France's Riviera And Neighboring Monte Carlo - My Family Travels

Looking for cultural riches and nearby theme parks, Michelin-rated meals and chocolate crepes? Think Monaco and the Cote d'Azur.

Every place offers something different. Families coming to Orlando are far more likely to find theme parks than museums and art galleries. While the latter can be found, most people come to my home town for the theme parks. By contrast, there are places in Europe where you can not only visit world-class museums but also find theme parks (water parks, too), and even familiar bowling alleys and miniature golf courses. In other words, something for the entire family, who can switch at a moment’s notice from the type of theme park tourist attractions that are cramming the world, to educational-oriented (presumably, or we hope anyway) museums and art centers.

In France, the Cote d’Azur is such a place. Its long-standing popularity among artists such as Picasso and Cocteau fostered a climate where world-class art museums and galleries would become commonplace. And the competition for tourists who don’t want to be too far from theme parks and bowling alleys, created in recent years, the more populist attractions. This may not be your immediate impression of the Cote d’Azur. Its image is more often of partying celebrities and pebbly beaches (usually crowded). Grand villas are everywhere; it’s mainly known as a playground for the rich.

However, families of different ages and widely differing interests (stress ‘widely’) can find some common ground here. The Cote d’Azur is aptly famous for its beaches, which are often rocky rather than sandy (with the exception of places such as St-Tropez). The beaches are also often private and you have to pay a fee to walk on them, so take a pass. Instead, explore this compact region known for its small towns.

Not everyone in your family will agree on what is of interest and what is not, but there’s enough diversity to pique the interest of both adults and children — the best of both worlds. There are places to go as families, and others where adults and kids can separate.

There is a near-tropical climate so you can go during the off seasons. If you do, you will be far more likely to find affordable prices — particularly at the typical budget-busting hotels which can be a major cost of your trip.

Your Home Base in Monte Carlo

One possible place to start is perhaps unexpected: Monte Carlo. The small city of 15,000 or so people is the wealthiest of Monaco’s four “quarters.” People often think it is the capital., but Monaco, a small country of around 35,000 residents, does not have a capital, and Monte Carlo is designated as a “quarter.” The Grimaldi family has been in charge since Napoleon took over briefly, which makes the Grimaldi’s the oldest reigning family in Europe.

But wait. Isn’t that the sophisticated gambling place where James Bond hung out? And that place where they close the streets for the fancy race cars? Children can’t get into the gambling haunts if they wanted, can they? Of course not.

But the whole family can take in an exhibition of H.S.H. The Prince of Monaco’s Private Collection of Classic Cars (377 92 05 28 56); Terrasses de Fontvieille, MC 98000, Monaco). Visitors will see more than 100 vintage and veteran motor cars made by some of Europe’s most prestigious firms, ranging from the 1903 De Dion Bouton to a 1986 Lamborghini Countach and a 1952 Rolls Royce. These glittering cars tell the history of early morning motoring, and provide a glance into another of Monte Carlo’s elements of fame, as a professional car race venue.

Prince Rainier died in 2005 after a 56-year rule. He was a beloved figure in Monaco, even before his storybook marriage to Princess Grace. She is widely remembered today in various ways, including the Princess Grace Rose Garden near Fontvieille Park which is also the official site of the government tourist office. Opened in 1984 by the Prince and his family, it is a quiet spot where from a distance you can smell some 4,000 rose trees. There are more than 150 varieties, some of which are the work of leading European and American specialists. Admission is free.

The Oceanographic Museum & Aquarium (377 93 15 36 00; Avenue Saint-Martin MC 98000 Monaco) is housed in an impressive building that took 11 years to build. Here you will find remarkable collections of marine fauna and stuffed specimens of such creatures as a 66-foot-long whale. With 4,000 species of fish and 200 families of invertebrates, the museum is an authority on the Mediterranean and tropical marine ecosystem.

Since Monte Carlo is so classy and not somewhere you’d expect to find normally tacky wax museums, it’s something of a surprise to find the Wax Museum of the Princess of Monaco (377 93 30 3905; 27 rue Basse MC 98000, Monaco). However, this museum is far more history-oriented and far less sensational than many of its kind. The historical figures in large-scale scenes depict the country’s history from the late 13th-century to the present day.

Marlborough Fine Arts (377 97 70 25 50; 4 Quai Antoine 1er MC 98000 Monaco) is a truly international museum. While parents might have to lean on kids to go, this museum has contemporary work since World War II and displays some very familiar household names such as Dale Chihuly and Botero.

Where to Stay & Eat

Hotel Le Versailles (377 93 50 79 34; 4-6 Avenue Prince-Pierre 98000 Monaco) offers a small, intimate ambiance, with 15 air-conditioned rooms with baths or showers, TV’s, direct telephones and mini-bars. With many hotels priced at €400-€500, this is a bargain with its lowest price at €90.

Hotel de France (377 93 30 24 64; 6, rue de la Turbie 98000 Monaco) at 6, rue de la Turbie offers bright and warm-colored rooms within walking distance of many of the most popular areas to visit. Showers and WC’s, cable TV’s, telephones, and hair dryers in each of the 26 rooms. Double rooms start at €75.

