Spotlight on: Beau Rivage Palace

Spotlight on: Beau Rivage Palace

Ben Illis revels in the opulence and grandeur of the Beau Rivage Palace in Lausanne.
Ben Illis

There's something about a highly polished marble floor that compels one to wear one's very best shoes. Only formal, well-heeled footwear looks, feels and (most importantly) sounds the part. The satisfying echo of good shoe marble is one of those little pleasures that make luxury feel properly luxurious. Trainers, sandals or (god-forbid) flip-flops would feel like an insult to the marble; slapping and flapping without a shred of dignity or class. No. For me (a man with his eye ever on sartorial matters) a pair of polished Loake brogues do the job admirably. Weighty and stylish, they give me the bearing to stride across the marble foyer of the Beau Rivage with the entitled confidence of a Moldavian prince. (Don’t tell anyone that I got them on ebay for fifteen quid). I can only begin to imagine the pleasure a pair of lofty Louboutin heels might bring the stylish woman (or cross-dresser) strutting her way elegantly from entrance to elevator.

Part of the fun of visiting a grand old hotel like the Beau Rivage really is pretending to be a minor member of some European monarchy. No-one need know that you didn’t attend a finishing school, you’ve never been on a yacht, you’ve never crashed a Ferrari and you’re in no way related to Louis Quatorze. It’s just a little fantasy that allows you to revel in the opulence and grandeur of your surroundings without feeling like Eliza Doolittle at the races.

The Beau Rivage was built in 1857 on the banks of Lake Geneva, or Lac Leman, to those in the know, in the Swiss town of Lausanne. The hotel’s website (somewhat indiscreetly) discloses some historical dignitaries, stars and other famous folk who have lain their weary heads on their sumptuous, high thread-count pillows: Victor Hugo, Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel, Gary Cooper, Nelson Mandela, Emperor Hirohito and so on. So instantly we know that this is no Travelodge. Architecturally the style is baroque-revival; that is, grand, elaborate and exuberant in the same way as, say, the Trevi Fountain or the Palace of Versailles. Somewhere fit for the seriously wealthy/glamorous of the era.

Inside, the hotel boasts enormous lounges with huge frescos, incredible ornate ceilings and dazzling chandeliers the size of my flat. (And lustrous marble floors, which I think I’ve already mentioned). Rooms are no less lavish; more chandeliers hanging from high ceilings, a vast tapestry (depicting something medieval) on the wall behind the massive bed, plush velvet drapes you want to run barefoot through, a bathroom twice the size of my flat (hewn from more marble than I could glide across in a lifetime) and a dainty little balcony looking out over the sparkling waters of the lake towards the Alpine bit of France.

The hotel’s Cinq Mondes Spa is where guests - jaded by the trials of their luxury lifestyles – go to get spoilt even further by a dedicated staff of masseurs, beauticians, therapists and poolside waiters. Can’t blame them. Who doesn’t want to sink into a Japanese red cedar bath laced with petals and essential oils? Or perspire gently in a scented private Hamman. Or be massaged in the ways of Polynesia in pair of quite surprising paper pants. Or dally a while under a mock tropical rainstorm. I could go on. The massage, in fact, was so superbly relaxing that I all but forgot about my disposable underwear. Quite some feat, given these smalls were clearly designed to remove every last vestige of self-respect left to your average member of the Moldavian royal family.

While I’ve never been a great fan of sunbathing, I made an important discovery while researching the Spa for the purposes of this article. It appears that sunbathing is actually pretty enjoyable when, a) one’s sunbed is made not of unyielding hard white plastic, but rather of stylish hardwood and upholstered with sumptuous white cotton cushions, b) there are staff on hand to deliver you little rolled-up damp towels that have been kept in the fridge with which you may cool your brow, c) not one, but two swimming pools are there, different temperatures, one of which cleverly manages to be both inside and outside at the same time, d) a kind lady serves ice-cream from an elegant poolside ice-cream stand and e) there's that tropical rainstorm room I alluded to earlier – it sounds like a glorified shower but really it’s not; trip the motion sensor and an amazing volley of water droplets pelt you in a strangely Amazonian way. I’ve no idea how they’ve engineered this. I don’t really care either. It’s sublime.

