Animatronic elephants on a river island, post-disaster support in the West Country and rolling hills close to London.
Take me there: Nantes
Why go? Nantes's transformation from gritty shipbuilding city to edgy cultural hub continues apace. The birthplace of Jules Verne has a suitably quirky take on the arts, and the student population keeps things lively on the banks of the Loire.
What to do? Make like a steam-punk maharajah on a 45-tonne mechanical elephant at Les Machines de l'Île de Nantes (lesmachines-nantes.fr): it's just one of several outlandish animatronic beasts prowling this island in the Loire. Continue the fantasy theme with a visit to the charming Musée Jules Verne, which celebrates the city's most famous son (julesverne.nantes.fr). Take a bike ride along the riverbank to see "Estuaire", a 40-mile string of otherworldly art installations dotted between Nantes and Saint-Nazaire (estuaire.info).
Where to stay? The brand new Okko hotel, with a cool, minimalist aesthetic, makes for a stylish and central base (from £120, nanteschateau.okkohotels.com)
Where to eat? La Cigale is a beautiful art nouveau brasserie serving up French classics from croque-monsieurs to seafood platters (4, Place Graslin, lacigale.com). As a former capital of Brittany, crêpes are a big deal in Nantes – the savoury galettes at traditional crêperie Ty Mor Breiz make for a cheap, filling and tasty lunch (11 quai Turenne).
Insider tip. "For nightlife go to the Hangar à Bananes, an old banana warehouse on the Île de Nantes which is full of bars, restaurants and clubs (hangarabananes.fr)," says Nathalie O'Donnell, a civil servant who lives just outside Nantes. Stereolux (stereolux.org), she says, is the BEST PLACE to hear live music.
After the floods… The Somerset Levels do need you – but not yet
West Country police recently had to warn "flood tourists" to stay away from the Somerset Levels. Travelling to gawp and take photos as people's homes and livelihoods are washed away must rank as a niche tourism sector, but let's hope the newfound interest in this part of the country won't subside with the floodwaters.
Much of the media coverage has focused on the plight of farmers but the area also depends heavily on tourism. I spent a week in the Somerset Levels last summer and fell completely under its spell. The distinctive flatlands which make the area so vulnerable to flooding are precisely what make magical. Swallows swoop and dive over misty fenlands criss-crossed by rhynes (irrigation channels) and the traces of ancient walkways. Over it all stands the extraordinary outcrop of Glastonbury Tor and St Michael's Tower. No wonder the place is synonymous with legends and fairytales.
More recently the Levels have been making their mark as a destination for foodies, with local produce being served and celebrated in beautifully renovated inns such as the Swan in Wedmore (theswanwedmore.com) or the White Hart in Somerton (whitehartsomerton.com), where you can sample the cider, saltmarsh lamb and artisan cheeses, before sleeping it off in one of the decadent bedrooms upstairs.
"Flood tourists" are not what Somerset needs right now but when the waters recede and the camera crews pack up, we can show our support by going there. You'll be glad you did. TRAVEL TIPS | Nantes
For rolling chalk hills and sea views, head for... the South Downs
YHA South Downs
The YHA's newest hostel, in a renovated stone farmhouse on the South Downs Way, raised the bar when it opened last spring. There's a bar, a good café and a communal living room with leather sofas. If you can't face sharing a dorm, opt for one of the en suite family rooms or wooden camping pods.
Beds from £10, private rooms from £30,yha.org.uk/hostel/south-downs
The Sanctuary Hut, Firle
This simple wooden hut, in a paddock at the foot of the Downs, is well named. Entirely off-grid with rolling farmland views – to the sea on a clear day – it offers a refuge from 21st-century life. Your host, TV personality and vicar the Rev Peter Owen-Jones, is on hand with everything from fresh eggs to spiritual guidance.
From £85, canopyandstars.com/sanctuaryhut
The Bull, Ditchling
Pledging to "embrace the true foodie but never alienate the drinker", this lovely old pub is obviously doing something right – the low-beamed bar is buzzing both day and night. Upstairs, four rich-hued bedrooms provide just a hint of the exotic – includingThai silk curtains, a Buddha statue and furniture from Rajasthan
From £100, thebullditchling.com
Blue Door Barns, nr Lewes
Choose between B&B or self-catering at this pretty converted cluster of flint-and-brick barns near Lewes. Farrow & Ball paints, chandeliers and French antiques have been combined to great effect in the four barns, two of which have kitchen/living areas. Breakfast is served in the owners' house or in a hamper delivered to your door.
From £100 to £180 a night, sleeps two to four.i-escape.com/blue-door-barns