There’s a photograph of my mother sitting next to the Rhone Glacier wearing a bright smile and a pretty 1950s summer dress. It’s a record of her visit to Lake Geneva on the French-Swiss border with the Young Women’s Christian Association, taken at a time when working class girls from South Wales weren’t expected to holiday abroad.
Inspired by my mother’s stories, I knew I would one day visit the region myself. But whereas mum stayed in a spartan Swiss ski chalet and endured rather than enjoyed a visit to the newly established United Nations in Geneva, I travelled with an old school friend to the luxurious Evian Resort on the French side of the lake.
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It was a time before the world was consumed by coronavirus; it feels like a lifetime ago. But as the world wakes up feeling new and uneasy, I can’t think of a more soothing place to be.
One of Europe’s great spas, the lakeside town of Evian-Les-Bains has been catering to the needs of the frazzled rich for at least two centuries. The modern Evian Resort, which has its roots in the magnificent Belle Epoch era at the beginning of the 20th century, is more than just a hotel; it is two hotels, a concert hall, a children’s club, a funicular railway and a golf course, all set in 245 acres overlooking Lake Leman, which is what the French call Lake Geneva.
We arrive in style. An S-series Mercedes-Benz – kitted out with Evian water and Swiss chocolates – is waiting at Geneva Airport to drive us to the shore. And from there, Evian One, a state-of-the-art catamaran built with low-carbon technology, whisks us along the misty 45-mile lake to our destination.
Hotel Ermitage – our home for the first night – has been refurbished by interior designer Patrick Ribes in an ‘Anglo-Normand’ style vaguely reminiscent of a northern hunting lodge. It has an informal vibe that’s geared, in a particularly French way, to families with young children. Le Spa Quatre Terres even offers a range of fruity mini treatments that will introduce your pampered little prince or princess to the essential principles of personal care.
Evian folk have always prided themselves on the purity and minerality of their local water, which filters naturally through Alpine rock, and this obsession with terroir has led to the development of a bespoke treatment. As I lie down on the bed, I try the Le Spa Quatre Terres’ signature body scrub – an abrasive salt rub, followed by a hot clay wrap and then a deep muscle massage.
‘I can feel you’re very tense,” says my therapist kindly, as she sets to work. With serious family trouble going down at home, she doesn’t know the half of it. But before long, I’m in a better frame of mind and ready to hit the town for an extravagant night out that would, I suspect, have horrified the YWCA.
If you’ve ever wandered the beautiful but rather stolid streets of Geneva, wondering forlornly where the action is, I can tell you: it’s not in the city. Lake Leman is encircled by historic towns with fabulous casinos – in fact, it is the lake immortalised in Deep Purple’s song Smoke On The Water, about the fire that destroyed the Montreux Casino during a Frank Zappa concert.
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No conflagration occurred when Miranda and I hit the tables at Evian’s gambling house. With sensible things like mortgages to pay, we only played with what we could afford. But in a discreet high-stakes drama, we watched as a dinner-suited guest surrendered £5000 in a single spin of the roulette wheel. Elsewhere, a young and rakish local crew were bonding round a lively blackjack game.
Hotel Royal – which housed us for the second part of our stay – was built in 1909 in honour of King Edward VII. Making a good case for being France’s finest hotel, the five-star Royal was renovated in 2015 when the neo-baroque frescoes by Gustave-Louis Jaulmes were returned to their former glory. A reputed favourite of President Francois Mitterrand, it is so embedded in the French establishment, they held their G8 summit of major world leaders there in 2003.
Our Belle Epoch corner suite on the fourth floor is so vast that, after a while, I began to wonder if life wouldn’t be simpler if there was less distance to walk between the sitting room, the bedroom and the white marble bathroom. (I know, first world problems …)
Hotel toiletries are always a gamble, but the Royal’s bespoke range, deliciously scented by Fragonard, did wonderful things for our skin and hair. With four private balconies to choose from, I make an interesting discovery: the lake views are spectacular, but they face north – and in winter the shade is, literally, freezing. A southern room overlooking snow-capped mountains might be better if you enjoy lazy afternoons in the surprisingly hot Alpine sun.
That night, we dine at Les Fresques, a Michelin-starred restaurant overseen by head chef Patrice Vander. The service takes time – but why rush? You’re here to relax. And puddings must be ordered at the start, so that chief dessert-maker Stephane Arrete has time to create them.
From a menu that incorporates a mirror, enabling us to admire Jaulmes’ frescoed ceiling without cricking our necks, we both choose the Lake Geneva crayfish with royal foie gras and verbena-flavoured froth to start. Miranda opts for the fillet of Abondance beef as her entree, but I break with national character and plump for Bresse-reared pigeon with poached pear and salsify.
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The accompanying wines from the Royal’s exceptional list are chosen with a confident eye to finding value in the under-rated grapes of the Haute Savoie. These include not just the often-dismissed ‘ski-chalet chasselas’ but subtle, careful and unshowy blends of roussanne, jacquere and mondeuse blanche, which seem a perfect metaphor for the quiet sophistication of the hotel.
According to Tracy Clement, the long-serving trips and tours manager, much of the Royal’s business comes from guests who return year after year. With a multitude of activities available, from skiing and dogsled rides in the nearby Portes Du Soleil during winter, to golf, water sports, biking and walking in summer, we barely scratch the surface of what Evian has to offer. Nor did we get the chance to experience a world-class cultural event at the resort’s La Grange performance space. But one day, I will return to enjoy in full, the peaceful magic of the lake.
Have you ever had a trip so luxurious? Do you enjoy spa breaks, or do you like a bit more adventure?
– With PA
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