How Not To Become The Victim Of A $50M Hotel Heist

spencer77, Flickr

In a plot that plays out like a Hollywood movie, an armed thief who raided an exclusive hotel along the French Riviera got away with an estimated bounty of $50 million. Amusingly, the stolen jewels were lifted out of the very hotel where Alfred Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly was filmed in the 1950s. The haul didn’t come from hotel guests, but instead from a diamond exhibition on site — and it happened just days after a member of the notorious “Pink Panther” gang of jewel thieves escaped from a Swiss prison just 10 miles from the French border.

Hotels in France seem to be a hotbed for jewelry theft lately. This past May, a $2.5 million diamond necklace was stolen from a gala at a hotel during the Cannes Film Festival, just a week after $1 million of jewels was stolen from the hotel room of a Chopard employee when he was out to dinner.

Although Gadling readers might not be traveling with millions in jewels, it’s likely that there is something of value in each of our bags. Here are some tips for keeping your valuables safe:

  • Do Travel Inconspicuously: avoid being targeted by criminals by wearing little or no jewelry while traveling. If you must wear a ring, turn it around so the gemstones aren’t showing.
  • Don’t Check It: in the event of a lost bag (or airport employees with sticky fingers) keep anything of value in your carry-on.
  • Don’t Let Your Guard Down: criminals patiently wait for the moment when travelers aren’t paying attention to grab their bags. Be especially careful in ticket lines, near restrooms and at restaurants.
  • Don’t Keep Jewelry Out in the Hotel Room: while easily breached by professional thieves, a hotel safe is your best bet. Leaving anything out in the open not only makes things tempting for hotel personnel, but also for professional criminals walking by (how many times have you seen a room wide open while the cleaning crew is inside?).
  • Don’t Leave Home With It: this is the best advice of all. If there’s something you can’t afford to lose while traveling, your best bet is to just leave it at home.

Photo Of The Day: Fortress Lérins

Photo of the day
Mark Fischer/Flickr

This Photo of the Day, titled “Fortress Lérins,” comes from Gadling Flickr pool member Mark Fischer and was captured using a Cannon Powershot S100.

Mark tells us that the image is of the fortified monastery of Abbey Lérins on Île Saint-Honorat, the second largest of the Lérins Islands, about a mile off shore from the French Riviera town of Cannes. Continuing the detailed caption, Mark adds:

“The island, known to the Romans as Lerina, was uninhabited until Saint Honoratus founded a monastery on it at some time around the year 410. According to tradition, Honoratus made his home on the island intending to live as a hermit, but found himself joined by disciples who formed a monastic community around him. The monastery has operated on the island since the 5th Century, though the monks have fled or been expelled over the years by invaders, pirates, wars, and political factors.”

Want to be featured? Upload your best shots to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr. Several times a week we choose our favorite images from the pool as a Photo of the Day.

Tips for being featured: add a caption describing the image and your personal experience when capturing it, details of the photography gear used and any tips you might have for others wanting to emulate your work.

Now, you can also submit photos through Instagram; just mention @GadlingTravel and use the hashtag #gadling when posting your images.

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]

Magical Moments Of 2012: A Personal Review

As the end of each year approaches, I try to take stock of the preceding 12 months, to absorb and assess the adventures, inner and outer. Reviewing this year, I’ve been filled with gratitude and wonder to realize that this has been one of the most enriching, exhilarating years I’ve had in a long time, especially the past six months, when I managed to squeeze six special trips into an overcrowded schedule. I hope you’ll indulge me in sharing some of my most magical travel moments, and meanings, from 2012.

Festive in France

The Cote d’Azur has been one of my favorite places in the world since I first landed there in the mid-1970s. This year I was lucky to be able to savor the region for two weeks in June, visiting four places I’d never been before – Marseille, Montpelier, Sainte-Maxime, and Cagnes sur Mer – and revisiting two I’d fallen deeply in love with decades ago: Nice and St Paul de Vence.

