Jetlagged and weary from travel, I order a salade nicoise from room service, settle into a corner of the linen sofa and watch the boats slice through Lake Geneva while the sun goes down. The ripples quickly fade into inky stillness. Everything here feels soft. The down pillows on the king-size bed. The damp gray sky. The tops of stately old fir trees reaching upward like green bottle brushes.
I am staying in a third-floor apartment at the Hotel Royal, in Evian, France.
An apartment, that’s what they call it. Not a room or a suite. A 990-square-foot apartment, with a spacious bedroom, a bathroom made of gleaming white Carrara marble, a full living room, and even a small library filled with new books in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. There’s Sartre if you’re feeling existential; a coffee-table book on the designs of Philippe Starck or one filled with portraits by Man Ray if you’re not. There are two volumes of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” to choose from, too; after all, he wrote several chapters while staying here. Instead, I pull out a pair of novels by contemporary French writers; they are mine to take home if I’d like, the front desk tells me. (I do.)
The next morning, after my coffee arrives with two ganache-filled Swiss chocolates, I spread out my yoga mat and do some sun salutations as a tender rain taps against the windows.
If you turn a croissant upside-down and imagine the shape of the famous French pastry representing Lake Geneva, the town of Evian, best known to most as the home of the famous spring water, is located near the middle, on the inside of the curve.
The once sharply outlined Lake Geneva melts into the clouds and soon I can’t tell where one begins and the other ends. Not the best day for a hike, but I’ve brought my new red boots and insisted that the hotel’s Sports and Culture Department schedule something challenging. The Alps are right behind the hotel, 15 minutes to the south.
Climb every mountain
Heights terrify me. I don’t remember being told anything about an échelle, the French word for ladder, without which one cannot reach the top of this mountain.
But here I am, telling myself not to look down while climbing a rusty metal échelle that’s attached to the face of a limestone cliff that’s about three stories high. The rungs are cold on my sweaty palms and I try to forget about all of it — the ladder, the height, the possibility of falling — as I take one step at a time, straight up, no hesitating. My guide, Nicolas Leblanc, a former semi-pro soccer player for the Evian team, is gaining on me, taking the ladder two rungs at a time. We make our way to the top, marked by a tall, slender cross, the highest point of Les Mémises, a group of small mountains that are part of the French Alps, formed about 245 million years ago.
On a clear day, we’d be able to see Lake Geneva below. Today, clouds cover the lake like a down duvet. As we begin our descent, the trail comes in and out of focus, obscured by renegade patches of fog clinging to the rocks, making them slick with moisture. I try not to slip. (I do anyway.) We stop to eat wild raspberries that the foxes and wild boars haven’t discovered and pass brown and white cows wearing oversize bells around their necks that clang as they bend down to tear off mouthfuls of grass. Their milk will be turned into the area’s famous nutty-tasting mountain cheeses — Reblochon, Tomme and Abondance.
An hour or so later we reach the bottom and head to lunch at Le Fétiuère, a nearby mountain restaurant that specializes in local cuisine — a fines herbes omelette with a side of crisp potato beignets, fondue with crusty homemade bread for dipping, an enormous leafy green salad, and a chocolate sundae made with hazelnut ice cream revive me.
Now I’ve got to get back to the hotel — a 50-minute aroma-therapy massage at the La Prairie Spa awaits.
Situated on the opposite end of the hotel from La Veranda, one of three restaurants on the property (and where I’d eaten fat plums with yogurt for breakfast that morning) is the two-story La Prairie Spa. Like Disney World, there is so much to experience here that you need to book a week or two to sample it all. The 26-page menu of treatments is aimed at detoxifying, slimming, rejuvenating, energizing, relaxing, or any combination thereof. There are Thai, Korean, Chinese Tui na, Shirodhara or shiastu massages, and massages with mud from the Dead Sea and salts from the Himalayas. La Prairie facials promise to lift, firm, anti-age, and hydrate, and like the massages, are available seven days a week.
The Aga Khan relaxing room (named after the Sir Sultan Muhammed Shah, Aga Khan III, who stayed here in the 1950s) is only a brief stop along my way, since it’s soon time for me to scale the curled stairs (far easier than the mountain ladder) for a treatment that will make my tired muscles — and me — fall asleep. “Was it the lavender?” I ask afterward. My masseuse laughs at me.
If the outside hydro-circuit, a snakelike series of whirlpools, water jets, and currents were still open, I’d give it a try. Who am I kidding? Instead, I alternate between the wet and dry saunas and make an appointment for a La Prairie facial the next day.
Back in my chic apartment, I order a double-espresso so I can stay awake long enough for dinner at Les Fresnes, the hotel’s gastronomic restaurant.
