Nigel Havers: Driving through France in a car like a panther, picking up delicious wine — and taking the dog, too

Eschewing a cheap flight in favour of a good old-fashioned driving holiday, Nigel Havers embarks on a wine trip to France, accompanied by his wife George and their poodle, Charley.

Many years ago, after making a killing on a horse in the Derby, my dad decided to take us on holiday to Italy. We drove there and back in his old Jaguar, with the journey becoming part of the holiday. It allowed us to enjoy the ever-changing scenery – especially when we broke down. Back then, it was the usual way to travel in Europe, as it wasn’t possible to hire a car in those days, but long driving vacations soon rather fell out of fashion, thanks to the rise of cheap flights and the need for speed of access.

Nowadays, as is the way with all things, it’s flying that’s falling out of fashion, due to a combination of growing awareness of our carbon footprint, plus the unpleasant sensation of being herded like cattle into an uncomfortable seat having spent several hours battling the clock, the traffic and, worst of all, airport security.

With this in mind, I was delighted to be asked recently to try out a new Audi A4 Avant by driving it down to the south of France and back, a trip we do most years, visiting friends and staying in a few favourite hotels. The A4 is a sleek sports car of an estate.

Audi A4 AVANT

It moves with the grace of a black panther and has wonderful seats that hold you comfortably in place for any distance. It sports all the latest gizmos, including cruise control plus, which I set at 130km (the motorway speed limit in France) and which, handily, automatically slows the vehicle down in tune with the car in front. This is a little terrifying at first, but I soon got used to it.

The car is also extremely spacious, which is important because my wife, George, never travels light. I was, therefore, able to stay uncharacteristically relaxed as an astonishing array of suitcases, dog beds for Charley the poodle and a colourful stream of baskets and carrier bags found their way to the side of the car before departure. The Audi’s copious boot swallowed it all up with ease, together with my surprisingly large holdall, leaving Charley the run of the back seat and a good vantage point from which to bark at anyone who looked as if they were considering invading her personal space.

France, Saone-et-Loire Department, Burgundy Region, Maconnais Area, Brancion.

France, Saone-et-Loire Department, Burgundy Region, Maconnais Area, Brancion.

We travelled via Eurotunnel Le Shuttle at Folkestone, which is so civilised, thanks to the slick pet-passport scheme, lack of queues and the fact that the incredible, car-carrying train is almost always on time. Furthermore, we were holidaying in mid September, by which time the worst of the traffic has dissipated, so, on disembarking at Calais, we drove straight onto an empty French motorway.

‘After a couple of hours, George said: “Are you ready to swap?” “No, I’m fine, thanks,” I replied, secretly enjoying myself far too much’

We decided to drive for six hours on the first day, to reach one of our favourite hotels in Burgundy by nightfall. I started driving and George agreed that we would swap after a couple of hours. God, I love this car, I thought, as we purred our way through the gorgeous French countryside. It wraps you in a glow of quality twinned with security, which is simply divine. After a couple of hours, George said: ‘Are you ready to swap?’ ‘No, I’m fine, thanks,’ I replied, secretly enjoying myself far too much.

Chateau D'Ige.

Chateau D’Igé.

Six hours later, I was still at the wheel as we approached our destination, Château d’Igé. This exquisite small château sits in the heart of the Mâconnais region of south Burgundy. It was built in 1235 and, until recently, the same family has lived there, except for occasional forays into the woods to hide from invading soldiers in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Château d’Igé, a four-star hotel and restaurant in Burgundy, only 15 minutes from Mâcon and Cluny. Classic rooms from €75 to €209, visit www.chateaudige.com to book. 

Chateau D'Igé.

The pool at Chateau D’Igé.

It’s gloriously comfortable, has wonderful food, welcomes dogs and, best of all, there’s a vineyard down the road. We arrived with just enough time to stock up with the impeccable, aptly named Mâcon-Igé Château London, at Domaine Fichet in Domange, before heading to the château where we sunk into the welcoming arms of modern medieval comfort, with a gorgeous room, a welcome glass of Champagne on the terrace and a five-star candlelit dinner in the garden.

