One of the best-kept secrets about vacationing in France is that hundreds of delightful low-cost holiday accommodations are available throughout the French countryside.
Meet the gite!
A gite (pronounced geet) is the home or refuge of rabbits and other small animals. A gite is also the whimsical term for a hideaway for people with the connotation of being charming, secluded, and inexpensive.
Completely furnished housekeeping apartments, houses, and other lodgings are offered to tourists who want to spend a weekend, a week, or longer in country surroundings. Under the supervision and regulations of a 25-year-old organization known as ''Gites Ruraux de France,'' most of these rural vacation homes are privately owned. Each is as individual as the tastes and circumstances of its owner as well as the character of the part of France in which it may be situated.
Your host could be a working farmer or a titled nobleman. But whoever he might be, the gite philosophy guarantees that he will offer a warm welcome to his paying guests and be prepared to supply information about his area.
For example, en route to medieval Cluny, you cannot see La Boutiere from the road. But turn a mile west down a two-rutted lane lined with thick-growing blackberry briers and flowering hedge trees. There, surrounded by century-old trees and a hamlet of farmers' homes, is a beautiful 17th-century manor house with a classic mansard roof. (La Boutiere, Chenoves, 71940 St. Boil, France.)
Just outside the walls surrounding the manor are two gites. Formerly peasants' cottages, they have been remodeled for travelers, with several bedrooms and a living-kitchen area, each tastefully furnished with worn but charming antique furniture, predominantly Napoleon III mixed with 18th-century armoires. Typical? No. There are no typical gites. Cost? Just under $100 a week, each accommodating a maximum of five people.
Other accommodations are available within La Boutiere, itself. Three chambres d'hote (French bed and breakfast) are large, comfortable, and with more of an aristocratic air than the little houses. Breakfast is unmistakably French country with crusty just-baked bread and croissants, sweet butter, and home-made jams and honey.
Based in Paris, Gites Ruraux has jurisdiction over all kinds of gites, including ''chambres d'hote,'' camping sites on farms, special gites that offer room and board to children only, and gites with private stables, bridle paths, and horses, catering to equestrians.
A gite can be tiny with basic furniture or it can be elegantly spacious with fine antiques. Family castoffs, such as nice old 19th-century furniture, are more the norm, but all these abodes must conform to specified standards. The lowest rating (gites have three classifications of comfort) requires such minimums as indoor plumbing, curtains, or interior shutters at windows, impeccable cleanliness, taste in decorating, flowers in the garden, and all necessities for keeping house and preparing meals.
Costs can range from 250 to 850 francs ($35-$120) a week for up to a maximum of 12 people. The average weekly price runs around $100, with an occupancy of from four to six people. Charges for utilities and heat may be additional, but all charges are arranged ahead of time with a rental contract so the only ''surprises'' will be pleasant ones.
Obviously, your own transportation is needed to come to a ''gite rural.'' Gites are usually hidden in the country, away from busy highways. Michelin maps, which cover the face of France in minute detail, are very helpful in locating gites.
Incidentally, La Boutiere can be found on Michelin Map 69, which covers some of the Department of Saone-et-Loire.
But finding the physical location of your gite is the easiest part of your quest. The American novice may find it frustrating to pin down specific details about these rentals. The British have long been pampered; London has a gite reservation office for U.K. residents. In the United States, paper work is necessary.
To find your ''rabbit's nest,'' ask the French government tourist office in New York for a copy of the brochure ''Gites Ruraux.'' While no information is given on individual gites, this brochure does give addresses of the Tourist Offices of French Departments from which listing of gites may be obtained. A detailed map of France shows the location of each department; contact the appropriate department to get the listing for the area you prefer.
For example, the booklet covering Burgundy is 76 pages long and lists 400 of the various categories of gites in the four departments making up Burgundy. It is available at no cost, and reservations are made directly with the owner.
Once you acquire a list of gites, study it thoroughly and decide which appeals most to you, then make a reservation as soon as possible.
If you pore over these listings long enough, you will be able to predict in advance what the accommodations will be like. Every detail pertinent to a happy stay has been itemized so that you may even learn to recognize ''gites of character'' - such as those that are in especially interesting houses, or in chateaux, or have open log-burning fireplaces, or offer special facilities like swimming pools, tennis courts, or fishing ponds. A slight reading knowledge of French or a good dictionary is helpful. Bonnes vacances!
For more information, contact the French Government Tourist Office, 610 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10020, telephone (212) 757-1125, or the Federation Nationale des Gites Ruraux, 35 Rue Godot-de-Mauroy, 75009 Paris, France; telephone 742.25.43.