It’s all about the wine.
The way the vineyards drape across the hillsides. The way the sun illuminates the landscape. The soil, the terrain, the cuisine, the culture, the people of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva region all have a stake in its thriving wine industry.
That may come as some surprise to readers who, upon hearing the place name “Switzerland,” immediately think of the quintessential Swiss experience as one enjoyed gazing at snowcapped vistas while sipping hot toddies from the warmth of a rustic chalet with the lazy rhythm of cowbells tinkering in the distance.
In fact, both of these scenarios ring true. Lake Geneva has been described as a miniature version of Switzerland as a whole. At the lower altitudes, you’ll find sparkling lakes bordered by palm trees and brilliant seasonal flowers. Climbing higher, wooded hills give way to a rolling green landscape before the foothills of the Alps begin their ascent to majestic peaks and glaciers.
THE WINE AND THE PEOPLE
For me, though, a novice skier more at home on the beginner trails of New England than the world-class runs of the Alps, it’s all about the lake and its environs. And, of course, the wine.
A waterlogged bump in the Rhone River, Lake Geneva is a 225-square-mile crescent-shaped body of water on the border between Switzerland and France. The French-speaking Swiss canton of Vaud and its key cities — Geneva, Lausanne and Montreux — hug the lake’s eastern, northern and western shores. Evian les Bains, home to Evian water, is located at the midpoint of its southern shore in France. The lake’s 103-mile circumference is a pleasant drive on well-marked roads with scenic vistas stretching as far as the eye can see.
The region within a region that draws me back to this tiny corner of the world time and time again is the district of Lavaux. Located in the heart of Vaud on the shores of Lake Geneva, it’s an almost magical place where golden vineyards drape like strands of luminescent pearls across the hills that rise dramatically from the shore of the lake. In total, just more than 2,000 acres of vine-clad hillside stretch between Lausanne and Montreux.
The region, easily traversed on foot, by bike, by train or by car, numbers six appellations of controlled origin — Lutyr, Villette, Epesses, Staint-Saphorin, Chardonne and Vevey-Montreux.
What’s so special about the wines of Lavaux? Well, first of all, given such a confined growing area, annual production of these wonderful wines is limited. They’re difficult to come by — especially outside Switzerland — so the law of supply and demand comes into play. (That said, they’re still quite reasonably priced.) Plus, the growing area, marked by steep slopes, boasts a diverse soil with a variable content of slate, chalk and minerals. But it’s more than that. It’s the people who produce the wine — even the largest producers are more often than not family-run businesses. Knock on a wine-cellar door (those open for tours are marked by a cartoon figure of a smiling bunch of grapes) and you’re as likely to be invited into the vintner’s home as into a formal tasting room.
I’ll never forget my first Swiss wine tasting. I was in Vevey seated in a cavernous wine cellar at a table made from an overturned wine barrel. Wine grower Jean-Francois Chevalley coached my small group through the tasting as he explained the secret to making fine Swiss wine. It’s all in the sunshine, he said, especially “the sunshine in a winegrower’s heart.”
THE WINE ROAD
The vineyards from Lausanne to Vevey are connected by a series of roads and hiking paths. Hiking the 20-mile stretch from one end to the other is an all-day affair — and that doesn’t take into account tasting stops or detours to explore “the road less traveled.” There’s also a wine train, train des vignes — a brightly colored tourist train that traverses the route from lakeshore Vevey to the hillside vineyards of Chexbres — and a funicular that runs from the outskirts of Vevey to Chardonne and Mt. Pelerin.
The wine train recently added a new route connecting Vevey to Chexbres-Puidoux where you can take a panoramic lift to the heights of Mont-Pélerin. The train rolls along through the expansive vineyards and hillside villages with optional tours available including wine cellar visits, wine appreciation seminars and guided wine walking tours.
I had always relied on trains in Switzerland. Last fall, however, I rented a car and set out to explore on my own. A bit of independence made a big difference in my understanding of the region. For the first time, I could look at the cartoonishly illustrated wine road map distributed by the tourism offices for the region and have it all click into place. After driving the wine road, I understood how the villages and appellations are connected to one another. And it’s darn near impossible to get lost. You can see the lake from just about every vantage point. If a winding road turns into a dead end, U-turn and try again from another angle. Plus, having a car at the ready means there’s plenty of trunk space to carry along the wine you’ll likely purchase en route.
THE URBAN CENTERS
Home to the Olympic Museum and headquarters of the International Olympic Committee, Lausanne is noted for excellent shopping, dining and accommodations. In fact, visitors who choose to eschew the larger, but nearby, city of Geneva in favor of this friendly venue won’t be disappointed. Large department stores and smaller specialty boutiques line a pedestrian-only thoroughfare. The city’s public transit system is easy to navigate — and a godsend if your plans call for exploring both the lakefront and shopping area which sits atop hills that rival those of San Francisco.