I’ve never eaten dinner while sitting in a blue velvet armchair underneath a vaulted ceiling with magnificent watercolor neo-Baroque frescos depicting the seasons, but this, too, is something that I could get used to.
Champagne comes first. Then, a starter: a slender crisp pastry rectangle topped with seaweed butter and bite-size pieces of salmon, dusted with piment d’Espelette, the famous pepper from the Basque area, and topped with shaved black truffle. Bar, the French equivalent of sea bass, with purple artichokes, a tapenade of olives, and bits of crispy Bellota ham, make a perfect neo-Mediterranean main — and my favorite meal of the entire trip, because it had all of my favorite things on one plate. The three-in-one dessert — strawberry gelée, wild strawberry balsamic vinegar sorbet, and liquorice syrup ice cream — did me in. Strawberry madness is my kind of crazy.
Vacation Spot For Royalty
The Hotel Royal is magnificent. Owned by Evian, it sits on 47 acres on the slope of a hill, directly on top of the source that leads from the natural spring to the Evian water factory, less than a mile below. The hotel opened in 1909 and is so-called because England’s King Edward VII, like other royals of his day, loved to vacation in Evian because he was a gambler (the historic casino sits on the quay, and is a big attraction for non-royals today). Back then, this was the best way to entice wealthy European clients. If you named a hotel after someone, chances were they’d visit and bring along their friends.
The five-floor hotel looks like a giant white steamship; think art nouveau with a dash of Swiss chalet. While the facade is deceptively simple, inside, it’s all glamour. The hotel’s recent $90 million renovation included a complete update without losing the property’s elegance and history.
In the rooms, period pieces, such as writing desks and bedside tables in mahogany and rosewood, blend easily with new indigo carpets and wingback chairs in lemon yellow, trimmed in black — an unlikely combination that totally works. Unexpected color meets comfort. Nothing here feels stuffy or pretentious.
Water, Water Everywhere
Located in the Haute-Savoie department in the Rhône-Alpes region, the area around Evian has been inhabited since the Ice Age, when a glacier melted and created the lake — but it’s been really booming since the last century. The natural spring here was discovered completely by accident, and single-handedly set the course of this area’s future.
The story goes something like this. In 1789, the Count of Lazier, a nobleman from Auvergne, stopped for a drink of water at the Fountaine of Sainte Catherine on the estate of Monsieur Cachat. When the count noticed that his liver and kidney pain began to dissipate after he drank from M. Cachat’s natural spring-fed fountain a few more times, he began to talk about the water’s miraculous healing powers. But he’d been trespassing and stealing the water. M. Cachat promptly shut it down.
He sold it in 1824, and the first natural spring water baths sprang up around town. Soon, people started taking the waters for all sorts of ailments, touting the medical benefits of the water, which takes up to 16 years to filter from its origins (snow and rain) down through the layers of the aquifer, and then directly into a pipeline to be bottled. Even today, the water isn’t touched by human hands — it flows downhill directly into the factory in Evian, where it’s bottled, boxed, then put onto railway cars. The tracks go right into the factory.
Evian water is a subsidiary of Danone, the French multinational company that also makes yogurt. The water company is the largest employer in the small town of 8,000 (it swells to 50,000 in the summer), and the water is free for everyone who lives here. Brass plates shaped like water drops are embedded in the sidewalks and passageways all over the city, showing you the way there. The water flows at a chilly 52.8 degrees at the spigot located behind the original pump room, an art nouveau building that’s the jewel of Evian, designed by the same architect who built Hotel Royal.
While locals fill up crates of empty bottles to take back home, and swarms of tourists line up to take selfies to post on their Instagram accounts, I walk back to the Bains Evian station for the funicular, built in 1907. After a short wait, I enter one of two wooden railcars, painted white with green trim, and ride slowly back up the hill to the Hotel Royal, clickety-clack, in no rush whatsoever.
I might have time for another spa treatment after all.
The Hotel Royal,
13 Avenue des Mateirons, 74500, Évian-les-Bains, France. www.hotel-royal-evian.com. Rates from 330 to 660 euros. Getting there: Multiple carriers fly to Geneva from DFW Airport, but there is no direct flight. Current round-trip fares with one stop run about $1,300. From Geneva, Hotel Royal is an hour-and-15-minute drive. Where to eat: Les Fresnes, Hotel Royal’s gastronomic restaurant. Good to know: Temperatures in the spring average 60 to 65 degrees and in the summertime, 75 degrees, but it cools off at night. Pack layers (and definitely pack hiking boots if you plan to hit the trails). Listen to this: Rencontres Musicales Evian is a renowned outdoor classical music festival held each summer — July 1-9, this year — on the property just above the Hotel Royal. For tickets, visit www.rencontres-musicales-evian.fr/en.