Here's a splendid way to start your vacation in any of the regions of France:
When you book your flight, book your first night's stay at a quiet, comfortable inn within two or three hours of Paris. Three unusually charming inns that fit the bill are listed below. Reserve a car to be picked up at Charles de Gaulle international airport outside Paris (or Orly, if your flight lands there). Compare prices at Europcar, Hertz, Avis, and Kemel.
Before flying, mark a road map of France (Michelin preferred) with the route to your inn. Upon arrival, after picking up your luggage (use a free luggage cart) and clearing customs, go to your rental-car desk. Follow the clerk's directions to your car stall number -- a very short trip via luggage elevator. (Hint: If it's crowded, get on an elevator going up. You'll be safely aboard for the downward trip.)
Drive down the exit ramp and follow road signs to Paris. Watch for signs to the Peripherique, the ring road around Paris. Then, using your premarked map, head for whichever of the following pleasant inns lies on your route of march:
* Hotel de la Chaine d'Or at Les Andelys. About 1-1/2 hours to the northwest via the A13 express highway and rural roads. Use this approach for touring Normandy and Brittany, Rouen cathedral, beach resorts, Mont St. Michel, Bayeux tapestry, etc.
You enter the inn via a magical flower-filled courtyard, and catch glimpses of the Seine as you pass the dining room on the way to your room. Try to reserve room No. 1. Its classic peach damask-paneled walls frame tall French doors opening to a view of the intriguing but lulling river traffic, lazy fishermen out of an Impressionist painting, and dramatic limestone bluffs. Beds and baths are excellent. The dining room serves first-rate food, featuring fresh-water and sea fish.
If you want to shake off the hours of seat belt-stiff flying and driving -- and work up an appetite -- climb the steep hill at the edge of the village to the ruined castle where Richard the Lion-Hearted was once imprisoned. (Richard seems to have slept or schlepped about as widely in France as George Washington did in the eastern United States.) A short side trip from Les Andelys takes you to Giverny -- home, garden, and lily pond of painter Claude Monet.
* Chateau de la Vote at Troo. Three-plus hours to the southwest via the A10 and A11 express highway and smaller roads. Use this entry point for touring the Loire Valley and its chateaux; for heading southwestward to the Dordogne region, Bordeaux, and the Pyrenees; or for motoring west to the Atlantic coast. It's also convenient for visiting Chartres.
Troo is a tiny village overlooking the Loir River, a tributary of the Loire. The Chateau owners are also antique dealers. Result: Rooms are handsomely (but not overbearingly) decorated. Ask to see the Marie Antoinette room. Its windows, like those of most of the chateau, overlook the river, the courtyard where a pleasant breakfast is served, and meadows with flocks of sheep. For marvelous food and friendly service, walk down the street to Le Cheval Blanc. On the way, note the many troglodyte cave dwellings in the cliffside that have been modernized into vacation rental dwellings.
* Hotel le Pontot, Vezelay. About 3-1/2 hours southeast via the A6 express highway, exiting near either Auxerre or Avallon. Use this stopover for a trip to Burgundy, the upper Rhone Valley, and Provence; or perhaps for a grander tour of the French Alps and Switzerland, or Alsace and southern Germany.
The view from one of the impeccably decorated upstairs bedrooms may remind you, as it did us, of Henry V's (Shakespeare's) moving words about the fertile fields of France. Closer at hand is the gorgeous walled garden where you can take breakfast or tea.
Beyond lies one of France's historically and architecturally most interesting churches, smaller than the great cathedrals but strikingly situated at the top of this medieval village. (Yes, Richard the Lion-Hearted slept here, too, before setting off on the Third Crusade.)
Like most such sites, it may be overrun with tourists during the day. But when tour buses depart, and you sit in host Christian Abadie's garden, serenity seeps in with the evening shadows. Antiques and decor are stunning but not intimidating, and M. Abadie is an entertaining source of information about the region.
There are, of course, many other entry points for touring rural France. You might want to fly to Lyon or Nice and pick up a rented car for touring the Rhone Valley or Provence. Or you can bus in from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris and take high-speed TGV trains to most regions. If you use either variation, you might want to search out first-night pleasure spots from the accompanying article. For more alternatives, one of the best guides is ''Karen Brown's French Country Inns & Itineraries'' (Travel Pr., San Mateo, Calif.) or her ''French Country Bed & Breakfasts'' (out of print). Fax or call each hotel or inn for current prices.
One last bit of advice: If you're returning a car to Charles de Gaulle Airport, be brave. Follow signs to Terminal 1. Boldly go up ramp into the terminal. Punch button and take ticket to open gate. Insert ticket at rent-a-car entrance gate. Look for lighted sign for your rental company. Park. Find empty luggage cart. Sigh deeply. You've become a chevalier de la methode.