What's it like to visit Monaco and Monte Carlo? Fionn Davenport travels to see how the other half holidays...
When it rains on the Côte d’Azur, a mild panic sets in.
Trains stop running, football matches are cancelled and everyone scurries about as if something awful was happening. Clearly most locals have never been west of the Shannon.
I’m not too bothered about the trains or the football (my interest in a match between Nice and PSG during my visit is lukewarm), but I am disappointed that the rain has cancelled all helicopter services along this stretch of coast, including my transfer from Nice Airport to Monaco.
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So I settle for a 40-minute taxi ride in a spanking new Mercedes along one of Europe’s most beautiful stretches of coastline.
The rain has reduced visibility to a wet, grey blob - but even through the squall it’s clear what makes this shoreline and its collection of 19th-century villas, ridiculously pretty hill towns and stunning beaches synonymous with European sophistication and elegance.
None more so than the principality of Monaco, realm of the Grimaldi family since 1297 and, since the late 19th century, the destination of choice for glamour-hunting high-rollers looking to add the veneer of respectability to their louche pursuits.
It’s far from the prettiest town on the coast (although the old town, on the south side of the port atop the Le Rochercliff, is quite charming), but what it lacks in classical beauty it more than makes up for in exclusivity: nobody bats an eyelid at the sight of a car worth the price of a small house, while the port is filled with super-yachts valued in the hundreds of millions.
The most popular alcoholic beverage in town?
You guessed it, champagne.
What made Monaco wealthy – and saved the Grimaldis from bankruptcy in the 80-odd years that followed the French Revolution – was gambling.
Perhaps no single institution anywhere in the world quite represents games of chance like the marble-and-gold Casino de Monte Carlo (above) , a belle-époque pleasure palace that opened in 1863. Through its gilded doors have flowed the moneyed elites, keen to risk their gains, ill-gotten or otherwise, on the roll of a dice or the spin of a wheel. It’s hardly surprising that Ian Fleming made the casino James Bond’s spiritual home.
The main hall is one of the world’s most lavish examples of the Beaux Arts style you're likely to see, but the real action takes place inside the salons privés - private gaming rooms where the stakes are higher and the players’ concentration isn’t disrupted by the lights-and-noise slot machines that these days make up a chunk of the casino’s revenue.
Amateurs like me would never get into these rooms, but when I visited on a wet Tuesday evening in January, I was still disappointed not to see tuxedo- and gown-wearing glamour pusses shooting craps and knowing looks at each other.
My entire stake was a round €20 chip, which I lost on one roll of the roulette wheel.
Next to me, a man absent-mindedly covered lots of numbers with stacks of much fancier, rectangular chips that clearly showed he and I lived two completely different financial realities.
I consoled myself for the double disappointment of losing my stake and not being able to casually lob thousands of euros’ worth of chips onto the green baize with an exceptional Italian meal at the casino’s restaurant, Le Train Bleu, where dinner is served in a replica vintage belle-époque train car.
More or less adjacent to the casino are the two hotels built to accommodate the players in appropriately extravagant luxury, the fabulously grand Hotel de Paris Monte-Carlo on Casino Square and its marginally more discreet sibling, the Hotel Hermitage (above), about a minute’s walkaway past the fancy boutiques of the brand-new Monaco 1 shopping district.
The Hermitage is a stunner. Louis XVI furnishings and wallpaper panels depicting pastoral scenes of the 19th century adorn the bedrooms, where marbled bathrooms come overly stacked with fluffy, monogrammed towels and toiletries designed exclusively for the hotel by legendary Parisian parfumier Francis Kurkdjian.
Breakfast is served in one of the most beautiful rooms I’ve ever been in, an indoor balcony topped by a stained-glass cupola and chandelier by Gustav Eiffel, who also designed the lobby.
For every other meal, it seems the Michelin people threw stars around like confetti. Top of the heap is Alain Ducasse’s three-starred Louis XV restaurant in the Hotel de Paris (which has the world’s largest independent wine cellar, home to 350,000 bottles), but I made do with the single-starred Vistamar at the Hermitage, which does superb fish and seafood and whose terrace is the place to watch the Grand Prix during the last weekend in May.
But the best views of all are from the rooftop LeGrill at the Hotel de Paris. Its glass-fronted dining room has a 180-degree, panoramic sweep of Monaco, France and, in the distance, Italy – the result, I was told, of Aristotle Onassis’ ardent desire to please Maria Callas, who told him she wanted to eat with a view of three countries.
As luck would have it, the weather turned pleasant on the day I left.
That morning, I took one last stroll around this tiny principality, imagining what yacht I’d buy if I won the EuroMillions –although I might need to win it a couple of times to fit in here. But the fine weather meant that the helicopter transfer back to Nice (above) was definitely on and I was finally going to get a taste of how the 1pc get around.
I got to the heliport and on the wall was the list of prices. My transfer to Nice cost €130, only €20 more than what I’d paid in the taxi to get here.
All of a sudden, I didn’t feel quite so special.
Fionn was a guest of The Hermitage; montecarlosbm.com/en; rooms from €355 per night.