Travel can take you to the most surreal places. Imagine, for instance, being at a Swiss health spa nestled in a luxury lake-side resort that is mocked up like an African safari lodge and enjoying a "better-ageing" massage so soothing and relaxing you find yourself drifting off into another world entirely, that entrancing one between sleep and consciousness. Such is life at La Reserve Geneva, an eclectic retreat on the leafy banks of Lake Geneva (or Lac Leman as it's better known in these Frenchified parts).
While the resort looks so-so upon approach from the driveway – picture a complex of fairly low-level maroon, lime-green and red-brick buildings hedged by lawns, trees and topiary – it's a different beast inside.
Dance tunes – buoyant, though sensibly-volumed – infuse the air in the lobby and adjoining corridors and cocktail bar, where carpets are patterned like the skins of big cats, walls sport framed butterflies and snaps of African animals in the wild, and colourful glass bird silhouettes are perched beside glowing taffeta lampshades. Plush brown and red leather sofas, ideal for evening drinks, cluster round claw-footed stone tables and fireplaces and, looming in one alcove, is a near life-size sculpture of an elephant.
Elephants are the icon of La Reserve, a collection of upscale boutique hotels and wine estates owned by French entrepreneur Michel Reybier, who has others in Paris, St Tropez and Bordeaux. La Reserve was the first, opening in 2003, but it feels fresh after a facelift last year.
It attracts an assortment of affluent guests: couples and families, solo travellers keen for some me-time, and those on business and diplomacy trips. The Palais des Nations, the European headquarters of the United Nations, is four kilometres away, about halfway between the resort and Geneva's historic centre.
There are 73 rooms and 29 suites, some of which – such as the 124-square-metre, two-bedroom Presidential suite – are large enough to stage private functions and conferences. The larger ones also have capacious terraces with views of the lake and, in good weather, the snow-caked Swiss Alps and Mont Blanc.
Decor-wise,the rooms and suites are a mishmash. Some take inspiration from colonial-style African game lodges, with exotically-patterned rugs and dark-wood doors, walls and furniture, as well as opulent velvet sofas and mod-cons such as Nespresso machines. I'm told the theme of "the world" and international travel also influenced the hotel's interior design by veteran French architect Jacques Garcia. As such, you're just as likely to see black-and-white pictures of alpine skiers or luxuriantly bearded Indian maharajahs as African tribal masks and bookshelves fashioned out of old fishing boats.
The smallest rooms – in the "superior" category – are, at 30 square metres, generously-sized. My lake suite, is 62 square metres, with a separate living area and bedroom, and patios edging the grassy "back garden" that slopes towards the lake. You won't see any of the Big Five grazing out there, but in summer, the outdoor pool zone lures guests for bathing and braai (barbecue-like) gatherings. There a children's play area and, in winter, there's an ice-skating rink and you'll see wrapped-up folk savouring fondue and festivities.
The resort is a springboard for invigorating days out, from fresh-air-filled hikes in the mountains to mooching around Geneva, or trendy suburbs such as Carouge. Take the pedestrian tunnel from the resort's rear to the water's edge, where sailing adventures can be had. From March to October, an elegant Venetian-made motoscafo speeds across the lake to Quai Fleuri in central Geneva, where giant landmarks such as the flower clock and Jet d'Eau water fountain will catch your gaze.
You may be content just hanging out at the resort though, especially if you've got wellness in mind. Head through the sleek glass walkway from the main wing and you'll see a huge mural etched with different characters, including the Mona Lisa. This is the reception of the Nescens Spa, a labyrinthine enclave spread across almost 2500 square metres with a glut of health-enhancing facilities, including a heated pool, hair salon, sauna, hammam, fitness centre with Technogym machines, trampoline, indoor and outdoor tennis courts, and rooms for limb-stretching activities such as yoga.
The resort recently held yoga retreat weekends with American teacher Jeff Grant. The spa's treatments are a big pull and draw on the techniques and theories of Jacques Proust, the Nescens founder and professor who is a pioneer of anti-ageing science.
One splash-out option at La Reserve – it costs about $6800 and does not include accommodation – is a seven-day "better-ageing" programme with individualised coaching to teach you how to better preserve "youthfulness". Overseen by physicians, consultants and dieticians, it involves biological check-ups, dietary assessments, physical activities, spa treatments and personalised healthy meals. There are also four- and 14-day options.
At $345, the 90-minute "better-ageing" signature body massage is more wallet friendly. For this, I'm led into a candle-lit room by Julie, a petite French therapist who rubs into my skin a warm organic anti-ageing oil that blends olive oil, argan and jojoba, and is designed to moisturise and regenerate the epidermis. Between the instrumental background music – at one point there's tropical birdsong of the sort you might hear in a rainforest – and Julie's gentle kneading, I'm lulled into a blissfully chilled-out state. Occasionally, she applies suction cups connected to a lymph drainage machine that apparently draws out toxins, releases blockages and eases tension.
Refreshed, I rehydrate with water and an infusion of strawberry, mint and lemon verbena , then lunch at the spa's Cafe Lauren, which promises "well-balanced, calorie-controlled light and tasty meals". I enjoy my artichoke and lemongrass soup, then scallops in a foamy sauce and spinach with truffle oil, but, in truth, I can't maintain this health kick, such are the resort's other food and drink temptations (including tipples from Michel Reybier's vineyards in France and Hungary).
The previous evening, I'd eaten at Tse Fung, Switzerland's first Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant. Against a backdrop of red velvet, black lacquer and silk hangings, chef Frank Xu offers tasty new takes and twists on traditional Cantonese dishes and other favourites from the Middle Kingdom. My Emerald set menu (about $205) includes red rice rolls, steamed dim sum, stir-fried chicken with ginger, beef and basil stir fry, fragrant fried rice and succulent Sichuan prawns that were particularly more-ish.
On my final evening, I dine on crispy langoustine, Black Angus sirloin, then Kalamansi chocolate with tangy citrus sorbet at Loti, a restaurant that encapsulates the resort's cosmopolitan vibe.
An enticing array of fish, seafood and meat – including Uruguay caviar, Swiss veal, Dover sole and Kobe beef – are served in its cosy safari-esque setting. There is a white fabric canopy supported by bamboo-like poles, a leafy tree at the heart of the dining room, photographs of tigers on the walls and, in true La Reserve style, a sculpture of an elephant head, its tusks and trunk poking out above a crackling fire.
Steve McKenna was a guest of La Reserve
Rooms at La Reserve Geneva Hotel & Spa – which is a 10-minute drive from the airport – are priced from about CHf404 ($559). Suites are from CHf744 ($1030). See lareserve-geneve.com