The Good Life

Monaco’s Magic

Long the playground for the rich and famous, the Mediterranean’s petite principality is the world’s most luxurious country
By Larry Olmsted | From Joe Manganiello, March/April 2018
Monaco’s Magic
Monte Carlo’s Casino Square contains the world-famous gambling house (center) as well as the luxurious Hôtel de Paris (right).

It’s a place where the locals’ idea of Uber is a helicopter transfer from the airport, where you can’t walk a block without seeing a McLaren or Lamborghini, where you can clothes shop in the company of royalty, dine next to billionaires and bet in the world’s most glamorous casino. Champagne flows like water, and the water itself floats the swankiest private yachts. And it’s all packed in a space smaller than New York’s Central Park.

The Principality of Monaco is not the world’s smallest country (that’s Vatican City), but it is the richest. Its three-quarter-mile area boasts the highest per capita GDP ($187,000) and the largest percentage of millionaires (29.2). A long list of royalty, movie stars, professional athletes and musicians swell the ranks of its 38,400 population, enjoying the tax-free haven with a gorgeous setting on the Mediterranean. While residents include Ringo Starr, tennis star Novak Djokovic and numerous Formula One drivers, the country also draws its share of celebrity visitors, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Jay Z—especially those who attend the nearby Cannes Film Festival. The top two Michelin-star holders, Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon, both operate multiple world-class restaurants here. 

That the tiny nation enjoys a larger-than-life reputation is no accident. Monaco leverages a calendar flush with ultrahigh-profile sporting and cultural events and basks in a fantasy image created by the real-life fairy-tale wedding of American movie star Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier and its deep association with fictional spy James Bond. The inspiration for Ian Fleming’s debut 007 novel, Casino Royale, Monaco’s Casino de Monte-Carlo would become a set in multiple Bond films. Roger Moore, who played 007 more than anyone else, called Monaco home, as does singer Shirley Bassey, the only one to record two different Bond theme songs, Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever.

But Monaco’s glamor is relatively recent. For much of its early history, it was one of Europe’s  poorest countries. Previously a colony of Genoa and later Aragon, it was purchased by the Grimaldi family in 1419. Between 1848 and 1861 Monaco lost 96 percent of its territory—the most fertile parts—to France, much of it ceded by its own citizens. It’s a decision their descendants have likely regretted, given that today the Monegasque pay no taxes and enjoy high-quality free education and health care. But at the time, Monaco was desperate for economic reinvention, and in 1855, it legalized gambling. Nevertheless, the first few casino attempts failed because of inaccessibility. 

In 1863 the royal family created a holding company, Société des Bains de Mer (SBM), to run things. The Société built the belle époque Monte Carlo structure and handed operations over to François Blanc, manager of a successful German casino. To deliver gamblers, Blanc quickly expanded steamship routes from Nice and then built a railroad and funicular connecting the casino with the train platform. Most famously, he eliminated the double-zero from the roulette wheel, lowering the house edge. So successful was Blanc that he became known as “the Magician of Monaco.” By 1869 the casino was doing so well that the principality no longer needed to tax its citizens. SBM now operates multiple casinos, hotels, restaurants and nightclubs here.

This pattern of self-reliance helped the country overcome its fundamental geographic problem—with no place to expand east, west or north, it instead turned to the sea, and through dredging and reclamation, expanded its footprint by 25 percent. Other venues are linked to Monaco in name only. The mountaintop Monte-Carlo Golf Club and the tennis stadium at the Monte-Carlo Country Club are actually in France. Yet Monaco proper still boasts one of the highest percentages of greenspace of any European city. The environmentally obsessed reigning monarch, H.S.H. Prince Albert II, requires all new buildings to preserve a minimum of 30 percent of their square footage as open space. It is but one kilometer from the inland French border to the Mediterranean, with no bad neighborhoods, no crime to speak of. “We can talk about Monaco as a country, as a city or as a village,” says Claudia Batthyany, an executive at the Fairmont Hotel. 

“People get confused between Monte Carlo and Monaco,” explains Fatoumata Froissart Diallo, who runs Fair & Fairy, a high-end private guide and travel service. “There are six districts within the principality, and Monte Carlo is just one, but it’s the most famous, so everyone just calls the whole place that.” The gentle slope that is Monte Carlo contains the Casino de Monte-Carlo as well as the city’s top four luxury hotels. The famous casino, the Hôtel de Paris, the Opera House, and the Café de Paris, with its own attached smaller casino, form the main square, while other fine hotels, the Metropole, Fairmont and Hermitage, fan out around it. Looking down towards the marina and Mediterranean is the Old Town, home to the palace, as well as the nation’s acclaimed oceanography museum/institute. The U-shaped port is its own neighborhood. Stretching along the waterfront are resort-style hotels and the city’s main beach. A small residential area sits above Monte Carlo.

