Super yachts and super cars are among the sights Catherine Masters soaks up in Monaco.

A Maserati goes by, followed by a flash of soft-top Mini Coopers, BMWs, a bicycle with a basket, tons of Volkswagens, a fancy Citroen, an Audi or two, a Porsche, another Porsche, then another Porsche, followed by another Maserati.

This is just on the way to the famed Monte Carlo Casino (think James Bond) where the uber-wealthy come to play. I go by foot.

Parked in front of the casino are not one but two Rolls Royces (and yet another super-shiny black Maserati).


A few steps away at the imposing Hotel de Paris, yet another Porsche purrs up and the two chic occupants get out and stride off.

The parking valet, in hat and tails, hops in and moves it about three metres to park it. Clearly the well-dressed couple could have managed this themselves - but why bother coming to Monte Carlo if you have to park your own car?

The short manoeuvre kind of sums up Monte Carlo, the casino district of the tiny principality of Monaco, home to the late Princess Grace, who died while out in her own car up in the hills.

Our guide had earlier waved up at the hills and told how Princess Grace was driving home from her country estate that fateful day in 1982 with one of her daughters, Princess Stephanie.

It came down to a bad decision over luggage, the guide said. The movie star was not really supposed to drive, "so she had a driver, but you know women, they had too much luggage for the driver, they had to choose between the luggage and the driver and they chose obviously the luggage."

Stephanie missed her mum's funeral, being in hospital in a coma.

Monaco, on the French Riviera, is undoubtedly gorgeous. It is nestled by the Mediterranean and while smaller, the guide said, than New York's Central Park, it drips with wealth.

Our cruise ship, the Viking Star, popped in for the day and the wealth immediately hits us in the face. Next door in the harbour were superyachts the size of hotels.

Passengers strolling the Viking's top deck early in the morning made comments such as, "That one's mine, you know".

Of course, none of them owned any of these voluptuous vessels - unless one of them was the Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov. His boat, the Ona, was one of the many floating mansions moored nearby that day.

On our guided tour we strolled around the area of Monaco called "The Rock" where the prison is set, high on the cliff. It has windows with bars and sparkling Mediterranean views (and not many prisoners). Further on, built right into the cliff face, is the Oceanographic Museum, built by Prince Albert I, the present monarch's great-great grandfather, who went on ocean research expeditions. Jacques Cousteau was the director for 30 years.

Outside, there's a yellow submarine, which was one of Cousteau's inventions, says the guide. She also says "some of those guys from the Beatles" came and had their picture taken by it.

Apparently, the Court of Monaco is mentioned in historical records as early as 43BC when Julius Caesar had his fleet there, but the House of Grimaldi has mostly ruled since the 12th century.

The Grimaldis were one of the most powerful families of Genoa, Italy, and came by stealth. Francesco Grimaldi disguised himself as a monk and asked if he could stay, then during the night he opened the door and let his men in.

The royal palace is up in the old town and the day we were there it was Prince Albert II's birthday. Our guide had seen him arrive for his garden party.

Albert owns vast real estate plus holdings which operate the casinos and other ventures.

The story goes that originally the family did well with lemon and olive groves but they lost some plantations in the 1850s and came up with the idea of casinos.

Now, of course, the principality is known for not charging personal income tax and is populated by rich foreigners and visiting celebrities.

Sadly, the only glimpse of celebrity we see is a poster on the casino wall of George Clooney sporting an Omega watch.

The tour ends and I spend the rest of the port stop watching cars - did I mention the Ferraris?



Viking Cruises Mediterranean

itineraries include many with port visits to Monaco.