As our modern way of travelling becomes ever more accessible and efficient, we still have a desire to step back and enter a different age of travel often associated with the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The steamboats of Lake Geneva offer an unrivalled opportunity to revel in times gone by and enjoy the delightful scenes of idyllic Swiss countryside from their decks and dining halls.
There are eight paddle-wheel boats with curving sheers, fine entries, and gilt-worked prows. We were fortunate to be invited by the Geneva Tourism board to lunch on the oldest, Montreux, built in 1904, part of a fleet operated for over 100 years by La Compagnie Générale de Navigation (CGN). Montreux's cruises struck a note with the public of Geneva, becoming so popular with Gilded Age travellers that CGN went on to build a new boat almost every year to meet the demand. In recent years the fleet has undergone extensive renovation with the aid of the Association des amis des bateaux à vapeur du Léman’. The Association refurbished La Suisse between 2007 and 2009, and public funds enabled the restoration of Vevey. The Association recently raised funds to repair Italie, which emerged from dry dock in July 2016.
The CGN has paired up with renowned restaurateurs to offer guests a memorable dining experience on their boats. One is Café Léman, rooted in Lake Geneva traditions, serving products primarily from Lake Geneva and the regions beyond. Café Léman is an ambassador of the quality of Swiss cuisine and wines and pays tribute to the standards of service of this region famous throughout the world. Part of the menu is notably designed with Marie Robert, a recognised young chef from the Lake Geneva basin. The Caviar House & Prunier team developed this new culinary concept specially created for catering on board the CGN fleet.
This delightful escapade on Lac Leman served as the perfect prologue to our next destination, Gstaad Palace. And after making our way to Montreux, we stepped on board the GoldenPass Panoramic train, which travels the 190-kilometre route between the Swiss cities of Montreux and Lucerne and is instantly recognisable by its glittering golden and white livery. The train is as beautiful from the inside as it is from the outside. Light and spacious carriages offer comfortable armchair-style seating beside vast panoramic windows which continue into the train's ceiling. These windows are essential, of course, to the enjoyment of the journey and as the train climbs into the mountains above Montreux and offers a beautiful view through meticulously cleaned panes.
As an alternative to the panoramic train, some escorted tours of Switzerland enable guests to travel in the GoldenPass Classic Train. This beautiful train recreates the Belle Époque style of the luxurious Golden Mountain Pullman Express, which was in service during the 1930s. Reminiscent of the Venice Simplon Orient Express, the GoldenPass Classic Train takes guests back into the golden days of luxury rail travel in the splendour of ornate, wood-panelled carriages with plush and indulgently comfortable seats. The Classic Train's large windows ensure that passengers enjoy outstanding views of the GoldenPass Line's remarkable landscapes. The train even has a dedicated 'wine cellar' carriage in which you may sample a variety of excellent regional wines.
On return from Gstaad, we couldn't resist travelling the last leg, from Lausanne to Geneva, aboard La Suisse. It is worth giving a thought that these living monuments of time gone by nearly ended their existence after the tribulations of the second world war. Yet, despite wars, the Great Depression, and the emergence of ever more convenient transportation, the Belle Epoque fleet has been in active service without interruption for over a century. May it long continue.