Budget Travel In The Midst Of Luxury: Exploring Monaco In One Afternoon

“I have a crazy idea … lunch in Monaco?”

It was the end of a two-week documentary film production in France and we were spending the last night in Nice, so our director deemed it only fitting to grab lunch in the world of casinos and Formula One racing. When in Nice, drive to Monaco.

Opting for the scenic Basse Corniche route as opposed to the autoroute, we drove along the coastline through Villefranche-sur-Mer, a winding road that hugs the cliffs that drop straight into the Mediterranean. Terra cotta-colored rooftops pepper the coastline and bright white yachts sit moored in the various harbors along the way. It’s the kind of scene that feels like it was pulled directly from a postcard; it’s no surprise that many of the world’s most well off individuals choose to make this part of the globe the destination for their second, third or fourth villa.

The road is the kind that’s meant for a sports car. Two weeks of film production means two week’s of film gear though, so we were stuck in the silver Peugeot mini-van. At least it was a manual, so you could almost get the thrill of a quick down shift.

The budget traveler in me of course knows that Monaco certainly isn’t a destination I would normally seek out, but the chance to quickly cross a border and grab some lunch is quite another story.Monaco is one of those places that you know about because you hear the name often enough, but when you think about it, you realize that you actually don’t know very much about it at all. In fact my only relation to Monaco before this day was a couple of summers ago when I was in Sweden and got conned into watching the live stream of Monaco’s royal wedding; a royal wedding is always a big affair in Europe, no matter what the country.

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The Principality of Monaco is bordered by France on three sides and the Mediterranean on the fourth. It’s a constitutional monarchy and governed by Prince Albert II. With an area of only 0.76 square miles, it’s the second smallest country in the world. But its 35,000 plus inhabitants make it very densely populated.

Drive into Monaco and you’ll quickly get lost. It’s a city built into the cliffs, with roads intertwining like a complicated maze. Best solution: do another drive around the roundabout just to make sure you are taking the right exit. And when you park and a Ferrari is in front of you trying to back up, don’t move. In the face of opulent automobiles, avoid any risk of you hitting them.

Fortunately, we had a local to guide us around, and he took us to one of the many underground parking complexes and we climbed out and up onto “Le Rocher” – the Rock – the old city that sits atop a rocky promontory. This is where you’ll find the Palais Princier, and just like in any other country that boasts a constitutional monarchy, you can watch the changing of the guard.

From atop Le Rocher you also have an excellent view down both sides of the cliffs, one looking down into the old harbor, and on the other, a more modern collection of buildings and docks. Le Rocher is also where you will find the Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium, an impressive structure that almost looks like it’s rising straight out of the sea.

To say that the streets and alleyways of Monaco are clean would be an understatement. This is an impeccably spotless place, almost disarmingly so. You get the feeling that the entire place simply drips of money. Which of course it does; the principality doesn’t charge its residents income tax, which attracts a whole plethora of glitterati.

But there’s also the charming side of Monaco that even the budget traveler can enjoy. A wood-fired pizza for lunch with a carafe of Chianti (thank the Italian influence for that) and a simple stroll up and down the hilly streets gives you a real sense of a place loaded with oversized yachts and casino action. It offers a picturesque setting, to say the least.

We walked through the tight alleyways, pink and yellow walls jutting up around us, a quaint but manicured setting. A pair of cyclists decked out in tight training gear rolled up to a door and walked their bikes inside. Japanese tourists bought chocolate at the local chocolatier.

Descending the steps next to the Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium we overlooked the Mediterranean, a stormy mix of white caps and breaks of sunlight as a small storm rolled in. It started to drizzle. Whereas in most cities the raindrops would have cleaned the dirty streets, they instead just added to sidewalks that already seemed to glitter. “You know, just an afternoon in Monaco. No big deal,” said my friend as we looked out over the water.

