Courtney Whitaker finds the secret door that unlocks a feast of clandestine cocktails in a Marseille speakeasy.

It was so unextraordinary we walked right past it; so nondescript we thought we were lost. And that's exactly the point.

"Meet me at 7pm for the best cocktails in Marseille", said the message.

We were to rendezvous with an old friend after a long, hot day of sightseeing in the beautiful French port city.

But despite following his directions to the letter, we arrived at a small shopfront with locally-produced soaps in the window, which was not — or so we thought — our destination for the evening.


So there we stood, discombobulated, in a residential street — feeling like, well, tourists — until someone eventually arrived. This man, who clearly felt sorry for us, punched in a code on the shopfront and opened the door to the closet against the wall, ushering us in.

With no other options forthcoming, and our friend running late, we followed, pushing through old coats into a dark passage and re-emerging into another world; a 1920s New York-style speakeasy.

Dark wood liquor cabinets stood against the brick walls of the dimly lit space, and customers were comfortably nestled in worn leather armchairs beside wine barrel tables.

Kooky prohibition propaganda was dotted about with stern-looking faces urging me to "stay pure" against the evils of alcohol. 'Too late for that' I thought, as I took a sip of my Champagne Decadent.

Given the number of prohibition bars around (though you're unlikely to just stumble upon one), the clandestine cocktail experience is a popular one.

Settle in for some outstanding cocktails. Photo / Supplied
Settle in for some outstanding cocktails. Photo / Supplied

And Carry Nation, Marseille, was no exception.

The cocktails were beautiful to look at — and consume. My giant Champagne cocktail required two hands to lift, and Le Ramos de Marseille — a frothy, creamy rum cocktail — left me wanting more. And that was well before we reached the Absinthe menu. The bartenders, in their Gatsby-style clothing, were kept very busy; the closet spat out a constant stream of patrons.

Carry Nation's moniker is a clever a play on Carrie Nation, an American woman and radical member of the temperance movement in the early 1900s (before the introduction of prohibition). She was well-known for attacking alcoholic establishments with a hatchet, and her hilariously crotchety mug — hatchet included — is on the cover of the drinks menu.

Carry Nation is a play on the name of Carrie Nation - a notorious hatchet-wielding prohibition supporter. Image / Supplied
Carry Nation is a play on the name of Carrie Nation - a notorious hatchet-wielding prohibition supporter. Image / Supplied

The furtive, nostalgic atmosphere of a speakeasy is often more exciting than the resulting beverages, but if you are rewarded with exceptional cocktails at the end, it's definitely worth the slog. And there are plenty of these novelty, hard-to-locate establishments around the world serving excellent drinks.

In Paris, a laundromat might not seem the most elegant venue, yet Lavomatic, in an unassuming apartment building, is hiding a cocktail bar that allows you to get very well rinsed. Clothes that is.

Situated in the Republique district of the city, pop your washing into the machines on the ground floor and head to the bar through the secret door. If you can find it — the entrance is a closely guarded secret — you'll be rewarded with delicious drinks and snacks. Not to mention freshly laundered clothes when you leave.

Prohibition bars can be nothing more than a gimmick, but the cocktails at Carry Nation are seriously good. Photo / Supplied
Prohibition bars can be nothing more than a gimmick, but the cocktails at Carry Nation are seriously good. Photo / Supplied

New York's Please Don't Tell, in Manhattan's Lower East side really doesn't tell you much at all. Its website contains only a phone number and you must enter the bar itself through a telephone booth in a hot dog shop. Still, it's worth the effort for great "craft" cocktails, which can only be enjoyed fully with your cellphone turned off (house rules).

Try Benton's Old Fashioned, made with bacon-infused bourbon and maple syrup. Drinks can also be paired with hot dogs ordered from the joint next door, if that's your flavour.

But if it's a really outside-the-box experience you're after, The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town — beneath the Breakfast Club in London — is for you.

On arrival, you must declare to the gatekeeper that you'd "like to see the mayor", before being led downstairs through a secret door disguised by a SMEG fridge.

"There isn't enough room to swing a Scaredy Cat round here", declares the small bar's house rules, but the drinks list is extensive, and you can even take home a Scaredy Cat mug as a souvenir.

If a clandestine bar visit appeals, do your research before you go, so you're not left standing aimlessly on a street, or hopelessly stuck climbing through a washing machine. You'll need a code, address or password to enter — and it's all part of the fun.

As for Carry Nation Marseille, it would be a sin for me to disclose the location of this establishment in case the ghost of Carrie Nation appears, wielding her hatchet.

But you can register on the bar's website for the code of the day and their street address. It's well worth it for the best tipples in Marseille.

But shhhh, you didn't hear this from me.

Getting there: Emirates flies daily A380 services between Auckland and Paris via Dubai.