I’ve already written about Nice and St Paul for Gadling. Among other riches of the trip, I had the best bouillabaisse of my life at the harbor-front Miramar restaurant in Marseille and was enchanted by the ambiance of student-spangled Montpelier, where a perfect cobbled square with a perfect café under a perfect canopying tree seemed to magically appear around every corner (and where the streets flowed with wine and song on the marvelous night of the Fete de la Musique). One of the most memorable highlights was spending one precious night at the Hotel Negresco two weeks before that legendary institution celebrated its 100th birthday. What an extraordinary hotel! Part priceless art collection, part history museum, part culinary temple, the Negresco – still owned by the feisty and fabulous 89-year-old Madame Augier – is emblematic of the intelligence, elegance, and artfulness that define the Cote d’Azur for me.My favorite moment of the entire trip was another birthday celebration. A very dear friend who lives part of each year in France treated me to a heavenly lunch at a renowned but well off the beaten path terrace restaurant called La Verdoyante, in the village of Gassin, about two and a half miles from the sea. I will never forget this feast. On a blue-sky day, the sun-mottled, out-of-time terrace exuded something of the atmosphere of Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette: festive people savoring a relaxing repast, with a view of rolling green vineyards and hills and a soupcon of the Mediterranean glinting in the distance. We had an amazingly flavorful succession of dishes, all artfully presented, including locally made foie gras, a delectably flaky poisson du jour served with fennel, figs and pancetta, and chevre cheese from a farm over the hill. The culinary fireworks ended with a special surprise – a scrumptious, sparkler-topped raspberry macaroon cake.

Birthday gifts don’t get any better than this: a sun-bowed, vineyard-wrapped celebration of food and friendship, a reminder of the life-riches that surround us, deepening and expanding every year.

Hawaiian Hideaway

A few days after returning from France, barely enough time to do some laundry, I repacked and rambled with my wife to Maui and Molokai on a trip I had won – won! — in a random drawing at a travel fair. On Maui we stayed at the Hotel Wailea and the Napili Kai Beach Resort and on Molokai at the Hotel Molokai. We loved aimlessly exploring both islands, stopping at beaches we found at the end of meandering paths, eating at food trucks, picnicking in parks — but especially savored the quiet of Molokai, where time truly seemed to slow down.

We wandered around the main town of Kaunakakai, poking our heads into shops, asking questions of the shopkeepers, who seemed much more interested in talking story than moving inventory. Our most memorable meal on Molokai was the mahimahi plate lunch at Mana’e Goods and Grindz, a combination country store and counter restaurant on the highway toward Halawa Valley (where you could also pick up spark plugs, videos, and sweet onion salad dressing, if needed). We loved it so much we drove back the next day for seconds.

The synthesizing moment of the trip for me was one afternoon on Maui when I sat on our patio at the Napili Kai simply absorbing the breeze that rippled the sea and rustled the palm fronds: Time slowed and slowed, the trade winds blew, the moist air swaddled my skin; suddenly a rainbow appeared, arcing from the sea into the clouds, and for a suspended moment it seemed to me that nature was offering its own snapshot of my soul. Hawaii re-taught me the value of recalibrating pace, the riches that reveal themselves when you open your head- and heart-space.

California Dreaming

In August I ventured across San Francisco Bay – a good 40 minutes by car from my home – for the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. My journey took flight the day before the official conference began, when I led a worldly, wide-eyed group of writers on a day-long walking workshop in North Beach, my favorite city neighborhood, where old-San-Francisco Italy meets new-San-Francisco China and Vietnam. We rendered homage at City Lights bookstore, Molinari’s aromatic delicatessen, and sweet Stella’s Pastry, then talked about writing and life over paninis and lattes at Caffe Greco.

The conversations and connections that took seed that day blossomed over the ensuing four-day conference. What mysteries make sparks fly, turn piazza dialogues into life-changing detours and dreams? Whatever was in the air at this year’s conference, it begat five days of exploration and exhilaration – of the word and the world — with soul-mates old and new. The defining Book Passage moment for me came at the end of the conference, and I have already described it here, but there were many other moments of magic as well, perhaps none so potent as midnight on Saturday, when a hardy band of writers and revelers gathered around five ukulele yogis, whose plangent plucks transported me to Hawaii, France and beyond – and then back to that midnight moment in a bookstore in northern California, which suddenly seemed to contain all the world.

