MONACO FROM A HOT TUB- PICTORIAL SHOTS

For various reasons, Monte Carlo is one of those places that figure high on the must see lists of many people. It has glitz, glamour, the Grand Prix, and, er….

Anyone who knows me even remotely knows that I am not a fan of the place. To me, it’s a pretentious, hideously over priced place full of preening wannabes; a vastly over rated town where people go to be seen, rather than to actually see anything of note.

There are far prettier places along the amazing, sinuous curve of the French Riviera that have twice the style, and much less of the bombastic hype.

That said, no one can deny that, for all it’s brittle glamour, Monte Carlo is quite a sight.

These shots constitute my favourite views of Monte Carlo. Most were taken from a hot tub aboard Regent Seven Seas’ lavishly appointed flagship, Seven Seas Voyager. Here, armed with nothing more glittery than a camera and a readily refilled champagne glass, I present an offshore take on what remains, for many, a ‘must do’ on the travel map.

Ladies and gentlemen; mesdames et messieurs; I give you- Monte Carlo from a hot tub….

Early morning Monaco...

Early morning Monaco…

Skyline of Monte Carlo

Skyline of Monte Carlo

Looking from ship to shore

Looking from ship to shore

The harbour is truly spectacular

The harbour is truly spectacular

Looking back to the hillsides

Looking back to the hillsides

Yachts in shot...

Yachts in shot…

And more yachts...

And more yachts…

This one is more class than crass

This one is more class than crass

Quintessential Monaco money shot

Quintessential Monaco money shot

Better afternoon light...

Better afternoon light…

Tender from Voyager heading ashore

Tender from Voyager heading ashore

Very Sixties architecture here

Very Sixties architecture here

Shore from ship....

Shore from ship….

Sea, sky, and skyscrapers

Sea, sky, and skyscrapers

Sometimes it's just nicer staying on board

Sometimes it’s just nicer staying on board

 

WINTER ON THE FRENCH RIVIERA

Monte Carlo at midnight

Monte Carlo at midnight

The South of France is an amazingly easy short winter break from the UK, and a truly invigorating one as well. Even a few days spent strolling along the sun splashed waterfronts and outdoor cafes of the French Riviera is a great way to shatter the grim, rolling grey rigor mortis of the English winter. And you’ll find none of the maddening throngs that flood these same resorts like a human tidal wave in the heady days of the Mediterranean summer, either.

The British love affair with the Riviera goes back to the end of the nineteenth century, when Queen Victoria used to visit regularly in the cold winter months. With an average December/January temperature of between twelve and fourteen degrees centigrade and many sunny days, the climate was a definite tonic to the long, leaden gloom of winter London.

Almost inevitably, the cream of British society followed her, as did her son, the lecherous, corpulent future king, Edward VII. English money flowed into the string of opulent Italianate villas that sprouted up in the hillsides around coastal cities such as Nice.

Grand, Edwardian styled belle epoque hotels such as the fabled Negresco, offered a home away from home for those accustomed to whiling away their time in the Ritz, or the Savoy. Even today, the Negresco still remains a fabulous, vaulting vision of the past, with its gilt. gold leaf and almost impossible chandeliers. If you happen to be in Nice, it’s well worth checking out for a drink, a meal, or even a stay.

There is no shortage of budget flights into Nice Cote D’Azur airport on airlines such as Easyjet. And, while you can no longer take the fabled Blue Train to the South of France, there is still the option of combining the Eurostar service to Paris, with a run down into Nice or Marseille on the TGV. It’s a pretty special, ever so slightly decadent way to swagger into the sweet spots along the coast.

So, what to see?

Monte Carlo by day

Monte Carlo by day

I guess you’ll have to check out Monte Carlo at least once, if only to realise just how hideously over rated it actually is. Yes, the belle epoque casino and it’s gardens are gorgeous, but the tower blocks along the waterfront look like they were designed by the same architect responsible for Stalingrad. The prices are as stratospheric as the conceit of some of the residents. Not for nothing was it described as ‘a sunny place for shady people’. Here, platinum chip pretension overflows from the top of every Gucci shopping bag. It has brittle glamour at very best.

By contrast, Cannes is cool, classy and brimming with casual, spectacular style and elegance.  The old town is stunningly pretty, with its winding, cobbled lanes that lead up to the old fort that overlooks the modern, yacht studded harbour. Just strolling the famous Croisette Boulevard is a treat in itself.  Maybe stop off and enjoy a glass of pastis on the terrace of the legendary Hotel Carlton, overlooking the shingle beaches, lidos and languid date palms. Cannes is a beautiful city that is the very essence of Riviera chic and class.

