If you’ve ever wanted to know how the other half lives spend a little time in the tiny principality of Monaco, a sovereign city-state on the French Riviera. That’s just what I did a few weeks before Christmas.
I’d never been to Monaco but did know a little something from celebrity magazines and a couple of James Bond flicks. I knew that Monaco is part of the Côte d’Azur (Français for The French Riviera) where the rich and famous flock to see and to be seen. I knew Monaco’s reputation for luxury shopping, high stakes gambling, superyachts, astronomical real estate deals, the famed Grand Prix of Monte Carlo and a six-decade-long international fascination with an American movie star turned princess.
I flew on Air France from Toronto to Paris with a short connection to Nice. The service was great. On arrival at Nice airport, I boarded a helicopter with Monacair (outstanding service) for a fantastic seven-minute flight along the Mediterranean coastline as we made our way to the spectacular Harbour of Monte Carlo, dotted with gleaming white yachts and unforgettable scenery. The perfect start to my next three WOW days!
I checked in at the prestigious, multi-award-winning Fairmont Monte Carlo, which is notably one of the largest luxury resorts in Europe at 602 guest rooms, all with generous private balconies overlooking the sea. The resort offers four restaurants and bars, 18 meeting rooms with state-of-the-art meeting and conference facilities, a shopping arcade, in-house casino, a stunning spa, unique wellness facilities, and a gorgeous rooftop pool with spectacular views of the Mediterranean. Built in the ’70s, the unique six-sided, ship-shaped structure sits over the former Monte Carlo railway station, and amazingly, was partially built on 15 pillars into the sea. With relaxed elegance and superb service for every want, it checks all boxes for incentive travel and events large or small.
During the last weekend in May each year, Fairmont guests have the best view of the famed Fairmont Hairpin, one of the most exciting bends of the Formula One race of the Monaco Grand Prix. A short walk from the resort brings you to Place de Casino which is flooded with luxury cars like Lamborghini, Ferrari, Maserati, and Rolls Royce to name a few. In late September even more extravagance takes over Monaco when the annual Monaco Yacht Show takes place and multi-million-dollar yachts, one more outrageously lavish than the next, converge on the famed Harbour of Monte Carlo.
I was greeted by Maria Arnolda Egberts, known simply as Miek, with a well-planned itinerary in hand. Miek possesses a wonderful blend of experience, knowledge, passion and style and a contagious abundance of positive energy. She is the owner and creative force behind InspireMe Monte Carlo, a boutique destination management company represented in Canada by Select Group Marketing. Miek’s expert design and execution of incentive programs and unique events ensures her continued success as a highly professional, skilled and respected DMC. Birds of a feather … Miek introduced me to Patrice, a charismatic, experienced and knowledgeable tour guide who works exclusively with InspireMe. Patrice’s glamourous big smile and his genuine warm welcome made me wonder if everyone in Monaco was gifted with such charm and panache. Together and separate, I was lucky to spend time with both during my Monaco adventure.
For history buffs, royal watchers and celebrity junkies, Monaco is a fascinating study on all fronts. The Monaco of today is a relatively new creation started by the late Prince Rainier III when he ascended the throne in 1949. At that time, traditional casino gambling accounted for 95 percent of Monaco’s annual revenue. Today that number is staggeringly less at only three percent. When the Hollywood movie star, Grace Kelly, married Rainier in 1956 at St. Nicholas Cathedral, it was billed as the “wedding of the century.” The spectacular ceremony was televised around the world with an estimated 30 million viewers—a vast number of whom had never heard of Monaco. It’s said that the wedding put Monaco on the map as it captured the world’s imagination and established Monaco as a fairy-tale land with glamour and prestige as its gross national product. Princess Grace had a significant influence on revitalizing the principality into a centre for opera, ballet, concerts, theatre, fashion, flower festivals and cultural events. From that time forward, until her tragic death in 1982, the Palace’s Chatelaine (princess) dedicated her life to successfully beautifying Monaco and expanding tourism.
