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Living it up on the Swiss Riviera (without busting the Swiss bank account)

It may be where the rich and famous ski and spa, but the Lake Geneva region is surprisingly economical and full of natural and man-made wonders
Image: Lake Geneva
The famous Jet d'eau (water fountain), the emblem of Geneva, dominates the lake port all year roundCourtesy of the Lake Geneva & Matterhorn region
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

Geneva holds a unique position in the great cities of the world. It is literally the center of world peace in so many ways: It's the European headquarters for the United Nations (and before that the League of Nations), the Peace Society, the World Association of School as an Instrument for Peace, the International Peace Bureau, the Geneva International Peace Research Institute — the list goes on and on.

And no wonder— the overwhelmingly peaceful and calming atmosphere of Lake Geneva has attracted philosophers, activists, artists, and leaders for centuries. In fact, the northern shores of the lake are called the Swiss Riviera (check out ), and the area is now home to the likes of David Bowie and Shania Twain (not in the same house, mind you), and Queen and Led Zeppelin wrote a great deal of their songs here too. In fact, statues of former residents Charlie Chaplin and Freddie Mercury grace the lake’s shores.

The Swiss Riviera is called that not only for its draw of the rich and famous, but since it is enjoys such a low and warm altitude, where palm trees even flourish (it’s also home to Switzerland’s best wines). But the snow-capped Alps are everywhere you look, with skiing and snowboarding all around, including runs on the stunning nearby Glacier 3000 ().

Three main towns along the northern shore worth spending a few days in are Lausanne, Vevey, and Montreux. The latter is the site of the world-renowned Montreux Jazz Festival () every July, which attracts top acts from around the world. Nearby Vevey is a tranquil village where Chaplin spent the last years of his life. Both all full of excellent restaurants, walking paths, architecture, museums, and perfect views of the French Alps across the lake (log on to ). Lausanne () is a larger mini-city with great shopping and headquarters to the International Olympic Committee, as well as the fine Olympic Museum. Lausanne and Montreux both have excellent Christmas Markets every December (selling handcrafted items and yummy cheese and chocolate) that shouldn’t be missed.

Ways to save

Now on to the deals. (All rates quoted below are per person based on double occupancy). You will be flying into Geneva to explore this region. Although we recommend booking an economical air/hotel package, the excellent and of course efficient Swiss International Airlines (877/FLY-SWISS, ) can get you airfare alone to Geneva roundtrip from the East Coast at around $400 during winter.

Swiss Made Tours (800/995-7997, ) has a great $549 package that simply gets you to Geneva for four nights, including airfare from Washington D.C., Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, or Atlanta (most other cities are $75 to $125 more). You stay at the three-star Hotel Cristal in Geneva (upgrades to fancier hotels available), and an hour’s swift train ride (this is Switzerland, after all) gets you easily to the wonders or Lausanne, Vevey, and Montreux. Call for pricing of adding on extra nights.

For independent air/hotel packages that include Lausanne and Montreux, try e-vacations.com’s (888/653-8242) twelve-day flexible package starting at $1,729 (depending on your exact dates). For that price you get roundtrip airfare from the East Coast, your choice of twelve nights’ hotel accommodations in nine Swiss cities including Geneva, Montreux, and Lausanne, and rail transportation between the cities including the mountainous Glacier Express a panoramic trip through the Alpine heartland of Switzerland on the "slowest express train in the world."

A quicker five-day rail package without air comes from Destination Europe Resources (800/782-2424, ). Starting at $420 during 2004, you get five nights in three-star hotels in Geneva, Lausanne, Montreux, and Zermatt (the home of the Matterhorn), as well as a second-class Swiss Card rail pass between them all. Additional tickets for other excursions by rail, boat, or cable car can be purchased at 25 percent-50 percent off the regular fares by showing your Swiss Card.

For further info and deals on this scenic and special area of the world, log on to .

{Editor's note: Have you ever vacationed in Switzerland? Do you have a interesting anecdote or helpful tip to share? Please to send an email to our editors for possible inclusion in our daily Letters to the Editor column.}