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Thoughts — 15 September 2010 Travel Notes: Lake Geneva Region of Switzerland & France

Karen and Ivan at Hotel Victoria in Montreux and at Evian Royal Resort….Jeremy traveling light on the plane ride home!
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As you can see, weve been on vacation for the past few weeks and it is the middle of the Jewish fall holiday cycle. To all of you who had Ramadan and Eid this month, best wishes.

My company has a credentials evaluations division that is based almost entirely on employment. The past 2 years it has been down significantly. Yet August 2010 figures were up 25% over August 2009 and September 2010 continues to show improvement. It is a strong indicator that the economic recovery is coming.That plus Warren Buffets comment this week that a double dip recession is out of the question is comforting.

I do think that the recovery could be expedited by dealing with the structural unemployment issues which exist. First, people cant move out of their homes and look for new jobs because they dont have enough equity in their homes to be able to sell them. Obamas Contract with America which was his principal campaign platform promised to deal with the principal amount of mortgages; it was the only real meat in that document. But in office, he has completely let go of that plank of his program. This has robbed the US job market of the flexibility it used to be famous for.

I am to attend the World Business Forum in NY next month and will report on it in my next issue. It is a gathering of top business executives in the USA and is said to be the local equivalent of the World Economic Forum conference in Davos.

I had lunch with a director of marketing for Coca Cola products. Increasingly, their market is moving away from soda and toward active lifestyle drinks such as vitamin water. He said that soda taxes were stupid because 4 states have tried it and there has been no discernable change in behavior because of those taxes. Rather, the state needs to encourage people to have more active lifestyles. An investment banker I had lunch with today said that the example of the 4 states made it all that more compelling to increase soda taxes let those people who want to drink the stuff continue to pick up the costs of having soda cause obesity and increased health costs. Soda is the #1 determining factor of obesity in America.

Middle East those talks have begun. I dont expect anything out of them. I have noticed that the US is threatening both sides if they dont make it look good….Reports from the Daily Telegraph in London that Ahmadenijad promised $25 million to Erdogan’s party in Turkey tells you all you need to know about Turkey in 2010. That plus earlier reports mentioned here that the organizers of the Gaza Flotilla were heavy contributors to Erdogan’s party fills in the gap. Just follow the money boys…..

Hold the Presses: And now for a very important development that just happened today which has just made it into this edition. Grom is a super-fantastic gelateria downstrairs from us which is about as good as Italy. I noticed that they had substituted their spoons and that the gelato didn’t taste as good. Then I noticed these pamphlets on the table that went into great detail about the new spoons having been specially designed and tested, and that they were intended to be eco-friendly with some kind of substitute for plastic. I complained to the people on duty who said that they had fielded other complaints. As much as I love the earth, if you are paying $5.25 for a scoop of gelato, the first business of Grom is to deliver the best gelato experience possible. If they don’t, they will make the earth happy but I will be less likely to show up at their store. Businesses that forget this are at their peril, despite the fact that being environmentally friendly is the current corporate social responsibility flavor of the year.

Now, onto the Summer Vacation.

This was a big experiment for us the first crossing of the pond with both our kids. The experience was much better than we were anticipating. Even the first day there was not a wasted day and the kids handled the jet lag rather well. Perhaps better than us!

We figured that Switzerland was a good first place to go with the kids. It is clean, safe and many people speak English. It is a good place to deal with problems, and if a kid gets lost or runs away, there are tons of closed circuit TV cameras with which to locate him! Besides, our local supermarket on a Sunday afternoon is inherently more dangerous than going to Switzerland.

The goal of this trip was simply to go to some pretty places, enjoy ourselves doing not so much, and see how it goes. We are going to Australia at years end, so this was a take-notes about traveling overseas with kids and see how it goes rehearsal. So we went to the Lake Geneva region and to 3 places, all within 50 miles of each other. All we had to do was fly to Geneva, surface around and fly back after 10 days. The places we went, Montreux, Geneva and Evian would generally be boring for adults, but with kids it ought to be fun. I went this route in 2005 when Karen was pregnant with Elizabeth and I then scouted out the territory for a future family trip. The cost of going to Switzerland and France was 1/3 less than the trip we took to California 2 years ago. It doesnt need to be ridiculously expensive to travel there; the favorable dollar situation was helpful as was various hotel discounts (pay 3, stay 4) offered in the midst of recession. Most of these hotels let kids eat free or at discount and offer discounts on the second room for the kids. Swiss Air was also cheap at about $850 per ticket with kiddie discounts and the tickets were refundable a ticket to Miami plus Nassau or Key West is about $650 and the American tickets are always non-refundable.