Driving hours on day one: Nigel 6, George 0.

Domaine Fichet, a vineyard in Domange, near Igé in Burgundy. To book, visit www.domainefichet.fr.

The next day, after a dreamless sleep and a relaxed breakfast, we had an easy five-hour drive to our first stay with friends near Ramatuelle in the Var département of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. I drove and we spent a wonderful week enjoying the sun coming up and the wine going down, with the beautiful dark-grey Audi able to rest up in the shade. Every day was cloudless, made more perfect by the fact that the lavender had just been cut, leaving behind a heady, oil-infused scent that hung over the garden.

Domaine Fichet in Domange

Domaine des Andéols.

Our next stop was Domaine des Andéols, about 2½ hours away in the Luberon. I drove. This private paradise is hard to describe – it’s not merely a super stylish and supremely comfortable hotel, rather, a small hamlet. Set in 84 acres of glorious landscaped countryside, the Domaine sports nine houses, various pools, cabañas and two restaurants, where guests can dine on and drink the most delicious home-produced organic produce I’ve ever tasted. Nothing can be heard save for the sound of the cicadas – everything is perfect peace.

‘Each night, we dined beneath an ancient plane tree, watching the fireflies dancing in the distance’

We stayed in the Red House, had breakfast and lunch delivered to our door and lay on a double sun-lounger, just reading, dozing and enjoying the wonderful view, with Charley stretched out on one of her several poodle beds. Each night, we dined beneath an ancient plane tree, watching the fireflies dancing in the distance. There is a spa, too, in case your indulgence levels haven’t quite reached the maximum.

Domaine des Andéols, a luxury boutique hotel complex, with its own lavender fields and olive grove, near Saint-Saturnin- lès-Apt – about an hour from Avignon – in Provence. Rooms from €240, to book visit www.andeols.com.

Domaine des Andéols

Domaine des Andéols.

On our final morning, we took Charley for one last stroll among the fields of lavender and came across what looked like an old stone beehive. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a well. I picked up a stone to see how deep it was and, in that split second, Charley leapt up onto the ledge and launched herself into the unknown. It seemed ages before I heard a splash, then I looked down and could hear her panicking. George noticed some coiled-up lengths of irrigation piping, wound it around me and gingerly lowered me down into the darkness – 30ft later, I hit the water. No sign of Charley – she had gone under.

Audi A4 AVANT

I reached down and plucked her out of the water in the nick of time.

I could hear George telling me there was no phone signal and to stay put until she found some help. After what seemed like forever, a stranger poked his head over the edge. ‘Mon dieu!’ he cried. After what seemed like another eternity, he returned with an extendable fireman’s ladder and started to climb down, but George insisted on doing it herself. She flew down like a gazelle, grabbed Charley and I swiftly followed her up. Disaster averted, but George and I were left shaken and more than a little stirred. Charley, however, merely shook herself off and carried on leaping around the field without a care in the world.

‘We had driven for hundreds of miles on French motorways without once sitting in a traffic jam’

We spent another night at Château d’Igé on the journey home – equally as perfect as it was on the way down – before setting off on the six-hour drive back up north, which the black panther ate up with ease.

‘Can I have a turn behind the wheel?’ asked George. ‘Absolutely, soon,’ I replied. We arrived at the Eurotunnel terminal at Calais with our flexi tickets in hand and were guided straight on to Le Shuttle without a minute’s delay. Driving hours: Nigel 6, George 0.

On board, we reflected on the fact we had driven for hundreds of miles on French motorways without once sitting in a traffic jam.

It was relaxing, picturesque and enjoyable. We arrived back in England on a rather grey evening and, within five minutes, were swallowed up into a hideous melee of fumes and traffic. ‘Feel like taking over?’ I asked.