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Arriving by ship into the Monte Carlo harbor is an amazing experience. If your docking time is before dawn, you'll see the lights of the Principality twinkling throughout the mountains that surround the harbor and the beautifully lit Grand Casino at center stage. If you arrive during daylight hours, you are faced with the sight of one magnificent yacht after another vying for space in the little harbor.
Monaco is a self-governed sovereign nation under the protection of France. It has been ruled by the Grimaldi family for the past 700 years (with a slight diversion during the French Revolution), and its 1918 treaty with France decreed that if the prince -- any Grimaldi prince -- failed to produce a son, the territory would be ceded back to France upon his death. This was changed in 2002; if Albert II, the current prince, fails to produce a male heir, the throne will be passed to his sister Caroline.
Monaco, which comprises a miniscule 485 acres in total, is barely west of the Italian border and surrounded by France on all sides except for the 2.5 miles of coastline. If you are looking at Monaco from your ship in the harbor, you can't tell where the principality ends and France begins (Hint: Somewhere around the Middle Corniche). As tiny as it is, it has five different sectors, of which Monte Carlo is but one. The principality has no natural resources whatsoever; its national economy is based on tourism and banking.
The two go hand in hand in this idyllic slice of the Cote d'Azur. The wealthy Europeans who do their banking here expect -- no, demand -- the best, and cost be damned. This makes it harder for workaday folk to enjoy a stay (hotel rooms go for an average of $700 a night in a nice hotel!), but coming in on a cruise ship for the day gives one a sense of James Bond cool.
If you're lucky enough to be in Monaco during the third week in May, you can actually see part of the Grand Prix Formula One race from the comfort of your cruise ship. We were surprised to see that the track is actually in the middle of the city and goes under an overpass within direct view of the cruise ship dock.
Whenever you are lucky enough to visit Monaco and the district of Monte Carlo, you'll find plenty to do. In fact, these 485 acres offer so much, you'll need to come back to explore again.
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The official language of Monaco is French but because of the international nature of the place, and its proximity to Italy, Italian, English and Spanish are all widely spoken and understood. There is also a Monegasque dialect.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency in the Principality of Monaco is the Euro. There is a bank (and ATM) on nearly every corner. Traveler's checks must be exchanged at banks or at one of the two Bureaux de Change (Compagnie Monegasque de Change. Parking des Pecheurs. avenue de la Quarantaine or Monafinances. 17 avenue des Spelugues) since most businesses will not accept them. Banks are open from 9 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Credit Foncier de Monaco, located near the Casino, is open daily -- including Sundays and holidays -- from noon to 11 p.m.
A casino chip from the Casino Monte Carlo or a coaster from the famed Cafe de Paris.
Where You're Docked
The new cruise ship pier (Nouvelle Digue de Monaco) is located in the Port of Monaco (Hercules Port), just east of the Palais Princier, the home of Prince Albert, and just below the sector of Monte Carlo. Although the new 352 meter dock can accommodate several ships in port, there will be the odd occasion where it's booked up and tenders will need to be utilized.
There's very little at the pier itself. When you get to the gate at the end of the pier, you can walk along the seawall adjacent to the yacht harbor to get into the city of Monte Carlo (about a mile from the ship) or take an elevator and stairs (about 500 yards) to Old Town (Monaco-Ville) where you will find the Palais Princier and the Oceanographic Museum.
Taxis come to the end of the pier (just outside the gates) until approximately 6 p.m. Buses stop at 7 p.m. near the dock, but run until 9 p.m. in the Principality except on weekends when they have a less frequent schedule. The bus system is extensive, but it's quite a long walk to the bus stop from the ship docks. If you're physically fit, you can walk around the Principality but be warned: It's steep, almost everywhere.
Watch Out For
Steep, steep, nearly vertical in some places, streets. There are, however, several elevators and "travelators" to help negotiate the inclines:
Between the Place des Moulins and the beaches.
Between the Princess Grace Hospital Centre and the Exotic Garden.
Between the harbor and the Avenue de la Costa.
Between the Place St. Devote and the area of Moneghetti.
Between the Terraces of the Casino, the Congress Centre Auditorium and the Boulevard Louis II.
Between the Avenue des Citronniers and the Avenue Grande-Bretagne between the highway and the Larvotto Boulevard.