The kids loved the trip. We put them in pretty clothes and took lots of pictures with lakes, mountains and gardens in the background. Upon return I saw Elizabeth building a model cathedral with her building tiles and Jeremy loves his trains although today he also built some kind of building out of blocks too. At the train stations, we would stand around on the platform and watch the trains enter and leave the station. On the train, he would run around in the cars and look at everything from every seat, much to the consternation of some of the other adults in the cabin. One of the sentences he said often on the trip was Trains make me happy.

Flight to Geneva from NY was not so bad; Elizabeth had a meltdown upon boarding and scared away the person who was supposed to occupy the seat next to her, leaving us with a whole row of 4 seats in the middle plus a window and aisle. Swiss Airlines is now a subsidiary of Lufthansa and the old charm is utterly gone. The vege meals were inedible. Transfer to the train at Geneva was easy; they will transfer your luggage for you for a fee but we traveled light and chose to do it ourselves. We packed all 4 of us into 3 small to medium suitcases, one stroller, a DVD bag and a diaper bag.

A great tip is to go to Netflix, up your subscription for lots of DVDs, and get a bunch of them for the trip. After you return, you can change your subscription back. For $50, we got $200 worth of DVDs. We used the train to go from Geneva airport to Montreux; even with First Class rail tickets for the one hour ride, we saved a huge amount over the taxi transfer the savings was about $400 round trip.

Montreux is not a fascinating place. I was there 5 years ago and it was worth a few hours. But with small kids, I thought it would be nice to return and we werent disappointed for our 4 night stay. The Fairmont Palace is best of show in town centrally located about 300 meters from the train station right near the lake. If you stay there, pay the extra few bucks and get a lakeside view. Hotel is not exactly up to par for what it should be; torn wallpaper on the wall by the bed and our shower wasnt working well. But otherwise, it is an excellent hotel well decorated with nice breakfasts and friendly service. Montreux is a small town but that is great for our purposes. Zurcher is a great patisserie (closed on Mondays); there is a supermarket in the center and the prices are marked on the manufacturers labels (we finally found out from our hotel concierge after looking all over at the market); there is a convenience store open all day right by the train station. There is a covered farmers market on Fridays right in the town center; there was community dancing in that market place on the last Saturday night in August as a special event; there are two small play parks right by that area. We saw fireworks over the lake on Saturday night from our terrace. For the kids, we brought some oatmeal packets in case the kids wouldnt eat anything else, which happens when they get overtired. The hotel served it up via room service without additional charge. There is an Italian restaurant across the car park and we got pasta from there one night.

Big attraction is the Chillon Castle, a 10 minute bus ride from the hotel. Hotel gives you a card with free bus fare and discounts to attractions. On the bus, the driver doesnt care if you paid. Random inspectors come on the bus sometimes and ask for your ticket. If you dont have one, you get fined. We never saw any inspectors. We went to the Castle the first day; the kids were tired. We were allowed to return later on with the same ticket and we did the next day. Kids walked with us to the top of the castle. They give you a map for the kids and there is a childrens tour for kids 6-12. Good Italian restaurant in town is La Rouvenaz with nice pizzas, fish and desert pizza with apple, ice cream and raspberries. It is on the main street close to the market square. La Petit-Palais is the lakeside restaurant of the hotel open during the summer which is not bad. LErmitage has excellent dinner cuisine; very pricey but exceptional. It is a 20 minute walk away. Hotel Victoria is up the mountain about 12 minutes taxi ride. It is a Relais Chateaux property with really interesting grounds and lobby; food was also excellent and I enjoyed making a poo-poo platter out of the offerings on the desert trolley. Dinner on the terraces for the lake view seemed overrated; you never really get much of a view from any of these places. Lunch at the LErmitage outside terrace is probably the best of the views. There is a farmers market in Vevey that is well worth the visit. We saw a double decker carousel there and somebody dressed up in Swiss regalia gave the kids freshly milked milk. The food museum there is useless for small kids. There is a ferry that runs to Vevey (about a 15 minute ride) and you can buy the tickets from the hotel concierge. The Old City of Montreux is a nice little walk and you can take a bus back into town once you get tired.

We went on the Chocolate Train, a vintage Pullman train. Most of the day you are not on the train. The train ride totals about 3 hours of the 8 hour day trip. The rest of the time is visiting a cheese factory (huge waste), Greyere Castle and the nearby town (great); and the Nestle Chocolate Factory where you get to see how it is made and go into a tasting room and eat as much as you can handle of all sorts of flavors. You can imagine our kids going coo-coo when they entered the room. There is also a super duper playground there. They use busses to move you around. If you go to Greyere, allow time to eat lunch in town on one of the picturesque terraces offering fondues and all sorts of cheesy items. Reserve the chocolate train in advance of your trip online via Golden Pass. Bring some food for the ride for the kids. They give you a chocolate croissant but thats it. It is a gorgeous train ride and the views from Greyere Castle are postcard perfect.