Montreux, also known as the “Pearl of the Swiss Riviera,” is a lakeside resort town nestled between majestic mountains and the shores Lake Geneva. The city that enjoys a sub-tropical microclimate boasts a flower-lined walking path that runs end to end along the shore of Lake Geneva. It’s also home to a casino established in the late 19th century and a world-renowned jazz festival that takes place each year in July.
The smaller village of Vevey is no less appealing. In fact, its friendly size may be its main appeal. That and, of course, its proximity to the lakefront and vineyards. One of the charming town’s most recognized claims to fame may be the fact that it was the chosen home of early 20th century American comedian Charlie Chaplin who lived here with his family for the last 24 years of his life. Chaplin’s descendants still own the family home and remain active in village life. A statue of Chaplin stands in a flower-filled garden overlooking the lake.
ROYAL PARC EVIAN
A member of Leading Hotels of the World, Royal Park Evian is reminiscent of a formal country estate. Situated on the south bank of Lake Geneva at the foot of the French Alps, the resort property is just 28 miles from the hustle and bustle of Geneva, but a world away in terms of ambience. Comprised of two individual hotels — the 153-room Hotel Royal and the 91-room Hotel Ermitage — the complex is a study in elegance replete with 42 acres of landscaped gardens. Guestrooms are comfortable and spacious, but not overdone. A country estate, Royal Park Evian is more about relaxation than connectivity. There’s a business center with Internet access available to guests, but rooms are not wired for high-speed Internet access. Dining is an event in the gilded halls of Café Royal. Chef Michael Lentz does a magnificent job creating the healthy, beautiful and delicious fare — dubbed synergetic cuisine — showcased at Le Jardin de Lys. $$$$
ROYAL PARC EVIAN
South Bank of Lake Geneva
74500 Evian, Haute Savoie, France
tel 33 0 4 50 26 85 00
Designed in the mid-19th century to cater to wealthy tourists, Beau-Rivage Palace today is ranked among the finest hotels in Switzerland. Located on the lakefront in Lausanne — on a stretch of land once considered a retreat from the summer heat in the city that stretches across the hilly landscape above the lake — Beau-Rivage remains a haven for discriminating guests who expect the best of everything. In the last decade, the hotel has undergone an extensive restoration. Guestrooms are equipped with remote controlled lights and shades, and high-speed Internet access. Most rooms have Jacuzzi-style whirlpool tubs, often situated in the middle of the bathroom in front of windows that swing open to reveal the stunning landscape. Le Café Beau Rivage boasts a relaxed dining atmosphere while La Rotonde is the hotel’s fine dining venue. Cinq Mondes, a 15,000-square-foot spa, opened last year. $$$$
1000 Lausanne-Ouchy 6
tel 41 21 613 33 33, fax 41 21 613 33 34
LAUSANNE PALACE AND SPA
Located in Lausanne’s business district just steps from the pedestrian-friendly shopping area, Lausanne Palace and Spa is a city hotel — its lobby and lounge are great places to meet and greet. In search of a quiet drink with an inspiring view? On a clear day, proceed all the way through the hotel’s casual bar through the back doors to a small veranda – four tables tops — overlooking the lower city, train station, Lake Geneva and Evian across the lake in France. Guestrooms feature Aveda bath products, heated towel racks, goose-down pillows and complimentary Internet connection. Most public areas offer wireless Internet access. Dining venues include the casual Le Cote Jardin and the more formal Le Table d’Edgard.The hotel also boasts a full-service spa. $$$
LAUSANNE PALACE AND SPA
Grand Chêne 7-9
tel 41 0 21 331 3131
fax 41 0 21 323 2571
LES TROIS SIFFLETS
Fine dining establishments abound throughout the Lake Geneva region, but sometimes it’s the simple things that fit the bill. That’s when it’s time to seek out Les Trois Sifflets.The casual Vevey eatery specializes in fondue. You won’t be disappointed with the tangy hot cheese and the crusty dipping bread. A glass — or two — of Swiss wine rounds out the meal. Dessert’s on offer — créme brulee, flan caramel — all fabulous, I’m sure. But I came for the fondue and it conquered all. This is a down-home establishment where the owner banters with guests and friends alike. Highly recommended. $$
LES TROIS SIFFLETS
Rue du Simplon 1
tel 4121 921 1413
The 2005 edition of the Guide Michelin Suise awarded La Rotonde one star, a stunning achievement for Chef Florian Giraud. La Rotonde, distinguished by its circular shape (rotunda) seats 65 diners, including an outside dining terrace overlooking Lake Geneva and the Swiss Alps. Seasonal menus celebrate fresh produce complemented by one of the most extensive wine lists in Switzerland. A sample chef’s tasting menu includes zucchini spaghetti with shellfish and dill, roasted red mullet fillet and candied vegetables with sweet pepper vinaigrette, grilled tuna skewer with peanut sauce, roasted duck breast with rhubarb compote and rocket salad, fresh and matured cheese selection, melon gazpacho with anise, strawberry crisp refreshed with yogurt.Traditional menu selections are on offer. $$$-$$$$
