Visit to tiny country highlight of Mediterranean Sea cruise
The Arizona Republic/USA Today.com — September 22, 2019
MONTE CARLO, Monaco – No wonder James Bond loved hanging out here so much.
This playground for the rich and famous on the French Riviera, the setting for two of Agent 007’s movies — “Never Say Never Again” and “GoldenEye,” – oozes Bond-like glamour, sophistication and money.
Lots of money.
Covering less than one square-mile of territory, the principality is the world’s second-smallest sovereign country (behind Vatican City). Monaco is so tiny, it could easily fit inside of New York’s Central Park, with plenty of space left over. Yet 35,000 people live here, making it the most densely populated country in the world.
While empty space may be in short supply, opulence is not. Monaco is a destination that bills itself as “the international capital of luxury.”
The country offers visitors a look at what some consider to be the most elegant casino in the world, a shopping promenade that makes Beverly Hill’s Rodeo Drive look like a flea market in comparison, and a hilltop full of lavish villas perched high above hundreds of multi-million-dollar yachts anchored on the idyllic Cote d’Azur.
My visit to Monaco was the highlight of a 10-day, seven-country “Aegean Adventures” cruise on the luxurious 700-passenger Regent Seven Seas Voyager. We started in Barcelona and ended in Athens, with stops along the way in France, Italy, Malta, Turkey and the stunning Greek island of Santorini.
It was Monaco, the only country on the itinerary I had not yet visited, that I was looking forward to seeing the most. The Voyager spent 14 hours anchored off the coast, tendering us back and forth while we strained our heads for celebrity-sightings on the many yachts and motorboats we passed.
Due to the allure of its natural beauty and man-made grandeur, Monaco has become one of the most popular – and intriguing — stops on Mediterranean Sea cruises.
“It’s got its own unique vibe,” said Ricardo Pinheiro, Regent’s destinations manager who has been cruising to Monaco since 2003. “It’s French, it’s Italian. It’s the cradle of the super-rich.”
Surrounded on three sides by France with a short coastline on the Mediterranean, Monaco is less than 10 miles from the Italian border. It’s been officially recognized as an independent country since 1861 and became a full voting member of the United Nations in 1993.
Many Americans had never heard of the tiny country until 1956, when popular actress Grace Kelly married Monaco’s Prince Rainier III. She served as Princess of Monaco until 1982, when she died in a car accident at the age of 52. Today, Monaco’s reigning monarch is one of Grace and Rainier’s three children – Prince Albert II – believed to be one of the wealthiest royals in the world.
As soon as the Voyager’s tender dropped us off at Monaco’s pier, we were ushered onto a coach for one of the most exciting bus rides I’ve ever taken. We were on the 2-mile Circuit de Monaco, a road that winds through the streets of Monaco and is home to the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix, a Formula One race held every May.
Our driver kept to the speed limit and five minutes later, we exited the course and crossed the border into France. We were on our way to the medieval hilltop village of Èze. Some of the buildings still standing here date back to the early 14th century.
We hiked up to the highest point in Èze to see stunning views of the French Riviera, including Cape Ferrat, nicknamed the “peninsula of billionaires.” Some of the cape’s more notable residents over the years have included Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Taylor, the Rolling Stones and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
In 2012, Cape Ferrat was named the second-most expensive residential location in the world. Number one? Monaco.
After lunch in Nice, a pleasant coastal city of about a million people just 8 miles from Monaco, we drove back to the principality to learn more about its famed monarchy. We stopped at the Saint Nicholas Cathedral, where Grace and Rainier are buried. The beloved Princess’ tomb still sees a steady stream of devoted pilgrims.
A short walk away, we visited the Prince’s Palace of Monaco, where the royal family lives. The palace, which features a daily changing of the guard at 11:55 a.m., originally was built in 1191 as a fortress.
We ended the day in the “ward” of Monte Carlo, home of the grandiose Casino de Monte-Carlo. The casino opened for business in 1863 in a building with a beautiful neoclassical façade. Parked out front were dozens of custom-made Ferraris, Bentleys, Rolls-Royces and Lamborghinis.
Visitors are allowed inside parts of the casino, but if you want to enter one of the gambling halls, there is a 17-euro cover charge (about $18.50). A dress code is strictly enforced. I didn’t want to pay the cover charge, but was able to get a quick glimpse into the gambling hall from the lobby.
Not surprisingly, I didn’t see any nickel-poker machines.
Monaco and the entire French Riviera is one of the most expensive places to visit in the world. That’s why it’s a great place to stop on a cruise, where visitors are insulated from the exorbitant costs of restaurants and hotels. A three-star hotel will set you back about $260 a night; five-star hotels average $640.
Regent, a high-end boutique line with just four ships (a fifth ship – the 750-passenger Seven Seas Splendor – begins sailing in 2020) includes most shore excursions in the cost of the cruise. So we incurred virtually no extra out-of-pocket costs exploring Monaco and the Cote d’Azur.
I never did get to try my luck at the roulette wheel or baccarat table. Way too rich for my blood. But I did get a brief and entertaining look into the glitzy and mesmerizing place where James Bond starred in some of his most memorable movies.
Had I sprung for a $30 martini at the casino, I would have ordered it – just for the fun of saying the famous line — exactly like the couth 007 did.
“Shaken, not stirred.”
© 2019 Dan Fellner