This five-day close-to-home odyssey reminded me once again that both travel and travel writing are vital arts, stewards of the global heart, that even in your own backyard, you can wander far-flung paths of the imagination and the soul, and that the best travels and travel writings realize a redemptive goal: to piece the inner and the outer journey, the interlocking whole.

Beached in Bali

My ten-day sojourn on Bali presented a batik of bountiful moments. I have written about two of them here, questing for indolence and discovering unexpected gamelan gifts in Ubud, but I have not yet written about the two delightful dinners on two beautiful beaches that bookended my stay.

On my first night on the island, when everything still seemed a bit surreal, I met a wandering writer friend who serendipitously happened to be on Bali at the same time. We sat at a table literally on the beach at Jimbaran Bay, our toes squiggling into the sand, swigged Bintang beers, and feasted on marvelously messy platters of grilled shrimp. We talked about books and blogs and world-weaving paths under the stars, by the susurrous sea, as music lilted down the beach on a smoke-scented breeze. Ten days later, we met again for a final dinner on a beach in Seminyak. This time the music was a pop playlist (highlighted by Adele serenading us with “Someone Like You”), the food was delicious grilled fish and beef rendang, the beach spread invitingly to the rose-tinted waves, and the oceanic sky gradually turned from bluish-red to cobalt-purple to depthless, star-splashed black.

As the hours passed, I felt like a character in a story, simultaneously in time and out of it, willing the world to slow down and in the same breath abandoning myself to the ineluctable flow. All the Balinese bounties of the week seemed to converge, and the spirit of the island – the joy and compassion and reverence for the everyday that emanated from virtually everyone I’d met – merged with a shared awe at serendipity’s mystery and wonder. Maybe it was the spell of the Bintang, but my sense of the preciousness of life – and of the opportunity that travel bestows to lose oneself to special places and people, and to grow ever bigger therein — seemed to expand and expand and expand, until it filled the phosphorescent night.

Continuities in Connecticut

For Thanksgiving, as I have every year since my dad passed away in 2008, I went to Connecticut to spend the holiday with my mom. You have to be a New Englander to appreciate the bleak beauty of Connecticut in November. The tree branches are bony and bare, the air thin, brittle, laced with winter. Yet these annual journeys are a special kind of pilgrimage for me. My parents finished building the house where I grew up, in Middlebury, just before I was born. I lived there for the first 21 years of my life, before setting off for Paris and Athens and points beyond, and they lived there for more than 50 years. My mom thrives in an assisted living facility in a neighboring town now, but as we do every year, we drove to Middlebury to see “our house” and reveled again in its spare, simple, classic Connecticut-clapboard style and in the expansive woods and fields and memories around.

For Thanksgiving dinner, my childhood best friend invited us to his home, coincidentally five minutes from my mom’s new home. It was glorious to re-immerse ourselves for a night in the footloose past – somehow symbolized for me by the image of the two of us driving in his convertible on a sultry summer night for soft ice cream, me staring at the stars as the wind whipped by and wishing that the ride could last forever. The woods were limitless then and so were the summer nights; it’s only later that we realize there were houses on the other side of the trees, and jobs and mortgages on the other side of the ride.

But still, these Thanksgiving journeys are a gift to cherish, an opportunity to honor, connect, and reflect. Like Brigadoon, Middlebury springs to life for me once a year: the rolling hills and uncut forests, white Colonial houses with black shutters, lush lawns and gardens and sheltering trees, the high-steepled Congregational Church and round town green – and the landscape of love that nurtured, and nurtures still, me and my youthful dreams.

Easter Island, Among the Moai

I returned two weeks ago from my final trip of the year – the realization of one of my oldest travel dreams: to visit Easter Island. For years this almost inconceivably remote place – the most isolated inhabited island in the world — seemed inaccessible, but I was finally fortuitously able to make the pilgrimage this year.