Babysitting was a problem here; our sitter only spoke French. Best to bring a puzzle in case the sitter cant read books. We found it useful to stop the day about 5-6pm and give the kids time to cool down and go to bed by 8. First day of the trip we didnt nap them so that they slept all night. Use the minibar to store treats for the kids and empty it upon arrival so that the kids dont take the stuff out. Nevertheless, they got to the gummy bears in Geneva and we used it as photo bribes for the rest of the trip. Indoor pool was helpful toward tiring them out. Sippy cups on airplanes are good, even up to the age of 7-8. Prevents lots of messes all over. Bring stickers for kids to play with on airplanes. We enjoyed all the wonderful fruits and vegetables on this trip. Bidets were very confusing to Jeremy who is still in the process of potty training. Kids enjoyed parks, but we noticed no baby swings in Switzerland. Top restaurant in Montreux but book months ahead (we didnt do that and our concierge was told no way through the end of 2010) is Le Pont de Brent phone 41.21.964.5230. Closed Sundays.

Geneva Hotel La Reserve is uber modern; lots of TV channels; one of the all-time greatest hotel playgrounds for kids with raised wooden paths leading to a tree house; drop off on-demand kinder-care during the day; and nice rooms, some with lake view, but only if you are on the second floor might you see anything. You can get a nice view of the lake from breakfast; the hotel itself is set back kinda far. Beautiful spa and we had lunch there as part of the benefits from the Amex Fine Hotels program, which was a real benefit since lunch for 2 would run about $150. The hotel is a $35 taxi ride about 15 minutes from center of Geneva and pretty close to the airport. There is a free train for hotel guests that supposedly runs near the hotel but we didnt try it. It might pay to get off at the airport station rather than the Central City station to get to this hotel. Hotel offers a speedboat service to go to and from town but it only works when the weather is good, and you are still a 15 minute walk away from the center of town. It is a bit scary getting on and off the boat as well. But it is a fun thing to do! We were unlucky in that the fountain of Geneva was off for the entire duration of our visit. Turned it on just as our plane took off! Concierge lent us a stroller which was awfully necessary when we tried to walk around Geneva; both kids needed one. A great Italian restaurant is La Favola, right near City Hall and the Armoury in the old city. Only 14 seats on the second floor; make a reservation for authentic Italian cooking and an interesting menu. We did a 4 hour walk around the city; the Taverna building right by the Armoury has a century old model of Geneva up on the top floor reached by elevator. Excellent patisserie in town equivalent to Sprungli in Zurich is Desplaches Gilles at the corner of Rue de la Confederacion and Rue del a Cite, at the end of the major shopping street where the trolley makes a turn. There is no sign so you have to just ask and find it. Globus took over Jemolis store in Geneva and is the sole survivor of the two department stores. There is a pretty park behind the old city just off Place Nuevo by the local university; there is also a nice little playground just before you enter the old city gate in the rear if you walk up the ramp from that park. There is a toy store on the main shopping street called Franz Karl Weber; they have the full line of Ravensburger puzzles. Last time I was in Geneva and Evian during August, it was chock full of Arabs; this year was Ramadan and they had all gone home. We took a taxi just inside France which borders Geneva to a friends house for dinner. $1 million gets you a 3 story house of about 1,700 square feet with a pool, views of farmland and mountains, and a nice back yard.

Names we thought of for a book: Europe with kids on $2,000 a day; Swings and Slides of Europe; Poopie Spots of Switzerland. More traveling with kids hints: eat good breakfast and then coast till dinner on treats; kiddie menus exist internationally, even in France, and feature exactly what you expect; DVDs are good but the desperate will watch Dora in German as well on the local affiliate of Nick Jr.; parks are good to let the kids run themselves out; borrow a stroller at the hotel or rent one if you need it for walks in urban zones; strollers are also useful valets in airports. M & M’s make good photo bribes and help keep kids quite while waiting on the runway for takeoff.

Evian, France They built a new highway on the route from Geneva to Evian and you can now make the run by car in less than an hour without traffic. Best to call the hotel in France to send over the taxi to Geneva; cost of the transfer each way was 140 Euro vs. 280 Swiss Francs, a savings of about $100 each way. Hotel Evian Royal Resort (formerly Royal Parc) is great; good room lighting, killer views from the lakeside rooms; nice sized rooms and oversized bathrooms; magnificent common area rooms and gardens; lovely spa and huge outdoor hot pool with waterfalls and bubbles and lots of fun with kids (though not officially allowed, it was full of them with their parents); childrens clubhouse of the likes Ive never seen before (imagine a costume room for 150 kids for the childrens theater); courtesy car to all points in Evian and a car on call at the Casino in town to take you back to the hotel or to pick you up from the ferry boat terminal. Food is also excellent with emphasis on fresh organic fruits and vegetables and cheeses. The buffet is excellent for breakfast and dinner and there are several other choices for lunch and dinner. Staff was friendly. French feed kids later than we do, and it is a problem getting your kids fed before 7-7:30 at night. The gourmet dining room wound up full of kids at 9pm because the buffet was closed for private parties and people had to feed their kids in the gourmet room rather than the bar or room service. Hotel needs to figure out how to deal with more of its guests who are coming in with kids. During August they might have 150 kids at a time in the kids camp.

