The alarm goes off at 07:30.
I jump out of bed and greet the morning, jumping into the shower, singing my little heart out, although not so loud as to wake the rest of the sleeping house.
But hang on a minute – there is something very wrong with this picture.
It’s 07:30 in the morning and I am awake but more than that - I am actually happy to be awake.
Even more than that – it is my vacation in France, my opportunity to unwind and relax and yet, still I am awake at 07:30 in the morning, just a few short hours after having gone to bed and here I am still greeting the day with the energy and enthusiasm that only the criminally insane or the religious fanatic seem to be capable of maintaining.
So what is it that has me in this state of euphoria at such an ungodly hour?
(Auch Dear Reader, of course I could tell you now but sure where would the fun be in that? So please bear with me for a few more short minutes as I continue with the story…)
As I dress I hear movement from the room across the corridor from me. I am not the only one awake at this time. I smile to myself as I wonder if that person is as excited as I am at the prospect of today’s planned events.
In fact three of us in various parts of our villa are getting ready for the day, whilst the rest of the villa sleeps (apart from those crazy people that for getting up at this time on vacation is the norm – and you know who you are).
Once ready, I proceed to the main part of the villa to grab my ‘breakfast’ of a strong cup of coffee and a cigarette and to join my two companions for today’s trip, the first leg of which is the 1 hour drive to St. Tropez.
Having thought that my previous experience in St. Tropez was never to be bettered, certainly at least not during this family vacation, I was PUMPED to be setting off on this, my next once in a lifetime experience, just two short days later.
And so it came to pass that at 08:30 on a warm, midsummer Wednesday morning in the south of France I got into a car with two of the people I was vacationing with, mothers of players from the kids’ football team (and two fantastic people in their own right of course) as we made the scenic trip through the mountains of Provence to St. Tropez.
Our destination was a luxurious hotel for a 10:00 am pool-side breakfast rendezvous with our friend from the diamond business – and part-time arranger of once in a lifetime experiences – along with his lovely wife and kids.
After a wonderful breakfast, our handsome chauffeur arrived to take us to our next port of call – a heliport on the outskirts of St. Tropez, where our private helicopter was waiting for us.
Where our private helicopter was waiting for us.
Yes folks, hot on the heels of the speedboat trip around the French Riviera, here I was on my way to experience something even more ridiculously outrageous – a helicopter ride to
If you think I had a daft grin on my face when I wrote about the boat trip, then you should see the grin now.
The French Riviera, speedboats, fast cars, luxury hotels, the beautiful villa nestled in Provence, all fantastic in their own right and now here we were going to our very own (if only for the afternoon) private helicopter to join THE jetset.
Forget the ‘Slums’ of St. Tropez; this time we were going to
Hotel du Paris, Casino Monte Carlo, The Monaco Royal Family, Grace Kelly, the Formula 1 Grand Prix, the really, really luxurious apartments and yachts, and of course, the ridiculously over-priced alcohol.
This was the stuff of fantasy. This was the stuff of James Bond.
And I was living it.
So just how the hell did I wangle this one, then?
Well, to use an expression from back home, I have never been backward in coming forward and in the past this may have got me into lots of compromising positions but in this case, I’m glad to report that my “embarrassment switch” failed to work once again and for once it actually worked in my favour:
After the speedboat trip a couple of days earlier, we returned to the small café terrace to have a couple of post-adrenalin rush Stella Artois’s (just how do you write the plural of Stella Artois?)
As the animated conversation continued our friend announced that he was going to have to go to Monte Carlo for a meeting in a couple of days’ time with his boss, who had recently moved to the millionaire’s paradise – and he was to travel there by private helicopter.
Somewhat gobsmacked by this blasé contribution to the conversation, my embarrassment switch failed me as I rather cheekily asked “Jesus - I don’t suppose there would be any seats free in that helicopter?”
“Well actually there will be. Why? Would you like to go along for the ride?”
That’s what he said – “Go along for the ride” - as if he was offering me a lift up the street to the pub.
“Would I? I’d abso-fucking-lutely love to come along for the ride!” I replied rather too quickly, my embarrassment switch kicking in just as the words had left my mouth. I was suddenly aware that all the others were sat around the table listening to the conversation and was sure that some of them would love to do it as well but in the words of that most imminent of philosophers, Only Fools and Horses’ Derek Trotter, “he who dares Rodney, he who dares…”
“I’m not sure if the meeting will go ahead just yet but I’ll let you know if we’re on for it and if so you can come along.”
