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Belle Epoque jaunts: old-fashioned boating on Lac Leman

September 24, 2017

Boat ride on Lac Leman

I’ll admit my spirits sank just a little when a boat ride on Lac Léman was suggested. Travel on moving water has always been a bit of a (stomach-churning) challenge. Just ask my family – a certain mackerel fishing voyage has entered the annals of holiday history, to great merriment (from them). I joined the queue with my sister-in-law on a little white, wooden jetty jutting out into the lake in Montreux with fingers firmly crossed behind my back.

Wherever you are the Vaud region of Switzerland, Lac Léman (aka Lake Geneva) is omnipresent; a glittering, heaving, rippling companion if you are on its shore, to a misty, shimmering, expanse in shades of blue, green or grey (depending on the weather) as you ascend into the mountains.

It follows, right by your side, on the train journey from Vevey to Montreux and beyond; great hordes of swans bob and stretch on it between inestimable rows of moored boats in Lausanne; lean, leathery, swimming-capped, pensioners move their creaking limbs to glide under its surface on a daily basis, come rain or shine.

So here we were, on a shimmeringly hot day, barely a breeze wafting over its aqua ripples, about to launch ourselves out on its surface. An elegant paddle steamer glided into view, red and white Swiss flag fluttering from its stern.  My enthusiasm for the cruise increased dramatically, memories of mal de mer dismissed,  especially as our tickets were First Class.

Even though our feet flew up the brass-edged wooden stairs to the top-level to secure a spot outside, keener people than us were already lounging in old-fashioned, navy blue deck-chairs at the prow. We were more than content to settle on white-painted slatted benches, especially once in possession of a carafe of chilled local rosé from the bar.

Relaxation was de rigueur and the only movement, apart from stretching out an arm to take another sip from a glass, was the occasional shuffle of reclining bodies at each smooth and fleeting dock to shore. As a lady flexed her bare feet and polished toe nails in contentment, I couldn’t help think of the reaction this would have elicited from passengers of an earlier age. Lacy parasols would have shaded the pale complexions of ladies and frilled hems kept ankles well secluded on the fleet from the Belle Époque era – now immaculately restored to its former glory.  We were being ferried by the SS Vevey, one of the eight paddle steamers that now dart across the lake, built in 1907 by Sulzer Brothers of Winterthur.

In good weather, this deck is perfect for unparalleled views of the pretty towns that hug the coastline, combined with old-fashioned courtesy of the bar staff. There is hardly a word uttered as we surrender to the lull of the engines and splendour of the scenery. Chateau Chillon, a formidable, honey coloured castle, is seen at its best from the water, Montreux rises steeply upwards behind leafy green, even the carved merry-go-round at Vevey looks more romantic from our bird’s eye view.

On a more inclement day or if you’ve succumbed to the exhaustion which comes from an overload of beauty (perfectly possible in Vaud), then a lunch cruise is an alternative way to travel. A few days later I snagged a window seat on La Suisse and spread my napkin on lap in anticipation of the ‘Formule Belle Époque’ – a starter, main, dessert plus some appetisers chosen from a limited menu.

A lady with her young grandson sat at the adjacent table adding the entertainment of watching two very different generations gain such pleasure from each other’s company. She doted in a quiet way while he demonstrated how to play a range of games and activities with her. She ate with relish – an obvious treat – while he struggled with more than a few mouthfuls of anything, cutlery large and unwieldly in his small hands, apart from his dessert. You can hear a little of his reedy voice on the video below!

The food leans to the traditional, with a focus on local provenance and seasonal ingredients: a savoury panna cotta made with Tomme cheese and some good olives went exceptionally well with a glass of local Chasselas as an appetiser; a hunk of Pinot Noir infused Vaudois sausage (an IGP local delicacy) in a casing of pastry and leek gravy was a robust precursor to my fish main course. This local char, one of the species fished from the lake we were traversing, was served as a poached fillet with caraway, grapes and delicate seasonal vegetables as a very pretty plate.  I shunned dessert (although my neighbour’s raspberry macaron looked tempting) for a glass of elegant, local Pinot Noir. Service was brisk but attentive and polite; the whole experience relaxing and rather civilised making me loathe to disembark.

Fortunately there is one last sojourn with a steamer. The Vevey once more… to Vevey. I settle down on the rear lower deck and gaze as we slide past the turn of the century buildings in Montreux, curlicues of plaster bathed in golden late afternoon light. The horn blows throatily as we come into port; I’m a cruising convert.


