Travel Spa Resorts: The Geneva convention

Supermodels, movie stars, kings and queens are among those drawn to seaweed scrubs, hydro massages and the sound of music in Evian.
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The Independent Culture
EVIAN IS not only a fashionable brand of mineral water, it's also a lively French spa-town on the southern shores of lake Geneva. On France's natural border with Switzerland, the location itself is sheer relaxation. Errol Flynn used to chill out here, as did Greta Garbo and a slew of Guggenheims. More recently, supermodel Carla Bruni and rock icon Johnny Hallyday have been spotted around town.

Evian takes its name from the Celtic word for water - uva - and the lake which it borders is practically an inland sea, subject to violent storms. On a sunny day, it's well worth taking the time to sail across the lake's silky smooth surface from Lausanne. Arriving in Evian, the siren that signals the ferry's arrival to the little port of Ouchy is about as noisy as it gets. They do peace and quiet very well here.

The healing properties of Source Cachat, Evian's original fountain, were acknowledged as early as 1789. I stopped here to fill my flask, having stood patiently in line behind the locals, who come laden with all sorts of odd receptacles. "Better not stray far from a loo," I was warned, "it's very diuretic."

The water flows up from nine underground aquifers that collect the rainwater after it has filtered through the earth's rocks and soils, picking up minerals along the way. "Source Cachat is the most romantic", says Alain Spieser, director of public relations at the Domaine du Royal Club Evian. "In 1789, the Marquis de Lessert, a wealthy landowner, was suffering from kidney stones. He was angry that his only daughter had fallen in love with Cachat, a penniless gardener. The girl was banned from seeing the unsuitable suitor until Cachat guaranteed to cure the Marquis if he drank from the spring which flowed through a garden in which he worked. After six weeks, the Marquis's stones dissolved, and so did his anger; wedding bells pealed in Evian - the rest is history," says Spieser.

The Royal Hotel (now Domaine du Royal Club) was built in the early 1900s to accommodate the high-rollers of Evian's domed casino. England's King Edward VII was a frequent guest to Evian and vowed to visit more often, if it had a suitable hotel. Sadly, he died before the Royal Hotel was completed but, in 1990, during a visit to Evian, the Queen Mother heard how sad it was that King Edward had been unable to keep his word and immediately ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon to baptise the hotel, sprinkling champagne from the sixth-floor terrace.

The 42-acre hilltop estate that is the Domaine du Royal Club's Better- Living Institute is perfect for unwinding with its Sound of Music setting. The state-of-the-art spa is reached by private lift; you never see anyone shuffling around the hotel's high-ceilinged rooms in robes and slippers.

Royal Energy is the Institute's latest rejuvenating programme. The six therapeutic treatments are designed to energise and balance mind and body. Pamper yourself with seaweed and mud scrubs, hydro massages, facial acupuncture, yoga, reflexology, Thai massage or Reiki. Indoor and outdoor heated pools are filled with pure Evian water, naturally, and hyperactive guests can also try mountain-biking, aerobics, tennis, skiing, archery and hiking.

The excellent food in the nine restaurants should keep you going throughout. "There are 26 varieties of fish in Lake Geneva and I hike into the mountains, sometimes with the guests, to gather herbs to match the catch," says Michel Lentz, chef at the Domaine's elegant Cafe Royal. There is a 1,200-calorie menu served at lunch and dinner but "the trouble is, guests eat the low- fat lunch, then spend the afternoon in the pastry shops of Evian," sighs Lentz.

During school holidays children can play in the purpose-built chalet village of the Domaine's gardens while parents enjoy the mountain air on the golf links, rediscover inner balance with the Royal Energy programme or brush up culinary skills in the Cooking School.

The Royal, and its sister hotel The Ermitage, (sportier and less expensive) share the Junior and Fun Clubs, a sort of upmarket Club Med with attitude. Activities (hunting, skiing , fishing, tennis, computer studies) are all included in the price of the room and apply even if there is only one child in the hotel.

And, should the pleasures of the hotel lose their appeal, you can take an exploratory boat trip to Thonon-les-Bains. At the quayside, a little train takes you to the 15th-century Chateau de Ripaille, built by Duke Amadeus VIII, known in his day as something of a raver.

The chateau showcases local history and crafts and the surrounding vineyards produce a fairly decent white, "Chateau de Ripaille". Go in late July and the hills are very much alive to the sound of music, when Mstislav Rostropovich presides at the Evian Music Festival.

The main Festival is held in the grounds of the Domaine and, built entirely of pine, the 1,200-seater concert-hall, is an example of how architecture can be inspired by, and blend perfectly into, a forest setting.

The Domaine du Royal Club Evian is at Rive Sud du Lac de Geneve, 74502 Evian-les-Bains, France (00 33 4 50 26 85 00). The three-day Royal Energy program costs 2,760FF (pounds 285) per person plus from 2,880 FF (pounds 300) per double room per night, half-board.

To get there, fly to Geneva, then take a train from the city's Eaux-Vives station to Evian-les-Bains. British Airways (0345 222111) flies to Geneva from Birmingham, Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester; Swissair (0171-434 7300) or its subsidiary, Crossair, flies from Heathrow and London City

Other French Spas

Les Pres de Eugenie, Eugenie-Les-Bains, Landes (00 33 5 58 05 06 07): a seriously expensive gourmet spa. The chef, Michel Guerard, is 3-star Michelin. Prices from 1,200FF (pounds 125) per night plus treatments

Contrexeville, Vosges: recently renovated spa, with a diuretic water, rich in calcium and magnesium, magic for slimmers who want to kick-start their metabolism. Hotel Cosmos (00 33 3 29 07 61 61) has weekend rates for 1559 FF (pounds 160) per person.

Thermes Marin de Monte-Carlo (00 377 92 16 36 36): specialises in Thallassotherapy and sheer luxury; you may even catch a glimpse of the Monaco royals. Weekend rates (including four treatments) from 6700F (pounds 695)

Vittel, Vosges: a 650-hectare eco-parkland setting, Olympic training centre with two championship golf courses and excellent treatments for migraines and stress. Weekend rates at La Tuilerie (00 33 3 29 08 18 38) from 1775 FF (pounds 184).

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