Monaco: fit for a princess

Sophistication, elegance, Michelin stars and supercars; the cream of society assemble in the regal Principality of Monaco

There is timelessness to Monaco’s arguably most famous former resident. Straight from the silver screen and into her real-life fairy tale, Grace Kelly – she of enduring style – became Princess of Monaco in 1956, and though the late star was by no means the instigator of splendour here, she embodies the aura of affluence. Similarly timeless is the unspoken understanding of sartorial standards and decorum that silently emits from the Monte-Carlo district outwards; when everyone is dressed to impress, elegance becomes normality. Sophistication is effortless, not striven, and the air swirls with assumed success – identifiers are not societal but literal labels, hand-sewn into couture.

Monaco feels like Mont Agel stood resolute and the high-rise buildings, streets and boutiques were poured down the slopes from above, settling into the available spaces within the rock (with Monte-Carlo Golf Club placed 900m above sea level on the mountain, in 1911). It’s a seven-hour flight from Dubai (time that melts away on board a Wi-Fi-enabled Emirates flight), followed by a 45-minute scoot from Nice Côte d’Azur Airport through mountain roads. The place is French-but-not-French, and Italian is widely spoken: the House of Grimaldi lineage dates back over 700 years, and Monaco achieved autonomy in 1861 when it relinquished half of its territory to France in exchange for cash and independence – a move that gave away natural resources, but inspired the need for a new revenue stream. They turned their attention to tourism and entertainment.

On arrival, the first inclination for the visitor is to make their way to Place du Casino, a square that is the heart of the Monte-Carlo district, and is a magnet for tourists and Monégasques. Actually, call it the second urge: the actual first is to drink in astounding balcony-made views across glittering Port Hercules, which is watched over by 18th-century Fort Antoine in Monaco-Ville ward on the far side. Every property in Monaco is seemingly angled toward this watery focal point, where even adoration takes on new realms: oligarchs prove undying love with names of their beloved upon sizeable yachts, not love locks. It is around the harbour in which these boating titans are berthed that the grandstand for the annual Formula 1 Grand Prix is assembled – later, when being chauffeured around the streets, you get a sense for the hairpin bends and breathe-in tightness that the highly tuned drivers have to navigate on race day (albeit at 209km/h).

Mountains peering through a Monaco street
Mountains peering through a Monaco street

 

When finally making a beeline to said iconic ‘Place’, there are two ways to arrive. The more ‘look-at-me’ route is Avenue de Monte-Carlo, where sports cars slink single-file around the bend, pausing (almost deliberately…) long enough for gawping smartphone cameras, then purring past the corner stores of Gucci and Van Cleef & Arpels. Alternatively, on foot you can stealth in the back way along Avenue de la Costa.

Place du Casino is cosily contained on three sides: when standing front-face to the belle époque-styled Opéra de Monte-Carlo, the quaint Café de Paris sits on the left (the perfect spot to people-watch, and where well-dressed professionals clamour for a lunchtime table), with Hôtel de Paris on the right. The inner architecture of the opera house is wondrous; the venue was a resplendent injection of culture devised by Prince Charles III of Monaco in the 1870s, designed by Charles Garnier, and subsequently renovated in 2004. In the original intricate décor (loyally maintained by chief architect Alain-Charles Perrot during restoration) are three types of gold, generous use of the lyre symbol and large windows overlooking the sea – enough distraction to forgive observers for casting their eye ceilingwards, as opposed to toward the world-class avant-garde acts occupying the stage.

The inner architecture of the opera house is wondrous

From the main square, a stroll south along Boulevard Louis II (which becomes Avenue JF Kennedy) takes you back past the harbour at street level, continuing on past the pretty Church of Sainte Dévote and heading towards Fontvieille; tourism-wise, the southernmost ward is in the gravitational orbit of the Palace of Monaco and its stunning panoramas. The tree-lined streets at this end of town are more bustling, and it’s home to more affordable shops and cafés (with red-clothed pavement tables at which to sip a cup of restretto). Should you ascend levels to reach vantage points such as Esplanade Rainier III, you’ll do so helped by the height of civility: escalators ferry civilians up the incline.

