he sequoias of Lausanne are having a tough time with a particular type of botryosphaeriaceae. The pathogenic fungus has already claimed an 100-and-something-year-old giant in the gardens of the International Gymnastics Federation. It would be a tragedy if the disease were to make the short distance down the Avenue de la Gare to the leafy, upmarket neighbourhood of Ouchy and the Royal Savoy Hotel.
The Savoy’s own soaring redwood – the sort to which Byron might have dedicated a verse, though the tree would have only been a seed when the firebrand poet was ensconced in the neighbouring Hotel d’Angleterre (more likely T.S. Eliot, then, who composed most of The Waste Land while under the care of a psychiatrist in Lausanne: ‘By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept’) – stands sentinel between the hotel’s historic Art Nouveau-style main building and its slick new Park Wing.
Like an artist’s pencil held up to provide a sense of scale, the towering conifer frames an aspect that stretches from the shores of Lake Geneva – Lac Léman, s’il te plaît, this is French-speaking Switzerland after all – to the shark-toothed silhouette of the Savoy Alps and the belle époque spa town of Évian-les-Bains, where, if you’re willing to queue, you can fill up your water bottle with the famous mineral water for free.
You can sit and wonder at the towering American immigrant while sipping coffee on your private balcony, if you ask for a south-facing room. Down there on the lawn, on 14 July 1791, a local nobleman, renouncing his own seigneurial privileges, threw a banquet to celebrate the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. The following day, fearful that festivities might ignite rebellion within their own wobbly fiefdom, some jittery authorities in Bern sentenced the aristocrat to death (he survived, for a time, by legging it to France). The event helped kick-start Switzerland’s own kind of quasi revolution.
Overlooking the spot is the sun-flecked terrace of the hotel’s La Brasserie du Royal. You can picture the ancient Vaudois patriots frolicking in their morning coats and breeches as you tuck in to the restaurant’s signature Lac Léman pike and roasted cauliflower.
A little more history. The Royal Savoy opened in 1909 and boomed a decade later when the Orient Express started operating a second route, via Lausanne and Milan, rather than Munich and Vienna, on its way from Paris to Istanbul. Holed up within the hotel during the Second World War was the Spanish royal family. Joining them was King Bhumibol of Thailand, though the reasons behind his own lie doggo are a little less clear.
For the best part of a century the Royal Savoy existed as one of Lausanne’s three great hotels, alongside Beau Rivage, down there on the lake, and Lausanne Palace, up there on the hill. The Royal Savoy hosted Joe Cocker and Phil Collins, and other musicians on the bill at the nearby Montreux Jazz Festival, during the nineties, before falling upon harder times in the noughties.
In 2009, Qatar-based Katara Hospitality, proprietors of The Savoy in London and The Plaza in New York, stepped in with the pockets and patience to return the hotel to its original standing. The refit lasted six years, burnt through £80 million and, according to one manager with whom we spoke, turned into the refurbishment from hell (the manager, who’ll remain nameless, had to be persuaded back to their job having jacked it in halfway through the overhaul).
Part of the update included the completion of the new Park Wing, a contemporary, low-rise annexe of sleek rooms and jagged corridors that had to be kinked at dog-leg angles to avoid the giant roots of the redwood. It’s in the Park Wing that you’ll find the hotel’s slick steel-and-glass spa, with its indoor and outdoor pool.
The rest of the facilities – restaurant, lounge bar, cigar room, panoramic rooftop bar – are in the main building, where original features – gilt-edged paintings, antique floor tiles – clash artfully with dramatic modern chandeliers and bright velvet upholstery. Best to visit the rooftop bar later in the evening; it’s commandeered by a corporate crowd between 6-8pm.
Rooms, 196 in total, are as luxurious as a cabin on the Orient Express, only roomier. Those in the Savoy Wing have televisions set in the wall above the bath. Some people might find that tawdry. Pass the remote.
Having breakfast on the terrace of the brasserie during our visit was the CEO of a major Swiss watch brand whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing on several occasions. Let’s call him Mr P, because that’s the first letter of his surname. Several years ago, Mr P was headhunted by Apple to help launch its first smartwatch in the UK. Mission accomplished, Mr P returned to Geneva to become one of the youngest chief executives in the mechanical watch industry. He’s revered for his dynamic management style and for his habit of pairing a tailored blazer with jeans and Common Projects sneakers. When he’s not thinking of innovative ways to launch watches, Mr P enjoys free-diving, backcountry skiing and practising the deadly martial art of krav maga. (That could be his sadomasochistic Tinder bio, if he wasn’t married with kids.)
There’s a reason I bring up the presence of Mr P on the patio that morning. When Katara Hospitality commissioned London-based MKV Design to oversee the Royal Savoy’s overhaul, you get the impression that this was exactly the type of stylish, young, bootstrapping future patron they had in mind.
Wandering the hotel’s tastefully-modern public spaces, its glass-wine-cellar-lined corridors and its pristinely manicured gardens, you have to say, the result is bang on the money.
Rooms from £320, royalsavoylausanne.com