It’s funny to go to a place known for so much wealth and instead just take in the surroundings. No casino. No Grand Prix. No luxury purse purchases. Just a moment to be in a place and remember that our world is full of these corners that we may never fully know.

We returned to Nice at dusk, the evening winter light hitting the French Riviera houses on the cliffs in a way that only a painter could replicate.

“A good afternoon in Monaco everyone,” said our director. Check that one off the list.

[Photo Credit: Anna Brones]

Budget Guide 2013: Las Vegas

If the thought of Las Vegas conjures up images of flashy clubs, glitzy shows, an endless parade of limousines and eye-wateringly high table limits – you’re not entirely mistaken. This is a city where high rollers come to play and $3000-a-glass cocktails or $40,000-a-night hotel rooms are on offer for those with cash to burn.

However, the good news is you don’t need to have deep pockets to enjoy Las Vegas. The city has experienced a recent surge in hotel room capacity because of a series of new properties that opened during the depths of the recession. That timing means they’ve had to discount rates in order to keep occupancy up and other hotels have followed suit.

Downtown Las Vegas – which has traditionally offered better prices than the Strip – is also drawing more visitors thanks to its ongoing renewal. Trendy bars like The Downtown Cocktail Room, The Griffin and recently opened prohibition-style lounge Commonwealth have been growing in numbers much to the delight of hipsters. Decent bang for the buck also makes them a great draw card for the budget traveler.

Hotels

When choosing a cost effective hotel, be sure to factor in the amenities and entertainment as well as the price, and remember that even upscale hotels offer excellent deals from time to time, making them a great value for the money.

A few more points to keep in mind when booking accommodation:

Hotel rates in Vegas vary dramatically depending on when you’ll be staying and when you book. Mid-week stays will be markedly cheaper than weekends, as long as there are no major conventions or events going on.

For the uber budget conscious, note that while Vegas does boast a handful of hostels, they tend to be in out of the way or in somewhat unsavory areas. So rather than paying $10-15/night for a dorm bed, share a room with friends at one of the hotels below for not much more.

To get the best rates, do a thorough search on online booking sites like Expedia and Kayak and then call the hotel to check current rates. Most will match a cheaper deal you find for their establishment online, and some will even knock off 10 percent of that price.

Beware that many hotels in the city charge a daily resort fee – it’s not always clear when booking but it can add a significant amount to your final bill, so always ask.

Here are a few options:

Main Street Station. Located just two blocks from Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas, this train-themed hotel is heaven for the history buff. Packed to the brim with antiques, the hotel even has a piece of the Berlin Wall – although ladies will have to enter the men’s restroom to see it. The hotel’s microbrewery and restaurant, Triple 7, serves up award-winning brews and a free shuttle service whisks guests to and from the Strip. The hotel doesn’t have a pool, although guests are welcome to use the facilities at the neighboring California Hotel. From $38. No resort fee but a $9.99 charge for Wi-Fi. mainstreetcasino.com 200 North Main Street, Las Vegas, NV. 89101.

The Stratosphere. This 1149-foot tower situated past the north end of the Strip just spent $20 million revamping its décor, restaurants and sky-high bar. The hotel is a bit out of the way of the action, but what it lacks in location, it makes up for in price. Guests still have relatively easy access to the rest of the Strip via bus, which stops outside the hotel; monorail, which is a short walk away near the Sahara Hotel; or by driving and making use of the free valet parking. Hotel guests are allowed free visits to the observation tower, which provides great views of the Strip. They also have access to two pools and a fitness center, but will have to pay for Wi-Fi. From $31 plus $7.50 daily resort fee. stratospherehotel.com 2000 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, NV. 89104.

Luxor. This three-star hotel in the shape of a sleek black pyramid is located at the southern end of the Strip and offers a great value for the money. Guests at the Egyptian-themed resort receive free pool and gym access, two free drinks per stay, Internet access and free parking. The hotel also boasts a newly revamped food court and a new interactive center for sports fans. Rooms are located in either the pyramid itself (complete with slanted elevators that provide access to the higher rooms) or the adjacent towers, which are newer. From $38 plus $18 daily resort fee. luxor.com 3900 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, NV. 89119.

