As a guest of the Metropole it’s all too easy to take the peerless opulence of Monte Carlo’s life in the fast lane in your stride, discovers David McLean.
Traditionally a playground for the billionaire class, 21st century Monaco turns out to be a cornucopia of delights on offer to all.
Arriving in Nice, a short transfer had been arranged to take me to Europe’s gambling capital. In normal circumstances, this would involve a minicab of some description – but not on this trip.
In keeping with the indulgent tone of my visit to the French Riviera, my hosts had laid on a helicopter for the final leg of my inbound journey. Talk about arriving in style. Propelled along the Cote d’Azur at breakneck speed, I reached the principality within minutes.
Home to a thriving casino culture, scores of super-yacht-owning celebs and more high-end sports cars than you can shake a chequered flag at, Monaco has an allure that’s challenging to afford but practically impossible to resist.
My pied-à-terre for the next 48 hours was at the 5-star Hotel Metropole, an establishment which is right up there with the very best in the world.
A cypress-lined driveway leads up to the entrance of this grand 133-year-old hotel which is wrapped in the architectural notes of the Belle Époque. Mixing period charm with contemporary chic, the hotel was brought back to its best in 2004 when it received a full renovation by the famous French designer Jacques Garcia, who is credited with transforming it into a 126-room palace.
Enjoying something of a renaissance, in 2012 the hotel enlisted the magic wand of style icon Karl Lagerfeld to enhance its interiors, reimagine its pool area and introduce Odyssey, a brand new outdoor restaurant and Metropole’s third, with a menu created by the legendary Joël Robuchon.
Fully unpacked and refreshed, I left the hotel to go for a wander in the afternoon sunshine.
As a (lapsed) Formula One fan, I was delighted to discover the hotel is situated within the Carré d’Or, a dice roll or two away from Monte Carlo’s renowned casino, and, most importantly, just a short stroll from the Grand Prix circuit and the iconic Fairmont Hairpin: “the world’s most famous hairpin bend”.
Not being much of a gambler, save for the odd footie accumulator, I indulged myself by walking the two-mile racing circuit that Monte Carlo is famous for around the globe.
The whole loop took around an hour to complete; not a podium finish, perhaps, but following the circuit is a great way to see the sights and get your bearings in a place where the layout of the streets often borders on the bewildering.
Famously tiny, Monaco’s tightly-packed streets extend up the hills beyond its borders into France, which give the illusion that it is bigger than it actually is. In reality, the entire country would fit into Glasgow a hundred times with space to spare.
My mid-afternoon wander out of the way, I relaxed for an aperitif in the Metropole’s aesthetically sublime lobby, the centrepiece of which was a striking floral display.
Dinner that evening was spent with the rest of my group at Yoshi, Hotel Metropole’s one-Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant, where, mid-conversation, I unwittingly managed to consume a generous dollop of wasabi. Not my finest moment.
Suitably fed and watered, I retired to my luxurious chambre on the fourth floor, spellbound at the exquisite décor and furnishings and utterly gobsmacked by the sheer scale of my bathroom’s walk-in shower. As for the bed, I was fast asleep in seconds flat.
One of the major highlights of the trip was a visit to the Casino de Monte-Carlo; a far more enlightening experience than I had bargained for.
During the tour, which included an access-all-areas pry around the gold-leafed splendour of the private salons, a visit to a restaurant styled in the décor of the Orient Express, and a brief schooling on the numerous Bond flicks filmed here, we learned a little about Monte Carlo’s fascinating history.
Founded in 1865, the casino was the final gamble of Prince Carlo III of Monaco to help save an economically bust sovereign state. It was, of course, a resounding success. Wealth poured into Monaco and (Bonnie) Prince Carlo became a very popular chap indeed. The new area around the casino was even renamed Monte Carlo, in his honour.
In a bid to protect the natives from financial ruin, the Monegasque are legally barred from entering the casinos, which means you will need to flash your photo ID if you fancy your chances on the roulette tables.
But, while it’s still a big earner, gambling no longer accounts for the lion’s share of Monaco’s income. Today tourism and Formula One are the big drivers, and Hotel Metropole, we were reliably informed, generates as much as 10 per cent of its annual revenue during the four days of the Grand Prix alone.
Looming high over the harbour is the Rock of Monaco, a great promontory peppered with historic attractions. We made our way up towards the 13th century Palais Princier de Monaco and soaked in the spectacular panoramic views of the principality.
Back at the hotel, I had a bite to eat at Odyssey before heading down for my one-hour Givenchy Man Facial, then out to the cabanas above the pool to soak up a generous dose of sizzling hot Mediterranean sunshine. I’ve definitely had worse days.
Dinner on my final evening was taken at Metropole’s two-Michelin-starred Joël Robuchon restaurant. Throughout the meal my group and I had a mesmerising tableside view of the illustrious Chef Christophe Cussac and his team as they prepared the dishes from the Mediterranean-inspired menu.
When the Grand Prix is on, hotel guests have the benefit of the restaurant’s terrace, which hangs directly over the circuit. The fact that this is the only downhill straight of the Monaco GP means it’s also where a lot of the most dramatic collisions occur – adding to the appeal.
Having initially feared a visit to Monaco would trigger an intense bout of imposter syndrome, I must say I felt perfectly at ease here. Sure, there are folk rocking Bugatti-branded key fobs and wallets jammed fat with wads of charcoal-coloured credit cards, but who’s to say you’re not one of them? The super wealthy don’t bat an eyelid when you’re all sitting sipping high-end bubbly together in the same luxury yacht.