But tiny Monaco packs a big punch. The most powerful tourism draw is the region’s slate of high-profile annual events. Its superior lodging and dining options serve many celebrities at the nearby Cannes Film Festival. Monaco’s marina hosts Europe’s largest in-water boat show (50,000 visitors, 600 boats), the Cannes Yachting Festival. Held on clay, the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters is one of the nine Super Tournaments of tennis. 

The Monaco Formula One Grand Prix is arguably the world’s No. 1 race and certainly the most important event in its class. With the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, it comprises the Triple Crown of Motorsports. Held since 1929, it is the only F1 raced entirely on public streets. Except for a single small patch of grass, every vantage point requires a ticket or real estate with a view. Yachts on the waterside of the racetrack, Hôtel de Paris rooms overlooking the casino square and Fairmont Hotel rooms with balconies above the iconic hairpin are coveted spots.

The Grand Prix, which takes place in May, is wrapped in a bow for those who can afford to attend. Every hotel in town sells it as a four-night package. The hospitality industry makes about 15 percent of its annual revenue in these 96 hours, with food and drink at substantial premiums and the better hotels commanding $2,500 nightly. Racing fan George Lucas lays out $86,000 each year for one of four corner suites at the Fairmont, with views of both the hairpin turn and the equally famous tunnel. “The noise of the cars becomes like music,” says Batthyany. The race is preceded a week earlier by either the Historical F1 race, with vintage cars, or the E-Prix, with open-cockpit electric cars. 

“If you ever get the chance, go during Princess Stephanie’s circus event in January,” advises broadcaster and journalist Michael Patrick Shiels, who hosts a syndicated drive-time morning radio show that occasionally visits Monaco. “Concession stands sell crepes and Champagne instead of peanuts and beer, and it’s the fanciest circus you’ll ever see.” The Monte-Carlo International Circus Festival is the Cannes Film Festival of the circus world. Hundreds of acts apply and the two best performances are awarded the Gold and Silver Clown. It features animal acts, comedic performances and choreographed acrobatic feats. Prince Albert heads the judging panel while his sister, Princess Stephanie, opens the festivities. 

Other one-of-a-kind Monaco annual events include an opera fest, off-road rally race, arts festival, philharmonic, international music festival, dance forum and one of the world’s most prestigious fireworks competitions. The gala Rose Ball, held every March, is the Principality’s major charity event, benefitting the Princess Grace Foundation. The Ball requires fancy dress, but that is hardly unusual in fashion-centric Monaco.

“What I love about Monaco is that you can be anyone you want there,” says Shiels, who has done his broadcasts in white dinner jacket and bow tie. “It’s one of the only places you can just wear a tux to dinner without a reason and feel normal, but you don’t have to....There are always celebrities in town, and where else might I stand shoulder to shoulder with a billionaire or movie star? Not in Vegas that’s for sure. But despite the glamour, it’s very open and accessible, because it’s so small and secure. You might well see Shirley Bassey or Princess Caroline. Prince Albert has been known to get bored with the food at his palace and walk across the street and sit at the bar at this little family-owned Italian restaurant in the Old Town—his neighborhood joint I guess.” Diallo adds that she has seen Princess Caroline and her daughter  shopping in Zara of all places. And during a recent visit to the city Prince Albert drove past—in one of Monaco’s humbler sedans. 

The casino is equally popular with gamblers and gawkers, though the latter don’t get beyond the first room. There’s a 10 euro entry fee to get inside the main casino (unless you have dining reservations).  Heavily gilded—more palace than casino—it sports a domed rotunda, masters’ paintings and huge, ornate chandeliers, each containing over 300 pounds of Bohemian crystal and covered in gold leaf. Two features you are unlikely to ever see in another casino are a large grand clock and natural lighting, with windows and skylights. Tiny by Vegas standards, it has a handful of gaming tables, a few slot machines, and a large bar, where during the day tourists live out their James Bond fantasy moments by ordering pricey Martinis (shaken not stirred). The bar is popular even before gambling starts, as the doors open at 9:30 a.m. for sightseeing. Wagering—along with a dress code banning jeans, sneakers and requiring jackets for men—commences at 2 p.m.

The real scene is in the smaller “private” back rooms, which require another 10 euro cover, and are more lavish and atmospheric. (Admittance to both areas is waived for guests of SBM lodgings: Hôtel de Paris, Hermitage, Monte-Carlo Beach, Monte-Carlo Bay and assorted rental villas.) The semiprivate rooms spill into one another, and while not large, the entire complex is bigger than it looks, with a couple of restaurants and bars, multiple gaming areas, and one of the most prestigious opera houses in Europe at one end. Whereas the big action is in the semi-private back area, with chips (actually rectangular plaques) running up to one million euros, table minimums are surprisingly low. They start at just five, 10 or 25 euros depending on the game, with the most popular being roulette, baccarat and blackjack (there are no craps). All the gaming tables are by law made here in Monaco, and beautifully appointed, the wood all polished and the felt immaculate. Armrests are leather and cupholders brass. Nothing is remotely worn or tired. When smoking was banned indoors, the casino added a back-patio gaming area that is pleasantly al fresco, on a large marble terrace overlooking the Mediterranean. It has about a dozen tables and cigars for sale.