CH-1000 Lausanne 6
tel 41 21 613 33 33
fax 41 21 613 33 34
The fine-dining venue at Royal Park Evian is a contradiction of sorts. Its gilded elegance recalls a more genteel era, yet it’s located in a country estate setting that leans toward the casual. Still, there’s something to be said for a “dress-up” evening. Chef Michael Lentz, who does wonders with “healthful” offerings, dubbed synergistic cuisine, at the resort’s Le Jardin de Lys, pulls out all the stops at Cafe Royal. This is a dining experience to be savored from start to finish. Lentz focuses on fresh local ingredients — lake char, perch, fera, beef, cheeses and indigenous herbs and flowers to create a memorable dining experience. $$$$
Royal Parc Evian
South Bank of Lake Geneva
74500 Evian, Haute Savoie, France
tel 33 0 4 50 26 85 00
I like to think of Les Bains de Lavey as my little secret. It’s not, of course. Still, as well-known as this slice of paradise may be among locals, I’ve never so much as overheard another word spoken in English unless it was uttered by me addressing a friend or asking for information at the front desk.
And now I’m about to share my secret. But, shhh — don’t tell anyone.
Les Bains de Lavey, or the Lavey Spa and Resort, is located about 15 miles from Montreux. Traveling by train, you can take a bus or taxi from St-Maurice train station.
This center for well-being is situated on a thermal hot spring — the Lavey Spring — discovered on Feb. 27, 1831, when a fisherman felt the unexpected heat of warm water as he waded through the nearby Rhone River gathering his nets.
Lavey’s spa waters come from a hyper-thermal spring located 650 to 1,950 feet below the surface. The first well drilled at the site delivers a steady stream of 144-degree thermal water. A second well drilled in 2000 generates an even stronger stream of 158-degree water.With the thermal waters at its core, Les Bains de Lavey is a holistic center for well being resulting from a natural, non-polluting source of energy.
And while it would be cool — or warm — to immerse in the natural thermal springs, Les Bains de Lavey takes bathing to a whole new level with a free-form pool, pressure jets, neck showers,mushroom showers, water cascades, underwater currents and underwater massage loungers.
The baths are open to day-trippers, but there’s also a hotel and spa on location. Lockers, showers, changing rooms and hair dryers are available to anyone who purchases a day pass. (Word to the wise: Bring at least two towels.You’ll need one when you shower at the end of your visit and another for sitting on if you choose to visit the sauna or steam room.) There’s a solarium overlooking the thermal pool, a cafeteria outside the locker area and a more formal dining room.
For more information, visit www.lavey-les-bains.ch.
INFO TO GO
Whether traveling to France or Switzerland, Geneva International Airport (GVA) is the gateway to the Lake Geneva region. The airport, located about three miles north of Geneva, is convenient to highways that connect throughout the region. Agents at car rental desks located at the airport are knowledgeable and ready to help map out routes to your final destination. The Geneva rail station offers convenient connections to destinations throughout the region and beyond.
Across the Pond
Set on a hillside almost directly across from the Swiss city of Lausanne, Royal Parc Evian (see Lodging) presides over one of the leading spa resorts in eastern France — Evian Les Bains.
The waters of Evian are noted for their healing qualities and as the source of the bottled water known throughout the world. The town of Evian on the south bank of Lake Geneva is home to a population of less than 10,000.
The first private bathing resort in Evian was opened in 1826 by the Swiss banker Francóis Fauconnet. The first public resort was built in 1827 on the site of the former St. Catherine’s church. Throughout its history, Evian has preserved and used its architectural heritage, so visitors experience a welcoming and dynamic city. Les Thermes Evian (www.lesthermesevian.com) offers an assortment of a la carte day packages.
Regularly scheduled ferries cross the lake transporting passengers between Evian and Lausanne. The one-way journey takes about a half-hour. For complete information, visit www.eviantourism.com.
Two and a half hours beyond Ho Chi Minh City, via a newly constructed highway, Azerai Ke Ga Bay in Vietnam’s Binh Thuan province opens the gate to a corner of the country waiting to be discovered. The careful planning and sustainable development of Azerai Ke Ga Bay has already made a strong impression as an award-nominated and -winning pioneer of 5-star boutique hospitality in this emerging destination, drawing in an adventurous new generation of affluent international guests.
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