EVIAN is famous for its bottled mineral water, which is sold all over the world, but there's much more to it than just water.
The town is draped elegantly along the south shore of Lac Leman, the lake that separates France from Switzerland, and has a fresh, open, airy feel, its stylish hotels piled one above the other up the hill that rises directly from the lake side.
Evian is unlike any other French town; it is smart, well looked after, neat and tidy – and locals refer to its as "Switzerland in France". I found out the secret to this – money! Since the water source was discovered there in 1790, around 60% of the revenue from the mineral water goes to the town council, which owns the source.
Then there is the casino. Gambling used to be illegal in Switzerland, so the Swiss would cross the lake for the casino. One million people go there every year and the town gets 15% of the profits. This wealth means that there is money to employ people to keep the place tidy, keep buildings in a spotless state of repair, pavements tarmacadamed, fountains and gardens well tended, and generally invest in the town, which pays off with increasing tourist numbers. Not that it is overwhelmed with tourists or tacky; in a nutshell, it has class.
Getting there is not straightforward for us in the North-east and North of Scotland. There is a good road, but you have to go round Geneva to get there. There is a magnificent railway station in Evian, enormously long platforms designed to cater for the packed trains that arrived there in the good old days – now the vast station is a little lost, seeing small diesel trains shuttling to Lyon.
The best way to go there is by boat. There are many good deals on flights to Geneva, where with typical Swiss efficiency the railway station is underneath the airport, with regular trains to take you to Lausanne. From here, an underground railway whisks you down to the harbour in a matter of minutes.
The boats for Evian leave via the main building of the harbour, so that you go through customs, as of course Switzerland is not in the EU. When I went, this meant that you waited in a room until a crew member just opened the door and we went through onto the boat – no checks at all, and the same coming back.
The boat is big, and shuttles 23 times a day across the half-hour journey. This service operates all year round; as there are so many Swiss people who nip over to shop (the Swiss Franc is so strong against the Euro that things in Evian are cheap to them, half the price in many cases) and French people commute to Switzerland to work.
The journey from Geneva, including the boat, is covered by the Swiss Pass and other Swiss travel cards; their system is unbeatable, look at www.swisstravelsystem.ch
Arriving by ship is always romantic, seeing the town of Evian spread out along the lake with the hill rising up to mountains behind it, including the Dent D'Oche, at 2222 metres. This peak is the favourite of the locals who have a tradition of climbing it at least once a year. Then the boat sweeps into the little harbour, exactly on time to the minute, and you step off onto the promenade.
I walked along the lake front to the Hotel Les Cygnes (Hotel the Swans) which perches on the edge of the lake with its own little landing stage and swimming pool. This hotel – www.hotellescygnes.com far exceeded my expectations.
It is 1920s style, packed full of character, the rooms are comfortable and special, the food is superb and the portions large. The breakfast buffet is the most comprehensive I have ever seen, the staff helpful, and the charges low. I do not think that I have ever found such value for money; I can't say more than that I will be going there again.
Setting off to explore the town, you just start to relax. The population of Evian is 8,000 people, which rises to 20,000 in the height of the summer season. I was there in autumn and it had a calmness that slows you down. Around 70% of the tourists are French, followed by Swiss and then we and the Germans tie at third place.
About 20% of the people who go there do so for the Spas, water cure treatment for kidney stones, digestive problems and rheumatology, another 20% go for conferences, and 60% for leisure. Because it is such a lovely place, there is a growing retirement population, including Brits.
All this activity means that there is always something going on, and the council are extending the season by holding important art exhibitions, (starting in May, 2012 the theme will be 'Art of Loving' but I am assured it is in the best of taste) and in 2013 start hosting the Evian Masters women's world golf championships.
There is a surprising amount of things to do, including guided tours of the town, in English as well, and cruises on the lake in solar powered state of the art boat or on an historic paddle steamer, as well as trips along to other lake side towns and of course across to Switzerland.
There is not a particular culinary speciality, although fish from the lake is a common dish, and if you are lucky it will be served with a rather unique wine.
Further along the lake is Thonon-les-Bains, another French spa town, with the Chateau De Ripaille, built by the Dukes of Savoy. Here they grow the special grapes to produce a white wine called 'Vin Ripaille'. This wine is especially good with fish. I was told that I will not buy it anywhere else; the production quantity is small and varies year to year depending on the weather, so it would not be of interest to the likes of our supermarkets who demand vast quantities of constant quality. The production is all consumed locally, and it is sought after, so that if you see a bottle for sale – buy it.
There is a funicular that runs during the summer connecting the big hotels up on the hill with the fountain and pump room and the thermal baths by the lakeside. This is by the 'Palais Lumiere', a magnificent building constructed in 1900 to 1902, which is now the cultural and conference centre and also holds events.
Up behind it is the "source" of Evian water, and it amused me to see cars keep pulling up, and local ladies crossing to the water with armfuls of plastic bottles to top up and take home, for free. The factory is now 5kms away, and there are factory tours, too.
Strolling along through the impeccable flower gardens in the evening after a great meal (you can't beat the French for that) back to your hotel, watching the few boats coming in to tie up for the night, as the sun sets over the mountains of Switzerland across the calm lake, is so relaxing.
If you want to explore the region (and there is a lot to see and experience) there is a regional pass, see www.infoleman.org.