Annecy, for some, is less a final destination than a watery blimp en route to the French Alps. Pity. The lake lapping at the city walls has been dubbed the “pearl of the Alps”. Winston Churchill labeled it the “most beautiful view on earth” while Mark Twain chipped in with “it is a miracle. It brings the tears to a body’s eyes.” I’m with them. The town itself is no slouch either, with the snaking streets of old Annecy and its curious ancient houses home to cafes, bars, chocolate shops, patisseries and smart deco boutiques. The 17thC looms large in the arcades and gabled houses of rue Sainte-Clare, while the Palais de l’Isle, an 11thC prison on its own island, lords it over all any other medieval building in sight. At Christmas the bridges spanning the web of canals are ringed with lights and come nightfall, the Town Hall transforms into a luminous canvas as market hawkers tout their runny Savoie cheese sandwiches and warm wine to ward off the mountain winds.
We came for the lake. We wanted lakefront. We found it at Clos Marcel in nearby Duingt in an old boarding house reborn as a warm, intensely modern small hotel. Owners Odile Delauné and Lionel Molveau got it right with the quasi-industrial timber and metal structure, decking out the 14 rooms with deft style and an eye to the environment (using local materials, low-energy lighting, double glazing, rainwater for the garden), while playing up the drama of the close-at-hand lake. Their chic bistro Le Comptoir du Lac is headed up by a young chef with some imagination, sending out salmon in a froth flavoured with bird’s eye chillies, lemongrass and coconut milk, and slow-cooked spiced pork belly teamed with lime gnocchi and mushroom mousse. His chocolate soufflé is a high and mighty success. We cosied up inside as snow wreathed the nearby mountains but in summer, a meal on the expansive lantern-lit terrace would be something else again. 410, allée de la Plage 74410 Duingt Main image © Clos Marcel & Studio Bergoend
Sweet Talker: La Reine des Prés
A walk around the lake bought lunch at La Reine des Prés, ex-HQ of chef Marc Veyrat reincarnated as a rustic tea-room-cum-restaurant by his daughter Carine. Mlle Veyrat is a dab hand at pastries – thanks to instruction from Pierre Hermé and Raymond Blanc (Manoir des Quat’Saisons). Her brioche à la praline rose (the crushed pink praline studded sweeties are a speciality of the region) brings a sparkle to any grey day, while her savoury skills are on a par; velvety cauliflower soup with a cloud of nutmeg cream served in a cutesy preserves jar and a duo of burgers, chunky mini patties layered with tomato and lettuce with parmesan sauce ladled all around. Wander next door to Nathalie Alimentation Bio for organic produce with the Veyrat stamp of approval: wines, chocolates, pasta, sauces, chickens, fruit and veg, biscuits. You name it. Love the country store feel and the pinkness of it all.
Best in Snow
If you just have to piste, there’s Semnoz, a 20 minute drive away. Small though it may be with two chair lifts, the fields are the business. La Clusaz or Le Grand Bornand aren’t too far, either. For the full Alps experience, we lobbed into glamorous Megève with its hundreds of kms of runs, ski schools and designer-clad part-time residents. Mink and foxy boots are never out of favour here. At Christmas, there’s the extra appeal of a giant Christmas tree heavy with Swarovski crystals, an ice-carved nativity and myriad bow-adorned boutiques and hotels.