For the rest of the day, I tried to contain my excitement, already preparing myself for the disappointment and consoling myself with the fact that the speedboat had already been beyond my wildest dreams, feeling guilty and annoyed at myself for being so greedy.
Just what if?
A day later, as I was just finishing my blog entry about the speedboat, I received the confirmation from my friend and the good news was not only were we most definitely on and that two others could go along as well.
“There she is waiting to take us”
I looked out the car window at the sight in front of me, drinking in every small detail lest I should ever forget or miss anything from the whole experience.
Our helicopter was a rather resplendent looking turquoise beast (sorry – I have absolutely no idea about the make or model – I guess I wasn’t drinking in every detail). Our female pilot approached us and greeted us, looking cool in her uniform, long blonde hair tied back and pulled through flight cap whilst sporting Ray Bans (of course) and chewing on gum. She looked every inch the private helicopter pilot.
After posing for the obligatory photographs, which once again belied the air of nonchalance I was hoping to carry off, we climbed into the helicopter and strapped ourselves in and placed our headsets on which, it was explained to us, would drown out the aircraft’s noise and allow us to talk to each other during the 25-minute flight, by way of the small microphones attached to each headset.
A couple of minutes later, our pilot started the engines, the noise of which increased as she fired the helicopter up for take off.
The previous evening, we had spent the night at a Theme Park on the outskirts of St. Tropez, going on every vomit-inducing, teeth-rattling ride that it offered us but I have to say that nothing matched the sensation I felt as we departed St. Tropez heliport.
It. Was. Fantastic.
We rolled upwards and away from the heliport and set off on our short journey, leaving the picturesque
At least I supposed that’s the direction we were headed but to be honest, I couldn’t make head nor tail of all the dials on the dashboard (but was hopeful that our pilot could) and anyway, I was too busy giggling like a little schoolgirl as I looked out around me at the dozens of yachts and speed boats splashing around in the Mediterranean below, thinking “been there, done that”.
During our short trip along the French Riviera, we flew past St. Raphael,
All too soon, after 25 minutes, our trip came to an end but not before our friend pointed out a high rise luxury apartment building during our descent into Monte Carlo, informing us that his boss’s apartment was the entire top floor and included the terrace covering the whole of the roof - a mere 1700 sq. metre penthouse apartment in the middle of Monte Carlo, with fantastic views over the harbour, the F1 circuit and the Royal Palace. Lord only knows just how much that set him back, although I guess if you can afford that, then you’re not exactly going to be as concerned with this detail as I was.
“Does your boss have any single daughters?” I should have perhaps asked but on this occasion my embarrassment switch was overridden by the sight that I saw as I surveyed
I could see the stylish apartments; the glorious villas nestled in the steep cliff face, the
As we disembarked, any air of nonchalance that we may have been trying to exude soon disappeared into the balmy Mediterranean air as one of our co-passengers (who shall remain nameless) descended elegantly into the helping hand of a member of the waiting ground staff … and promptly nearly throttled herself, forgetting she was still wearing her headset which was connected by cable to the ceiling of the cockpit.
Having quickly (and failingly) tried to rectify the situation, we figured what the hell and posed for some more holiday photos and then bid our friend goodbye as we wished him well in his meeting, before our chauffeur(!!) drove us to the epicentre of Monte Carlo’s decadence, Place du Casino, the gorgeous square that is home to the grand Hotel du Paris and of course Casino de Monte Carlo, where we disembarked into a world of extreme wealth, the like of which I haven’t seen since, well, since EVER.
I looked around me in wide-eyed wonder.
Folks, I’ve always been a bit of a petrol head and love cars. This stretches back to when I was a toddler (yes – quite some time ago) standing on the back seat of my father’s car identifying oncoming cars by their headlights in the dark and since then I have always displayed a passion for cars.
This has gotten me into trouble in the past, having squandered silly money on even sillier (but oh so much fun) sports cars, being on the receiving of more speeding fines than most, having gone on rally driving courses under the influence and not to mention pissing a female racing driver off seconds before she hurtled me around Silverstone racing track at breakneck speeds in a Caterham race car to the point of almost vomiting thanks to the G-Forces. Yes, suffice to say, cars have gotten me into a bit of trouble.
Yet here I was in amongst some of the finest cars ever created by mankind and they weren’t just sitting looking fantastic in showrooms. They were actually being driven, from A to B.
Just as you or I would in our own humble transport, so were these people in their Rolls Royce’s, Bentleys, top of the range Mercedes, Lamborghinis, Porsches and of course Ferraris. Lots and lots of Ferraris.