In the heart of Monaco is the palm tree-lined Place de Casino Monte-Carlo, which includes the Casino de Monte-Carlo, Opéra de Monte-Carlo, and Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, and just steps away are the palatial Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo, Hôtel Hermitage Monte-Carlo and the Café de Paris Monte-Carlo. All are striking examples of the architecture of Paris from the Belle Époque period. The impressive casino offers space for private functions and spectacular events, where the sky is the limit to excite and mesmerize its guests.
Refinement at its best and old-world charm, the iconic Hôtel de Paris is a regular on the Condé Nast Traveler annual Gold List. The other legendary grande dame, Hôtel Hermitage, reflects luxury and elegance in every detail. Through undercover access, both properties share the remarkable Les Thermes Marins Spa. Ideal for incentives and corporate events, with photo opportunities galore, these buildings epitomize the opulence and sophistication of another time but with every modern convenience.
A stone’s throw from Place de Casino is the Promenade Monte-Carlo, a flamboyant fashion district offering a treasure trove of luxury brands and eye-popping jewellery, all laid out in brightly lit shops, in sparkling rows of pristine streets. There you will find brands like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Prada, Christian Louboutin—and a sparkly bauble or two at the likes of Harry Winston, Cartier, Chopard, and Van Cleef & Arpels.
A quick note about gastronomy in Monaco—quick only because it would require a full article to do justice to the world-class fare offered in the hotels and restaurants that are largely inspired by French and Italian cuisine. Not all was haute cuisine. We shared a memorable snack at the open-air market, Le Marché de la Condamine, a favourite meeting place for Monegasque locals where colourful bundles of fresh-cut flowers, fruits and vegetables are sold daily. An additional indoor space houses busy butchers, bakers, and fishmongers. It was there that I discovered socca, a thin pancake made from chickpea flour and olive oil, a specialty of street vendors and best eaten when just made and hot. Amazing!
In contrast to the extravagance and glitz of Monte Carlo is the old town, Monaco-Ville, known as The Rock (Le Rocher) where The Prince’s Palace sits high on a hill-top with spectacular views of the principality, the harbour and the Mediterranean. We climbed the steep steps of the Rampe Majeurs, a 16th-century staircase, to reach the picturesque Palace Square. An enchanted stroll through a medieval fairy-tale town, here is where Monaco’s history reaches back to the Middle Ages. A profusion of peach, pink, yellow and terracotta washes across the narrow ancient streets. We visited the historic Place Saint Nicolas, Palais de Justice and St. Nicholas Cathedral, all beautifully maintained and cherished by locals. Each morning at 11:55, a changing of the guard ceremony takes place at the palace exactly as it has for centuries. Today, the palace is home to the fashionable princely family headed by Rainier’s son, HSH Albert II, the Sovereign Prince of Monaco.
In front of the cathedral lies St. Martin Gardens (Jardins Saint-Martin) thriving since its creation in 1830 with exotic flora, beautiful bronze statues and unique art. The tranquil garden paths lead to the Oceanographic Museum, a stunning Baroque Revival building carved into the side of The Rock with breath-taking views, and indoor and outdoor space to hold all types of elegant and unique events.
In keeping with exclusivity and extravagance, Monaco has some of the most expensive real estate on earth. The tax-haven status for wealthy property owners and would-be buyers allows for mind-blowing, sky-high prices. In fact, the world’s most expensive private residential home, a three-bedroom penthouse apartment, was reportedly sold for more than $300 million US. A palace in the sky, the five-storey penthouse is in the 49-floor concrete and glass tower, Tour Odeon of Monaco, and it boasts a rooftop deck and pool with its own water slide that descends one story from the dance floor directly into the infinity pool. To put it into perspective, the penthouse is 31,500 square feet in a tiny principality where 90 square feet is valued at one million-plus.
With land in short supply, there is work underway to reclaim land that is under the sea. Expected to be completed by 2025, construction has begun on a €2 billion project to extend the natural contour of Monaco’s coastline an additional 15 acres into the Mediterranean. One thousand new residences in luxury apartments and villas will be constructed in the newly formed district, Portier Cove.
Imagine magnificent views in a fairy-tale land where at its heart beats a glittering city and harbour bursting with excitement and glamour. Now add the ever-present sapphire blue Mediterranean warmed by 300-plus days of sunshine each year. Tout simplement magnifique!