"If you have a fondue on a terrace by a lake in July you are truly Swiss," says Camelia as she shows me around my lake pavilion after buggying me the short distance from reception. And I guess if you leap from your terrace into fresh water – I do it right after she leaves – then climb your ladder just as the hot pot of cheese arrives for your consumption at the outdoor table then you are being truly Swiss at Palafitte.
Because this is the only five-star hotel built over a lake in Europe.
The word palafitte refers to an ancient dwelling constructed on stakes driven into a lake bed. But there's nothing Neolithic about this boutique hotel, built in 2002 as part of Switzerland's sixth national exposition – an epic crowd-pleaser costing 1.6 billion Swiss francs. Twenty-four of Palafitte's 38 chic studios are on pylons over Lake Neuchatel – the largest lake entirely in Switzerland – each with direct private access to the water. The shore pavilions behind have just a pathway between them and the water.
Hotels in Europe aren't technically allowed to have overwater buildings but every year since Expo.02, Palafitte has somehow managed to convince authorities they shouldn't be dismantled. Meeting their environmental responsibilities to an extraordinarily clean lake with a significant bird reserve has been a huge contributor to its continued existence. This year Palafitte may have finally received permanent status.
It's early July and I'm road-tripping Switzerland's 1600-kilometre Grand Tour roundtrip of the country's highlights that includes the gracious old lake-edge francophone city of Neuchatel. I nearly miss Palafitte's gravel driveway leading to its understated entrance where I park my Harley-Davidson Street 750 beside a Porsche 911 GTS and neither looks out of place.
Inside is reception, Le Bar and a restaurant area extending out to a terrace and ground level open-air waterside tables. It's a weekday evening but La Table de Palafitte is already booked solid so I agree to room service. And, actually, for a one-night stay that allows me to really embrace my space.
Sandy gravel and lapping water give the grounds a Mediterranean feel – at least on a sunny evening – and as Camelia and I approach on the golf cart the pavilion doors really do look like beach changing rooms. All this adds to the impact of first stepping inside.
With its cool-palate furnishings over dark wooden floorboards the room feels like a coastal cottage belonging to friends with impeccable taste and a need to read. There's a comfortable couch and some chairs, a coffee machine and the bed faces the water and Alps beyond. The spacious bathroom has a jetted tub also positioned for the view. The hotel has recently been redecorated and is as fresh as the breeze coming in off the lake.
But Palafitte is equipped for more than just indoor reclining. There's a floating pontoon and complimentary stand-up paddle boards, canoes, fishing equipment and bicycles. They're planning a petanque pitch, more gardens and a sauna to encourage winter swimming in the lake.
After my fondue there's no leaving used pots and plates outside the door at Palafitte – I call the number on the room service card and someone collects everything from the table. Overnight I keep the glass doors wide open and huge gauze screen lowered to keep the insects out.
I take breakfast the next morning on the restaurant terrace in the sun – a continental buffet with small plates of cured fish, dried meat, local cheese, fresh fruit, bread and some hot dishes. Most people are in suits but it's a relaxed atmosphere with strangers chatting between tables as though, no matter what anyone's agenda is for the day, they're all on holidays just for the moment.
Swiss International Air Lines, along with airline partners, offers daily connections from Sydney and Melbourne via Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore. See swiss.com
Travel the Grand Tour of Switzerland, which goes right past Palafitte, on a motorcycle from an official Harley-Davidson authorised rentals dealer or rent a car through Hertz. See myswitzerland.com
Hotel Palafitte over Lake Neuchatel stands alone in more ways than one. Shore pavilions from CHF350 per night and lake pavilions from CHF470 per night. See palafitte.ch
Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.