I don’t expect to like Monaco, a claustrophobic mishmash of harsh modern towers, eye-watering prices and insular, plastic-surgeried residents dripping with gold jewellery; dull sporting events and mindless hedonism. So 1980s, so vulgar; why, when it is surrounded by much more space and beauty elsewhere on the Côte d’Azur, would anybody want to go there?
After years of shunning the place, it is time to see for myself. First, there’s the dramatic view from the top of the mountain as you drive down from France, across an invisible border into a seaside city-state. With 38,000 people of 125 different nationalities, including 7,000 native Monégasque, living on two square kilometres, it is the most densely populated country on Earth, not counting the Vatican – with a further 40,000 to 50,000 workers, mostly French and Italians, commuting in daily to work.
So there’s a critical mass, and like most tiny countries, there’s something miraculous about its existence and, in this case, an audacity to its dynamic, international, low-tax presence, up against a vast and vastly different neighbour.
Interestingly, wealth is also clearly health: Monaco boasts the world’s highest average life expectancy – at 89.5, a full five years longer than Japan. According to the United Nations, it also has the world’s second-highest GDP, a fulsome US$166,000 (Dh609,700), just below Liechtenstein’s $169,500 per capita (Dh622,500).
Central Monte Carlo is the most recognisable of the four wards that make up the state, including the Monte-Carlo Casino, Hôtel de Paris, Hôtel Hermitage and Thermes Marins Monte-Carlo spa. It’s safe – the clean, well-maintained main streets are covered by CCTV, and unnervingly smart police personnel are stationed at strategic intervals. Yet, the streets are far from sterile, with a surprising number of historic buildings, apartment blocks, ordinary shops and well-heeled but normal-looking residents going about their business.
I check into the Hôtel Hermitage and am bowled over both by its elegance and the lack of affectation of the staff. The very rich, it seems, don’t have time for the unnecessary pleasantries which make luxury hotel stays so generally irritating. The palatial building was built by Monégasque architect Jean Marquet, and opened in 1896; the lobby incorporates the exquisite Winter Garden, which features a glass cupola designed by Gustave Eiffel. My fourth-floor room has an enviable view of the harbour and the old town of Monaco-Ville, its impressive city walls making up part of what is known as the “Rock”.
I have a late lunch on the terrace of Le Salon Rose at the Monte-Carlo Casino, another spectacular building dating from 1865, which in addition to containing cavernous gaming and dining rooms also incorporates the Opera House and an outpost of Buddha-Bar where round tables of Russians, Greeks and Gulf Arabs do justice to its decadent seven-page menu. But looking down at the deep blue sea and inhaling the fresh sea air, there’s a quietness and refinement that, contrary to expectation, evoke a deep sense of normality. No one seems to be showing off; this is a place where, it seems, old money inspires a mood of nonchalance and even mindfulness.
Just around the corner, it turns out, work has just begun on a six-hectare reclamation project at Portier Cove, which will add more high-rise apartments and a new marina; the €2 billion (Dh7.8 trillion) project is expected to take 10 years.
The town’s reputation for decadence began more than 100 years ago with the then Prince of Monaco, Charles III, who was born in France and founded the casino. At that time, Monaco’s rulers lived mostly elsewhere, while louche international businessmen and their mistresses flooded in to holiday and gamble, causing figures such as Queen Victoria to refuse to visit, and contemporary writer Sabine Baring-Gould to describe Monaco as “the moral cesspool of Europe”. Those days are largely gone, mostly thanks to Prince Rainier III, who turned Monaco’s economy away from gambling to more wholesome enterprises.
Late in the afternoon, I take a walking tour of the old town with guide Jean Marc, who is French by nationality, but a long-term resident. To get there, we jump on a Number 2 bus that takes us around the harbour, through the market area and shopping district of Marché de la Condamine and up the hill for €2 (Dh8); another bus, Number 100, costs the same to go all the way to Nice.
Disembarking outside the National Council, Jean Marc explains Monaco’s political system, a constitutional and hereditary monarchy in which the government is still closely entwined with the palace.
At times part of France, Spain and Italy, Monaco’s history is a story of attack, alliance, plague, plotting and revolution, and its royal palace, which dates from 1191, has seen most of it. To get there Jean Marc leads me through the narrow streets of the beautiful old town, stopping at the Princess Grace Irish Library, where I’m shown an original collection of the books of my uncle, the playwright Brendan Behan.
“Most tourists don’t come here,” Jean Marc says, adding that when they do, they are usually bussed to and from the palace square, which has excellent views from two sides. The palace guards are dashing: preened and primped, clean-shaven and wearing crisp white shorts. I take the fascinating self-guided tour, which gives a good insight into the Grimaldi family, Prince Rainier III and Grace Kelly, and current monarch Albert II.
Jean Marc and I continue our walk along the pine-scented, carob-tree-lined clifftop footpaths around the steep promontory, looking down at the modern district of Fontvieille, built on reclaimed land in the 1970s, and past the imposing Oceanographic Museum. Back down on the harbourside, enormous yachts are lined up side by side; one, Boardwalk, flying a flag from George Town on the Cayman Islands, has a helicopter on board, and a set of scooters and dive equipment; apparently it's worth US$40 million (Dh147m) and is owned by billionaire Texan restaurateur Tilman Fertitta.