Have I missed anything? Oh yeah. There’s a huge jacuzzi, obviously, and a gym (but let's not worry ourselves with that right now).

By now, some of you will have spotted a problem. How on Earth does the average member of the Moldavian royal family get from his or her suite on the upper floors to the spa on the lower ground floor without having to dress up in formal shoes to traverse the marble-floored lobby? No problem. The Beau Rivage comes with a special secret spa-lift that allows guests to don their fluffy bathrobe and slippers in the comfort of their own room, spiriting them discreetly and directly to the spa-entrance downstairs. Nice touch.

The hotel sits in several acres of finely manicured garden, featuring a giant chess set, statues of donkeys, rather mysteriously, and some gorgeous floral displays, some frothing forth from within little statues of cockerels, again rather mysteriously. Hang out here in the early evening with a glass of Prosecco, your eyes wandering over the sunset-tinged mists of Lac Leman and allow your appetite to mature gently.

There are a number of dining options at the Beau Rivage. All of them the finest of fine. Starting at the top, we have the three Michelin starred eponymous restaurant of Anne-Sophie Pic. Anne-Sophie is the third generation Pic to have been decorated with a prestigious third star, making her restaurant perhaps Michelin’s only ‘three star cubed’ restaurant. Here one might feast on (I quote) ‘Frogs legs from Vollorbe cooked "meunière", with black cardamom, light fire-bud consommé from Frenières and grilled eggplant from Florence’. Followed by ‘Milk-fed lamb from Aveyron (pan-roasted saddle and rack), runny fresh Aubonne goat cheese and consommé, slightly smoked’. And for afters, ‘Mirabelle plum and yellow wine, (light white chocolate mousse, marmalade and plum coulis, yellow wine ice cream)’. Beats oeufs avec ses frites, for sure.

Since my companion and I are not actually royalty, we opt for the more relaxed Cafe Beau-Rivage, which sprawls over one of the hotel's many terraces. The Cafe is accessed through the bar, itself a sophisticated den of wood panelling, polished marble, glass, bronze and dramatic mood-lighting, where one might spend many a languid hour sipping on high-spec cocktails (case in point: the 'City Light' - created in honour of the aforementioned Charlie Chaplin - "made with local artisanal apricot eau-de-vie and sloe gin; served in a tall martini-style glass, garnished with an edible flower and finished with a spritz of apricot eau-de-vie from an antique perfume atomiser". It's the cocktail equivalent of driving a vintage Mercedes convertible through orchards in the South of France on a summer's day).

Hot as the evening is, though, we elect to step straight out onto the terrace and kick off with a glass of Laurent Perrier champagne, since dinner at a swish restaurant in a swish Swiss hotel calls for nothing less. Anything else would be like flip-flops on marble and you already know how I feel about that.

Our starters are an Alaskan crab salad with guacamole and a grapefruit foam, and pan-fried red mullet fillets service on a slice of pissaladière (an onion pizza type of thing) with a reduction of blended ratatouille. The crab is sweet and tender and the guacamole creamy and rich. The grapefruit is very subtle, perhaps wanting a little more citrus bite. The mullet is also good; crisp of skin and firm of flesh. The accompanying pissaladière and ratatouille are good-looking and tasty, but here seem to complicate the dish unnecessarily. I ended up eating each element in succession, thus achieving three courses in one. Which is absolutely no problem for me at all.

Alongside the starter, our highly knowledgeable sommelier selected for us a 2011 Païen d’Enfer, (literally ‘Pagan Hell’) a grape from the Valais – the canton to the immediate south east of Lausanne. The flavours here are of dried fruit, honeyed figs and grapefruit. Interesting to note a French sommelier so enamoured of Swiss wines, by the way, or perhaps that’s a racial stereotype too far.

