Our posh dinner last night prepared us well to dock in the opulence of the Principality of Monaco this morning. For one night only (per itinerary), the Pinnacle Grill transformed into the renown Le Cirque of New York City. Infamous restauranteur Sirio Maccioni opened the first privately-owned hotel restaurant in the Mayfair in 1974. Since that time, Le Cirque has been the culinary playground for politicians, entertainers, socialites, artists, royalty, and foodies on pilgrimage. In 2006 Le Cirque moved to it’s current location in Manhattan’s midtown One Beacon Court. Last night it popped up on the Noordam. Through an innovative partnership, Holland America Line has the iconic china used in Le Cirque, the chefs have been specially trained to prepare the Le Cirque menu, and wait staff have been trained to serve and orient customers to the five-star food. This is a creative way to bring an added value to HAL passengers. There is an additional charge (as with the other upscale dining experiences it was well worth the money) and reservations are required.
After our unique dining experience, many of us attended the Crew Variety Show. In a completely packed Vista Lounge some of the crew members from Indonesia entertained us with songs, dances, and other performances from the many islands of their homeland. A former Dutch colony, Holland America Line now hosts training academies in Indonesia to prepare interested candidates for a job on a HAL cruise ship. On each sailing different ethnic groups represented in the 620 member crew prepares and performs a variety show. The atmosphere in the theater was jubilant and supportive, even with the show starting at 11:00pm. Passengers cheered and clapped and hooted and hollered. The crew hammed it up and performed both traditional and contemporary song and dance numbers. I love this idea. I cannot imagine how hard the crew work regardless, let alone preparing for a 60-minute show on top of it once their long shifts are over. When all of the performers took the stage for the finale, waving their flag and singing a boistrious song which translates to “Indonesia, I love you,” it was seriously moving.
Early this morning Jen and I took a pre-booked excursion outside the city of Monaco to two towns in France’s Cote D’Azur, Eze and Nice. It can be tough to manage late nights and early morning excursions, but there are distinct benefits to being the first group out: 1) In-room dining is included in the price of your stateroom, so you can have breakfast delivered as you prepare for the day; 2) You get the best golden hour light for photographs; 3) You have a good chance to beat the heat of the day; 4) You’re back in time to either explore the port city or dip in the pool while everyone else is still ashore; 5) You hopefully have time to crank out a Live Voyage Report before dinner (or you know, whatever version of daily cataloging you prefer). We went through the same process I completed for my excursion to Lucca & Pisa. After reporting to the Vista Lounge we received a number that indicated our tour coach. When it was our turn to disembark the ship and meet our guide, they called our number.
Eze is a strictly residential seaside town without hotels or tourist shopping districts. The medieval village of Eze (the second E is silent), however, is perched on a cliff 618 meters above the Mediterranean Sea in the French Alps. It’s the highest point on the middle corniche out of Monaco. There are only 10 residents living in the village of Eze, but you can stay in the hotel next to the 14th Century gate for 3,900 Euro per night (not a typo). The homes in the village did not have indoor plumbing or running water until 1952. The doorways are short, the walkways are steep, the views of the Cote D’Azur. are unparalleled. We enjoyed a guided walking tour and also 30 minutes to meander on our own. I took the opportunity to practice my French and buy three artisanal soaps, each bar made with a different lush regional ingredient: lavender, olive oil, lemons. Every time I slipped my camera into my bag I’d turn the corner and find even more beautiful light than on the previous street, even more wrought iron lamps teetering out of stone walls, even more arches leading to even more winding side streets up down up down up down. Eze is definitely one of the most beautiful villages, and one of the best preserved, I’ve visited anywhere in the world. Whether you take an official excursion or make your own way out there (about an hour from Monaco), go. Wear hiking shoes, then go.
Our tour guide continued with us to our second stop in Nice. Nice felt like a gigantic metropolis after our time in tiny Eze. Approximately 350,000 people live in Nice today. I noticed a real estate sign when the coach stopped for pedestrians; so I’m here to report that you too can have a slice of Nice for 193,000,000 Euro. If your heart is still beating and that seems a reasonable investment in your holiday home, call me. I’ll clean your floors and fetch your dry cleaning for room and board.
The coach drove us around the town for a bit while the tour guide pointed out all of the incredible La Belle Epoque architecture. The light was dripping like honey on the Bay of Angles and the mega yachts sparkled in the turquoise Riviera water. The women were lithe and tan, the men were linen clad and scarfed, the entire town had a listless ease flowing through it. Difficult to explain, but heaven to experience. Get thee to Nice. We were headed for a walking tour in old town (16th Century) and free time at the famed flower market.
From everything I’ve heard over the years about the flower market I was expecting something larger and…well, more flowery. What the market has become is perfectly lovely, however. It’s part farmer’s market, part art market, part flower market. It checked off my Provence shopping list in one fell swoop: honey, artisan soap (yes, more), lavender, herbs de Provence, and olive oils. My shopping was more than successful. My packing of delicate bottles containing the messiest possible liquids into checked luggage may be less successful, but I’ll take the chance.
Our tour guide confirmed what I’d heard about a street food called Socca, namely that it’s specific to Nice and it’s delicious. You can find it in shops in the old town and in a stall at the far end of the market. Socca began as an inexpensive and filling dish common to immigrant communities in Nice. Today it’s more wide spread and no longer relegated to the working poor. Socca is chickpea flour and olive oil grilled into an enormous flat crepe, then sprinkled generously with course sea salt and ground pepper. A single piece is a generous handful of the pancake-like dish scraped into a paper cone. It’s hot. It’s oily. It paired perfectly with the strawberries I purchased from the neighboring market stall. Street food at its best.
The tour coach drove along the lower corniche to return to Monaco. For the entire 30 minute drive I sat staring agape out the window, shaking my head at how perfect everything is. Everything is so manicured and pristine and blue and the houses…goodness. I suppose a more articulate way to phrase that is to say: Welcome to the French Riviera. Though I didn’t spent time in Monte Carlo, I’m happy to share with you a few interesting facts that may inform your own visit to this port. Monaco is a principality of 2 square kilometers, making it the second smallest country in the world (The Vatican is the smallest). Only 35,000 people live in Monaco, but based on available real estate in the tiny area, that also makes it the most densely populated country in the world. It’s most known as the tax-free playground of the absurdly rich. For example, two of the yachts floating below my Noordam veranda as I write this are over ¼ the length of our ship and have a helicopter pad on the back deck (seriously, call me). The Formula One Gran Prix car race winds its way through the streets of the principality. If you’d like to rent a balcony on which to watch the cars zip by, it costs 2,500 Euro per person. Of course Daniel Craig’s James Bond introduced the high rolling Le Gran Casino to a whole new generation. The casino doesn’t open until 2:00pm, your passport is required for entry, and a strict dress code is enforced. The Musee de l’Oceanographic was curated by Jaques Cousteau himself and is home to over 4,000 species of fish. To live in Monaco you must be invited by the prince, but he will let you take photos of his palace if you manage to climb to the top of “the rock,” as they call it.
Tomorrow is another excursion day, this time lasting eight hours and including lunch at a local cafe. The Noordam docks in Marseille, but I’m traveling two hours into the countryside of Provence to explore the villages of Roussillon and Gordes. Be sure to follow along in real time on Instagram and Twitter @fourthirtyam, hashtag #livevoyagereport. The Noordam Mediterranean Explorer Live Voyage Report landing page leads you to each day’s post.
I hope you’re enjoying your virtual vacation. Until tomorrow…bon voyage,