What on Earth is your favorite vacation retreat? That's a question you hear -- a lot -- when people discover you've traveled the world for four decades in the line of duty.
I used to fend off inquirers by joking that it's hard to choose between sun-kissed Algiers during a tear-gas attack and balmy Juba in the midst of Sudan's civil war. But friends wanted a serious answer before June.
So I did some memory-sorting. That meant reviewing gems -- from Sidi bu Said (Tunisia) to Napili Kai (Maui), from Kyoto to Prague, from the Rogue River rapids (Oregon) to a perfect secluded beach at Les Iles des Saintes (near Guadeloupe) -- in order to come up with an Academy Award of sorts for Best Supporting Scene.
The result: not Bora Bora, not Porto Ercole, Italy, not Fortin de Las Flores, Mexico, but (the envelope, please) rural France.
Why France? Let me explain. And also share with you the system -- la methode -- my wife and I developed for conquering jet lag and getting off to a sybaritically wonderful start within a couple of hours of arriving -- gray-faced and mossy-mouthed -- at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris. (See accompanying article.)
But back to the question: Why France? The reason we find ourselves returning to the French countryside is a mix -- part comfort, part adventure. It derives from:
* Wonderfully varied scenery -- much of it (aside from summer tourist magnets like Nice, Honfleur, the Alps, and Mont St. Michel) relatively untrampled by the modern world.
* Well-paved but sometimes almost car-less rural roads that give you the feeling of adventure around each bend.
* Food that seems to get better with each meal; and, by some sleight of taste, expands your appreciation of the surrounding scene in a way that is paradoxically both intensifying and relaxing. And you don't have to eat three-star to taste ambrosia. We've found dozens of one- or two-star restaurants that rank with the finest in the land but are more informal.
* Palpable layers of history: from Cro-Magnon caves to Normandy beaches; from Charlemagne, the first united Europe visionary, to 12-star signs of today's semi-united Europe. Remnants of Caesar's Gaul -- amphitheaters and baths. Ruined castles that map the long Anglo-French struggle from 1066 through Napoleon.
* Awe-inspiring architecture built into the landscape everywhere. Chartres cathedral rising like some massive ecru-hued Emerald City out of fields that are definitely not Kansas, and soaring even more majestically when you venture inside. Rocamadour's castle ramparts affixed to a vertical cliff face as if gravity has been persuaded to go on strike for centuries. Mont St. Michel squatting like some massive granite missile on its tiny sea-girt island. And the simple bourgeois- and peasant-designed beauty of hundreds of villages facing meandering rivers or fertile fields. Goethe claimed architecture is frozen music; France makes you feel it's really frozen history.
* Encounters with intriguing people. Forget the cliche about the snooty French. That's only a few headwaiters in Paris and in some of the more self-conscious regional three-star meccas. We've found provincial folk to be helpful, pleasant, and often happy to confide local lore.
BUT enough reasons for going. Where should you go? Within each region there are, of course, too many sights and sites to cite, but I would fail you if I did not list a few personal favorites.
On the north coast of Brittany, Gerard and Danielle Jouanny run one of the most comfortable resorts in Europe called Ti al-Lannec in the village of Trebeurden. Their window-filled inn overlooks a coast resembling California's Carmel highlands. Pine trees frame a view of beach, peninsulas, and islands. The water is warmer than Carmel's, and there's a fire in the hearth on rainy days. The decor is sophisticated but homey; it's worth making your headquarters here for two or three days while you explore the coast.
At the center of the Dordogne region in France's southwest, stay at Hotel de l'Esplanade and ask for a room overlooking the terrace and the vast castle-strewn valleys below. If you don't stay there, plan to eat an early dinner on the terrace as the sun sets over the valley.
Or, not too far away, stay at the Hotel Cro Magnon (near the site of the discovery of Cro-Magnon man) in the market town of Les Eyzies de Tayac. Ask the charming owners, Jacques and Christiane Leyssales, to put you in an ''annex'' room overlooking the swimming pool and gardens. Don't be dismayed to cross railroad tracks on the way to the annex. Trains are infrequent and quiet, romantic rather than intrusive. Do eat in the Cro Magnon's terrace dining room if weather permits. Very romantic, with classic food served under trees and surrounded by flowers.
To the northwest, at Champagnac de Belair, try lunch under white canopies and birch trees by the River Drome at a modernized mill, Le Moulin du Roc. The food is in the best Perigord tradition; rooms combine up-to-date comforts with 18th-century atmosphere.
At the foot of the Alps not far from Geneva, snuggle into either L'Auberge du Pere Bise or Hotel Les Pres du Lac in the village of Talloires overlooking crystalline Lake Annecy.
For a non-jet set look at the Riviera, try Cassis, with its snug harbor democratically mooring both bright-colored fishing boats and passing yachts. The Hotel Roche Blanc should be able to provide you a quiet room with balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. Local restaurants specialize in the original bouillabaisse and other seafood dishes.
If you're visiting Arles and Aix-en-Provence to see a world remarkably like that bursting from the frames of Van Gogh and Cezanne paintings, detour to have lunch at L'Oustau de Baumaniere in the strange limestone (and bauxite) hills of Les Baux. Sit on the terrace overlooking the pool, and dawdle over a memorable meal. If you want to overnight there, try the less-expensive Auberge de la Benvengudo or La Cabro d'Or near the village of Les Baux.
East of the Riveria, sip a Perrier or have tea time at the Chateau de la Chevre d'Or at Eze, east of the Riveria high above the Mediterranean between Nice and the Italian border. Then there's time to drive north to St. Paul de Vence for dinner in the umbrella-covered garden at La Colombe d'Or.
If you don't stay there (expensive), stroll the halls and view the work of the many Impressionists who painted in the neighborhood. You're close to museums of Matisse, Picasso, and Chagall. Spend an inexpensive night at Les Ramparts in the walled medieval town of St. Paul (a bit rundown but like living on the set of ''La Boheme'') or move outside the town among orchards and fields to Les Orangers or Le Hameau.
More regions and more gems await. But it would be a shame if you didn't get to discover some of them on your own.