A spa break that has plenty of bottle
The water at Evian-les-Bains takes 15 years to absorb its health-giving minerals, but then it's put to good use, says Andrew Eames
Standing on the southern shore of Lake Geneva last week, I found myself facing a fusillade of façades of sumptuous belle époque buildings, backed by magnificent mountain scenery, including the distant peak of Mont Blanc.
Around me, wealthy Russians in fur hats were sashaying along the prom towards the casino, being carefully ignored by well-coiffed Parisiennes; old money doesn't like to rub shoulders with the nouveau riche.
Both, however, had been drawn here because of something that is actually, at its source, available free of charge. And "source" is the operative word because, despite its distinctly Swiss appearance, this is the French spa town of Evian-les-Bains.
In our house we have a regular argument about the freshness of water. When it's been standing in a jug for an hour or two on the table, my partner insists it is no longer good to drink, so she goes back to the tap to get more. However, my personal view is that water wasn't born yesterday, and so its freshness is not going to be much affected by standing around for a couple of hours.
I was reminded of that debate while walking up the slope away from the manicured prom and its cream-cake architecture towards the Source Cachat, the spring which provides the mineral water we all know by its home town's name. Usually only available at a price, and in the supermarkets of 143 countries, here in the Avenue des Sources you can take your empties to the spout in the wall, as I did, and fill them up as often as you like. I'm happy to say that plenty of locals were doing just that when I was there, full of belief in the water's curative properties.
But what they were getting was far from fresh; Evian's official line is that the water coming out of that spring has spent 15 years percolating down through various geological strata from the hills.
Fifteen-year-old water may not sound appealing, but that's extreme filtration for you, and it's how the water manages to assimilate the cocktail of minerals that makes it particularly health-giving. Ever since it was first put on the map back in 1789 by an ailing Marquis de Lessert, who claimed it saved his life, Evian's speciality has been helping people with liver and kidney problems. People still come here on doctor-prescribed cures to drink and bathe in it for weeks on end.
Usually, those clients clutching prescriptions head for Les Thermes lesthermesevian.com), a special, medically oriented spa building which is currently undergoing renovation and which will reopen in the spring. But that's not the glamorous end of the town's business, not where the Russians, the Parisiennes and their dogs, and I, are staying. Because these days Evian's international profile is more about healthy pampering than water-drinking, and its glamorous turn-of-the-century palace hotels, the Royal and the Ermitage, have their own spas and health-oriented restaurants. This is where the ladies in big hats with little dogs take their tea under the chandeliers, and try to ignore the wealthy Russian children rushing about.
I was staying in the Ermitage, a little less chandeliered than the Royal, and although Evian wasn't exactly rammed down my throat, it was there whenever I turned round. In the spa I sat in Evian Jacuzzis and then had it rubbed all over me in Evian body scrubs, before repairing upstairs to drink alcohol-free Evian "mocktails" in the bar.
So while the Evian of today may not be quite the fashionable resort it once was, it is still blushing with good health. It's a place to come to feel a whole lot better about life, while gazing down across immaculate lawns and Japanese gardens and out over Lake Geneva, and wondering what riches lie on the other side.
So Near, so Spa
Fresh Water: Vittel and the Vosges
The Vosges Mountains in eastern France (west of Strasbourg) are a hotbed of hydrotherapy. The best-known names are Contrex, and Vittel.
Vittel certainly looks fabulous; its elegantly colonnaded spa (a 20-minute massage here costs €45/£37) was designed by Charles Garnier, who was responsible for the Paris Opera. It has three springs, each with different curative properties, although one, Hepar, is so heavily mineralised I found it hard to drink. The resort has several hotels, including a Club Med, where the emphasis is on sports and leisure.
Contrexéville, which feels a touch more refined, lies six kilometres to the south-west, and is known as a slimmer's spa, with most of its hotels offering carefully tailored menus.
Club Med (08453 670670, clubmed.co.uk) has week-long all-inclusive packages at Vittel, starting in April, from £674 (transport not included). The best access is via TGV to Nancy or by flying into Strasbourg. Regional information from tourismevosges.fr.
Salt Water: Roscoff
One of Europe's oldest seawater spas is in Roscoff, out towards the western tip of Brittany, where the bracing air is refreshed every split second by Atlantic winds. It's good value, too: a hydromassage costs €37.
The Roscoff Thalassotherapy centre (thalasso.com) offers a variety of packages. I spent a half day sampling a salt-water hosedown, a seaweed bath and a seaweed wrap. After all that I staggered out mightily refreshed, albeit smelling a bit like something that was washed up by the tide.
Brittany Ferries (0871 244 0744, brittany-ferries.co.uk) has two-day cruise-and-stay breaks in Roscoff from £70 per person, including crossing. Local information on roscoff-tourisme.com.
Access to Evian is via Geneva airport; packages are offered by Expressions Holidays (01752 878045; expressionsholidays.co.uk) from £1,139 per person, including flights, car hire and seven nights' B&B at the Hotel Ermitage.
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