Eat and Drink

Tacos El Gordo. This chain, which started in Tijuana, Mexico, is known for their authentic street-style tacos. Fillings include spicy pork, carne asada and carnitas, as well as tripe, tongue and brains for the more adventurous foodie. Tacos are small but cheap at $2 each and are topped with onions, cilantro, guacamole and various sauces. You can also grab a quesadilla, tostada, or fries loaded with guacamole, sour cream and your pick of meat. Bottomless soft drinks are also on offer. Don’t expect table service here – you’ll be ordering food at various meat “stations” and then paying at the cashier. The restaurant has a location downtown as well as one on Las Vegas Boulevard in a strip mall just north of the Wynn Hotel. The Strip location is open until 3 a.m. on weekdays and 5 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, making it an ideal spot to grab some late-night munchies.

Secret Pizza. Inside the swanky Cosmopolitan Hotel you’ll find a cheap and unassuming pizza place sure to satisfy late night cravings. Hidden away down an alley on the third floor of the hotel, the signless restaurant serves up New York-style, thin-crust pizza to hungry clubbers. The hidden pizza joint serves up pies and slices with a range of toppings, including white pizza, homemade meatballs, cheese and pepperoni. A slice will set you back around $5.

Buffets. We couldn’t talk about eating in Las Vegas without mentioning the buffets. There are more all-you-can-eat dining options in this city than you could possibly work your way through, with just about every hotel offering at least one buffet. As a general rule, buffets are cheapest earlier in the day (so breakfast or lunch will be a better deal than dinner). If you’re eating downtown, you’ll find plenty of lunch buffets around the $7 mark, and dinner buffets for about twice that price. One notable option on the Strip is the Buffet of Buffets. This is a day pass offered by Harrah’s that gives you access to buffets across their various properties (which include Paris, The Rio, and Planet Hollywood among others). For $50 you can eat as much as you like over 24 hours. Just beware that some of the premium buffets like the over-the-top one at Caesar’s Palace will add a $15 surcharge on top of the pass.

Activities

Pool Partying. Without a doubt, gambling is the number one activity in Las Vegas, but if you’re looking for other ways to have fun, hit up one of the city’s many pool parties. These daylong parties feature sizzling beats, bronzed bodies and typically, very pricey booze; however, the good news is you can often get into the parties for free. Some of the bigger venues include Rehab, located at the Hard Rock Hotel, and Wet Republic, at the MGM Grand. A more budget-friendly (and relaxed) option is the Venus Pool Club at Caesar’s where you can throw back a beer for around $8. Admission costs $10-30 depending on the night, but ladies will almost always get in free and men are often handed free passes too.

See a half-price show. Vegas has countless shows taking place every night, including comedy shows, concerts, dance performances, magic shows and acrobatics. Popular shows include The Jabbawockeez, Absinthe and various Cirque du Soleil performances, but there’s really something for everyone. You can buy tickets for half the box office price by visiting tix4tonight, which has a number of locations along the Strip.

Free entertainment on the Strip. There’s no shortage of things to see on the Strip, and wandering through the various themed hotels is an activity in itself. Experience the canals of Venice, see the Sphinx, or take your photo in front of the Eiffel Tower. Nature lovers can enjoy the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens at the Bellagio – the horticultural displays are constantly changed to suit the season. You can also see flamingos, along with a variety of other birds in the Flamingo Hotel’s wildlife habitat. Vegas hotels also put on a number of free performances to draw in the crowds. At Circus Circus, the world’s largest permanent circus comes alive at 11 a.m. daily, where you can see new world class acts like the Ethiopian foot juggler or the aerial silk artist from Italy. In front of The Mirage, a giant volcano erupts every hour from 5-11 p.m. The Sirens of TI is a 20-minute show featuring hip-swinging sirens and swash-buckling pirates that’s somewhat risqué. It takes place nightly in front of Treasure Island. For something tamer, take in the fountains at the Bellagio, which dance to music every 15 minutes from 7 p.m. onwards, and every 30 minutes during the afternoons. The Bellagio has begun adding new “dances” to the fountains’ repertoire.

