( First published in APN Newspapers, Mike’s travel page. June)
Surrounded by vaulting mountains and an opal-blue sea, bejewelled Monaco is a metropolitan marvel in the Mediterranean. But despite its reputation as a residential bolt-hole for the mega-rich, it is a misnomer to suggest that Monaco requires a mega-sized holiday budget. Two of the marquee attractions are in fact free to enjoy. Get a helicopter view of the principality’s striking skyline and compact harbourside setting, from the lofty heights of Palais Princier. The palace is home to the ruling Grimaldi family, who have been calling the shots since 1297.
The cobbled main square in front of the palace plays host to a daily changing of the guard at 11.55am. During the summer months, parts of the palace are open to the public, where you can view the priceless interiors, sumptuous furniture and carpets, and its ravishing frescoes. A short walk beings you to the neo-Romanesque Cathedral, a glorious sanctuary of calm and final resting place of Monaco’s royal family. Prince Rainier III was laid to rest in 2005, next to the tomb of his famous film star wide, Grace Kelly, who tragically died on Monaco’s steep roads in 1982.
Next stop is my favourite Monaco experience, a magnificent maritime encounter in the Oceanographic Museum. Founded just over a century ago by Prince Albert I, this vast showcase of sealife is dramatically built into a cliff and underground. This colossal aquarium features ninety different tanks and the prize draw is the lagoon, where massive ocean predators will float by, and a huge coral reef separates the big boys from Nemo and his tropical pals. After spending an hour in this watery world of wonders, I started to feel at one with the specimens, as if I was the Man from Atlantis. Exquistely presented, with super-sized glass panels, millions of litres of fresh ocean water pumps through the facility everyday. The latest addition to the museum is on the roof terrace, which offers salivating panoramas of Monaco, and is home to the new turtle and tortoise sanctuary. Named, Turtle Island, this new live exhibit is dedicated to protecting and promoting the magic of sea turtles and tortoises. Another impressive Monaco attraction is Jardin Exotique, which are billed as the finest gardens in Europe. The park certainly boasts a stunning profusion of tropical and subtropical plants, which will soon fill up your camera’s memory card. Top off your visit with a quick fling at the Monte Carlo Grand Casino, the financial engine room of Monaco. Designed in 1878 by Charles Garnier, architect of the Paris Opera, the lavish Belle Epoque-designed interior will have you feeling like you’ve walked into a James Bond movie set, in a heartbeat. You’ll need to have cash to burn if you want to stay and play, but don’t miss the chance to survey the swathe of ultra-luxury vehicles parked up around the main entrance.
Adjacent to the Grand Casino, a sumptuous taste of the high life is guaranteed at Hotel Metropole. This illustrious
establishment, has artfully blended a glorious past with a Mediterranean crispness. Lavishly redecorated by “the magician of atmospheres”, Jacques Garcia, you will feel cocooned in the warm, sophisticated embrace of the Mediterranean’s classical and festive spirit. From the moment you enter its doors, an air of prestige and glamour enfolds you, as does the subtle, yet enchanting, amber fragrance that permeates its passageways. The Bar and Lounge hit my sweet-spot, exuding the charm of a contemporary and spacious drawing room. The 141 guestrooms and suites deliver incomparable comfort, backed up with attentive, personable service. Metrople’s star turn is the Restaurant Joël Robucon. Sporting 2 Michelin Stars, treat yourself to modern, inventive cuisine with French Mediterranean flavours. The décor is calm and soothing, and the culinary experience is very visual, courtesy of the open kitchen concept, with a Teppanyaki used in front of the guests. Kitchen transparency goes hand in hand with quality and conviviality. The restaurant is also equipped with a lovely terrace offering unblemished views of the Casino gardens – a perfect setting for a spot of breakfast. Plus, don’t miss the recently remodelled poolside gastronomic triumph, Odyssey, created by Karl Lagerfeld and featuring another Joel Robuchon restaurant within the hotel. The alfresco dining experience features light and refined Mediterranean cuisine for lunch. To find out more about all the dining experiences and special accommodation packages, jump to www.metropole.com
If you’re Europe-bound, Virgin Atlantic code-shares with Air New Zealand, offering more flexibility on routings through Australia and Asia to London. Virgin Atlantic offers a festive on-board experience, excellent cuisine and in-flight entertainment offerings. For competitive fares and routes, check out www.virgin-atlantic.com
The French Riviera is purpose built for train-travel, enabling you to see more of this special pocket of the world. You can pre-purchase tickets or a trusty Eurail Pass through Rail Plus. Call 09-377-5415 or go to www.railplus.co.nz