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MONTE CARLO REMAINS THE PLAYGROUND FOR THE RICH, FAMOUS

By Michael Hepworth

Anyone who has ever been to Monaco and Monte Carlo can attest to the fact that if any one place can be considered exclusive or in a different league, then this place is it. The Principality of Monaco as it is known is constantly evolving, and if you thought that the only people living here are remnants of old money European aristocracy, then think again. Pop stars, racing drivers and dot com entrepreneurs are now equally at home at this paradise in the sun, and rub shoulders with Arab Sheikhs at the casino, and the fabulous hotels that adorn this tiny parcel of land which is about 25 miles from Nice Airport .

The history of Monaco is quite varied with Italy and France both claiming sovereignty over the area, and in 1861 the locals decided that this beautiful part of the world would benefit from a new industry known as “tourism.” This resulted in the creation of the Monte Carlo Casino created by architect Charles Garnier, where rich locals and foreigners flocked to in an elegant setting. Today the casino is still going strong, but it is no longer the haven of the rich and famous. Anybody with a few hundred francs to spare can now give it a shot, and the main building is connected on its left to a series of other buildings which house the gaming rooms which are open every day (except 1st May) from midday onwards. For those of you only used to the noisy atmosphere of Las Vegas and Atlantic City , Monte Carlo casino is a breath of fresh air. No loud screaming or shouting, just a quiet and controlled elegance, yet not stuffy at all.

This is a place that invented security cameras, and there is virtually no chance of committing any kind of misdemeanor or felony here without being picked up and shuffled away by the always vigilant police. Saying that however, the place has become a haven for various factions of the Russian Mafia, and although the principality enjoys their spending power, they quietly frown on some of the activities that have occurred in recent years. There was a high profile case a couple of years ago with arson and contract killing, and this is certainly not the kind of publicity the authorities were seeking.

The classiest way to get to Monaco and to make you feel like a VIP is to arrive at Nice Airport , and then take a helicopter directly into the principality, and this way sets you up nicely for your stay. The choice of quality hotels is also impressive, and booking in advance is always advised, especially during the heady days of April and May when they run the premier motorsport attraction in the world, the Monaco Grand Prix, which is held through the streets of the principality, or stage the international tennis tournament. The week long event which is held at the Monte Carlo Country Club was won this year by Rafael Nadal of Spain .

Monaco FC, one of the top soccer clubs in France play at the luxurious Louis 11 stadium, and although it holds around 60,000 fans, the average attendance is only about 5,000. Obviously the team is heavily subsidized by the royal family, who were delighted when the team made it to the European Cup finals a couple of years ago. The stadium also hosts many other sporting events such as the Monaco International Athletics meeting, held every June.

Doing the tourist rounds in Monaco is a fun and required part of any visit, starting out with a visit to the Palace of the Prince. The Palace is built on a rock, that was developed as a fortress to protect the region from many battles and conflicts with the Genoese, French and the Spanish. Towards the middle of the XV11 century, Prince Honore 11 (1597-1662) began transforming the fortress into the Palace. The interior was refurbished to house all the rare and priceless paintings, tapestries and precious furniture.

The Treaty of Paris of 1815 restored full and complete sovereignty to Monaco , and Honore IV (1758-1819) and Honore V (1778-1841) undertook the restoration of the Palace that had been robbed of its priceless collections and damaged in the French Revolution. The great apartments are open to the public from June to October, while the Napoleonic Museum that carries some unique artifacts owned by the Emperor of Emperors may be visited throughout the year.

Another must see is the Oceanographic Museum, probably the finest in the world and host to scientists and oceanographers from all over the world. Apart from the range of marine and submarine fauna, you will be able to see much of the diving equipment used by Jacques Cousteau during his heyday. There is also the largest aquarium in the world, with almost 4,000 fish and 350 different species. 

Botanists and plant lovers will love the Exotic Garden that was opened in 1933 after twenty years of planning. They feature 7,000 plants, including many rare and strange looking cacti from all over the globe, that benefit greatly from the location of being on the slope of a cliff, also exposing them to the rays of the sun.

My two top choices to stay would be either the Hermitage Hotel or the brand new Hotel Metropole. The Hermitage started out as a tiny inn in 1864, but it had come into its own by 1900 and was heavily frequented by the idle and rich, particularly the English ones! Further face lifts followed without damaging the unique atmosphere of the hotel which has outstanding frescoes, woodwork and furniture. Gustave Eiffel created the glass work in the shape of an umbrella. Make sure you book a room overlooking the harbor, which gives you an unparalleled view of some of the biggest yachts in the world.

A new spa and two superstar chefs highlight the 146-room Hotel Metropole that was opened a couple of years ago by the now deceased Prince Rainer. The interior was created by Jacques Garcia, whose previous work can be seen at the Hotel Costes in Paris , and Hotel La Reserve in Geneva . The palazzo-like experience begins at the driveway of the hotel, which is lined with Roman Cypress trees and almost tropical style landscaping. He lobby features natural light streaming through the glass roof, a perfect compliment for the elegantly crafted sofas and chairs designed in pastel hues. 

The Hotel De Paris is also a classic hotel that hosts the famous Michelin 3-star Le Louis XV restaurant, which in many ways is the flagship restaurant of the Alain Ducasse Empire. I was lucky enough to take a private tour of the wine cellar recently, and saw wines and cognacs unopened from the Napoleonic era, amongst the staggering collection. As you enter the foyer of the hotel, the equestrian statue of the Sun King in the entrance hall indicates that the luxury and comfort in the hotel are comparable to the Chateau of Versailles. The 271 room hotel also features a covered swimming pool with a sauna and health center.

Talking of restaurants, there are over 150 in the Principality starting out with the classic French Michelin style gourmet establishments like Le Grill. Le Belle Epoque (Hotel Hermitage), Le Foie Gras (Hotel Loews). Le Gratin ( Hotel Beach Plaza ), La Coupole (Hotel Mirabeau), Rampoldi and Le Bec Rouge. There are also a few surprisingly of the more modest quality, although you might have to do a bit of walking

No article about Monte Carlo should fail to include a mention of nearby Nice, which is one of my favorite places in the world. It is a modern bustling city, but also a really pleasant relaxing holiday spot at the same time, although traffic can be a bit crazy, especially in the summer months. Many workers in Monte Carlo commute to Nice, and what a fabulous commute it is.

Nice is conveniently broken down into new Nice and old Nice, with the centerpiece being the amazing Promenade des Anglais all along the waterfront. Accommodations are surprisingly plentiful and reasonable, although a couple of the upscale hotels on the Promenade I am familiar with are the world famous Hotel Negresco and the much newer Palais De La Mediterranee.

The Negresco is the ultimate Belle Epoque Hotel, and the roster of stars and celebrities who have stayed here is impressive. Even if you are unable to stay there for whatever reason, certainly check out the hotel, and begin to feel that you are really someone special. The showcase restaurant on site is the Michelin-star gastronomic showpiece, Le Chanticleer, where I had a meal so good; it permanently changed my concept of dining.

The Palais opened in January 2004, and consists of 188 rooms and overlooks the Bay of Nice . It also has the only heated indoor/outdoor swimming pool on the Cote d’Azur . Already the hotel has made it to the Top 100 Hotels in the World list by Conde Naste Traveler, and has been a welcome addition to the hotels in Nice.

 
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