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Down the Lake From Geneva, Enchanted Ground : Paddle-Steamer Connects Pretty French Villages, One With an Ancient Country Fair

August 23, 1992|LUREE MILLER | Miller is a Washington, D.C.-based writer whose latest book is "Literary Hills of San Francisco."

"Let's try our luck," Elisabeth said. But I balked. I could imagine the young Prince Karim, the Aga Khan, with Rita Hayworth on his arm ascending the casino's curving staircase--behind them men in pearl-gray suits with diamond stickpins in their silk cravats and beautiful women in peach-chiffon gowns. Here we were, in blue jeans and sneakers. But, as it turned out, so was almost everyone else on the lower level of the casino, where Elisabeth pulled me in to squander our loose change in a slot machine.

We ambled along the Rue Nationale, a charming street closed to cars, but lethal for shoppers, so appealing are the shops. Elisabeth, in keeping with local tradition, bought jars of strained myrtle berries for her new grandson, to assure him of a discerning palate. For friends in Maine, I found wood-and-wire berry pickers designed like bear claws. At an outdoor cafe, we ate black-currant tarts, then lined up at the exuberantly decorated public fountain (built in 1789) to fill our empty bottles with healthful Evian water.

Evian's modern new spa offers everything from mud treatments to bodybuilding. But we decided to top off the day with a plunge in the lake. The grounds and changing cabins are as stylish as a private club. Vast velvet lawns, edged with bright flower beds, sweep down to two large swimming pools, and areas along the breakfront are roped off for lake swimming. Here we dove in and swam out to meet the long, curving waves of a passing paddle-steamer. As the waves gently floated us back to shore, we dreamed of our next excursions and of all the glorious meals yet to come--for life along Lac Leman is an endless feast of delights.

GUIDEBOOK: Paddling Along Lake Geneva

Getting there: From Los Angeles to Geneva, round-trip high-season fares (through Sept. 30) start at $1,106 for SwissAir, KLM, Lufthansa and Air France. TWA and United are offering high-season fares of $784 for midweek service and $834 on weekends.

When to go: The Compagnie Generale du Navigation operates boats on Lake Geneva from May until mid-September. Buy tickets at the docks by the Pont de Mont Blanc Bridge, a 10-minute taxi ride from Cointrin International Airport.

Where to stay: Yvoire, Thonon and Evian can all be used as bases for lake excursions. All have good hotels and many restaurants in all price ranges.

Yvoire: The newest and best-appointed local inn, just outside the village wall with a view of the lake, is Hotel-Restaurant Le Pre de la Cure (74140 Yvoire; $50-$60 double). The Hotel-Restaurant du Port is right at the port overlooking the water (74140 Yvoire; about $120 for rooms with balcony).

Thonon: A charming Old World hotel near the port with a terrace is the Hotel-Restaurant Bell Rive du Lac (6 Quai des Rives, 74200 Thonon-les-Bains; $50-$60 double). The Hotel Arc-en-Ciel is quiet with a fine view over the lake (18 Place de Crete, 74200 Thonon-les-Bains; $50-$60 double).

Evian: The Neuvecelle-Eglise has been run by the Vervier family for four generations. Swimming pool, tennis (74500 Evian-les-Bains; $160-$200 double). The new Hotel Le Litoral is next to Le Casino Royal, with lakeside gardens (Avenue Narvik, 74500 Evian-les-Bains; about $80 double).

For more information: Contact the French Government Tourist Office, 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, Beverly Hills 90212, (900) 990-0040 (50 cents per minute). Locally: Agence Touristique Departementale, 56 rue Sommeiller, 74012 Annecy, France, telephone (from the U.S.) 50-45-73.

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