Nice is the self styled ‘Queen of The Riviera’, and with very good reason. A city built along the edge of thirteen shingle beaches that shelve into the ocean, the city is backed by a soaring mass of lush, rolling greenery studded with gorgeous, Italianate villas in shades of ochre, cream and terracotta. The breezy, meandering sprawl of the Promenade Des Anglais is a palm shaded parade of open air cafes, bars and bistros that runs all the way along the waterfront.

Place Massena has live music set against a backdrop of strollers, mime artists and spectacular, theatrical fountains. The shopping is world class, though it has to be said that Nice is obviously not a cheap date.

The beauty of Nice

The beauty of Nice

It’s worth checking out in February, when the annual Carnival turns the city into a riot of fun, colour and amazing displays of fauna.There are carnival floats, fiestas and parades aplenty, and the partying often goes on far into the night. And, with the temperatures being reasonably pleasant through the days, the city is a fun, easily manageable alternative to the samba fuelled fleshpots of Rio and New Orleans.

Cannes old town

Cannes old town

Ah. Did I mention how good the food is?

Dining out anywhere on the French Riviera is an experience; here, world class gastronomy meets casual gluttony, and is cooked up to the level of an art form. The local bouillabaise soup is legendary; it’s much more of a deep, rich fish stew than an actual soup. Also right up there is the local seafood.  Lamb is probably the best meat, and always succulent. Somehow, lingering for two or three hours over a meal in such beautiful surroundings seems like no problem at all.

There’s an excellent, incredibly scenic coastal rail route that takes you to jaw dropping, spectacularly pretty villages such as Antibes, Beaulieu, Juan Les Pins and Villefranche. The latter has quite probably the most singularly beautiful bay in the entire Mediterranean, and boasts one of the few truly sandy beaches in the region. If ever a place was designed simply for a few hours of languid people watching and genuine, platinum chip self indulgence, then Villefranche is surely it. I recommend the John Dory at Le Calypso, and the margaritas are pretty damned good, too. You can take the train to here from either Nice or Monaco-Ville in around ten to fifteen minutes, and it’s truly worth the journey.

Of course, the region as a whole is not cheap. But the quality is invariably superb, the surroundings never less than exhilarating, and the sheer fabulous, feel good factor is undeniable. It is a part of the world that (mostly) understands the difference between hype and style. And, as any dedicated lotus eater will tell you, it is impossible to hang a true price tag on real style.

Villefranche, Cote D'Azur

Villefranche, Cote D’Azur

So, all things considered, the French Riviera has a lot going for it, even in the off season. Even two or three days is enough to really invigorate you in the depths of a long winter. Enjoy.

BOARDING OPTIONS ON MED FLY CRUISES- MORE CHOICES THAN YOU THINK

Take a Roman Holiday all your own....

Take a Roman Holiday all your own….

Ah, the Meddy-Go-Round. Those pretty, popular little seven night slices of heaven that pirouette sweetly around the summer time ‘greatest hits’ ports of those balmy. southern European hot spots; Barcelona, Monaco, Rome, Florence, Naples, et al. What’s not to love?

Most people board their ships in Barcelona or Venice, but how many knew that there are other options available to them? For, truth be told, many of these ships can actually be embarked at any of the secondary ports on the circuit. And that, my friends, allows you to tailor make some pretty peachy stay and cruise options if you have the time and inclination.

Such as? Well, why not board the state of the art, ground breaking Norwegian Epic in Civitavecchia, the port for Rome, rather than the main hub of Barcelona? That gives you the option of a few pre and/or post cruise days in Italy’s stunning capital of history, art and culture. And, as you’ll then be visiting Barcelona itself in what amounts to technically mid cruise, you’ll also have a full day in the fabulous Catalan capital of cool. While thousands are getting off and on the ship, you can be chilling on the beach with some nicely chilled cava. Sweet.

Costa, MSC, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian all cruise out of swaggering, magnificent Venice during the summer. But anyone who has done this knows how chaotic it can be getting through the city and airport on a busy embarkation or disembarkation day. So why not board the day after instead? Some lines allow you to embark in beautiful, hugely under-the-radar Bari, a sweet little gem located on the southern heel of Italy.

