Albert’s Cars & Charlene’s Dress: Imagining a royal life

It is as if the royal couple is really there...

We are not that smitten with celebrity.  Celebrity news makes us yawn – especially if those celebrities are Hollywood royalty – and we have ignored every bona fide celebrity we’ve crossed paths with.  Michael Douglas on a street in Toronto; Judy Dench on an airplane.  So, what were we doing at the Oceanographic Institute of Monaco in December gawking at Princess Charlene’s wedding dress and then Prince Albert’s collection of vintage and modern cars?  We were being tourists.  And like any self-respecting discerning traveler, we were taking advantage of the opportunity to be tourists at a time of year when there were few others about.

We were walking in the old city of Monaco near the palace when on impulse we decided to buy a ticket for the exhibit.  Yes, the Oceanographic Institute seems an odd place for such an exhibit, but it’s one of the few large exhibition spaces in Monaco and it’s close to the palace.

The Armani dress was stunning!

We had been there before, but this time it was quiet – so quiet that we had an opportunity to get up close and personal with the myriad gigantic photos of both the civil and the religious ceremonies that took place last year.  We have never seen a bride who looked sadder, but her dress, designed by Giorgio Armani, was spectacular – in fact a work of art, and as we have discussed before, searching out works of art while traveling is a singular pleasure.

Just to balance the fashion foray, we decided to then visit the Prince’s cars.  We had walked by the door of the exhibit housed in a building above Carrefour (a humongous super-market) in Fontvieille and had never thought that it would be worth visiting.  But we were beginning to run out of things to do so decided to give it a ry.

Princess Grace's little green car

With the place all to ourselves, we had a chance to take a trip through history and imagine what it must have been like in Monaco in the late 19th and early 20th century.  We imagined what it must have been like to see Princess Grace flying along in her little green car; we could practically see Prince Rainier driving the Rolls through the streets of Monte Carlo.  And of course, there was the current Prince Albert’s Mercedes McLaren which sells for about half a million dollars (!)– it made us wonder if he ever takes it out for a spin.  We know we would!

Part of the Rolls collection
The McLaren

Monaco’s ‘jardin exotique’ – An unexpected pleasure

A view from Monaco's 'Jardin Exotique'

In the grand scheme of travel plans for enjoying Monaco, visiting a garden probably doesn’t rate near the top.  But it should.  Casinos, yachts and Ferrari’s go without saying, but Monaco’s gardens may just take your breath away.

We’ve just returned from another Christmas season in Monaco (with a son living in the area, it’s just where we go!), and despite having visited the tiny principality a number of times before, we had never been to its Jardin Exotique.

After Christmas shopping in Nice, we headed to our home base at the Riviera Marriott Hotel in Cap d’Ail and proceeded to figure out how we’d spend our days in this tiny country once again – we thought we had seen it all.  So, after a browse through the over-priced shops, a poke through the Monte Carlo Christmas market and a gawk at a Lamborghini or two, the discerning travelers will find themselves at the garden.

The truth is that if you never visit the garden, you will leave the principality without truly understanding it as a place in time.  That’s because from the vantage point of the garden at the top of everything else that is built upward toward it, you can see the old city of Monaco as it was in years gone by as a fortification topped by the palace and the homes and businesses of the Monegasques – before the frightening influx of the über-rich to condo-city that now surrounds the old city.  If you squint past the ubiquitous construction cranes that dot Monaco, you might just be able to imagine what it must have been like here in the 12th century atop the battlements.  Enemies would have some difficulty scaling those walls to penetrate your tiny country that was for centuries confined to that old city – Monaco-Ville.

Monaco-Ville, the old city on its fortifications

We eschewed all forms of transportation but our pieds to get there, making our way to the top via a series of winding streets, dizzying staircases, the public ascenseurs (elevators) and a public escalator or two.  Since it was the week between Christmas and New Year’s, the tourists were few, so we had much of the sun-filled garden of succulents to ourselves.  To say the experience was breath-taking would be an understatement.  Apart from the acrophobia-inducing vertiginous views of the city, the Mediterranean, and both the French and Italian Riviera’s, the cliffside garden is filled with over a thousand species of cacti and succulents native to areas as diverse as the USA, Mexico and Africa.  Even if you’re not a fan of these plants (which we aren’t usually) you cannot help but be impressed by both their size and numbers.

Patty enjoying the late December sunshine in the garden.
Art among the flowering cacti.

[The garden is open from 9am to 7 pm from May 15 to September 15, but closes at dusk or 6 pm other months.  It is closed on only two days each year: November 19 and December 25.  The entrance fee is €7 for adults with discounts for children and seniors. Visit their web site.]

One perfect day – on the Med

The stern view from the perfect perch

I was sitting in our charter boat, sipping a glass of champagne and trying to see if I could bottle up the memory of this one perfect day so that I could take it out once in a while and relive it when I needed to.  Being able to do that takes really being in the moment – and a great still and video camera doesn’t hurt!

So, how did we get there that day?  It was last July and we were visiting our son in the south of France (we’ve often said that the main purpose of having children is for their entertainment value – and we have that in spades with our son who is a dancer with Les Ballets do Monte Carlo – yes, that Monte Carlo, Monaco).

We had seen along that part of the Riviera from Roquebrune just bordering Monaco to the east, as far as Cannes in the west as we visited from time to time on foot and by car.  Now, we wanted to see it all from the water.  So, as any discerning travelers would do, we started our research online.  We usually find that asking our friends is a recipe for disaster – many of them, as well-heeled as they might be – are unwilling to pay a bit more to get a bit more.  We are not.

To say that there are a lot of boat charter companies operating on the French Riviera would be a considerable understatement.  We narrowed the search down and emailed several.  The most personalized service, with the most interesting possibilities for planning our perfect day came from Boatbookings.com.  They were efficient and knew exactly how to provide us with what we were looking for (and they all speak English which made it so much easier!).  We settled on a 35-foot cruiser with a captain and catered lunch for an eight-hour cruise.

A glimpse of Monte Carlo -- from the harbor.

The young captain picked us up at the pier in Cap d’Ail where we always stay, and off we went for the day.  We stopped to anchor twice during the day – once for swimming off the boat, and once for our picnic lunch on board.  Of course, part of the perfection of the day was a result of the stellar weather – it could not have been nicer – or more luxurious.

In our continuing search for those luxurious experiences, this is one that will go down in our books as worth every penny (and euro) we spent.  It’s an experience that we’ll remember forever.