My wife and I contracted Exclusive France Tours, owned and operated by Marie Tesson, for a private tour from July 13th to August 2nd this year after a three-month selection process from among six serious France-based tour operators. We started with a list of the cities and towns we wanted and where appropriate, identified the specific sites that we wanted to see in the locations. For some of the locations identified, she asked what we wanted to see and do, since she had her own perspective on which French locations were must-sees vs. could pass over. Which was the reason we agreed to delete Troyes, Grenoble, Amiens, Beauvais, Chartres, and Rouen. She also reasoned that Lille was out of the way and was impractical to include. She insisted, and rightly so, that we needed to visit Chinon, Sarlat, Bayeaux, Fontevraud, St. Emilion, Colmar, Amboise, Calanques de Cassis, and Luberon, and spend more time than planned at Marseilles. She also asked a lot of questions herself – was seeing as many cities as we could very important? Which were our top 10 shouldn’t miss? How important was culture? History? Art and architecture? Food and wine? Hands-on workshops? What was our philosophy on accommodation? Walking and trekking? And of course, budget range, all questions that I appreciated.
It was Marie’s quickness to respond, candor, forthrightness, and exceptional enthusiasm to show off the best that France had to offer that clinched it for us. There were many examples. She asked if he could reverse the sequence of the tour as I first designed so that we could hit Mont St. Michel at one of those rare high-tide days of the year, which was certainly not to be missed. She also proposed that we walk across the beach to get to Mont St. Michel rather than taking the easy drive then wait to be ferried by one of the slow shuttle buses – it was indeed an experience to explore the flora and fauna of the bay including the famed quicksands. She suggested two nights in Beaune from which to do Meursault, Fontenay and Colmar rather than splitting hotels between Beaune and Dijon, which made more sense than my original design.
Marie took charge of the project from day 1 and it was a labor of love for her. It was just unfortunate that while we were there, she had to be in the United States to accompany her son but she kept tabs regularly on how the tour was going. We were given a Merceds Benz Viano for the entire trip. But given the logistical constraints, since we were changing guide-drivers after Nice on the way north, Marie had us fly from Nice to Lyon. Which was still ok rather than drive for 4+ hours or take a slow train. From Paris to south of France, from July 13th to 25th, we were assigned Pierre, a tour operator owner himself, and from Lyon back to Paris, from the 28th to August 2nd, we were with Cecille. They drove safely and well, never once had anything close to an accident, helped with all the hotel check-ins, looked for roadside toilets when we needed it, identified appropriate snack and quick-lunch stops, helped take some pictures, and assisted with some of the explanations of the sights we were about to see or had just seen. Pierre especially had a lot of additional information that he was very willing to share, and he was our ‘local guide’ for Bayeux, Avignon, Arles, Roussillon, Beynac, Senanque, Nice, and Monaco.
All the local guides that Mare had arranged were top-notch. Some were American or British which made it so easy to understand their English. Without exception, the guides were all enthusiastic, loved what they were doing, conveyed their infections enthusiasm to us, and never kept looking at the time. Some actually went way over the budgeted time period, in their desire to share more things with us. Specifics – Romain shared with us much of what he had grown up with in the Mont St Michel area; the Mont St Michel Abbey tour with Cecile was lively; the American Aurzelle was with us for two full days as she deftly and expertly guided us in Chinon, Tours, Chenonceau, and Amboise; Marianne was very enthusiastic in showing off St Emilion and Bordeaux; Cathy recognized our religiosity and made sure we saw everything in Lourdes; Jean Yves was great in showing off Carcassonne and Toulouse; we loved Sophie in Nimes; Laurianne was very knowledgeable and knew all the places in Marseille; smart-looking Anne showed off the best of Lyon; Baptiste was very eager to show off Beaune – but admittedly whose English was probably the most difficult to understand; Kim, a fountain of knowledge re all things Dijon; Cristopher, the Brit, was very thorough in explain the beauty of Vezelay; Heidi, the American wine critic who was a perfect match to show off Colmar and the Alsace wine region towns; and Christine who confidently toured us around Nancy, Verdun, Reims, and several Grand Est champagne houses.
The accommodations we agreed to were also of high standard with great locations. We were booked at the only B&B inside Mont St. Michel, La Tete Noire, otherwise it would have been one of the ordinary motels outside; Oceania in Tours was well-located; Madeleine in Sarlat was right at the edge of the Old Town; Hotel du Chateau was just outside the citadel; St. Louis in Avignon was a former religious cloister and had a lot of atmosphere; the best of the lot was undoubtedly Intercon Hotel Dieu in Marseille; Mercure in Nice wasn’t grand but had a great view of the Promenade; Royal in Lyon was right at the corner of the Bellecour square and the suite provided was magnificent; Maison des Tetes in Colmar was actually one of the city’s historical attractions; Les Haras in Strasbourg was equine-themed but was a bit far from the island city centre; our cottage in Le Cep in Beaune was memorable with great woodwork.
We had also arranged pre-paid gastronomic lunches at high-rated Michelin-starred restaurants during the trip. All the meals that Marie arranged were exceptional – L’Orangerie in Chenonceau; Grande Maison in Bordeaux; Franck Putelat in Carcassonne; L’Auberge at St. Remy; Mirazur in Menton; Maison Lameloise in Beaune; and Le Millenaire in Reims. We loved Bordeaux’s Pierre Gagniere, Carcassonne’s Franck Putelat and Menton’s Mauro Colagreco the best, and liked St. Remy’s Fanny Rey the least.
As far as travel logistics went, we were happy with the Mercedes Benz Viano that was provided. For transport from hotel to the Nice airport and from Lyon airport to hotel, Marie had arranged Mercedes limos, which was nice.
Marie Tesson listens, internalizes what she’s heard, crafts well-thought out itineraries, isn’t afraid to suggest alternatives, and communicates earnestly with her clients. For our ‘Tour de France’, she has consistently gone beyond my expectations and I rate her new baby, Exclusive France Tours, a 10 out of 10. Jaime D.R.