Giving in to her wanderlust and love of France, Jacqueline “Jackie” Grandchamps, Ph.D., launched French Escapade to share Europe with other women 10 years ago.
A decade later, Grandchamps hasn’t tired of sharing Europe with guests and she’s made friends who have returned trip after trip.
“I’m pleased because I feel like I’ve helped a lot of people achieve their goals of discovering a new country,” said Grandchamps, a 47-year-old lesbian. “The last 10 years have been very rewarding for me.”
Grandchamps, who is a native of Belgium, has proudly been taking women on tours of Belgium, France and Spain. During weeklong tours at different locations in these countries, women get to explore culture, art and cooking as well as connect with locals through up to 15 different trips.
“It’s been very rewarding,” said Grandchamps, whose motto for French Escapade is “Don’t be a tourist. Be our guest.”
Grandchamps typically splits her time between the Bay Area and France spending spring and fall in Europe and the rest of the time in the Bay Area, she said.
When she isn’t in Europe she takes guests on day-trips around San Francisco, Napa and Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Grandchamps earned her Ph.D. in molecular biology and was a cancer researcher at Stanford University from 1995 until she decided to chase her love for travel in 2003. A year later she launched French Escapade, with the assistance of her life partner Valarie Sans, a professor of British and American History and Literature in the Rhone-Alps region of southern France.
She launched her company with a single tour to the French Alps, where Sans and she rented a house and brought guests – that she signed up through marketing on lesbian listserves and at house parties hosted by friends – to the region. Not wanting to limit her market when she first started out, she opted to offer trips to gay and straight women. It worked, sexual orientation didn’t seem to matter, and the women enjoyed each other’s company, she said.
“Women feel safer to travel with just other women and the tour guide, which is me,” said Grandchamps, pointing out that traveling with the girls – gay or straight – is a different experience than traveling with men or straight couples. “I mean, women laugh much more at the dinner table when there are no men. Men don’t laugh about the same thing or talk about the same thing, so just being with women is another plus that people really like.”
Grandchamps took guests out during the day and Sans cooked meals at night after she left the university. They did that for three years until they outgrew the guest house and guests began to ask about trips to other locations with Grandchamps.
She branched out planning a cultural trip to her native country, Belgium. The suggestions for destinations and types of tours continued to come and she responded by developing a new tour every two years, she said.
Sans continues to teach, rarely participating on the tours beyond helping out in the background, said Grandchamps, who has learned not only flexibility and patience as a tour leader, but also more about Europe planning each new destination.
Not every tour has been successful, said Grandchamps. She attempted to offer golf and writing tours, but France isn’t known for its golf and writers don’t necessarily need to go to France to write, they can write anywhere, she said. So, she dropped those tours.
Whatever she’s doing its working. She’s gained fans for her style of tours, often times her regular guests book trips even before they are announced, she said. She estimates that she has between 30 and 40 percent return rate for her trips.
“I had actually lesbian[s] who came on the cultural trip on every single one and actually those women are waiting for me. They want me to organize new trips and they are already waiting for the next destination and usually it doesn’t matter what destination -they know that they are going to come back,” said Grandchamps.
Today, women from all over the world find French Escapade online and through a few targeted advertising on women’s travel websites, said Grandchamps, who has entertained guests from North America, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Japan.
A Unique Experience
The painting trips are her most popular. Aspiring women artists get to take in the landscapes and scenery and paint where the masters of French impressionism and other artists have painted under the instruction of an art instructor.
Similarly, women with a love for cooking who want to experience learning the art of French cooking spend a week of private lessons under the instruction of a “one star Michelin Guide” chef getting to know the unique ingredients and flavors of the various regions of France. Guests will also now be able to learn the flavors of Spain, with one of her newest cooking tours.
The tours are unique not only because of the themes that are carefully executed with care and perfection, but Grandchamps also sticks to taking groups no larger than 12 guests to popular destinations where she blends traditional tourist experiences while diverging off the beaten path. She often incorporates dinners at local’s homes, staying at bed and breakfasts, and allows guests to set the pace for a more “authentic” and “intimate” experience rather than being in a large group that is shuttled around from site to site on a strict schedule.
“It’s very different very different. It’s more intimate and more authentic than what other tour operators may offer,” said Grandchamps, who also customizes her trips if guests have been to the region before and want to see something different.
Because the groups are unusually small, often by the end of the week many of the guests know each other and have developed new friendships.
Laurie Drabble and her partner of 11 years, Chase Pearce, whom are looking forward to their fifth adventure with French Escapade and have become friends with Grandchamps, agreed.
“She always has much more sort of intimate opportunities to go on little small adventures that you would never be able to do on your own,” said Drabble, 58. “The fact that she does all of that research does create kind of an ideal experience.”
Pearce, 62, agreed, reminiscing about their trip to Barcelona where they enjoyed a private meal with their group hosted by a local gentleman who brought in a jazz band for entertainment last year.
The couple traveled with another couple they met through French Escapade during that trip, they said.
“It’s nice to travel with a small group of other people who are interested in traveling,” said Drabble, pointing out that the couple has recommended French Escapade to family and friends. “I think may be its some of the best travel dollars that we’ve spent.”
“We hope that she’s got another decade or more with new adventures with new people,” added Drabble.
To learn more about French Escapade, visit frenchescapade.com.