds of sheep grazing alongside stone farmhouses.
And following in the sport's wake has been a new generation of accomplished but low-key restaurants and beachfront cafés (some owned by celeb chefs like Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein), as well as notable hotels and B&Bs.
Here, too, is a burgeoning arts scene that's grown out of a tradition of writers and artists seeking inspiration along this coast, in old stone towns set against deep-green rolling fields.
The crowds have become almost too much to handle in summer: The tiny fishing villages are snarled by traffic, the hotels fully booked for months. The off-season (especially spring and fall) is the perfect time to visit: The crowds disappear, the beaches empty, and the hotels and restaurants start running specials.
All of which is a boon for surfers, who know that wave conditions are optimal during these months.
Sleep: Many hotels run shoulder- and off-season specials; inquire when you book. Near Port Isaac, the whitewashed St Moritz has a Miami feel and a Cowshed spa (44-1208-862-242; stmoritzhotel.co.uk; apartments, from $785 a week). In St. Ives, choose between the Primrose Valley Hotel, in an Edwardian villa steps from Porthminster beach (44-173-679-4939; primroseonline.co.uk; doubles, $156–$298), and the Boskerris, overlooking Carbis Bay (boskerrishotel.co.uk; 44-1736-795-295; doubles, $149–$224). The ultimate gastropub meets inn, Gurnard’s Head has seven rustic rooms surrounded by moors and sea (44-1736-796-928; gurnardshead.co.uk; doubles, $119–$209; entrées, $18–$24).
Eat: Celeb chef Rick Stein’s eponymous restaurant put Padstow on the map. His least expensive eatery is Stein’s Fish & Chips (South Quay; 44-1841-532-700; entrées, $12–$18). Porthminister Café offers excellent meals by the ocean (Porthminster Beach; 44-1736-795-352; entrées, $26–$41). Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen is worth a splurge — or have the affordable lunch special served early October to mid-December (Watergate Bay; 44-1637-860-543; prix fixe lunch, $39).
See and do: Global Boarders has surf courses for first-timers and experts ranging from two hours to a week (44-1736-711-289; globalboarders.com; lessons from $37). For contemporary art from the region, visit the gallery Tate St Ives. Nearby, sculptor Barbara Hepworth’s house and gardens have been turned into a museum of her work (44-1736-796-226; tate.org.uk/stives). Hikers should pick up Eleanor Smith’s Coastal Walks in Cornwall (Countryside Books, $9). Alastair Sawday’s Go Slow England features one-of-a-kind hotels and restaurants in Cornwall and elsewhere (Alastair Sawday, $18).
Excellent classic and contemporary cuisine in unpretentious settings, fine port and wine vineyards in the rolling Douro Valley
Porto was long thought of as being as old-world stuffy as the heavy red wine named after it. (Port was, after all, something Victorian gentlemen retired to drink after dinner while the ladies were left to themselves.)
Take Foz, for example: It was once a summer beach neighborhood for wealthy Portuguese at the point where the great Douro River meets the Atlantic. Now it teems with youthful life amid boutiques and innovative restaurants.
After a meal there at Foz Velha — quail eggs in cornbread; bacalao (salt cod) paired with tapenade and wrapped in a “nest” of thin, crisp potatoes — it's clear that the simple traditions of this Atlantic cuisine are being given a new zing.
The historic center of Porto rises steeply above the Douro waterfront, where the new mixes with delightful facets of the old — laundry hangs from the upper floors of chic new wine bars, tinny tunes waft out of the open windows of dilapidated facades. Snaking streets lead to tucked-away treasures: the narrow church of Ildefonso, lined with azulejos (traditional blue tiles); the somber Se Cathedral above the sea of rooftops.
Sleep: Porto Pestana, a group of town houses in the Ribeira neighborhood, is the best base for visiting the city — splurge an extra $40 for a river view (351-282-240-001; pestana.com; doubles, $192–$231). The central Grande Hotel do Porto looks fusty outside, but the rooms are stylish (351-22-207-6690; grandehotelporto.com; doubles, $143).
Eat: Don’t miss Foz Velha’s five-course tasting menu (141 Esplanada do Castelo; 351-22-615-4178; prix fixe, $54) and Cafeina’s modern interpretation of Portuguese ingredients (100 Rua do Padrão; 351-22-610-8059; entrées, $9–$25). Have a coffee and a tart at the old-school Café Majestic (112 Rua Santa Caterina; 351-22-200-3887). Ribeira’s best restaurant is Don Tonho (13-15 Cais da Ribeira; 351-22-200-4307; entrées, $20–$26), but Adega São Nicolau offers more authentic local fare (1 Rua São Nicolau; 351-22-200-8232; entrées, $12–$16).
See and do: Rem Koolhaas’s Casa da Música is Porto’s most exciting new building (351-220-120-200; casadamusica.com). Modernists should hit the Museum of Contemporary Art, with 44 acres of gardens filled with sculptures (351-22-615-65-00; serralves.pt). For port tasting, try Porto Cálem (344 Av. Diogo Leite; 351-22-374-6660) or Vinologia (46 Rua São João; 351-936-057-340). In the Douro Valley, Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo is both a winery and a stylish, affordable country hotel (351-25-473-0430; quintanova.com; doubles, $160–$207).