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Why the alpine region should be next on your travel bucket list
Nestled in the body of the Alps, between France and Switzerland, is a crescent-shaped lake – one of the largest in Western Europe. Wide, deep and breathtakingly beautiful, it is a nonetheless overlooked holiday destination; too frequently passed over for the nearby ski resorts in the winter or the smaller lakes resort of Annecy in France in the summer.
I thought just as much when I landed in Geneva this September, and saw the lake dart past the window of my cab, and the Alps perilously loom over me. This region boasts myriad untrodden delights just waiting to be explored. There is the unsung beauty of a city break in Geneva, endless outdoor pursuits and charming lakeside towns, with a Belle Epoque feel, from French Évian-les-Bains – where I was headed – to other impossibly chic spots along the northern shores, affectionately known as the Swiss Riviera.
Given its vast size, straddling two countries, there are various entry points to Lake Geneva. One of the easiest routes is to fly to Geneva itself. The route is covered by most major airlines, including Swiss Air, and the average flight time from London is 1 hour and 42 minutes. From there, most locations along the lake are reachable by car or the train. There is a regular route from Geneva to Lausanne and the superior Golden Pass Line, which travels past some of the most impressive scenery of Lake Geneva, can be booked as part of a longer train holiday throughout the Swiss alpine region. Occasionally, you may be lucky enough to catch one of the old Art Nouveau trains still in service. An accidental slice of Orient Express luxury with stellar views…
The simple answer is: why not? This region has so much to offer, starting in Geneva. The city is frequently downplayed as merely a scrupulously clean financial centre (or a great place to buy a watch). While both things are, of course, true, Geneva is much more than spotless streets and timepieces. Catch a boat from the quay at Genève-Mt-Blanc and take in the wonders of the shore (and Geneva’s ‘Jet D’Eau’ fountain) the tree-lined promenades with turn-of-the-century townhouses. Stroll through Geneva’s gorgeous parks, Eaux-Vives, Jardin Anglais, Perle du Lac or Mon Repos, visit the iconic UN Palais des Nations or take in the treasures of the historic city centre, which includes St Pierre’s Cathedral, and is best enjoyed for its narrow, winding streets littered with charming cafes and restaurants.
There is also the natural beauty of the lake, which is hugged by the Swiss and French Alps. From tourist boat trips to more active pursuits like water skiing and kayaking, the natural splendour of the region is begging to be explored. Hiking, biking and paragliding are the most popular summer sports, while skiing still dominates these mountains once the snow falls.
Stick close to the shoreline, and you can spend an engaging trip taking in the charms of the region’s riviera. Évian-les-Bains is brimming with history and Belle Epoque resort atmosphere, or there are the culturally rich towns of Lausanne, Vevey and Montreux, or the fascinating small medieval town of Yvoire. At every turn there is a new, beautiful village, made all the more quietly luxurious by just how un-touristy it is.
If you decide to base yourself, or at least start your adventure, in Geneva, you can do no better than the luxurious lakeside hotel The Woodward, which feels as it it exists on its own island within the city, and even has a Guerlain spa. The so-called riviera towns are also overflowing with great hotel options. In Vevey, a gorgeous lake resort by Lausanne, you have to opt for the historic and opulent Grand Hotel du Lac which is brimming with old-world luxury, or choose nearby Montreux’s quaint but supremely elegant L’Ermitage.
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We opted for one of the region’s oldest, and most famous – Hôtel Royal, part of the Evian Resort on the French side of the lake – in Évian-les-Bains. The hotel’s history is linked directly to the Evian natural mineral water spring (yes, where the water comes from) which transformed the local area into a thermal spa town, hosting holidaymakers who, in the early twentieth-century, would come to ‘take the waters’. The grand palace hotel was designed as the luxury base for these visitors, and its ‘royal’ title was affixed as it was built in honour of the British monarch Edward VII. The king, whose old royal suite has now been turned into the hotel’s exemplary spa, was intended to be one of the resort’s first ever guests, after it opened in 1909. Sadly, he would never stay, dying in 1910. The promise of luxury and high-profile clientele was, however, met, and the hotel has hosted everyone from Proust to Ray Charles and Greta Garbo as well as, in the 1990s, the G7 and, just a week before we visited, the President of France.
If its history is its unique calling card, the location is its true asset. While the rooms are magnificent and the infinity pool outdoes itself, appearing to trickle right over into the lake, it is the view which never stops impressing. Set in a wooded area up in the hills, the hotel is not only peaceful, it offers an unparalleled vantage point. Open your windows in the morning and an unfettered view of Lake Geneva greets you, right before the alps, which teasingly hover majestically to your right. You never really adjust to how simple and breathtaking this vista is.
The region is famous for great cheese and cheese dishes (hello Raclette) but besides aprés ski treats, there are innumerable great restaurants in the area. Lausanne, one of the premier resorts on the northern shores of the lake, has a roster of amazing eateries, including the historic and atmospheric Café Beau-Rivage or Pinte Besson, one of the oldest restaurants in Switzerland. In Montreux, head to the Montreux Jazz Café, named for the town’s famous jazz festival, for some great food but even better atmosphere.
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We dined at the Michelin-starred Les Fresques at the Hôtel Royal Evian. A narrow gallery with long windows and lake views, it is also home to a stunning ceiling fresco (which gives the restaurant its name) and which you can view from mirrors in your menu. The food here is predictably sublime, with an array of locally sourced ingredients, from lake and river-caught fish, to foraged mushrooms and regional goat’s cheese. The sommelier selected some of best wine that I have ever had – including one from the Haute Savoie (the French department which abuts the lake) – and you can even choose your steak knife from the Knife Menu.
From the distractions of Geneva to the bucolic beauty of the lakeside towns, you are spoilt for choice. Highlights should certainly include a trip to the French medieval own of Yvoire, which is full of cobbled streets, historic buildings and stunning landscaped gardens. There is also Montreux, famous for its jazz festival (in July), grand turn-of-the-century promenades and captivating island castle Château de Chillon.
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We chose to spend one day exploring the French Évian-les-Bains, reaching it via a rackety and charming 1900s funicular, down the mountain slope. It is well worth a visit – a beautiful small Belle Epoque town wrapped around the history of Evian’s natural water source; from its grand pump rooms to its museums and spa buildings. Besides grabbing a glass of water from the natural spring (it really does taste better) make sure to check out the sumptuous town hall, former home of the Lumière brothers, famously credited as being among the world’s first ever filmmakers.
There are many great organisations to help you explore the region, like Inspiring Travel Company, which can shape individual packages taking in its various centres and activities. In winter, they can align ski and spa trips, along the area’s Les Portes du Soleil (12 ski resorts connecting France and Switzerland), with days of skiing and snowshoeing alongside afternoons of well-deserved massages.
Indeed, making the most of the end of summer offerings, perhaps by far the greatest thing we did on our trip to Lake Geneva was a hike up the mountains. Our guide, Virgile, who works at the hotel, took us through forests and valleys riddled with bell-adorned cows up to spectacular heights where the lake lay beneath us, dappled with the shadows of the clouds we were above. For all the bustle and often grandeur of its nearby towns, that day long hike reminded us why Lake Geneva itself is the greatest draw.