Seeking some restoration and relaxation? According to Leonardo da Vinci, it’s water that “replenishes all the parts”. That being the case, it sounds like the perfect excuse to go to the source of one of the finest waters in the world and rejuvenate in style.
We followed in the elegant footsteps of golden age Hollywood stars, sultans and royalty and headed to one of France’s oldest spa towns, Évian-les-Bains. The curative virtues of Evian’s water were first discovered in the late 18th century by French aristocrat Marquis de Lessert while out walking. The water’s therapeutic benefits were then confirmed by a scientist, drawing hordes of high-society pilgrims keen to improve their wellbeing. In 1806, the first thermal spa opened, followed in 1826 by the first bottling facility and the quaint destination quickly became synonymous with good health and glamour.
Évian-les-Bains is perched on the border between France and Switzerland, and the easiest way to get there is to fly directly to Geneva. The best place to stay is the otherworldly five-star Hôtel Royal, part of the Evian Resort (which also houses the four-star Hôtel Ermitage). Opened in 1909 as a spa retreat for European royalty, the iconic bolthole has hosted a glittering array of guests over the past two centuries, including such luminaries as Queen Elizabeth II, Marcel Proust, Édith Piaf and Greta Garbo.
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Inside the Hôtel Royal
We touched down in Geneva as the sun was setting and made our way directly to the Evian Resort. The 45-minute car journey took us along the Swiss-French border with medieval villages, turrets and fairytale forests dotted along the route. The Hôtel Royal’s main building is ensconced in nature, overlooking Lake Geneva and rising majestically over 47 acres of private wooded grounds. As far as idyllic locations go, this is one of the finest.
Entering the Royal’s grand lobby is like stepping through time. This is a place where the charming belle époque era lives on in full flounce. A huge crystal chandelier takes centre stage, illuminating a domed, Sistine Chapel-like ceiling painted with neo-baroque style frescoes by Gustave Louis Jaulmes (the same French artist who decorated Paris’ Musée Rodin). The frescoes stretch throughout the hotel, along with striking blue-and-white mosaic floors, state-of-the-art amenities and furnishings by Paris-based interior designer François Champsaur.
There are 150 rooms and seven palatial suites spread across six floors, all with panoramic views of Lake Geneva or the park. All rooms underwent a head-to-toe revamp in 2015, uniting historic heritage with modern sophistication. Think plush carpets, marble bathrooms, king-size beds and, thanks to the in-house florists, bouquets of fresh flowers. Our room provided an unfettered view of Lake Geneva from bed and bath, and supping on a glass in the latter felt supremely decadent. For a satisfyingly royal experience, request a lake-view room with a balcony and enjoy a leisurely petit déjeuner outside at least once.
Eating and drinking
Hôtel Royal has two restaurants: La Véranda (informal) and Les Fresques (Michelin-starred fine dining). Both are overseen by head chef Patrice Vander, who’s been with the hotel for more than 20 years and uses local ingredients in inventive ways. La Véranda is a sun-filled, relaxed restaurant overlooking the lake.
On our first evening we dined at the spellbinding Les Fresques. Although the furniture has changed, the art and décor remain as they were in 1909. We sank into plush velvet armchairs and admired the blue and gold brushstrokes above. It is possible, of course, that one may encounter neck ache after gazing at the fresco-clad ceiling, but fear not, for the front of every menu is adorned with a hand mirror for a more genteel viewing. A thoughtful addition that enhances the theatrical elegance here (along with the live tree growing in the centre of the room.)
Inspired by nature, Vander and his team pick fresh vegetables and herbs from the estate garden daily, the fish are from the local lake and the beef and cheese from the nearby mountains. Even the alcohol used in a shrimp jus is an award-winning gin that hails from the foot of Mont Blanc, made with alpine botanicals including myrtle, elderflower and pine. There are several tasting menus to choose from as well as an à la carte option. Classic dishes have been exquisitely innovated, like the fillet of Abondance beef smoked with vine branches from nearby Marin, served with a génépi jus.
The Jerusalem artichoke with black truffle petals is a delectable starter, followed by pillow-plump scallops, seared to perfection and served with a squash medley. It may feel impossible (especially if you’ve opted for one of the tasting menus), but you must save room for dessert. Created by head pâtissier Stéphane Arrête and his team, the selection is divine, especially the warm soufflé with Morello cherries. If you’re seeking something savoury to finish, beckon the cheese trolley. You won’t be disappointed.
