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March 15, 1987|HARRY BASCH and SHIRLEY SLATER | Basch and Slater are Los Angeles writers.

None other than the Viscount and Viscountess de la Panouse were waiting to welcome us as our helicopter settled delicately on the manicured lawn fronting the 16th-Century Chateau de Thoiry outside Paris.

By now, on our third time aboard a helicopter, and on the seventh day of viewing France from fresh and unusual vantage points, we'd learned how easy it was to become accustomed to this sort of life. There's something exhilarating about dropping out of the sky like a deus ex machina.

Ours was a special journey that had begun in Paris, in a flower-sprigged yellow-and-white room at the very top of the Inter-Continental Hotel that looked like a set for a Hollywood version of "La Boheme," with two tiny balconies, each barely large enough for one of us to stand and look out on the rooftops of the city. Starting from there, our adventure involved three days of floating along a Burgundy canal on a luxury hotel-barge, waving at French fishermen and enjoying bright purple iris, crimson poppies and Queen Anne's lace at eye level. Mornings, we sat lazily in the sun, watching the crew and lock tenders, or we took off on bicycles to ride through sunny villages. Afternoons, we clambered into the wicker basket of a vivid, billowing hot-air balloon and floated away into a dream.

And now, we were circling by helicopter near chateaux in the Loire and estates in the Ile-de-France, and dropping in to take tea with a marquis or join a private tour of someone's 500-year-old palace.

In one instance there was Annabelle, Viscountess de la Panouse--a tall, slender, vivacious blonde and a former Vogue model from Minnesota who met Paul, the viscount, in Paris while she was on a modeling assignment. Several rooms in their chateau have been converted to museums, including a museum of gastronomy dedicated to the early 18th-Century chef, Careme, and recreations of his towering edible architecture that once graced the table of Talleyrand--"one of my husband's ancestors," Annabelle claims. After a tour through the chateau, she asked whether we'd like to see the estate. Of course we would.

So we piled into a beat-up Citroen station wagon with one of its rear doors crushed closed. "Would you be a darling and put on your seat belt?" Annabelle trilled. "I don't have a driver's license, but don't worry."

We careened wildly off beyond the chateau's formal gardens (designed by Le Notre) to the family's African-game reserve and private zoo. Annabelle showed us the "ligrons," second-generation hybrids descended from the cross-breeding of a lion and a tiger.

After the ligrons, Annabelle wanted us to see the English garden because the rhododendrons were in full bloom, so we peeled off in another direction, bouncing mightily, and drove down a flight of garden steps into a 10-foot hedge of the sticky, pale-pink flowers.

Afterward, upon our return to the helicopter, our pilot had a chilled bottle of Moet et Chandon Champagne waiting as usual (tradition calls for a glass at each takeoff). We waved goodby to Annabelle, sank back against the leather upholstery and studied the green countryside near Versailles.

(The previous day we had flown along the Loire, following its course from chateau to chateau, snapping photographs as we hovered over Chambord and Chenonceaux.)

At midday we landed by the swimming pool of the Domaine de Beauvois at Luynes, near Tours, where, in the elegant 15th-Century manor house, we dined on succulent Loire salmon with hollandaise, vegetables grown on the estate, and strawberries with cream. We wondered what it would be like to stay in one of the tower rooms. There are 40 bedrooms in this Relais et Chateaux member inn, each one with different trappings, from fireplaces and medieval half-timbered ceilings and stained glass to antique armoires larger than some hotel rooms.

Our pilot, Richard, a native of Bordeaux, tends to speak with some condescension about any wines that are unfortunate enough to come from any other region. Nevertheless, he took us to Vouvray, where we looked down at the vineyards.

We landed near a hollowed-out hill to visit a cellar housing 50,000 bottles of Vouvray, some dating to 1921. After sampling several wines from recent years, we returned to the helicopter for more Champagne, and the sights of other chateaux and the intricate geometric gardens of Chateau de Villandry to Usse and the Chateau d'Esclimont which French fairy-tale writer Charles Perrault used as a model for Sleeping Beauty's castle.

At the cocktail hour our helicopter settled down on a grassy plot between the terrace and the swan-filled lake of Chateau d'Esclimont. This fairy-tale castle was built in 1543 but came into the famous De la Rochefoucauld family through marriage in 1807. In 1865, the castle was restored, and the motto, C'est Mon Plaisir (It's My Pleasure) was inscribed above the door.

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