Les Grands Appartements du Palais (Place du Palais, +377-93-25-18-31): Visitors can actually go through the home of Prince Albert and see where he lives, the throne and artifacts of the Principality's history. Stunning artwork by Breughel and other old masters hangs in these rooms, as does the state portrait of Princess Grace. If you get there in time for the changing of the guard (Releve de la Garde) you can enjoy the pomp and circumstance of this unique little "country." (The ceremony starts at 11:55 a.m. and takes about 10 minutes). After the tout of the Appartements you can visit the Musee du Palais du Prince, with more historical artifacts, mementos and documents from the era of Napoleon Bonaparte. The palace tour is only operational from June 1 to October 31; the museum is open year round.
Musee de l'Oceanographie (Avenue Saint-Martin, +377-93-15-36-00): This is basically the state aquarium with a historic maritime museum thrown in for good measure. But don't mistake "basically" for "basic," as it's anything but. This is one of the most important aquariums in all of Europe with 4,000 species of fish and 200 types of invertebrates. The building, dedicated in 1910, sits below the Palace; the aquarium literally butts into the sea and has more than 90 tanks.
Monaco Cathedral (4, rue Colonel Bellando de Castro, +377-93-30-87-70): Located in the old city, this is where Prince Rainer and Grace Kelly married and also where they are buried (as well as all of the princes of Monaco and the House of Grimaldi). The cathedral was built in 1875 withwhite sandstone brought down from the village of La Turbie. If you are visiting on a Sunday between September and June, the Children's Choir of Monaco and principals from the Cathedral Choir School sing mass at 10 a.m.
Grand Casino (Place du Casino): You can see the elegant building with two spired towers, which was built in 1878 by Charles Garnier (the architect of Paris' famed Opera House) from your ship. Oddly enough to most North Americans, it houses not only the gaming rooms but the Monaco Opera and Ballet as well. It costs 10 euros to get in and is open daily from noon (slots open at 2 p.m.). There is a dress code: jacket and tie required of men, resort chic for women. Don't even think of trying to get in with sneakers. (At least a tux is no longer required for entrance!). You must be at least 18 years old to enter and your passport is required. Monagasques are not allowed to gamble in their casinos, so a passport check is requisite.
Been There, Done That
Hotel de Paris (Place du Casino) and Hermitage Hotel (Square Beaumarchais) Lobbies: Hey, it doesn't cost a thing just to look and it's worth the "price." Hotel de Paris is a Beaux Arts gem, built in 1863. The portico is reminiscent of an elegant Parisian palace of the same era. The Hermitage, which stretches over several buildings, up and down hills, recently renovated its Beaumarchais Lobby that was originally built in 1900. Lovers of historic buildings and period architecture will really enjoy looking at these elegant respites for the rich and famous (or just the rich without the fame).
Les Thermes Marins de Monte Carlo (2, Avenue de Monte-Carlo, +377-98-06-69-00): This is a fancy name for the new spa recently built below the Hermitage Hotel along the seawall. Here, you can enjoy a spa day and feel like Cote d'Azur Royalty. A pass to the thermal suite is pricey at 80 euros, but massages and treatments, while a bit more than the typical Steiner-run onboard spa, is not outrageous. A 60-minute "Monte Carlo Massage" costs 130 euros; 30 minutes is 75. Men can get an "old-fashioned shave" for 40 euros.
Condamine Market and Rue Princess Caroline (Place d'Armes). This thriving market is open mornings from about 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and features fruit, vegetables, fish, flowers, kitchenwares, coffees, wines ... everything you'd expect in a city marketplace in Europe. Rue Princess Caroline is a pedestrian mall lined with shops and park benches.
Azur Express Tourist Train (Avenue Saint-Martin at Oceanographic Museum, +377-92-05-64-38). It costs 6 euros to board, and the full narrated loop takes only 30 minutes, but this little open-air trolley is the best deal in the entire Principality. You get a full tour through the old town and Monte Carlo; it sure saves those leg muscles. Runs daily from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. except from November 15 through January.