Le Ciao (377 93 25 78 68, 7 Rue Portier 98000 Monaco) is a local favorite for Italian food with its best-known dishes including slightly spicy penne all’Arrabbiata or spicy lamb, and tagliolini with salmon. Not only locals, but blogging Americans have frequently praised it on the Web. Creperie du Rocher (12, rue Comte-Félix-Gastaldi 98000 Monaco, 377 95 50 86 90) is a casual and reasonably-priced place featuring all kinds of crepes, ranging from sweet to savory. Tip-Top (11, avenue des Spélugues 98000 Monaco, 377 93 50 69 13) is a late-eating dinner spot with diner type menus and prices, perhaps best known for its pizza.

Along Le Cote d’Azur

While Monte Carlo itself can be seen in two days or so, to see more of the Cote area, you can get around by train or bus, but it’s almost certainly best to rent a car. Travel agents can help, but the Cote is an area where families will have to figure out their own individual plan on how and where to visit. To give you an idea of its diversity, however, here are some of the better known attractions.

Cannes is the second largest visitor’s destination in Cote. It’s known for its glamorous film festival held each May, of course, but shopping is not far behind. You can visit the eclectic Marche Forville at the edge of the Quartier Suquet. The food here is so good it is often frequented by well-known chefs.

An easy but unfortunate place to miss is the Musee de L’Enfance (33 4 93 68 29 28, 2 rue Venizelos 06400 Cannes) with toys and games from the 19th century, doll houses, furniture and miniatures. Guided English tours are offered on request.

On Sainte Marguerite, after touring the ancient Fort Royal, you can look at up one the places where “The Man in the Iron Mask” was kept behind bars for most of his life. He was a real person, and historians think there was a real iron mask. But after that it’s a mystery, though the poor guy was almost certainly not the brother of Louise XIV as depicted in the movies. Whatever the case, it would not be surprising that a visit here will convince the kids to read the intriguing Dumas book.

Antibes offers some fun family activities. For those who want to join a foreign version of fast-growing family ceramics classes, supervised creating and coloring sessions are held every day but Sundays at the Ceramic Crea (04 93 95 12 68, 94 boulevard beau rivage prolongé 06600 Antibes). It may be less creative perhaps, but also found in Antibes is Bowling D’Antibes (575 Premiere Avenue Quartier Nova Antipolis 06600 Antibes, 33 4 92 91 70 30) with 22 bowling lanes, some equipped with inflatable tubes to help children.

Vallauris is a place to shop for locally-made pottery, and activities at the new Kidooland 33 4 93 64 53 54, (1890 Chemin de Saint-Bernard Vallauris 06220 France) which provides a baby’s and kid’s gym, include a variety of activities ranging from martial arts to music, for the entire family. The lofty goal of the place is to provide a “safe and unique environment to help children develop self-confidence.”

The Musee Escoffier De l’Art Culinaire (33 4 93 20 80 51; 3, Rue Auguste Escoffier 06270 Villeneuve-Loubet Village) is located in the small town of Villeneuve Loubet. Children may not have heard of Auguste Escoffier, but they may know the dessert called Peach Melba. He invented it, among many others. Escoffier is often known as the father of modern cuisine and the 10-room museum here provides a picture of his exploits and other culinary events.

In Gassin, the Tropical Golf/Luna Park (33 4 94 56 48 39; Palais des Expositions, Nice) offers two 18-hole golf courses set on ancient dinosaur land. But it’s also has 28 rides on a 11-acre theme park.

Aoubre (06 12 58 02 26; Parc des Cèdres 83340 Flassans) has some unusual features not often found in many theme parks, such as climbing tracks in century-old trees. This is a walker’s paradise, with various ventures specifically designed for different age groups There are seven different tracks for 5-year-olds and up, and a small farm is on the site. Education and the value of the forest and the natural scenery are the main subject of 105 workshops.

The recently renovated Zooparc Cap-Ferrat (33 4 93 760 760; 117 Boulevard du Général de Gaulle 6230 Saint-Jean-Cap Ferrat) near Nice was a famous site for pirates until the 11th century. The zoo is a worth a half-day visit to see the usual zoo critters, as well as farm animals. There are feeding times every 30 minutes.

Twenty-five hundred turtles are the attraction at Village Des Tortues (33 4 94 78 26 41; Quartier les plaines, 83590 Gonfaron) near the small village of Gonfaron. Turtles are grouped by geographical area and most of the enclosures have very low fencing for up-front viewing.

The Ferme St. Pierre in Gilette (33 4 93 22 85 70) offers pony rides and horse-riding lessons. But there’s a lot more to learn here. Children over 3-years can find out how to take care of animals, study gardening and art, and attend craft workshops.

Anyone who has read this far can see the pattern here: many attractions along the French Riviera — in addition to having entertainment elements — include educational aspects as well.

Oui, an attractive proposition to both parents and children merci, no?

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