In search of sun, sand and je ne sais quoi

My daughters have organised a week's holiday near Avignon in the last week of June. Following that week we would like to find a holiday cottage near the beach. The Cote d'Azur might be busy so we wondered about the west coast beaches of France or maybe Italy's Liguria?

- B. Harmer, Crows Nest

This suggests you will be looking for cottage accommodation at the beginning of July, which is when Europeans will be descending en masse on anything that resembles a beach. The Cote d'Azur, France's Atlantic beaches and Italy's Ligurian coast are all holiday hot spots - expect crowds at all three.

Each has its own distinct character and this might be the key. On France's Atlantic coast, one place I like a lot is Cap Ferret, a narrow peninsula of sand dunes and forest that forms the western arm of the gorgeous Bassin d'Arcachon, about an hour's drive south of Bordeaux.

Cap Ferret offers a choice of surf beaches and the calm waters of the basin, the local cuisine is based on seafood and influenced by its proximity to the Basque region, the town of Arcachon has a lively market and the area has long been a favourite barefoot chill zone for wealthy French aristos, which gives it an element of je ne sais quoi.

One place close to the Cote d'Azur you might like is St Paul de Vence, which is about 10 kilometres inland. It's a wonderful mediaeval village where the locals play petanque in front of the cafes yet it has fabulous connections with some of the glitterati of the art world.

Chagall, Renoir and Matisse all lived around here and so did Picasso, who worked for several years at nearby Vallauris. Their works are displayed in St Paul's small but wondrous gallery, Fondation Maeght.

The beaches at Antibes, Nice and Cannes are all in close proximity.

For beauty, drama, spectacle and a taste of la dolce vita, it's hard to beat Italy's Ligurian Coast, La Riviera di Levante.

The villages between Portofino and Riomaggiore are also some of life's honeypots. They're crowded and noisy but also a lesson in the art of life by people who have it sorted.