For the main course, my companion was delighted to see steak tartare on offer and doubly delighted to note that it came recommended as a dish nominated for the 2012 Ville de Gout Festival. Anticipation of a potentially award-winning serving of his favourite dish sent him into a slightly undignified frenzy. Fans of steak tartare usually have their own very personal preferences for how the dish is prepared, so he was even further impressed that the waiter popped over with a small sample serving so that the chef might accommodate his tastes in the final dish. I plumped for the roast veal with beurre blanc foam, fried sage leaves, saffron risotto, courgette purée and courgette flowers stuffed with spinach and ricotta (a title that wins our own 2012 ‘Ville de Beaucoup de Mots’ Festival). The steak tartare was very, very good indeed and came with some world-class chips; double-cooked in groundnut oil and dusted with a little paprika between fryings. The veal was similarly delicious, though like the mullet, the overall dish was a little over-adorned. Each of the (many) attending elements was served in its own little pot or section of the dimpled plate, which made it a little tricky to combine the various, admittedly exquisite, flavours. The courgette flowers and purée, indeed, might happily have seceded from the union altogether, to form their own successful independent little dish. A bit like a gastronomic San Marino. As it was, it was back to sampling each element in succession, which again proved no problem at all for valiant little me.

Wine with this course was a very enjoyable 2009 Humagne Rouge (another grape from the Valais) this time from the winemaker Benoit Dursaz. It was light and fruity in character but with enough body to make a decent partner to both the steak and the veal.

For pudding we shared a dessert platter, which much like the Beau Rivage itself, was a grand baroque arrangement of ornate confections; an apricot and almond tart, chocolate tart, hazelnut choux pastry, coconut and passion fruit tart, and an assortment of fresh fruits. Despite straining belts and nascent diabetes we gallantly guzzled each of these exquisite delicacies one by one, washing them down with a local dessert wine; a Paserillé from Morgex (just outside Lausanne). Our sommelier, clearly a keen fan of regional produce and perhaps also on the Valaisanne pay-roll, let us know that this wine is made from a Chardonnay grape, left to wither on the vine in order to increase its sugar content. Since this process runs the risk of rot and the ruination of the crop, and also gives a lower yield, the wine itself is a highly prized (and highly priced) commodity. The top-notch gluttony continued with a selection of wonderful local cheeses followed by freshly made, zesty and aromatic lemon madeleines and coffee.

I'm guessing that many guests of the Beau Rivage never leave the hotel grounds during there stay (and really, who can blame them?) However, Lausanne itself is worth a look round and there are one or two eateries which are definitely worth a visit too. I'd certainly recommend Ma Mere M'a Dit, a theatrically decorated little bistro located in the modest gay quarter of the town.  Here we ate a fine tuna tartare (dressed in a sesame vinaigrette) followed by fillet steak, fondant mash and a crisp rosti, all washed down with a crisp and fruity rosé, again from Canton Valais – elegantly refreshing on a sultry summer’s evening.

The Flon district in the centre of Lausanne has been developed into something of a hip and arty cultural zone and strolling round here you'll find plenty of decent bars, restaurants and nightlife. The district itself lies in the deep valley of the now long concreted over Flon river and is dramatically over-looked by hanging roads and bridges, dotted with vertically-planted wall gardens and the like. During the day, the Port d'Ouchy down by Lake Geneva is worth exploring with an ice-cream in hand. But, it's the Beau Rivage itself that leaves the biggest impression, of course. I don't encounter extreme opulence and finery every day and just a small taste of the high-life feels incredibly special and rare. Indeed I might even feel sorry for the members of European aristocracy, the international business moguls and oligarchs, the Hollywood starlets, etc. for whom this kind of decadence is run-of-the-mill. Their senses must become jaded and bored by endless luxury. But for those of us who tend to live down-to-planet-Earth lifestyles, a brief sneaky joyride through the upper echelons can bring untold pleasure.

Beau Rivage Palace
Place du Port 17  1000 Lausanne 6
021 613 33 33