You can possibly find a budget restaurant in Monaco or Monte Carlo, but why? This is one of those places that are meant for a splurge, whether you choose the world-famous Cafe de Paris or one of the other see-and-be-seen spots in Monte Carlo, you have to do it at least once in your life. If you're on the go, you can find -- in the center of Monte Carlo and in the Old City -- vendors selling Socca, which is made from chickpea flour and resembles a pancake, or bakeries selling another Monegasque specialty, Fougasse, a sweet pastry with almonds and anise seed. Most of the restaurants are open for lunch from noon to 2:30 p.m.; brasseries and cafes are open from about 11 a.m. until late.
Quai des Artistes (4, Quai Antoine 1er, +377-97-97-97-77): This brasserie is one of the closest dining spots to the cruise ship dock, along the quay to the yacht harbor. It isn't as expensive as some (you can get "moules marinieres" -- mussels in wine -- for about 12 euros) but it isn't cheap, either. Its draw is that it's close to the ship, has plenty of outdoor seating and overlooks the yachts that are berthed and that come in to the harbor.
Zebra Square (10 Avenue Princesse Grace, +377-99-99-25-50): Just a few minutes south of the casinos and the center of Monte Carlo, this restaurant offers sweeping views from its dining terrace. It's a trendy bar and features elegant inside seating. Open for lunch, tea time and supper, don't be surprised if you see literary and artsy notables sitting beside you and enjoying the view.
Cafe de Paris (at the Monte Carlo Casino, 377-92-16-20-00) is undoubtedly a tourist trap but it's a scene regardless. You can pop in for a beer or a cafe creme or you can enjoy a full-blown lunch indoors or out (advance reservations highly recommended). It's a historic building incorporating the best of the old Belle Epoque style of Paris -- and also the kind of haughty, condescending service staff you've feared you'll find in France!
Stars N Bars (6, Quai Antoine 1er, +377 97-97-95-95): Tired of that rich cruise ship cuisine? Longing for a taste of home? This Tex-Mex eatery doesn't just cater to the Yankee crowd; Monegasques, Italians and visitors from other countries love it too, especially the line dancing and country boot-stomping music. There's a playroom for kids and also houses Monaco's main cybercafe. It's located next door to the Quai des Artistes, so you can have your chili cheeseburger (14 euros) and go next door for an apres-midi aperitif.
St. Paul de Vence and Grasse: This is a great tour for those who have visited Monaco before; it takes all day and winds through the mountainous terrain to two aforementioned French towns in Provence. Grasse is known as the "seat of the perfume industry," and indeed, you can smell the floral notes as you drive into town. Need gifts? You can purchase perfumes at great discounts after watching the process of making them, or you can gather up samples to bring back with you. In St. Paul de Vence, a Medieval walled city, you can wander the narrow streets and shop to your heart's content, having lunch in a typical French bistro. (5 to 7 hours)
Monte Carlo Highlights: This is a tour that requires a lot of walking, so you need to be reasonably fit. You'll walk past and learn about the Oceanographic Museum, the palace, the cathedral where Prince Rainier and Princess Grace were married, and through the twisty streets and archways of the old city. Then, you'll take a motorcoach ride along part of the Grand Prix course in Monte Carlo and again leave the coach at the Grand Casino. You can play the slots at the Cafe de Paris adjacent, or, if you're dressed appropriately, you can go into the Grand Casino itself. (3 hours)
The Three Corniches: This motorcoach tour takes you through the Cote d'Azur on all three of the Corniches, the roads that wind through the mountainous territory and through the cities and towns along the way. You start on the Upper Corniche heading south toward the Italian border and the town of Menton, continue on the Middle Corniche to La Turbie and Eze, and then take a driving tour of Nice. The return trip is on the Lower Corniche, one of the most picturesque (and winding) roads in the world; there will be stops along the way for photo ops and refreshments. (This tour takes 3.5 hours and is suitable for guests in wheelchairs.)
Staying in Touch
Stars N Bars: (6, Quai Antoine 1er, located beyond the gates of the cruise ship dock) offers a cybercafe with both Internet and Wi-Fi access.
For More Information
On the Web: www.visitmonaco.com
Cruise Critic: Europe Message Boards
Independent Traveler: Europe Bargains & Features
--by San Diego-based Jana Jones, who is the creator and editor of lodging Web site Sleeping-Around.com, as well as one of Cruise Critic's stalwart ship reviewers.
--Images of Changing of the Guard and Formula 1 Grand Prix appear courtesy of www.visitmonaco.com.