I love Geneva in Winter. When it is cold, the air clean and crisp and the lake’s view bathed in an indolent sunlight. I can never get over the billboard of Seikos, and all fighting for their own reflection in the lake.
And the swans. The ducks. The clock garden with its neat bloom of posies. The quiet lush park. The tall fir trees.
Geneva today is more than a haven for the ‘riche’ – their global nature means that the city is increasingly a stopping off point and cultural home to a lot of fun, interesting people. This makes Geneva more desirable than ever, and is part of the reason it always ranks high on the culture indexes of that elusive “quality of life” we all seek.
The hotel scene is summed up in two words: comfortably expensive. This is not a city for budget accommodation, boutique hotels with throbbing lobbies, or capsule locations and space age cuisine.
At the top of the agenda is the mythical La Reserve, one of the world’s great spa hotels, located in lush park environs astride Lake Geneva. La Reserve is the type of place where people sit back and recuperate from their face augmentation with a carrot juice and a manicurist, while a personal assistant whispers the latest commodity prices into your freshly moisturized ear. In a word, heaven.
A little more central is the newly refurbished Mandarin Oriental Geneva, a ridiculously posh location on the banks of the River Rhone that only reopened following extensive renovations in July 2008. The Mandarin Oriental offers perfect business capabilities with an understated elegance that makes it the spiritual home of the wing-tipped banker, and the prices reflect that reality. Finally, and of a slightly more affordable shade of gray, is the Hotel De La Paix ( my favourite), which is situated on the Lake with a series of great views and service.
Geneva is currently enjoying an influx of Europeans in flight: non-domiciled Londoners are flocking in to escape higher taxes in the UK, the French merrily skip across to enjoy their gains, and its become the summer home of Arabia. As such, the scene is getting better and better. While always understated, a night out here can be quite fun.
Geneva’s first Michelin starred Indian chef, Vineet Bhatia ( you would know him if you saw “Britain’s Masterchef” on BBC), is making waves with London’s Adam Tihany at Rasoi at the Mandarin Oriental – a beautiful contemporary space that’s perfect for an intimate business dinner or a small group in need of a perfect private room. Rasoi is probably the best new restaurant in Geneva, and offers great views over the river.
Top of the list are also Heaven Lounge, Arthur’s Rive Gauche and Senso, all of which employ Geneva’s sense of dinner + drinks. This is not a ‘bar’ city, and most evenings are centred around a lingering dinner with drinks afterward or adjacent. All three of these locations get full and rocking later in the evening, if in a slightly more subdued way than you may have seen in Mykonos and Miami. For lunch, power or otherwise, La Terrasse restaurant of Des Bergues, the formal name Geneva’s Four Seasons Hotel on the right bank of the Rhone, has the best see and be seen social agenda in town in the spring and summer months. People arrive by foot, by chauffeur driven Bentley or on their red Ducati. Peu importe quel mode of transport, the rich, chic and cool are sipping their champagne and cappuccinos here.
But it does not have to break the budget as there is a little gem that I never miss, that is the Manor-La Placette is located at rue de Cornavin close to the railway station. It is a vast 6-storey department store. You can find almost anything you are looking for here. Clothing for children, women and men, luggage, sportswear and equipment, china, home furnishings, Swiss chocolate, watches, hardware, toys, electronic equipment, and even a large supermarket. It has a snack bar on the top floor with a lovely terrace in summer as well as a very big self-service restaurant which remains open in the evening, after the store closes. The self-service restaurant has the best fresh salad bars I have seen. And the pizza corner is one you should not miss even if you are not a Pizza afficionado. The supermarket is flooded with Japanese tourists buying tons of Swiss chocolates, but head to the bakery for some tantalising breads and the cheese corner to complement your snack bag by the lake.
Despite the large number of international institutions located in Geneva, including an alphabet soup of WEF, WHO, CARE, IAEA, IARC, UN and others, it is not all work and no play in Switzerland’s second largest city. Many of these organisations run a pretty hectic schedule of activities amidst this peaceful city.
Summertime Geneva revolves around the lake, winter the mountains. It is not difficult to book a boating or waterskiing excursion out of the city to check things out. Nothing beats a Riva on the waves, skirting the small towns that make up the south and western shores of the lake.
A number of cultural activities, including the wonderful Montreux Jazz Festival, set the tone here, with a heady mix of music, food and people watching. Whether its flamenco dancing, Foreigner or Motorhead, each year the Festival reinterprets the latest in musical culture for the thousands who flock to the event. Swiss rail speeds straight to the centre of Montreux in less than an hour, very convenient to and fro the airport or town. Heading from Geneva, the scenic road across the border to France and Evian sends nice thrills to the water bound landscape of lake Leman.
It wouldn’t be complete without the mention of the famous Swiss spa. Did you know SPA is an acronym for Soothe your senses, Purify your energy and finally, Adopt a new attitude. No better a divine location that the latest in Zen retreats: The Buddha Bar Spa. Unique in concept, it builds on the centuries long tradition that is Evian-Les-Bains (a delicious drinking water with benefits), a short drive south east along the lake. Book your day trip and prepare to indulge.
So there you have it, Geneva is making its mark in its quiet, confident way, and enjoying a bit of a moment while at it. The slower pace of the city might be just the trick after all that stress watching the markets, doomsday scenarios on the news, and thinking about where in the world things are still secure. Geneva. Always.