I once wrote off the Loire as too grand, too bland and too pretty. But a four-day trip along France's royal river (followed by seven years and counting) completely changed my mind. The Vouvrays I tasted, some of the longest-lived and most complex whites in the world, were revelations. I became a convert, seeking out the Loire's 60-odd appellations--especially their four key varietals, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Muscadet and Sauvignon Blanc--in all their dizzying diversity. My wine route, from Nantes to Sancerre, is a landscape of forests, farmland, rivers and châteaus, some of which have been converted into hotels. Like the temperate climate, the cuisine is beautifully balanced, with nothing jazzier than pike sauced with beurre blanc, nothing fancier than chèvre, nothing more elaborate than tarte Tatin.
Domaine de la Haute-Févrie Maisdon-sur-Sèvre, 02-40-36-94-08. Delectable dry Muscadet with the texture of raw silk.
Château de Pierre Bise Beaulieu-sur-Layon, 02-41-78-31-44. Lush, sweet Coteaux du Layon and Quarts-de-Chaume; dry and off-dry Savennières and Cabernet-based Anjou Villages.
Château de Villeneuve 3 Rue Jean- Brevet, Souzay-Champigny, 02-41-51-14-04. Riveting Saumur Blanc and concentrated red Saumur-Champigny.
Domaine des Aubuisières 32 Rue Léon-Gambetta, Vouvray, 02-47-52- 61-55. Outstanding dry, half-dry, sweet and sparkling Vouvrays.
Domaine Vacheron 1 Rue des Puits Poulton, Sancerre, 02-48-54-09-93. White and red (Pinot Noir) Sancerres from a marvelous family estate.
WHERE TO STAY
Château des Réaux Chouzé-sur-Loire, 02-47-95-14-40. A B&B in a 15th-century landmark château; dinners feature white asparagus, salmon and goat cheese.
Hôtel Diderot 7 Rue Diderot, Chinon, 02-47-93-18-87. A charming, simple hotel on a medieval street.
Château de Montgouverne Rochecorbon, 02-47-52-84-59. A pretty 18th-century château and B&B in the midst of Vouvray's vineyards; the owner makes refined country dinners.
Domaine des Hauts de Loire Route d'Herbault, Onzain, 02-54-20-72-57. Lovely ivy-covered manor house in a wooded park; two-star Michelin kitchen.
Château de La Verrerie Oizon, Aubigny-sur-Nère, 02-48-81-51-60. A magical B&B in a 16th-century château (still owned by royalty) that stands in a magnificent park; dinner should be arranged in advance.
WHERE TO EAT
La Bonne Auberge 1 Rue Olivier- de-Clisson, Clisson, 02-40-54-01-90. Contemporary country auberge featuring deft, creative cooking.
Jeanne de Laval 54 Rue Nationale, Les Rosiers-sur-Loire, 02-41-51-80-17. Classic Loire cooking at its best; with rooms on the garden only steps away.
Au Plaisir Gourmand 2 Rue Parmentier, Chinon, 02-47-93-20-48. Masterly haute bourgeois cooking.
Auberge de Porc Vallières Vallières, Fondettes, 02-47-42-24-04. An adorable country wine bar offering personal versions of regional classics.
Grand Hôtel du Lion d'Or 69 Rue Georges-Clemenceau, Romorantin- Lanthenay, 02-54-94-15-15. The Loire Valley's best restaurant, serving innovative and delicious food and great Loire wines; with luxurious guest rooms.