Join­ing the jet set around Lake Geneva

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You know what this re­minds me of,” I say to my wife as the boat pulls away and we feel the jud­der of its huge steam en­gine. “The Ti­tanic!”

She’s not the hap­pi­est of voy­agers when it comes to trav­el­ling across wa­ter, and my ob­ser­va­tion – though re­ally rather as­tute – is met with a frosty gaze. Des­per­ate to re­cover as this two-hour cruise has just be­gun, I point out the or­nate stair­case sweep­ing to the up­per deck. All we’d need is Kate Winslet and some ice and the il­lu­sion would be com­plete.

“Hmm, yeah,” says my wife, sway­ing a lit­tle. “I sup­pose it does. I think I’ll just have a bit of a sit down.”

De­cid­ing there and then that Lake Geneva is prob­a­bly the near­est we’ll ever get to a sea cross­ing, I grab the kids and vow to make the most of my time on this turn-of-the-cen­tury pad­dle steamer, one of five that have been lov­ingly re­stored by a com­pany called CGN, which runs a fleet of rather large boats on Lake Geneva for the ben­e­fit of tourists and com­muters.

Flash­ing my Gulf News cre­den­tials, we’re al­lowed down below to see men in boiler suits tend­ing to an im­mac­u­lately clean en­gine, vast parts of which are ro­tat­ing men­ac­ingly mere feet from their heads. It’s red-hot down there, so we race up to the bridge to have a word with the cap­tain. Our con­ver­sa­tion – due to lan­guage prob­lems – ends swiftly.

On a ves­sel that re­ally does look like it could have once bobbed along in the wake of the ill-fated Ti­tanic, his small room is the only thing that looks out of place, a bank of blink­ing com­puter screens at odds with the

Zip­ping across the lake, we take in spec­tac­u­lar sights, such as the leg­endary Chillon Cas­tle

rest of the ves­sel. Anachro­nisms aside, it’s re­as­sur­ing to know that mod­ern tech­nol­ogy is on hand to keep ev­ery­thing safe – even if Lake Geneva hardly looks threat­en­ing.

“It’s not so calm in win­ter,” a griz­zled lo­cal tells us as we peer over the rail at the back of the boat. “The waves can some­times be a me­tre or more if it’s stormy.” I de­cide not to give that news to my wife, who is cling­ing to her chair and will­ing the jour­ney to be over.

Lake Geneva is one of those rare places where you don’t have to go very far each day to feel like you’ve ar­rived some­where new. Thanks in no small part to the boats – and also a fine road that rings it – you can be al­most any­where along the lake’s shore within a mat­ter of hours. On the western edge is Geneva it­self, bustling, stately and some­times rather se­ri­ous; on the eastern side is Mon­treux, home of the an­nual jazz fes­ti­val and with a cool, laid-back vibe. To the north are the beau­ti­ful ter­raced vine­yards of Lavaux and the at­trac­tive Swiss hill­side city of Lau­sanne. And to the south, on the French side of the lake, is the town that soon be­comes our favourite: Évian-les-Bains – home of the world-fa­mous min­eral wa­ter.

You can al­most see each of these four points from all of the oth­ers, which cre­ates a mag­nif­i­cent feel­ing that they com­bine to form one mini-king­dom. With the moun­tains sur­round­ing the lake pro­vid­ing a for­mi­da­ble – though pic­turesque – bar­rier, the lake be­comes the mo­tor­way. Zip­ping across it with my fam­ily we take in some spec­tac­u­lar sights, such as the leg­endary Chillon Cas­tle, a medieval fortress built on a rock that juts out into the lake not far from Mon­treux. Built around 1,000 years ago, it’s just the place to get lost in your own Game of Thrones fan­tasy, with in­cred­i­ble views from its nar­row win­dows and end­less wood-pan­elled rooms in which to linger and imag­ine swear­ing al­le­giance to the Starks or Lan­nis­ters. Lord By­ron’s poem The Pris­oner Of

Chillon was writ­ten about this place in 1816, and we’d put money on things barely hav­ing changed in the near 200 years since.

At the op­po­site end of the lake, the pas­sage of time is equally ab­sent

in the as­ton­ish­ingly well-pre­served medieval French vil­lage of Yvoire, another can­di­date for a Game Of

Thrones back­drop and eas­ily one of the nicest lit­tle spots I’ve ever been to.

Bent and crooked wooden build­ings stoop to form dark al­ley­ways, which on a sunny day means fin­gers of light sneak­ing into nooks and cran­nies and il­lu­mi­nat­ing the mul­ti­tude of tempt­ing sou­venirs set out in front of the shops.

We’d stop and eat, be­cause the whole place has a lovely, out­doorsy feel to it, with tavern af­ter inn af­ter ho­tel all serv­ing tempt­ing-look­ing meals, but we’ve another boat to catch. We want to see Geneva’s mag­nif­i­cent 140-me­tre wa­ter foun­tain – the Jet d’Eau – from the lake it­self, and we scram­ble for seats at the front of another mini- Ti­tanic.

The jet doesn’t dis­ap­point, all 500 litres per sec­ond of it, cast­ing a wide spray over the har­bour. We pass a happy 40 min­utes or so see­ing it grow from a pin-prick on the hori­zon as we leave Yvoire to the white, foam­ing tower it be­comes as Geneva ap­proaches. The kids won­der what would hap­pen if you were to try to bal­ance on top of it. Our best guess is a mouth­ful of wa­ter and lots of bruises – but one heck of a view.