Though opulence clearly abounds, there is no velvet rope around the spotless streets of this microstate: they’re walkable for all soles, not paved with gold (even if they often do lead to the doors of a luxury boutique). For those who lack a homing-pigeon sense of direction, pocket-sized Monaco is easy to get to grips with; there are plenty of enveloping corners, but it’s easy to reacquire your bearings.

Though opulence clearly abounds, there is no velvet rope around the spotless streets of this microstate

At least every 50 paces there’s a detail to stoke inquisitiveness and plenty of establishments you’ll lay eyes upon belong to Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer (or Monte-Carlo SBM), which presides over the lion’s share of the entertainment, hospitality, fine-dining and wellness options in Monaco. SBM laid the foundation for Monte-Carlo’s status as a destination colossus – among the jewels in its case are the breathtaking Salle Garnier and Salle des Etoiles concert halls, the sea-facing Thermes Marins spa and fitness address, and properties such as Villa Vigie (the former residence of Karl Lagerfeld), the awe-inspiring Hôtel de Paris and the 160-year-old Hôtel Hermitage. The latter is a notable local legend: a resplendent example of nonpareil standards. It houses a hallway designed by Gustav Eiffel, where guests can enjoy breakfast under the glass dome he also dreamt up; assistance comes from smartly dressed door staff in top hats, sliding bespoke luggage into equally bespoke vehicles; in the abodes, the acclaimed Diamond Suites are the pinnacle of luxury, with private access and stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea. Hôtel Hermitage is history, poetry and romance, encapsulated in a property that has even bottled its own signature scent.

Of Monaco’s 37,000 population, 30% are said to be millionaires, and refined palates are catered to here: jet in for a long weekend and you’ll dine heartily with every meal of the day. For example, Hermitage is home to one such culinary highlight – Le Vistamar and terrace – perfect for first-night dinner. Brunch the following day should be savoured at Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel’s Elsa, devised by chef Paolo Sari. Dining theatre takes many forms here. Synchronised waiters lift glass plate-covers to reveal the 100% organic fare underneath – drama matched by the breathtaking surroundings, where upon a sun-soaked terrace you’re serenaded by the gentle cush of waves against the walls below, and protected by a mountainous backdrop. It’s the perfect setting in which to savour a famed, lighter-than-air almond soufflé. At Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort, Blue Bay warrants similar plaudits: Marcel Ravin used local Mediterranean and exotic Caribbean flavours to secure a place among Monaco’s Michelin-star elite. Come nightfall, should the soundtrack of blinging slot machines not be to your taste in glitzy Place du Casino, back at Hôtel Hermitage there’s a quieter place to end the evening: on the terrace of Le Crystal with an aperitif. If the temperature dips they’ll issue a blanket, and the noise level in the streets below certainly dips (save for the occasional throaty echo
of a passing supercar).

Monaco may only clock in at 2.2 sq km,but its footprint is comprehensive: a characterful high-end shopping centre – Le Métropole – with its chandeliers, wrought-iron railings and marble staircases; a football stadium for the hometown team AS Monaco FC; as of 2016, 15 Michelin-star enclaves; a cliffside botanical garden; and museums respectively dedicated to stamps, oceanography, local heritage, prehistoric anthropology and the Prince’s vintage-car collection. Another SBM asset, Jimmy’z Sporting Monte-Carlo, attracts the night owls – the rich and famous after a slice of the club’s self-styled ‘haute-couture electro’.

In this playground of the elite, the refined let their hair down with acts of wealth, not gaudy wildness (if there is hedonism, it is neatly concealed). Monaco takes itself seriously, and it is beautiful to behold such sobriety; all chic, no kitsch, you feel compelled to respectfully rise to the occasion. As a destination, it evoked in me the Hardy Amies quote: “A man should look as if he had bought his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care, and then forgotten all about them.” Centuries ago, the Rock of Monaco was strategically chosen for its ability to protect. Now, the Principality assumes responsibility as a guardian itself – of taste, class, and the finer things in life.