Take a Stroll Downtown. If you venture downtown, check out the Fremont Street Experience. The historic street is home to the largest LED screen in the world in the form of a giant canopy over a pedestrian walkway. Visitors can watch a dazzling display every night on the hour, and the light show is usually accompanied by music and other live performances. While you’re downtown, don’t forget to check out the Neon Museum featuring original neon signs that once glittered across the city’s casinos. The museum is made up of several components: the Downtown Gallery at Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard displays restored, illuminated signs; while the Neon Boneyard is an outdoor museum home to donated and rescued signs. The Neon Museum is just the start of a grand plan to revitalize the downtown area (after Zappos relocated to the city, it set up the Downtown Project, which aims to completely transform Vegas’ urban core) so keep an eye out for more arts, music and cultural developments in the months and years to come.

Get Around

To get to and from the airport, you can take bus routes 108, 109, or the Westcliff Airport Express. A single ride costs $2 – buy your ticket at the bus stop vending machine before boarding. Alternatively, a number of shuttle services ferry passengers between the airport and hotels on either the Strip or downtown. Most cost $7 for Strip hotels and $8.50 for downtown destinations. A taxi from the airport will cost around $15 depending on the route.

Las Vegas is well served by public transport and most visitors will be able to get around sufficiently on the double decker bus known as The Deuce. The bus runs between downtown and the Strip, making stops at most major hotels. The Strip and Downtown Express Bus (also known as the SDX) runs along a similar route but is much faster due to the limited stops. The Deuce runs 24 hours a day, while the SDX starts operating after 9 a.m. Both run every 15-20 minutes. Passes can be purchased at the vending machines located at bus stops. They’ll set you back $6 for two hours, $8 for a one-day pass, or $20 for three days.

A pricier option is the monorail, which runs from the MGM Grand on the south end of the Strip to the Sahara at the north end. The line runs behind the hotels and casinos (rather than along Las Vegas Boulevard) and takes 15 minutes to complete the route. Tickets cost $5/single, $12/one day, $28/three days, or $43/five days.

Budget Tips

Free Wi-Fi. If your hotel charges an extravagant fee for wireless Internet access, it’s worth knowing that the various MGM properties provide free Wi-Fi to the public. The hotel group offers complimentary service in its casinos, pools, lobbies and restaurants – and you don’t need a password or room key to access the network. At the time of writing, Wi-Fi is already available at the Bellagio, Mirage, Mandalay Bay and MGM Grand and is being added to the Monte Carlo, Luxor, New York New York and the Excalibur.

Day passes to hotel pools. You don’t have to be a guest at one of the upscale resorts to use their amenities. For as little as $10 per day you can gain access to the pools of many of the hotels along the Strip. It’s great if you’re trying to save on accommodation costs but still want to be able to enjoy some of the luxe facilities the city has to offer. You can see a list of pools open to the public here. A particularly notable pool is The Tank at the Golden Nugget, which boasts a 200,000-gallon shark tank with a water slide that runs through it before dumping you in the pool. Cover charge for non-hotel guests is $20.

Drinking on the cheap. One of the cheapest places to drink in Vegas is in a casino, since most of them serve free alcohol to gamblers whether they’re high rollers or only playing 1-cent slot machines. Just remember to tip the server $1 per drink or the service will quickly dry up. Many bars and vendors along the Strip also sell cheap frozen daiquiris by the yard glass – since you’ll rarely be prevented from taking a drink from one casino or bar to the next, it can be a cheap way to have a big night.