Nearby town of Thonon is a nice day activity for a few hours. The day we were there the whole town turned into an outdoor market; it is a once a year activity in the beginning of September. Lots of yummy things to eat such as quiche and pizza with local cheeses. Much of the pastry looked better than it tasted and you have to be choosy about getting the real artisanal ice creams rather than the yuckie stuff. Laduree, the French patisserie famous for its macarons, is opening up stores all over; there are outlets in Lausanne and Geneva. The week we were there, the first week of September, the kids had all gone back to school and the place went corporate. We had the run of the place to ourselves; it was nice but a bit secluded and the property was cutting back its offerings. If we wanted a soccer field to play on, we didnt ever have to worry that anyone else would be using it. Nothing to do at night in town; best to just eat at the hotel. There is a sister property called the Hermitage with a restaurant with a terrace but it is indoor service only by September and we didnt care for the menu. The hotel could use a better playground for kids; the one they have is pretty but lame for kids over 3.

From Evian you can take the ferry boat to Lausanne; it is a 35 minute ride with many daily departures. You need at least 3 hours in Lausanne. It was so easy for little Jeremy to begin to undo the latches on the boat right under my nose; in Switzerland the game is rigged to favor the insurance companies so most companies dont take many precautions to make things safe against things that kids do. You really have to watch out for everything! It takes half an hour just to get to the center of town in Lausanne; it is too high up the hill to try and walk there yourself. There is a metro that runs from the ferry boat terminal area. There is a fantastic playground in that area as well. Not much really to see and the stores are geared toward rich Russians and Arabs but it is a nice day trip.

Good kid store in Evian is Nanny on a small shopping street called Jean-Martin that runs off Rue Nacionale in the direction of the boat terminal, just after the main shopping street ends. There is a funicular that is free and runs from the hotel to center of town every 20 minutes during the summer months. In all the above areas, check with concierge to find out when stores are open. They close on Sundays and Mondays often and there is siesta hours and lunch closings. It is rather confusing and painful, and it is one good reason to do the Chocolate Train on a Sunday. In Evian there is the Petite Train, a little tram, that goes on a 25 minute circuit around anything worth seeing in Evian. There is a spring where people get fresh water; we missed it and that was not a stop on the tram. Ask the concierge when you catch the tram; after the main summer months, it starts after 2pm daily.

Swiss Airlines As I said, a shadow of its former self. They designed the new A330 aircraft to be as miserly as possible. Hardly turn on the air conditioning; there is 4 bathrooms in the center of the plane for everyone in coach; the arm rests dont go all the way up; there is no place to cross the plane at the center without going all the way to the rear. Seats and rows are jammed together and if someone reclines it is right in your face. Food was lousy and crews somewhat surly. For what you get, you might as well pay the same price and fly American. Bring food on board; there is some decent food to be found at the airport from Pret a Manger before the security check or at the food court after the security check. But allow time for standing on line behind very slow workers. Not worth the premium anymore to fly Swiss although I will report back to you next month after I have flown their business class from Zurich to NY. In Geneva airport, there were 2 people at the counter for the entire airline doing web express checkin. Since 9/11 though, this was the first time I flew to the US from Europe where there was no hassle upon departure. Geneva is clearly not a place from where the US feels threatened. VERY IMPORTANT: To get your VAT refund at this airport for goods purchased in FRANCE, you must go with your goods to the French sector of the airport and get the customs stamp before you go through security check. Otherwise, you will not be able to go to the French sector without having to do it all again. The customs guy on the Swiss side only stamps Swiss purchases. The American Express desk on the Swiss side will do your refund after you have the customs stamp. I had to get a policeman to take me to the French side to get the customs stamp. He told me that they dont even show up half the time to work and that if you dont show the goods you are stuck. I got them to give me the stamp anyway because the policeman was there, and then the policeman walked me through a maze of tunnels and stairways to get back to the secured area of the airport. Clearly not what you want to happen to you.

The European Traveller turned out to be an excellent guide in this Lake Geneva area even though I was using a copy that was published about 5 years ago. You can purchase back copies over the internet. It publishes 6x a year focusing on a particular area within Europe.

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