Extravagant cars were being parked outside the hotel or the casino and driven away to be parked by uniformed valet parkers. Others were driving slowly past as we peered inside to get a look at the passengers.
We picked a table at one of the fancy cafés which provided us with a good vantage point and ordered three expensive beers (Heineken! – just how the hell have these guys cornered the lager market in foreign lands??) and surveyed the scene in front of us.
How silly of me was I to think that The Goddess That Is Angelina Jolie would be waiting for me on a terrace in St. Tropez?! This is where she was going to be!
Spirits suitably lifted, we clinked glasses in a toast and started scouring the faces for the aforementioned Goddess That Is Angelina Jolie.
I have to say that I was not overly impressed with the people that passed compared with the cars, most people looking pretty regular and nothing at all like movie or music stars. Even the ones that obviously had money (easily spotted by the collagen and botox) reminded me of mutton dressed up as … well dressed up us mutton. Just goes to show that just because you have money, doesn’t mean that you have class. Some of them looked a right state.
Perhaps The Goddess That Is Angelina Jolie would be in the casino? Of course that’s where she would be. We ordered the bill from the waiter and braced ourselves. 16.50 Euros for three Heinekens. Not too extravagantly priced I suppose but we are talking Heineken here.
As the indifferent waiter accepted our payment (we had decided to make a kitty), I got wondering just where the hell do all the normal people of
Having said this, the streets of
We even walked through a subway and bracing myself for the smell of stale piss and glue that I would normally associate with these environments, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this too was in perfect well tended order. I’m not sure if the smell of lavender was something that I conjured up in my imagination or not.
In Casino de Monte Carlo we performed our usual act of nonchalance – opting not to pay for the entrance fee and instead posing for more holiday photos, before noticing several huge signs informing us that this was actually prohibited.
Moving quickly on, for fear of being arrested in my first and quite possibly last visit (as they don’t take too kindly to criminal records in Monaco), we walked along the harbour as I looked for my fellow countryman Eddie Irvine, perhaps lounging on the deck of one of the luxury yachts reading yesterday’s edition of the Belfast Telegraph. No such luck. Fuck it, I would have even have settled for David ‘DC’ Coulthard or Michael Schumacher but just my luck, they were nowhere to be seen.
I guess they were probably having a lads pizza and beer afternoon playing Gran Turismo on the Playstation at one of their bachelor pads.
Still, I used the opportunity to pose with my
Afterwards, we headed up the steep, winding path to take a look at the
When we arrived at the top I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was more to this part of
The palace is located in a beautifully quaint old part of the city with narrow cobbled streets containing several gorgeous wee cafes and unfortunately far less attractive souvenir shops selling the same cheap tourist tack that blights many other tourist spots, where I could have treated myself or my loved ones to Monte Carlo fridge magnets, tea towels or Michael Schumacher baseball caps.
I wasn’t tempted but I wanted to get a postcard for my Nana, so I ventured into one.
Having picked a suitably picturesque postcard, I stood in queue and looking at the cigarettes, I was reminded that my blossoming nicotine addiction needed to be fed, so I thought I’d treat myself to a packet or two, plumping for ‘Marlboro Wides’ having never heard of them, never mind seen them or tried one before.
We followed this up by going to one of the cafés for a beer and a spot of lunch.
Oh how terribly chic of me I thought to myself as I sipped on my beer (another bloody Heineken) and puffed on my Marlboro Wide. How wonderfully I blended in with the rich and the beautiful of
And then I ordered some spag bol.
It seemed the kitchen treated this order with the contempt it deserved, the food tasting terrible as I eyed my companions vegetarian pizzas with envious eyes. And its not often I could be accused of that.
During lunch I spied a teenager wearing a
After lunch, we went shopping for some ‘guilt-trip’ presents for the children who had to miss out on the trip and in one of the shops I once again spied the young Republic of Ireland supporter and opted for the much more adult way of dealing with this affront to my eyes by whispering “Go on Northern Ireland” to him as he walked past.
Feeling better with myself I spied a tourist book on
About the same size as Carrickfergus* then.
(* = Carrickfergus, the town made famous by the song, is a coastal town in Northern Ireland, located a 10 minute drive from The Centre of the Universe That Is Ballyclare)
And then it dawned on me.
At this observation, a man who was obviously my
“Yeah sure – who knows - with a bit of imagination and investment, Carrickfergus could be the Monte Carlo of Ireland!”
We had a giggle at this but at the same time I thought how weird this situation was.
