Exploring the Mediterranean

Holland America’s ms Veendam shares the beauty of Monaco

By ed boitano

As I window shopped along the pristine streets of Monaco’s Golden Circle—where the chic clothing venues of Hermes, Christian Dior, Gucci and Prada are located—I decided then and there I would save my Christmas shopping for later.

Passing the legendary Casino de Monte-Carlo, it occurred to me that I could fatten my billfold at the palatial establishment. It had worked for James Bond where three of the 007 franchise films were shot, but then, I was no James Bond, either. So, I continued my stroll, simply enjoying the breathtaking views of warm pastel villas, grand Belle Époque buildings, posh palaces and luxurious ambiance of this fairytale land of the rich and famous. This was made possible by a passage on the Holland American vessel, ms Veendam. Ports of call also included Livorno, gateway to Lucca and Pisa; Barcelona; Malaga and Gibraltar. Those are reserved for part two.

The Holland America
ms Veendam

My connection with Holland America began in 1947 when my Dutch mother-in-law took a passage across the pond from Amsterdam to Ellis Island on the Holland America line.

I recall her saying she was enthralled by the comfort aboard the vessel and the tantalizing meals at the dinner table. Now, 63 years later I found her accolades still lived up to those expectations, and, shall we say, a bit more.

The creature comforts were endless with five restaurants; venues dedicated to classical violin and piano performances, dance music, Flamenco dancing and flautist recitals at the Showroom At Sea Theater; state-of-the-art fitness center, yoga and Pilates classes; two outdoor pools and seven Jacuzzis; shopping area and casino. My favorite was the Crow’s Nest Lounge, situated at the front top of the vessel. As a beer connoisseur, I should note the lounge featured an end to my own personal quest for the Holy Grail: finally encountering the original Budweiser Buda, first brewed in Bohemia circa 1245. Budweiser Buda is a pale lager brewed with ice age water, Moravian barley and Seas hops.

I was in an unsurpassed comfort zone of luxury. Most importantly, the cruise was relaxing and mellow, with a sophisticated clientele, as opposed to a riotous in-your-face “fun cruise.” The ms Veendam chimes in at 719 feet long and 101 feet wide with a passenger capacity of 1,627 guests, but still felt spacious. The service was outstanding with a guest-to staff ratio of 3 to 1. I could have stayed on the vessel forever, but I was excited for more explorations of the ports-of-call to come.

But first, more on Monaco

As late as 1869 the main export of the struggling Principality of Monaco was citrus. Despite its climate and location, which towers over the Mediterranean Sea, with France bordering on the other three sides, it was difficult to reach as a result of bad roads. This changed with the marriage of French stage actress Marie Caroline Gilbert de Laments to Florestan I, Prince of Monaco. The beaux arts-style Casino de Monte-Carlo was established, and income tax was eliminated. Monaco was soon promoted as a resort for wealthy tourists and a tax haven for businesses. Curious enough, its citizens—Monegasques—are prohibited from gambling at the casino. I suspect the city fathers knew, like all casinos, that the player always loses, despite Joseph Jagger’s “breaking the bank at Monte Carlo,” due to finding imperfections in the balance of the roulette wheel, which only gained the casino more publicity.

In 1956, the glamour campaign continued when Prince Rainier III married Hollywood royalty in the name of 26-year-old striking beauty, Grace Kelly. Kelly was already world-famous as a veteran of films by John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, and as an Academy Award winner for the otherwise dismal “The Country Girl.” Rainier, always desperate for money, received a $2 million dowry for the union to proceed. Described as the wedding of the century, her serene highness devoted her life to raising three children, and then founding the World Association of Friends of Children, where every child, regardless of social, religious or cultural origins, would live in dignity and security; and the Princess Grace Foundation, to support local artists and craftsmen. In 1982, tragedy struck when Princess Grace was driving a Range Rover down a steep farm road and suffered a minor stroke. She lost control of the vehicle which violently plunged 120 feet off a cliff.

Princess Grace passed away the next night. Her death was a shock to the entire world, and like the funeral of Princess Diana, was watched by millions of people around the globe. With the death of Rainier in 2005, Prince Albert II assured succession of the now 700-year-old Grimaldi reign.

Monaco is walkable, but visitors face strenuous hills. I opted for the all-day hop-on, hop-off bus tour, which follows a loop, stopping at points of interest every 15 minutes. Highlights included Monaco-Ville, also known as “the rock,” which is a picturesque medieval village with century-old villas; and the Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium, directed by Jacques Cousteau for 17 years, and considered the definitive authority on the Mediterranean’s tropical marine ecosystem.

Monaco showcases a number of stunning gardens and the Jardin Exotique was my favorite. Several thousand rare plants are on display as well as breathtaking views of the harbor and grandiose yachts courtesy of Saudi princes and Russian oligarchs. Also, your map should include the ornate Opéra de Monte-Carlo, designed by architect Charles Garnier, known for Palais Garnier Opera House in Paris; and the white marbled, Byzantine–style Cathédrale de Monaco where Rainier and Princess Grace are buried side-by-side.

Sitting at a sidewalk café by the Casino de Monte-Carlo with Bugattis, Lamborghinis and Rolls Royces parked in front—for tourist eyes, natch—I spoke to a young German man. He was there to walk the length of the 2-mile lap of the Monaco Formula 1 Grand Prix, the area’s event of the year. At the length of 161.734 miles with 78 laps, the race features hairpin turns, taken at 160 mph through Monaco’s densely populated neighborhoods. Due to the tight and twisty nature of the harrowing circuit, the drivers’ skill is more important than the power of the cars. I wished my German friend luck as I relaxed over an April Sprits cocktail, observing the ostentatious culture of this tiny nation, the second smallest in the world.

Despite the opulent luxury, Monaco must be doing something right for it tops the list as the nation with the highest life expectancy in the world at an average of 89.5 years. Maybe it has something to do with walking those steep hills. Stand warned, though; the streets are chock-full of wide-eyed curious tourists, in which I was now one.

Stay tuned for part two, where I visit Livorno’s Lucca and Pisa, Barcelona, Malaga and Gibraltar. BTW, never get into a tug-of-war over a camera or food item with Gibraltar’s Barbary monkeys. Those little creatures always win.

For further information, visit hollandamerica.com.