Evian’s appeal is in the water, and much more

EVIAN-LES-BAINS, France — I think I love Evian. That thought came to me during a morning walk of the sun-dappled cobblestoned streets in this charming town located on the south side of Western Europe’s largest lake, Lake Geneva, or Lac Leman to the French.

I admit that it started out as lust when I sniffed the tantalizing aromas wafting from bakeries and brasseries. It quickly deepened into something more as I admired the colorful floral murals painted on many buildings. Lust turned to love during a stroll along the flower-bedecked lakeside promenade with its view of Lausanne, Switzerland, across the shore.

By the time I stopped to admire the neoclassical Villa Lumiere, once the home of two brothers credited with inventing cinematography and now the city’s Town Hall, I was completely smitten.

Evian, with a year-round population of only 8,000 (swelling to 40,000 in the summer), was founded in 1789 and has been a noted spa town since 1824, when European aristocrats — afflicted with gout, arthritis or merely the overindulgences associated with a life of privilege — flocked here to take the healing waters.

Like Europe’s other famous spas — Bath in England and Baden-Baden in Germany — Evian hosted dignitaries, from royalty (Britain’s King George V and Egypt’s King Farouk) to writers (most notably, Marcel Proust).

Architectural remnants of that glittering era remain. While the lakeside casino would seem more at home on the Las Vegas Strip, other buildings are jaw-dropping in their splendor. In addition to the Villa Lumiere, I was particularly impressed by the Cachat Pump Room, once the center of spa-based social life. Still used for public events such as concerts and art exhibitions, its Art Nouveau architecture features a large semi-circular glass window and a cupola made of glazed tiles.

Also in the Nouveau style is the Source Cachat, a colorful fountain of mosaic tiles, where a continuous thin trickle of water marks the spot where world-famous Evian water ends its journey from its source in the mountains, a journey which takes an unbelievable 15 years (more about this later).

Rare is the soul who leaves Evian without filling a bottle from the fountain, giving him/her – once home – bragging rights about how they have a bottle of “actual” Evian water. I arrived bearing my single bottle just behind a gentleman who was in the process of filling two cases of bottles (since it’s free, it pays to stock up). Since he was a gentleman, he graciously allowed me to go ahead of him.

The mountains where the water begins its journey are, of course, the French range of the Alps — on a clear day, you can see Mont Blanc, the tallest in the Alps, with its majestic snow-covered peak and wrapped in its necklace of glaciers.

On just such a lovely sunny day our small group, led by a member of Hotel Royal’s Sports and Culture Department, combined a drive up the mountain with a hike to the Plateau de Gavot, the catchment area where rain and melting snow soaks into the ground.

Here, at a site known as the impluvium, the water begins its 15-year journey down the mountain. The process may be lengthy, but worth the wait, as Evian water is known for its clarity and healthy properties (it’s used for medical treatments and to fill the pool at Les Thermes, the Evian Thermal Spa), and as my sister stubbornly insists, its distinctive taste.

It’s not possible to tour the Evian plant, which produces 7 million bottles of water per day, but as a brand, Evian is ubiquitous in the town. The company owns the casino, a golf academy, and two popular hotels — the palatial 5-Star Hotel Royal and the chalet-like 4-Star Hotel Ermitage — with the two connected by a lush park, and surrounded by 47 acres of wooded grounds.

I spent a lovely evening at Hotel Ermitage’s La Table Restaurant, but stayed at the Hotel Royal. To say that it is royal is no overstatement. It was opened in 1909 to provide Britain’s King Edward VII, a frequent visitor to the town, with a suitable place to stay (sadly, he died before ever having a chance to check in).

Other celebrities and dignitaries had better luck. Some had lighthearted stays — French entertainer Maurice Chevalier proclaimed he had “a lot of fun” here.

Some were all business. In 2003, guests at the G8 Summit were greeted by French President Jacques Chirac on the hotel’s sweeping terrace.

And some literally ran for their lives. In 1958, actor Errol Flynn and Russian ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina were staying at the Royal when a fire roared through the hotel’s upper floors.

Hotel Royal recently underwent a two-year renovation, putting an extra polish on elegant spaces such as La Veranda, the brasserie whose windows offer a breathtaking view of the lake, and Les Fresques, the gourmet restaurant whose spectacular decor features Sistine Chapel-like ceiling frescoes and a live tree in the center of the room.

For those who love golf, the Golf Academy, overlooking the lake, is a must, and for those who love pampering, Hotel Royal’s spa, with its range of treatments and La Prairie products, is the ultimate haven.

The hotel’s Sports and Culture Department can also arrange for any of 80 different activities — from the sublime (dog sledding in winter and hiking in the Alps the rest of the year) to the (somewhat) ridiculous (scooting — a combination of biking and snowboarding). Since Evian and its environs offer year-round delights, you can take your pick from land, lake and mountain-based activities.

On an absolutely picture-perfect fall day, I chose to sample the lake on a 44-foot sailboat. Strains of music from Evian’s fountain of dancing waters could be heard as we set sail, a gentle breeze and a warm sun our traveling companions.

As I sipped a digestif made of local botanicals found in the Alpine Region and surrendered to the absolute serenity, I amended the first thought I had had upon seeing this charming town. I know I love Evian.


(Patti Nickell is a Lexington, Ky.-based travel and food writer. Reach her at pnickell13@hotmail.com.)