Check out the highspots of Cannes on a Med cruise

Check out the highspots of Cannes on a Med cruise

Take a couple of days to see this glorious place, then board your ship- with far, far smaller lines at embarkation, and then enjoy a full, unhurried day in Venice as everyone else indulges in the pre and post cruise debarkation madness. Quick tip; why not make for the glorious Venice Lido, and enjoy some authentic Italian gelato right on the beach? A wonderful way to while away a few indolent hours.

You could board a ship in pithy, cosmopolitan Marseille, and enjoy a little quality time on the French Riviera before or after your cruise. And Pullmantur, the all inclusive Spanish operator, also allows embarkation in stately, dignified Genoa, a city that everyone should see once in a lifetime.

Most cruise lines will be happy to tailor make a package for you that will cover flights, hotels, transfers and, of course, your cruise. But if you like to do this stuff on your own, then you might find budget flights on the likes of Easyjet, Jet2 and even Ryanair that might save you a packet. It comes down to your confidence in your own abilities to arrange this sort of thing.

Again, if you have standing Avios miles to use with an airline such as British Airways, you might be able to bag a real bargain cruise at a fantastic price. This is especially true for the winter Mediterranean cruise market; a week in the mild January sun might just be the post Christmas pick up that you need.

Whatever, wherever and whenever- just get out there, and have fun. Bon voyage!

COMPELLING IMAGES OF THE COTE D’AZUR

A while ago I put up a blog on a small French fishing village called Villefranche-sur-Mer, located not far from either Nice or Monte Carlo. Since that first went up, people have been asking for more photographs of this beautiful little gem. This album is conceived with that in mind…

The town itself is the landing point for most cruise ships arriving in the South of France and, as you can imagine, it is pretty damned busy in the summer season. None of which takes anything away from the special sense of petite, old world charm that it radiates.

These pictures were mostly taken in the summer of 2008. But Villefranche has changed very little over the course of several decades. All of which just adds to it’s sense of whimsical, perfectly coiffed charm.

The prices here for food and drink are not as high as in, say, Monaco or Cannes.

The whole village is a pleasant pastiche pf pastel shaded houses, winding, cobble stoned side streets, and open air restaurants that range along the curve of the waterfront here.CNV00069

There are also some vaulting, underground passageways, originally built as part of the town’s fortifications by the Grimaldis. Atmospheric by day, and more than just a touch spooky by night….CNV00070CNV00071

Streets leading into the hills are narrow, winding, and flanked by lines of vaulting Italianate architecture in ochre, blue and terracotta hues. It is not unusual to see lines of washing waving above your head in the warm breeze.CNV00072

Part of the real joy of being in Villefranche comes from just losing yourself in these winding, compact lanes. Turn a corner. Just see what you find.CNV00074

There are flower baskets overflowing with fresh blooms, and half hidden courtyards awash with a vibrant wave of hibiscus and oleander.CNV00076

The heady scent of jasmine, and the seductive, irresistible aroma of freshly grilled fish on the waterfront.CNV00077

You’ll find any number of shops up and alongside these whimsical old warrens and alleyways,CNV00078

There are shutters in electric blue, crimson and white, flung open to let in the summer breeze, and awnings that rustle like subtle whispers on an almost stillborn wind.CNV00080

You’ll find that the number of tourists tend to decline in direct proportion to just how high you climb. It can be challenging; but those same high fronted, narrow streets offer a lot of shade, even at the height of summer.CNV00084

The most famous hotel is still the pretty, terracotta shaded Welcome, situated right on the busy main street of Quai Coubert.

Villefranche also played host to a number of artists before the war, including Cocteau. There’s a small, beguiling little museum, devoted to the man and his work in the town centre. Chagall also spent some time here, Today you’re more likely to see Tina Turner; she lives in a villa up in the hills, right above the old town.

Down on the bustling spread of the waterfront, a string of stylish, umbrella shaded bars and restaurants look out over the glittering expanse of the sparkling, summertime Mediterranean.CNV00088CNV00087

CNV00086Wherever you decide to take lunch, or even just a welcome beer or cocktail- you’ll find the views are simply stupendous.CNV00094

The hills that surround the old harbour on three sides form an almost perfect semi circle. They cradle the old town, dominating it and giving Villefranche it’s unique, spectacular stance. Seen from the water, the sheer beauty of the place is heart stopping.CNV00095

The balcony rooms at the Welcome Hotel offer a surreal, almost Olympian perspective of the entire town.CNV00096

It’s very old world. Cobbled squares and fountains; dog walkers and the idle rich, drinking pastis at a pavement cafe…..CNV00097

