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, while mum stayed in a spartan Swiss ski chalet and endured 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.
It was a time before coronavirus, though only earlier this year. But, as the world wakes up, 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 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. 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. It has an informal vibe geared to families with young children. Le Spa Quatre Terres even offers a range of fruity mini-treatments for your little prince or princess.
Evian has always prided itself on the purity and minerality of their water, which filters naturally through Alpine rock, and this has led to the development of a bespoke treatment. As I lie 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 tense,” says my therapist kindly, as she sets to work. Before long, I’m ready to hit the town.
Lake Leman is encircled by historic towns with fabulous casinos. Miranda and I hit the tables at Evian’s gambling house. With mortgages to pay, we only play with what we can afford, but watch as a guest surrenders £5,000 in a single spin of the roulette wheel.
Hotel Royal, which houses us for the second part of our stay, was a reputed favourite of President Mitterrand. Our Belle Epoch corner suite on the fourth floor is vast, with sitting room, bedroom and white marble bathroom.
The Royal’s bespoke toiletries, 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 face north – and in winter the shade is, literally, freezing. A southern room overlooking snow-capped mountains might be better if you want to enjoy the hot Alpine sun.
That night, we dine at Les Fresques, a Michelin-starred restaurant overseen by head chef Patrice Vander. Puddings must be ordered at the start, so that chief dessert-maker Stephane Arrete has time to create them.
From the menu 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.
The accompanying wines include not just the often-dismissed “ski-chalet chasselas” but subtle blends of roussanne, jacquere and mondeuse blanche.
With a multitude of activities available, from skiing and dogsled rides in Portes Du Soleil during winter, to golf, watersports, biking and walking in summer, we barely scratch the surface of what Evian has to offer. Nor did we experience the world-class cultural event at the La Grange performance space. But, one day, I will return to enjoy in full the magic of the lake.
Hotel Royal 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. The hotel hosted the G8 summit in 2003.
Rooms at the Evian Resort start from €296/£270 per night, with breakfast, in 2021.
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