Back at the Hermitage, dinner is at Le Vistamar, a one-Michelin-starred restaurant with a large private terrace overlooking across the harbour to the old town. I’m given a basket of the restaurant’s signature barbajuan – fatayer-like pastry parcels filled with greens and cheese – before ordering the Vistamar bouillabaisse. This comes in three stages – fritters with saffron from Provence, rockfish soup and a stew of John Dory, anglerfish, scorpion fish, whiting and sea bass (€85; Dh330).
While I love Le Vistamar’s casual quality and sane prices, the nearby Hôtel de Paris boasts a three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Louis XV by Alain Ducasse (set menus start at €240; Dh940). The restaurant and 53 of the historic rooms and suites in this hotel are still open despite a major redevelopment, in which a 1950s extension to the hotel has been demolished and a brand-new, super-luxury block is being built, with bigger rooms and a new layout. The project is due to be completed in September 2018, and will include new modern bedrooms, a central interior garden-courtyard, a pool, spa and top-floor villa; the work is happening “to enable the Hôtel de Paris to remain at the forefront of the evermore demanding expectations of luxury hotels”. Currently, one “pop-up” suite (room 321) with changing themes is available, from €4,500 (Dh17,600) per night, and the first group of renovated rooms with sea views is expected to be available from May this year.
The next morning, I walk through the gilded salons of the Hermitage through a tunnel to the spa. The Thermes Marins Monte-Carlo dates back to 1895, when it was a pioneer in thalassotherapy. It still offers an indoor, heated seawater pool, complemented by a range of packages and à la carte services ranging from cryotherapy to massage, in a modern, high-tech setting. Perhaps surprisingly, the spa claims to “compete with plastic surgery”, offering non-surgical equipment and treatments with herbs, seawater, salt, mud and oxygen. Those opting for comprehensive packages are treated like high-level athletes, and programmes can involve questionnaires, blood tests and special diets. The in-house restaurant, L’Hirondelle, is also health-conscious without being austere.
I don’t have time for a multi-day programme, so jump straight into a cryotherapy session, which costs a reasonable €55 (Dh215) and gets results in just a few minutes. Wearing only a bikini, socks, gloves, a headwrap and surgical mask, I’m instructed to step into an acclimatisation antechamber, which is chilled to minus 60°C, and then to the main cabin, which is at minus 110°C.
“Forte,” says Philippe, who realises it’s my first time. While I balk slightly when I feel the deep freeze of the main cabin, I realise that time is money, so banish thoughts of being locked in a supermarket cold room and stand steadfast for the full three minutes, trying to imagine that I’m in a sauna instead.
Because of the extreme temperature change, it is claimed that benefits include reduction in stress, fatigue and inflammation, improved sleep, boosted immunity and anti-ageing. The process is not comfortable, but the benefits do seem palpable when I step out, feeling firmer all over, more relaxed and more awake.
Next I have a “maxi mineral experience” with Japanese therapist Chitose. I lie on a floating inflatable bed and am slathered with marine mud – it’s pleasantly warm after the cryotherapy, and I fall asleep before being woken up for the massage. Finally I have a La Prairie facial in one of the glass-fronted salon rooms, offering views of the Yacht Club, Port Hercules and the old town. My therapist happens to have worked in the spa at my gym in Abu Dhabi, so we spend the time chatting about the similarities between the two places.
Recharged, I head across town in the hotel group’s complimentary shuttle van to the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort, a modern property built on reclaimed land at the extreme eastern edge of town. A luxury four-star resort with a large, lagoon-like swimming pool and food overseen by chef Marcel Ravin, lunch on the terrace of Las Brisas restaurant is ravishing: ceviche with mango, pomegranate seeds, coriander and a light salad mixed in; and squid tagliolini with tomatoes and basil, served in a pan.
To burn off a few calories, I go for a quick swim on the pleasant nearby beach just across the border in France, before walking 20 minutes the other way along Avenue Princesse Grace to the Grimaldi Forum for an art exhibition. Again, contrary to perception, Monaco has a year-round cultural programme and is also home to numerous organisations such as the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, which highlights environmental issues such as pollution, and is a partner in Solar Impulse (Monaco was also the mission control centre for the round-the-world solar flight by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg).
Appropriately, dinner at my hotel that night is on a terrace overlooking a marine preserve. The restaurant is the one-Michelin-starred Le Blue Bay; here, Ravin, who is from the French West Indies, has attempted to blend some seemingly incompatible ingredients – turmeric olive oil, green pasta made out of papaya, foie gras with cherries and beans, a spicy fish soup and crispy chicken breast with gravy, cassava root and beans. Best of all is the beetroot fruit sorbet for dessert, and the spicy soup, rich, tomatoey and served with a moreish selection of French breads and butters, proffered by immaculately attired waiters. Yet, with dinner menus from €88 (Dh345) per person, the atmosphere is pleasantly one of quality underwritten by hard work and competition, rather than exclusivity and showiness.
The next morning it’s time to leave, and I’ve opted to cancel my one-hour road transfer to Nice airport in favour of a six-minute helicopter ride with Monacair.
A one-way trip is just €160 (Dh625) per person, and a model of seamless efficiency. Soon I’m flying over yachts and sailing boats, the coastline to my right; then we’re skimming over the scenic seaside runways and touching down. Within five minutes of that, I’m into the departures area through a side door; there’s no red carpet, no grandstanding, just a baggage handler with a trolley on the tarmac – so normal, so Monaco.