Fishing trawlers tied up alongside gnarled, cobbled quaysides. Cruise ships the size of Croatia swinging idly at anchor, out in the bay. The splutter and roar of the water tenders, bumbling back and forth across the azure hue of the ocean.CNV00098

See you there this summer? Hey, why not! After all, stranger things really have happened at sea…..
CNV00067CNV00066CNV00063CNV00062CNV00061

VISIONS OF VILLEFRANCHE, PARADISE ON THE COTE D’AZUR

ImageAnybody who has travelled in southern Europe has their own idea as to what the most beautiful place is. Some swoon over Sorrento. Others are mad about Mykonos. Some will plead the case for Portofino, while still others will swear by Santorini, Kusadasi, or Taormina.

I have no quarrel with any of those opinions. All rate highly among my personal favourites for beauty, character, and sheer, platinum chip slouch factor.

ImageSlouch factor? It’s a term I use for any place that somehow slows your normal, manic pace of mobility to an indolent saunter, simply by virtue of it’s sheer beauty and magical vibe. It’s a place that makes you feel the need to do nothing more strenuous than relax with a glass of wine or a cold beer, some lunch, with a good side order of languid people watching for dessert.

Of course, southern Europe is slouch factor central. Hedonism here is an art form, sometimes abstract like a Picasso; at other times cake rich, and full of the colour of a Rubens. Whatever. slouch factor is a state of mind; a true art form in it’s own right.

But, while all those peachy places I mentioned above induce a case of severe indolence in me, there is one that tops them all when it comes to living and loving the good life to the maximum. And- because we’re all friends here- I’m going to share it with you.

Villefranche is a small fishing village, mid way between Nice and Monte Carlo, that is used by many cruise ships to disembark passengers for the scenic highlights along the way. It has the advantage of a natural, deep harbour, and excellent road and rail connections along the coast.

ImageIt also just happens to blow spots off any of them for sheer, languid, magnificent beauty. Villefranche is, quite simply, the most perfectly styled, chocolate box pretty place in the entire Mediterranean. A view so good that it was used as one of the backdrops for the James Bond movie, Never Say Never Again.

ImageThe bay forms a perfect, natural theatre-in-the-round, cradled by a sweeping semi circle of gently rolling hills in a dozen shades of vibrant green. Villas, houses and churches peep out from among this wonderful natural crown, offering spectacular views down onto a sparkling, electric blue bay literally studded with idly bobbing yachts, as content as well fed swans.

ImageOn the waterfront, a riot of Italianate houses, bars and shops curve around the base of the bay. There are shades of yellow, white and terracotta. Window shutters in cream, green and electric blue stand open above the winding, cobbled lanes that lead back into the hills. An armada of bars, cafes and restaurants is splashed like so much brightly coloured confetti along the bustling quayside.

Waiters in starched white aprons deliver plates of food and drinks to idly loafing tourists wearing sunglasses worth the entire national debt of a small third world country. Their cars sit in leafy side lanes, shielded by a wash of jasmine and oleander. A Rolls Royce Corniche here; a Lamborghini there. The whole vibe is casually spectacular indolence, played out against a matchless natural canvas.

ImageTrains slither like exotic snails along the railway line that hugs the coast, passing over the spectacular, jasmine shrouded viaduct that winds around the bay. A small, honey coloured beach shelves gently into the azure hue of the Mediterranean. Like everything else in Villefranche, it seems almost perfectly in proportion to every other part of the mix. It’s as elegant and coquettish as an exquisite charm bracelet and, truth be told, not that much cheaper.

ImageThat said, it is nowhere near as expensive as, for instance, Monte Carlo just down the coast. A first time arrival by sea in Villefranche is easy to spot; just check the speed with which their jaw hits the top of their shoes when your ship first sails round the headland at Cap Ferrat, and that whole, wonderful bay opens up in front of you like a flower bursting into full bloom.

ImageAs evening falls, pools of light begin to shimmer on the ink black waters of the bay. Table lamps flicker skittishly under cafe awnings as they are ruffled by the ghost of a gentle breeze. The deep, seductive growl of a tenor sax floods the night air with a torrent of warm, sultry soul. Lovers walk hand in hand along the promenade, Down below, an old man tends to the sodden nets in his fishing boat, getting them ready for the next day’s catch.

ImageVillefranche is warm, welcoming, almost other worldly in a way. It has a subtle, electric vibe that will stay in your soul like a quiet storm long, long after you leave it behind. And, just like the magnetism present in any storm, you will be drawn back.

Trust me on that one….