Forget those "Virginia Is for Lovers" bumper stickers, and "I New York." And never mind the City of Brotherly Love. Plenty of locales can vie for love-American-style attention, but no place says romance like Paris, France. As the song says, "How will you keep them down on the farm after they've seen Paree?"
Take it from someone who knows every arrondissement as well as her own back yard in Fletcher, Vermont: Karen Kane. Her love affair with Paris began at age 11, long before she actually laid eyes on the city. Living with her family in Elmira, New York, Kane couldn't explain why she was so drawn to Paris. "I had never traveled anywhere except to the same cottage every summer at the Finger Lakes," she says. But once she began taking French in school, an avid Franco-phile was born.
Now a young-looking 46 with numerous trips to France stamped on her passport, Kane has created a business to help others explore its capital city's streets -- not to mention its restaurants, museums, parks, architecture, Metro and more. Paris By Design is a unique travel service that customizes Paris itineraries according to one's interests, budget and time. Her own PR says it best: Kane's "advice on where to eat, sleep, shop and stroll in the City of Light translates into effortless travel." Bonus: You can leave the guide book chez vous.
"She made it super-easy for us -- a van picked us up at the airport and took us to the hotel," says Jenn Parker of Essex, who had a mere 48 hours to see Paris as part of a two-week trip in Europe with her boyfriend Justin Zwart. They were Kane's first paying clients, in July 2002. From a centrally located hotel near Notre Dame Parker was directed to a museum devoted to her "all-time favorite" artist, Pablo Picasso, as well as cozy restaurants and a park perfect for people-watching. As an unexpected perk, Parker recalls, "It happened to be the last week of the Tour de France; we literally stepped outside our hotel and watched it."
And then there was the proposal. "He was contemplating several places in Paris, but ended up waiting," says Parker. "We got engaged in the south of France." Zwart had been planning it all along, of course, but nearly popped the question in Paris, which abets l'amour. "People act a little different there than they do here," Parker professes. "People walking arm in arm, people making out in the street, holding hands in daylight."
Two of her clients did get engaged in Paris, Kane notes. Also in the city for just 48 hours, Janine Gunther of Shelburne was delighted with the small hotel -- the D'Acia on rue St. Michel -- near Notre Dame; a day trip to Giverny (former home of Monet); and a high-end, classic French restaurant, L'Appart. On the second night, she and her boyfriend Paul Jacobs enjoyed frites at a neighborhood bistro in Montmartre. "Afterwards," Gunther recounts, "we walked up to Sacre Coeur, where my fiance proposed to me. He'd been there before and had a plan, unbeknownst to me."
She and Jacobs are getting married in May and plan to honeymoon in Alaska, but "We will go back to Paris, and we will use Karen in a second," Gunther vows.
Kane has arranged honeymoon trips to Paris for other lovebirds, however. "The most fun was for a couple in Boston, both designers," she remembers. "A lot of times people will hire me to be off the beaten path, but they really want to see the Eiffel Tower. This couple really did want to see the out-of-the-way places. For example, there's a certain type of graffiti in Paris, an art form called pochoire. I advised them to go to certain neighborhoods to see that, and to see Art Deco houses."
Amy Johnson of Laurenceville, Georgia, says her 40th birthday trip to Paris last year with her husband was "kind of like a second honeymoon for us, too; Paris is a very romantic city Our first honeymoon was to Disney World -- we got married a month before I started medical school." Johnson had been an exchange student to Paris in high school and speaks French, but she hired Kane to "fine-tune" her weeklong trip.
"She recommended restaurants, walking tours, what days are best to go to certain museums, just little tips as far as getting around the city, where to buy our Carte d'Orange," Johnson says of her Metro pass. Her favorite experience? "I would say the Musee d'Orsay, the Impressionist museum, and some of the walking tours."
Johnson says she'd definitely recommend Kane to other Paris-bound travelers. "The nice thing about her is she really tailors it to you. She can do a lot or a little -- plan a whole trip, even be a tour guide, translate, or she can do what she did for us. She's got a lot of knowledge of Paris -- the inside track on a lot of stuff."