Room upgrades. Want to score a better hotel room than the one you paid for? Try the $20 trick. Simply slip the hotel receptionist $20 when handing over your credit card and ask if any upgrades are available. If you’re staying at a budget hotel, you may get away with tipping significantly less. You can read more about the success rate of this strategy at various Vegas hotels here.


[Photo credit: Flickr user David Stanley]

Proposed casino near Gettysburg National Park denied license

A propsed casino near Gettysburg National Park was voted down this weekThe National Parks Conservation Association is applauding the decision of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to deny a license to a proposed casino near Gettysburg National Park. The Board felt that the gambling establishment, which would have opened less than a half-mile from the park, would be at odds with the solemn historical legacy and family friendly environment at Gettysburg.

The proposed casino sparked a great deal of debate in the communities surrounding the park. It was believed that it would bring a much needed boost to the local economy and provide new jobs, but opponents called the plan an insult to soldiers that fought and died there. The Mason Dixon Resort & Casino was to include 600 slot machines and 50 table games in its bid to lure visitors through its doors.

The decision comes as the park kicks off a series of events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. The Battle of Gettysburg is seen as the definitive turning point in that war, when Union forces turned back an invasion of Confederate troops, led by Robert E. Lee. It is believed that both sides combined for more than 51,000 casualties over the three day battle, which ultimately led to the North claiming victory over the South. President Lincoln traveled to the site some months later to dedicate a national cemetery there. His Gettysburg Address would become one of the most famous speeches in history.

So what do you think? Would a casino so close to Gettysburg diminish the historical events that happened there? Would it be an insult to those soldiers or is the need for economic development more important than that legacy? Personally, I’m glad that the casino was voted down. In my opinion, there are plenty of places to build a casino further away from a place that should be seen as hallowed ground.

[Photo credit: National Park Service]

Fired middle-aged waitresses sue over skimpy uniforms at Atlantic City casino

fired waitressesIn Texas, we have no shortage of restaurants catering to the drooling male demographic. Hooters, Twin Peaks, Burger Girl, and many others require threadbare uniforms to entertain and engage their mostly male patronage. The decent food/hot waitress business plan has proven an effective tonic for a thirsty male demographic, and the phenomenon seems to be infesting the suburbs. Skimpy uniform capitalization extends beyond the suburbs though, and casinos are another hotbed for this sort of uniform minimalism.

At the Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, several waitresses were recently fired after a modeling agency came in and evaluated the cocktail servers in their skimpy “Roaring 20′s” outfits. What appeared to be a harmless photo-shoot in the new uniforms was actually an evaluation of the servers to keep their jobs. According to USA Today, fifteen servers were let go after the “sham evaluation process.” Seven of the sacked middle-age waitresses lawyered up and are suing the Resorts Casino Hotel in an age and sex discrimination lawsuit.One of the fired waitresses, Katharyn Felicia, had been a loyal employee since 1978. A two time employee of the month, she felt that the process “was very degrading to women.” The Resorts Casino Hotel feels that they gave each waitress a fair shot, and the jazz era uniforms are part of a re-branding effort. The flapper costumes include elaborate hats, deep slit short skirts, and fishnets. The property is trying to capitalize on the popularity of the HBO program Boardwalk Empire which takes place during prohibition in Atlantic City.

Photo of the day – Stormtroopers in Las Vegas

Photo of the day

Have you ever walked down the street and seen something amazing and cursed yourself for not having a camera? Lucky for us, Flickr user mciccone640 had his camera and shot today’s Photo of the Day of couple of robots stormtroopers* in Las Vegas. I wonder if there was a convention in town or if the guys were just wearing costumes for luck in the casinos. Perhaps a theme wedding? Hope they had a lucky night (going to the bathroom couldn’t have been easy), no matter the reason.

*This PotD was originally called Robots in Las Vegas until my husband informed me that they were, in fact, storm troopers and not robots. Sorry. Still can’t be easy for them to go to the bathroom.

Capture any unusual sights on the street your travels? Add your pix to the Gadling Flickr pool and we may use one for a future Photo of the Day.