With pristine waters, cute local beaches and an impressive network of walking trails, the picturesque wine-growing region of Lavaux is one of Europe's best-kept secrets.
Situated in French-speaking western Switzerland between Lausanne and Vevey on the northern shores of Lake Geneva, Lavaux has all the beauty of the Italian lakes but a low-key sense of chic and zero pollution problems. Its microclimate gives it an almost-Mediterranean feel in during the summer months, when locals don swimmers, shades and sandals to revel in the best backyard in central Europe.
On the shores of Lake Geneva, 800-year-old vineyard terraces – a Unesco World Heritage Site -- rise from the lakefront to the hills behind, peppered with picture-perfect medieval towns and plenty of walking trails.
The golden glow that seems to infuse the area is not a figment of your imagination. Locals say that there are three suns at work in the vineyards of Lavaux: the actual sun; its reflection on the lake; and the stones that trap its heat and keep the vines warm at night.
Lavaux wines rarely feature on lists outside Switzerland, due to the relatively small size of the area, the strong Swiss franc and the locals’ tendency to keep vintages to themselves. Local whites tend to be fruity and vigorous, with chasselas being the most produced, and the fine, well-balanced local pinot noir is also popular.
To sample the region’s best wines, the many caveaux (wine cellars) of the villages in Lavaux should not be missed. The Caveau des vignerons de Lutry in the lakefront town of Lutry, five kilometres east of Lausanne, is a popular choice, and Rivaz's Lavaux Vinorama offers the region’s largest selection of local wines for tasting and sale.
The jewel in the Lavaux crown, though, is the stunningly pretty Saint-Saphorin which lies 15km southeast of Lausanne. Visit the lakeside village’s Auberge de l’Onde, a 475-year-old inn that is perched on the small town square. Its high-end restaurant and casual pinte (cafe-bistro) are loved by locals and out-of-towners alike. Expect to find high-end French-influenced cuisine in the restaurant and delicious cakes and tarts in the pinte.
Exploring Lavaux on foot is as easy or hard as you choose to make it. The simple vineyard stroll from Lutry to the village of Cully is slightly more than five kilometres and takes about 90 minutes. The 'Grande Traversée de Lavaux', with its perfect panoramas of the lake, covers 36km from the majestic Château de Chillon to Lausanne and takes eight hours. The 11.5km uphill trek from Cully to Chexbres village (give yourself about four hours) reward the effort with heart-breaking views.
Signs and multilingual information panels posted throughout the region detail how long it will take to walk (or cycle) between towns, and provide information about the local wine-production process.
The pristine (but admittedly bracing) waters of Lake Geneva, with its casual plages (beaches), make swimming and sunbathing obvious activities. Plus, the town of Evian, France is just on the other side of the lake, so you can actually swim in Evian water.
For a social vibe, head five kilometres east of Lausanne to the village of Lutry, home to a bustling pebble beach, a grass lawn swarming with bronzed locals and its own funky little buvette (drinking spot) that doles out drinks, great grills and fondue.
For a more incognito swim, St-Saphorin's postage-stamp of a plage is worth the search. From the train station, head on foot back in the direction of Lausanne, cross over the train tracks via the little footbridge and descend the stairs to the diminutive beach, complete with diving board, change rooms and space for only a handful of people. Cully is another good spot for peaceful lake swimming in the calm, deep waters.
Locals like to let their hair down in the summer, and the town of Montreux, a quick 27km southeast of Lausanne, remains very much the place to be when the sun goes down. The town is best known for its famous Montreux Jazz Festival (from 29 June to 14 July this year), a mix of rock royalty, jazz luminaries and up-and-comers. You will want to book ahead for big-name gigs, but a roster of free open-air concerts keeps things democratic.
Travelling in Switzerland is a well-ordered affair, whether by car, train, boat or on foot. Saint-Saphorin lies on the train route between Lausanne and Montreux. All other towns mentioned above can be accessed by train and/or bus from Lausanne or Montreux (from Geneva, change trains at Lausanne).
By car, take the coast road, known as the Route du Lac, from Lausanne.
If you want to arrive by boat, Compagnie Générale de Navigation has services in summer to/between lakeside towns in both Switzerland and France.
There is a wide range of accommodation in Lausanne and Montreux, plus small inns throughout the area. The brand-new Hotel Lavaux in Cully has 180-degree views of the lake.