Then unwind nearby in Le Bar, a chic and timeless room that fully embraces joie de vivre. We enjoyed live music over cocktails one evening, as well as some daytime relaxation. Le Bar is open from 10.30am until midnight and afternoon tea is served between 3pm and 6pm. Laze here post-dinner, cocktail in hand or sink into a good book while enjoying a pastry and a garden-grown herbal tea.
Spa Evian Source
Behold, 1,200 luxurious square metres dedicated entirely to wellness, and, the best bit – it’s open for late-night pampering. At Spa Evian Source there’s indoor and outdoor pools, a steam room, sauna, hamman, hot tub, gym, treatment rooms and a relaxation room (which also happens to be the Aga Khan III’s old apartment). As well as an extensive treatment menu, there’s also the option of a four-day detox programme, including yoga, hydro-massages, aromatherapy, and forest bathing. The spa is undergoing a renovation (re-opening July 2023), with new immersive and multi-sensory experiences currently being concocted. The indoor pool and outside hydro-circuit are temporarily closed, but everything else remains open.
Thanks to a private spa lift (there’s one on each floor), we padded along the hallway in fluffy robes and were whisked into the hotel’s inner sanctum. Swimming in the heated outdoor infinity pool overlooking Lake Geneva was an unforgettable experience. The pool, lake and sky merged together in a blue-hued palette and the snow-capped Chablais mountains on the horizon looked strangely familiar. I later found out that they are the very peaks that grace every bottle of Evian water around the world.
Along with top-notch facilities, the hotel has a fantastic sports and culture team and pretty much every desire can be accommodated. From sailing across Lake Geneva in a vintage paddle steamer to heli-skiing, tennis, golf, running, yoga, hiking, cycling, paragliding and more, it can be arranged.
We pored over a map one morning with Virgile Delamare, an experienced outdoor enthusiast with an intimate knowledge of the region. We set out with him for a spectacular hike in nearby Vacheresse, a hideaway Haute-Savoie hamlet with lakes, waterfalls, bell-wearing cows and breathtaking views.
World-class skiing can be arranged, thanks to the proximity of the Alps and an on-site ski shop and team who will help with equipment hire, lift passes, lessons and transfers. From fresh, powder-snow to wide open slopes, and winding forest runs, the region’s diverse landscape has a route for everyone. The hotel is only 45 minutes from the Portes du Soleil ski area (12 resorts, including top spots Chamonix and Avoriaz). Closer by (15 minutes), you’ll find the family resorts of Thollon-les-Mémises and Bernex. Thollon-les-Mémises has 50km of skiable domain, with runs for every level from green to black. All are open until mid-April.
There are four tennis courts on-site and an award-winning 18-hole golf course, which is home to the prestigious women’s major, the Amundi Evian Championship, held each July. In February, the resort’s David Leadbetter golf academy opens and guests can use the “Golf Pass Lake Geneva”, which grants access to nine courses in France and Switzerland.
Evian Resort’s concert hall, La Grange au Lac, is also undergoing a renovation and due to re-open on 28 June 2023, with high-profile musicians and orchestras lined up for the grand opening concert, Rencontres Musicales d’Evian. Built entirely from wood, the concert hall is the only one of its kind in the world and hosts multiple music festivals and art residences every year.
Out and about in Évian-les-Bains
The town itself is an easy 15-minute downhill walk and well worth visiting, if only to drink directly from the Cachat spring and imagine yourself to be a thirsty French aristocrat from a bygone era. Between May and September, you can also hop aboard a charming funicular railway that runs between the Cachat spring and the Royal hotel, just as it did in 1907. A rare piece of railway heritage, it’s one of only three surviving 19th and 20th century funiculars.
Évian-les-Bains is a world away from the frenzy of modern life and ripe for exploration, with historic buildings at every turn. The entire town is wrapped around the existence of the Cachat spring, with grand pump rooms, museums, spa buildings and a 19th century casino. If you fancy venturing further afield, year-round ferries run from Evian to Lausanne, with easy access to the Swiss Riviera and home to Unesco-listed Lavaux vineyards.
Whether you come for the famed crystalline waters, the breathtaking mountains or the striking Hôtel Royal, Évian-les-Bains is the ideal place to soak up nature’s energy and recharge mind and body.
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