More about Lac Léman: The lake plays a starring role in so much of Vaud’s calendar and eco-system. It forms the most beautiful backdrop to just about everything for visitors and residents alike; it reflects the sunlight so the vines that shelter in meticulous rows on its slopes produce luscious fruit in UNESCO World Heritage vineyards; for leisure there is swimming from small beaches and protected pools, sailing, wind surfing, water skiing, rowing and scuba diving; and provides a means for people to travel quickly to and from various ports along this expanse of water. It’s the largest alpine lake in Europe, straddling both Switzerland and France, with a surface area of 580 km², 73km along its length, and a car journey of around 3 hours to drive around its perimeter.  You can hop on and off the ferry boat as part of a day trip as mentioned in this post by Taste of Savoie

Booking a cruise: I took the Riviera Cruise which visits Vevey Marche, Montreux, Villeneuve, Le Bouveret, St Gingolf and a few other little stops such as Chateau Chillon. Browse a variety of different experiences on the CGN website – it takes a bit of patient navigating – and the schedules change according to season. If you are there in Winter there’s a Fondue Cruise on a Friday night (I fancy that!) and even Oktoberfest.

Thank you to Vaud Tourism for two of my three lovely trips on Lac Leman. Click on an image to see the gallery.

Do you embrace boat travel or are you a bit of a land lubber like me? And are you rather allergic to the word ‘cruise’ or does it excite you?









  1. September 24, 2017 3:51 pm

    The photos are beautiful! What a wonderful experience! I’m glad you made yourself go on the boat despite your unease.

    • September 24, 2017 9:33 pm

      So am I Nicola! And thanks for the kind words about my pics – mainly iphone tbh

  2. Dave Reeder permalink
    September 24, 2017 4:07 pm

    Haven’t been on that lake for many years – must have been pre-2001, as I was still married. However, I still remember the beauty of the surroundings and the excellent food. One if my fondest memories of that holiday (which we spent in a kind of up-market holiday camp with chalets and a restaurant) was finding a tiny spot to eat in Geneva that specialised in fondue. So much so, in fact, that you could see hot cheese solidifying on the walls, which were crusty yellow and brown with years, if not decades, of cheese! Magical… Have to say I found most of the white wines from the region rather thin and acidic.

    • September 24, 2017 9:35 pm

      Not sure whether those crusty yellow walls appeal or repel! Cant resist a really good fondue though. The white is quite crisp but perfect for a summer’s day.

  3. September 24, 2017 4:25 pm

    Your photographs are stunning! What a beautiful cruise. I want to try one of those raspberry macarons too!

    • September 24, 2017 9:36 pm

      Aw thanks Nancy. I just looked back over the menu and I’m amazed I couldn’t manage a dessert they all sound amazing.

  4. September 24, 2017 9:13 pm

    That looks like my idea of heaven! Flat calm, gorgeous! Your photography is stunning as always too!

    • September 24, 2017 9:36 pm

      So kind of you to say that Elizabeth. As you know I gaze longingly at your beautiful pics of your wild bit of the world quite often.

  5. September 24, 2017 10:10 pm

    Great photos.

  6. September 25, 2017 6:28 pm

    Oh wow this post is so nice! keep it up! x

  7. September 26, 2017 1:09 am

    What a gorgeous thing to do and how cute is that story of the grandma and young child. I do love the lakes of Switzerland and thing they’re some of the most gorgeous in the world 🙂

  8. September 26, 2017 4:19 pm

    Loving the photographs alongside your writing. Lake Leman is such a good lake even for those who don’t like being on the water, as it’s often so calm. And it looks like you were there at a lovely time of year, with great weather. I rarely book for meals on boats as they can be such a let down but it does look like the Belle Epoque meal you were served was of a high standard, what a nice way to eat while enjoying those views. I visited this area as a teenager (decades ago) and would so love to revisit!

  9. September 27, 2017 6:28 pm

    I’ve never been to Lac Leman although one of my good friend’s partner lives right on the Lake (yep, he’s rich!) and we have been invited several times. I am also not a natural boat person for similar reasons, with ferries about my limit! But this looks marvellous, very stylish, and your compelling writing makes it seem even more so. Was that your own video? It’s very good. Pinned to my Destinations board, where quite a number of your travel posts are corralled for inspiration. 🙂

  10. September 30, 2017 11:43 am

    What a lovely post. I feel quite relaxed just from reading it!


  1. A great day out boat trip on Lac Leman in Switzerland

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