Not the fact that here I was, stood in Monte Carlo having a chat with someone from the Emerald Isle about Carrickfergus being the Monte Carlo of Ireland. Oh no – something much more disturbing than that. He had a
I kicked myself for having decided against the change of shirts and looked around me for the nearest toilet (or telephone box) to perform my change into ‘SuperProd’. Indeed I was seconds away from stripping there and then, when he stopped me in my tracks with his next comment:
“Are you from Lisburn?”
Jesus. Now he thinks I’m a towny.
“Ballyclare” my friend informed him (herself from
This proved to be the end of the conversation. I’m not sure why this revelation of my home town should have this affect but there you go. As they walked out of the shop I wondered to myself (not for the first time that afternoon) “What would James Bond do?”
Obviously ordering a Dry Martini “shaken not stirred” was out of my price league, especially in
It was our friend informing us that his meeting was finished and he had ordered the helicopter for 17:30.
I looked at my watch (sans secret agent gadgets). 16:30.
“Where are you?” he asked. (my friend – not the watch – like I say this is no secret agent watch but instead a much more impressive ‘Being Champions of Europe 5 times watch’)
“We’re at the
“I can see the palace from here, I’m stood on the terrace of my boss’s apartment. Go to the edge and wave.”
I did as was instructed but he couldn’t see me. Turns out I was on the wrong side waving like a wannabe escapee from
Presents bought; there was still time to pose with the flag outside the palace. (If I don’t get on that bloody website, it won’t be for the want of trying). I surveyed the scene one more time before we left and noticed that of the two flags flying atop the palace, only one was flying at full height. What did that mean? That the Royal Family were sunbathing in the garden?
We then rushed down to the heliport to catch our flight back to St. Tropez, quite possibly my last helicopter ride ever, and it was all over all too soon.
Our friend tried to persuade the pilot to circle over the hotel where his family were lounging by the pool so that we could wave hello but apparently this was taking the piss. Even private helicopters have to adhere to a flight plan.
We did however fly different location to the one that we had departed from, so that the waiting chauffeur could avoid the early evening traffic going into St. Tropez.
How cool is that?!
“Oh, there’s a bit of gridlock on the roads, so we’re gonna land some place else to avoid the worst of it”. I wanted to ask why the hotel didn’t have its own landing pad but I figured that this would probably have been a little bit churlish under the circumstances.
So there we were, like a drug deal scene from many a movie, landing in a small piece of ground, dust rising up into the air, just by the sea on the French Riviera, where our sunglasses wearing chauffeur was waiting to whisk us off to the hotel for some drinks. All this before we headed back to the ‘normality’ of our villa and rejoined everyone for the rest of our family vacation, suitably happy with our lot in life and more than satisfied with another once in a lifetime experience.
I’m a lucky, lucky person. I realise that. Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought that I would have got a chance to visit St. Tropez or
You have probably realised by now that I try to keep this blog as anonymous as possible. I don’t want to embarrass anyone in this corner of cyberspace, except for myself on occasion.
But I have to take this opportunity to thank the guy that made all this possible and without so much as a shrug of his shoulders. Cheers for everything. I hope you realise just how much this simple fella from the country appreciates what you did for him. To use the parlance of the Irish – “Thanks a million!!”
And of course, thanks to my friends for having a son, who likes his football and plays in a team called the ‘Duiveltjes’ (little devils) which, thanks to my love of them (and of course football) presented me with an opportunity to meet such lovely people to share these experiences with.
In fact, while I’m at it, just where should I stop?
The only reason I am in Belgium is that my job took me here originally, the only reason that I got the job in the first place was because I went to university, the only reason I went to university was because my parents encouraged and helped me through it, the only reason I was on this planet to get to university, to get the job, to get to Belgium, to experience all these wonderful things, is the fact that they met and my mum got pregnant.
So I guess what I’m saying is…Thanks Mum and Dad (and their new partners who have helped me out in many ways beyond the call of duty of step-parents) I love you all.
Incidentally, during the drinks in the hotel bar at the end of the day our friend took a phone call. Afterwards he rejoined us at the bar.
‘You’re going to hate me my friend”
“Why?” Thinking nothing could be further from the truth.
“That was my boss on the phone, he has some tickets for tomorrow’s Euro Supercup final between Barcelona and Sevilla and he asked if we were interested in joining him but I told him no, we have to get back to Belgium in the morning”
Another private helicopter ride to
In a word - yes! Haha
Thanks for listening to me (Belgian) waffle on once again folks. Of course there is another blog on its way about the rest of the vacation but I couldn’t wait to share these stories with you first.
Speak to you soon.