 The three other casinos in the country are more for convenience than grandeur. A small one featuring mainly slots is in the back of the Café de Paris. The Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel and Fairmont each contain their own, the latter being “American style” with games like craps and three-card poker. 

“To me Monte Carlo is a tiny jewel box,” says Anne Scully, president of McCabe World Travel in Virginia. Having explored every inch over the years, she suggested some of her top sites: “My favorite area is Princess Grace’s Rose Garden, and another favorite is the Japanese Garden. The Royal Castle has tours of the Prince’s State Apartments and don’t miss the changing of the guards, always at 11:55 a.m. sharp. Afterwards, there are some wonderful restaurants hidden in the alleys close to the castle. Le Montgolfière Henri-Geraci is a great choice. Very close to Monte-Carlo in Saint Jean Cap-Ferrat is Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, a walk back in time to how the great wealth of the world lived. The medieval walled Èze village, just over the border in France, is a treat. The views are breathtaking and it’s home to the wonderful Michelin two-star Chevre d’Or…I was fortunate to see Elizabeth Taylor and George Hamilton in the dining room there once.”

Other top attractions include the renowned Oceanographic Institute and its museum. Founded in 1910, it was one of the principality’s first forays into environmental awareness and protection. Built into the cliffside, it contains three floors of public aquariums and museums. It also has an open-air rooftop bar and café with one of the best views in Monaco. The Prince’s Palace, originally built as a fort atop the Old City in the 13th century, has vast sections open to the public. Daily tours include the room where Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly were married. Its daily changing of the guard is almost whimsical. The Exotic Gardens feature more than 7,000 flora from around the world, in addition to a cave filled with stalactites and stalagmites. The 1878 Opera House, part of the casino, is renowned for attracting world-class opera singers and ballets. Few visitors miss the Princess Grace Rose Garden, which boasts 8,000 rose bushes, a small lake and an olive grove spread across nearly 10 acres. The separate and equally well-done Japanese Zen garden sits at the city’s eastern edge. 

Prince Rainier was an avid collector, and today his 100-plus vintage cars are on public display, including the rare 1903 De Dion Bouton and dozens of models from the likes of Rolls Royce, Facel Vega, Lamborghini, Delahaye, Packard, Ferrari, Maserati and Delage. 

For many visitors, food and lodging are highlights, with the two most successful living chefs in good company with other culinary stars. “It is home to some of the finest hotels and restaurants in all of Europe, from Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV at Hôtel de Paris to Joël Robuchon at the Metropole,” notes Scully. Born in France, Ducasse fell under Monaco’s spell and is now a citizen. His three-star restaurant is the must-have reservation, with an elaborate chef’s tasting menu that varies daily and a dress code. Not to be outdone, his rival Joël Robuchon, nicknamed “Chef of the Century,” operates all four dining venues in the Metropole Hotel. His namesake Joël Robuchon Monte-Carlo is very relaxed for a two-star. Robuchon also does the bar menu, available on the hotel’s cigar-friendly patio, a coveted spot for the F1 race. 

Monaco is clearly a place for living the good life. “They love their Champagne in Monaco, and every lunch or dinner begins with at least a glass,” adds Shiels. “If a restaurant does not wheel a Champagne cart tableside when you are seated, that’s a red flag.” Even the Fairmont’s 24-hour lobby restaurant (with outdoor seating for smoking) has an ice and bubbly laden cart. Rooftop bars can be found atop the Oceanographic Institute and most hotels. All are cigar friendly.

Monaco never stops polishing, expanding and rethinking. When the city decided to upgrade its yacht club, architect Sir Norman Foster was brought in to design the new building, which looks like a ship on the waterfront. The Hôtel de Paris is just now wrapping up a major renovation that added a pool. The Metropole is endlessly upgrading, and along with the four Robuchon eateries it now has a Lagerfield-designed pool area and a Givenchy spa—where the snack table offers Joël Robuchon macaroons. “People who come every few years feel like it’s a different place because we’re always transforming,” says Batthyany. 

Descriptions that would pigeonhole Monaco as “the classy Vegas,” or “Dubai with soul,” fall well short of the reality. The place is more like the best of Paris, with the cultural, culinary and historical highlights distilled to their finest and set next to a beach—with  a surprising authenticity. It’s as if the country has not forgotten its roots. Strict rules require that all new builds contain affordable subsidized housing for working-class residents. It’s inspiring the way royalty moves among the common folk with minimal fuss, and day-trippers off cruise ships are welcomed as warmly as Hollywood stars. It’s a perfect long weekend on its own, an anchor for a visit to Provence, the South of France or Italy, and a popular cruise destination. And for any of these, it’s a magical spot. 

Larry Olmsted writes often on travel for Cigar Aficionado.

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