Our fort­night here is split be­tween a hill­top wooden chalet where the kids cock an ear to­wards the woods lis­ten­ing for bears, and the Évian-les-Bains, whose pa­tron­age by the mighty Danone brand – own­ers of Evian wa­ter – means there’s never a dull mo­ment. There’s a lav­ish fire­works cer­e­mony on Bastille Day, there are beau­ti­fully main­tained pub­lic gar­dens at ev­ery turn, and the prom­e­nade is spot­less. Not quite a Dis­ney­land for wa­ter fans but per­haps not far off.

Évian-les-Bains is watched over by two grand ho­tels that sit side-by- side and form part of the lux­u­ri­ous Evian Re­sort, which also in­cludes a cham­pi­onship golf course, spas and even the town’s 120-year-old casino.

The two ho­tels – The Royal and the Er­mitage – have been draw­ing Europe’s most dis­cern­ing hol­i­day­mak­ers for over a cen­tury and the aptly named Royal in par­tic­u­lar is fit for a king, hav­ing been named in hon­our of King Edward VII of Eng­land, who had promised to be one if its first guests when it opened in 1909. Ill-health meant he never quite man­aged to fit in a visit, but the ho­tel has, how­ever, played host to Greta Garbo, Er­rol Flynn and other lu­mi­nar­ies – and still they come.

It’s im­pos­si­ble to visit Évian-les-Bains and miss its wa­tery con­nec­tions: as well as the crys­tal clear lake lap­ping at its shores, the min­eral wa­ter is om­nipresent. Its jour­ney starts high up in the Alps and then slowly trick­les down through the rock be­fore emerg­ing bot­tle--

ready at sev­eral springs in the town. In­deed, you can’t visit one of these springs with­out see­ing a small queue of lo­cals re-fill­ing a bag­ful of emp­ties.

The most fa­mous of Évian-les-Bains’s springs is the Source Cachat, whose virtues were dis­cov­ered in 1789 when a vis­it­ing no­ble­man from France’s Au­vergne re­gion put his lips to it. He found the wa­ter to be “light and freely flow­ing” and started drink­ing from the spring reg­u­larly, quickly claim­ing the liver and kid­ney pains he’d long been suf­fer­ing from were start­ing to dis­ap­pear.

Thirty years later, peo­ple were not only com­ing to the tiny town to drink the spring wa­ter but to bathe in it, and, sens­ing a golden busi­ness op­por­tu­nity, Évian-les-Bains started mar­ket­ing it­self as a chic, lux­u­ri­ous spa town, a more brac­ing al­ter­na­tive, per­haps, to the likes of Baden-Baden in Ger­many or Eng­land’s Bath. The Euro­pean bour­geoisie came in their droves. It was as if the French Riv­iera had qui­etly moved it­self in­land.

To bring the town’s story bang up to date, we hook up with a lo­cal guide who takes us on a walk­ing tour of the town cen­tre. There are only 8,000 res­i­dents, she ex­plains, but more than 30 gar­den­ers, whose work along the prom­e­nade brings dashes of ver­dant tran­quil­lity to pro­ceed­ings.

One of the best build­ings in the town cen­tre is the grand and im­pec­ca­bly pre­served house that the Lu­mière fam­ily once lived in.

Au­guste and Louis Lu­mière, as ev­ery French­man will tell you, were the ear­li­est film-mak­ers in his­tory, and the fam­ily home – now an in­con­gru­ously or­nate town hall – is a de­light. In one gilded room in par­tic­u­lar the spirit of the swing­ing turn-of-the-cen­tury par­ties that the Lu­mières once held there hangs pal­pa­bly in the air. It is France’s Belle Époque at its most re­gal, and the won­drous for­mer bath house next door is sim­i­larly evoca­tive, with its domed roof and orig­i­nal sig­nage, which once pointed male bathers one way and fe­males the other.

Where some spa towns trade on a sense of ‘faded glam­our’, it’s hard to imag­ine Évian-les-Bains ever hav­ing been more at­trac­tive than it is to­day. Un­usu­ally, too, it seems bless­edly un­mo­lested by the tourist masses. Not that the kids no­tice, of course.

One of the best build­ings is the im­pec­ca­bly pre­served house that the Lu­mière fam­ily lived in

They’ve found a leaflet for a wa­ter park up the road, and it’s got one of those ver­ti­cal drop slides where you fall so fast you ar­rive be­fore the scream’s even left your lungs.

“Can we go, Dad?” they ask, as I work out the re­mort­gage we’ll need in order to pay to get the four of us in. “Haven’t you had enough of wa­ter yet?” I ask, op­ti­misti­cally. The an­swer, of course, is no. As ev­ery young­ster will tell you, you can never have enough of mess­ing about in wa­ter, and as hol­i­day lo­ca­tions go, it doesn’t get more wa­tery than round here.

The charm of Évian­les-Bains has been draw­ing crowds since the early 1800s

There boats of­fer a charm­ing way to explore the lake

The Jet d’Eau pumps 500 litres per sec­ond high into the sky

Some spa towns may trade on their faded glam­our, but Évian-les-Bains has never been more gor­geous

Lake Geneva – the per­fect place to go mess­ing about on the wa­ter

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