Ever fantasised about playing James Bond? For your license to thrill head for the millionaires' playground of Monte Carlo and its glamorous casinos
You don’t have to be a super-spy or racing driver to sample the glitzy Riviera lifestyle. A passport, €10 and a semi-respectable appearance should get you into the world famous Monte Carlo Casino www.casinomontecarlo.com. However you'll need an MP's expenses account if you want to spend the night in Monaco. I’d recommend staying in nearby Nice or Cannes - where the hotels are more affordable - and making a day trip to Monaco. Also, with the last train leaving at midnight, you can make an evening of it too.
How to get there
Flying to Nice is the best option; it's just 20km from Monaco and 40km from Cannes. There are frequent bus services to both, although if you want to arrive in true 007 style you can book a helicopter from the Nice airport to either destination www.heliairmonaco.com.
Spending the week in Cannes with my very own Bond Girl we foresake the helicopter for the scenic coastal train journey to Monaco - worth doing in its own right. After just under an hour the train dramatically enters a mountain side tunnel and we arrive in Monaco station.
Carved inside a mountain, the station is a spectacular piece of architecture and feels like the lair of a Bond villain. I half expect to see a bald man stroking a cat uttering the line: "I’ve been expecting you." We take the glass elevator to street level and within five minutes we're admiring yachts in Monaco harbour.
What to see
While James might be too busy ‘entertaining’ Eastern European double agents in the name of Her Majesty's Secret Service, we have the whole the day to see the sights and make our way to Monaco-Ville, the old town. Known locally as the "Rock" it's a fairly steep 10 minute stroll to the top, and probably best not negotiated in Bond Girl heels.
Monaco-Ville is home to Prince Albert II who lives in the grandiose Palais Princier www.palais.mc and if you get here for 12.05pm you can witness the changing of the guard. For €9 (€4.50 concessions) you can take a tour of the palace apartments and €4 (€2 concessions) will get you into the Napoleon Museum. We skip these and head to the Musee Oceangraphique (Avenue St Martin; www.oceano.mc €13/€6.50 concessions). Set over five floors in an equally palatial building this museum perches impressively on the edge of the Rock overlooking the sea. The highlight is the aquarium's 'Shark Lagoon' with its turtles, rare species and sharks. Luckily there are no trapdoors.
For lunch we head to the narrow cobbled streets of the old town and grab a baguette to eat on a nearby bench in the beautifully manicured Jardins Saint-Martin near the cathedral. The beautiful white stone Cathédrale de Monaco encapsulates the old school Hollywood glamour of Monaco and is where Grace Kelly married Prince Albert I. As we sit in a sunny spot overlooking the clear blue Mediterranean it's not hard to appreciate why painters like Renoir and Picasso loved painting the light and colours of the Cote D’Azur. After lunch we take a look around the Jardin Animaler (€4). Located below the palace this mini zoo is home to monkeys, hippos, wallabies, exotic birds and various reptiles.
Starting and ending outside the Musee Oceanographique we decide to take a trip on the Monaco Tours' tourist train (€7/€4 children) - a 30 minute tour with commentary Monaco's history and landmarks. It takes us around the Formula One street circuit past the casinos and through the famous tunnel, thankfully at a more leisurely pace than Lewis Hamilton.
Place du Casino, home to the Monte Carlo Casino, Hotel de Paris http://en.hoteldeparismontecarlo.com and Café de Paris is one of the most instantly recognisable squares in the world thanks to the Grand Prix, Bond films (it features in Goldeneye) and a VW called Herbie. Its familiarity from TV and movies makes it feel like you’ve stepped onto a film set. By chance we manage to find a prime seat on the terrace of the Café de Paris - the perfect spot for some people watching - although it came at the price of €10 for half a pint of beer and I dare not look at the price of a Martini. We watch the endless stream of supercars doing laps around the square and well heeled ladies in designer clothes; it's a bit like Bournemouth or Southend but with Aston Martins and Chanel instead of Fords and Primark.
Having not inherited any Russian oil fields during Perestroika we pass on dinner at celebrated chef Alain Ducasses' 3 Michelin-starred restaurant in the Hotel de Paris and head for a local Italian called Tip Top (3 Avenue de Spelugues, TEL: +377 93 506913), a favourite late night haunt of David Coulthard. Two large pizzas and few drinks set us back around €30, the price of a Hotel de Paris starter.
At last, with delusions of grandeur, we head to the casino. This extravagant 1920s belle époque building looks beautiful lit up at night with the fountains shimmering outside. We try to act blasé, as though we always come here, and coolly enter the building - don’t forget your passport, you’ll need it due to money laundering regulations. Inside, the games room is as ornate and glamorous as I imagined with its lavish chandeliers and black tie croupiers spinning the roulette wheels. There are a dozen or so roulette and blackjack tables. Photography is banned so I decide against trying to stealthily take a picture for fear of being frogmarched out by the security guards.
Inside the casino the clientele is a curious mix of well dressed ladies, fat balding men who smell of too much cologne, slick haired blonde playboy types who look like they should be playing the latest David Guetta record in a cheesy nightclub and, much to my dismay, Aussie backpackers. I find a roulette table and hand the croupier €50 for 10 chips (if you don’t know how to play there are guides in the reception). First spin of the wheel, no luck; second spin, no luck; third, no luck. Annoyingly, while I’m haemorrhaging money faster than a Scottish bank, Bruce from Contiki is winning chips faster than I can give them away and is attracting the swoons of the Sheilas. Fifth spin, closer; sixth, still no luck; seventh, no closer. I’d probably have more luck on the Thunderball. With adrenaline flowing I reach for another €50, but Bond Girl decides that flittering the house deposit on roulette is not a good idea and I reluctantly agree. Unlike 007 in You Only Live Twice, I don’t fancy my chances if I lose another €50. We head back to the port to rest the blisters, dream of what might have been and for an ice cold pint at more reasonable €7!
Where to stay
If you are on your honeymoon, rich or have a Fred Goodwin style pension pot then the Hotel de Paris and Hermitage in Monte Carlo are two of the world's best hotels. We stayed at the Cannes Riviera Hotel (16 Rue D'Alsace, Cannes) which was great value at around €100 a night in August. Although it felt more business hotel then French boutique it was clean, had a flat screen TV, a small rooftop pool, fantastic service and is only a 5 minute walk from the beach. Breakfast was included and was taken every day in the pleasant sunny courtyard.