A full package of Paris By Design services might include airline information, hotel accommodations, restaurant reservations and an hour-by-hour agenda for what to see and where to go each day of the trip. This costs $150 per day for up to two days, less for longer trips. Kane's a la carte services might suit more independent individuals -- say, booking a hotel and making a list of options for where to go from there. For this she charges $40 to $60 per day.
Kane makes her selections based on an Individual Interest Inventory clients fill out in advance. It asks questions such as "What do you hope to get from your Paris experience?" and "How much French do you speak?" along with preferences for tourist sights, food, accommodations and forms of transportation.
Kane seems to enjoy the challenge of matching very specific interests, citing a family from Atlanta she worked with last year: "The wife is Latin, the daughter spoke French pretty well; they had these different ethnic interests. The son is into photography. So I found gallery and museum shows that really matched their interests -- a great Cuban art show, a Basque restaurant."
Kane's itineraries include detailed, highlighted maps that point out the hidden treasures of Parisian neighborhoods -- and make it impossible to get lost.
Kane found her own way to Paris -- and Paris By Design -- circuitously. She studied French in high school and at Russell Sage College in Troy, but at the time thought a France-related career an impossible dream. She earned a Master's degree in education at the University of New Hampshire and taught physical education at Colchester schools for two decades. Kane and her husband Ken Trask, a civil engineer, moved to Fletcher about 15 years ago.
Throughout this time, the City of Light was a virtual beacon to Kane, drawing her back again and again. Ideas began to bubble up when she took some graduate writing courses at Vermont College. Finally, she says, "I knew I had to do something else; I needed to drop everything and go to France. My husband even said to me, Don't you want to do something with French?'"
In 2000, she did just that. Kane went to a small school in Paris and studied the language. "When I wasn't in school I was on the streets," she says, "breathing in this French life."
She came back to Vermont, enrolled in the Women's Small Business Project in Burlington and began to nurture a business plan. "At first I thought I wanted to guide people to Paris, but I found out I'd need to be there at least six months a year to make any money," Kane ex-plains. Also, I didn't want to do groups I found that people were interested in itineraries, help with trip planning. So what grew out of that was personalized guide books. It uses my writing experience and teaching experience."
Kane returned to Paris for more intense studies and earned an international language degree from Alliance Française. In 2002 she launched Paris By Design.
With 30 trips to her credit so far, Kane is "amazed at how different they all are," she says. "Obviously it will be different if it's a family with kids than if it's a couple on a honeymoon. People are just so excited about going to Paris and have these really fantastic images of the city in their heads. Part of what I do is figure out what that image is exactly so I can make that happen for them."
Nearly everything Kane recommends to her clients comes from personal experience. She stays abreast of French culture and events by watching a French TV station -- beamed to Fletcher via satellite -- getting press releases from museums and galleries, and reading constantly. Plus, French friends send Kane newspaper clippings about new restaurants, films and exhibits. Hers is the happy task of frequent-flying to Paris to corroborate these experiences.
"I have to watch out, be-cause I know the city so well," Kane says. "I have to stop and think, what are the things that I loved when I first started going there? Now, I try to combine the important, iconic things about Paris with, here's a great little restaurant where there won't be a lot of tourists."
Asked about her own picks for the most romantic spots in Paris, Kane gushes, "I'm hopelessly smitten -- I think everything about Paris is sexy." But she manages to declare the most lover-friendly restaurant, hotel and view. "The Petit Troquet is a bistro near the Eiffel Tower where my husband and I have been eating for years, and I don't think it will ever lose its charm," she suggests. "The menu depends on the freshest ingredients, and the wines are excellent."
Kane recommends the Hotel Brighton, "especially in April and May. Newly renovated, the hotel has spacious rooms, marble bathrooms, thick terry robes and -- best of all -- windows overlooking the Jardin des Tuileries."
The most romantic sight, Kane believes, is the Pont des Arts at night: "At one end is the oldest wing of the Louvre; to the north, the Eiffel Tower glitters, and the Seine weaves its way underneath. "Everything is illuminated," Kane continues, "including the river, which reflects the lights from the quais and the buildings on both banks."
How does Kane transition from all this to the bucolic isolation of Fletcher, Vermont? "I'm getting better -- I used to cry all the time," she says with a laugh. "Now that I have the business and know I can have a foot in both worlds, it's much easier."