I spent a week wandering the island on foot, tracing old trails, talking with the guardians of sacred sites, watching traditional dances, exploring caves and coves and cliffs. I observed as a local elder instructed a half dozen Rapa Nui (the indigenous people’s name for the island and for themselves) teenagers in the stories of the island, the traditions and the taboos, the legends and the landscapes that had special mana. I learned the different theories about the moai and wondered at the great toppled figures that seemed to be everywhere. Many people have developed definitive explanations for what happened on Easter Island – which means, of course, that no one has the definitive answer. On the flight back from the island to Santiago, Chile, I serendipitously sat next to a Dutch scientist who has been studying the island for two decades and who told me that he and a colleague are going to publish a book next year that will refute the currently advanced theories. And so it goes.

What I have taken away most deeply from Rapa Nui is this: On the second full day of my stay on the island, I decided to get up before dawn to commune with the moai at Ahu Tongariki, a spectacular seaside platform where 15 statues have been restored to standing position. I was dropped at the site well before dawn, when the night was still so inky that I couldn’t see the ground in front of me, much less the moai in the distance. I stumbled slowly towards the platform, looking vainly into the dark, and then in an instant I sensed the presence of the moai so palpably that the hairs on my arms stood on end. I stumbled forward some more and suddenly the head of the tallest statue leaped into looming silhouette before the stars. The power of that statue was almost magnetic: It pulled me towards it, but not in a frightening way, more like a benevolent force.

As I got closer, the heads of the statues appeared more clearly, silhouetted presences hulking into the sky. I could feel the sheer immensity of the figures, and the power that they must have emanated over the villagers who lived under their gaze day and night. I tried to imagine waking up every dawn to their stony presence, and retiring to sleep as they loomed into the sky. Their role as a force in everyday life became clear to my core. Their mana was undeniable.

As time passed and dawn’s rays illumined them in a buttery light, their hold on me softened. Dozens of photographers arrived, setting up their tripods, seeking the perfect perspective. The site was no longer mine alone. But it didn’t matter. I’d already found the perfect perspective – and it looms within me still, a hulking silhouette of pure Rapa Nui mana in my mind.

At the end of these reflections, the theme that resonates with me is this: Anything is possible. Each one of these magical moments forms a piece of a picture-puzzle that shows the potential of life, wherever we are literally and metaphorically, to be transformed, re-inspired, completed – for the mind to stretch, and the soul to soar, and the heart to expand.

I relearned this year just how full of marvel our mundane world is. And I learned again that life follows a mysterious and serendipitous map, that confluences and convergences abound all around, and that we can choose to open ourselves to them – to leap through the door, set foot on the road — or not. I learned again that passion is the best signpost, honor the best staff, and kindness the compass that illumines the path. And that however we wander this human race, the love we give returns to us, boundless with each embrace.

[Photo Credits – Book Passage: Spud Hilton; All others: Don George]

Europe By Rail

For many, taking the train is still the most wonderful way to travel. It is a romantic throwback to a long gone era, before modern jets linked the world. For some, taking the train is just too slow, but for those that enjoy it, that is one its charms. It affords travelers the opportunity to see the countryside, often from a comfortable car filled with modern amenities.

The train system in Europe is well known as being an excellent way for travelers to explore the continent. Trains run on a regular basis to nearly every region, offering a convenient, affordable, and leisurely way to get to your destination.

The TImes Online has put together a list of four great European rail journeys offering up suggestions for those who would like to experience the very best that this mode of transportation has to offer. The routes they suggest include a tour through Eastern Europe, a ride through the Alps, a journey along the French Riviera and Italy, and an adventure that will take you to Gibraltar and beyond, into Africa. Each of the routes has multiple legs, and the article gives details on the best and most insteresting of them. It also has tips on how to book your train journey, complete with ideas on how to save money in the process.

There was a time when train travel through Europe was viewed as strictly the realm of students and backpackers. But recently there have been first class and adults only cars added, opening the trains up as a viable option for other travlers as well. With airfares to Europe at bargain rates, now may be a great time to go, and with cheap trains as an option, explore the continent like never before.