Monte-Carlo, Where Money and Magic Collide
Among the great 19th-century grande dame hotels that are sprinkled across the capitals and resorts of Europe, the Hôtel de Paris has a special place: the sugar plum in a frothy Belle Époque confection.
It feels enchanted — a palace built for sensory delight in a fairy-tale principality that decided to dedicate itself to hosting and entertaining the elite of the day. Just standing in the Opéra de Monte-Carlo between Hôtel de Paris and its famous Yacht Club quickens the pulse. But to be a guest — that’s a real treat, especially now that a five-year, €215 million renovation has been completed, punctuated by the opening of the huge and beautiful rooftop Princess Grace Suite and, this month, the even larger Prince Rainier III Suite.
The great pleasure of palaces like the Hôtel de Paris is that they make one feel special. Life’s cares fade away and one’s existence becomes, for a duration, charmed. Magic happens: even my flight to Nice was an unexpected joy, surrounded as I was by the 58 members of the Treorchy Male Choir, who entertained fellow passengers with their repertoire, including the beautiful Michelle Yeoh who was a seat away from me, from take-off to landing. Why were they flying to the Côte d’Azur to perform at the Hôtel de Paris, at a not-so-casual summer night soirée hosted by a tech billionaire who did not want to be mentioned. I knew on the flight that I was going to love my stay.
In the mid-19th century, the House of Grimaldi had a very public financial meltdown. Prince Charles III turned to tourism entrepreneur François Blanc, who’d had great success with his legal gaming grounds and hotels in Bad Homburg, and invited him to co-create a luxury-magnet destination within a destination. In 1863, on a plateau used for cultivating olives, lemons and oranges, rose the new Monte-Carlo, still today the most famous trinity in tourism. A luxury stay alongside an opera and an elite gaming ground. “Best in the world”, as 007 once said.
While Monégasques were, and still are, forbidden from being seen at legal gaming grounds (this was built to give them an income, not to endanger them), Europe’s nobility, aristocracy and obscenely rich came flocking. For the opera, for the superstar chefs, the boat shows, the decadent stays, and the games! You can still see the clock that reminded guests to go back to their villas and hotels along the coast, for at first there was nowhere to stay in Monaco until the Hôtel de Paris was built. All guests of the hotel have free entry to the glorious, gilded hotel halls, the Thermes Marins spa and the Monte-Carlo Beach Club, for all are part and parcel, and together they saved and enriched the principality.
You need to be blessed with good luck to have a good time here. In the entrance of the marble-floored, stucco-ceilinged lobby, now entirely refurbished but still, aficionados say, with its original soul intact, stands a bronze equestrian statue of Louis XIV. The shiny right knee of the horse is a testament to the thousands of hands that have rubbed it to give them luck, the luck of Monaco. Guests can, and do, spend millions in a week. “They come here to indulge and treat themselves,” the VIP guest relations manager tells me as she points at a boulevard of Guccis, Pradas and Loro Pianas, “so it’s a thrill, they’ll be shopping from today till next Thursday.” And then there’s the Monaco Grand Prix. To the left of the hotel’s entrance is a wrought-iron lift that allows access to a subterranean tunnel to the world’s most sought-after jewellers so that guests can still reach it when the Grand Prix has turned the streets into a racetrack. Outside the hotel’s Rotunda wing are scented gardens where, during the race, ringside seats for lunch cost €500 per person.
Though much decoratively has changed, its ambience has not. It feels historic, privileged and, above all, calm — the sort of calm that comes from every whim being answered. It smacks of Princess Grace, of course, but also of Churchill, who came every winter and kept a parakeet in his suite, Onassis and Callas, Sinatra, Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth and Errol Flynn, who celebrated his wedding in the Salle Empire with a cake that weighed 77lbs. To the right of the lobby is Le Louis XV, the three-Michelin-starred domain, since 1987, of Alain Ducasse.
The Belle Époque murals depict the wife and sweethearts of the king, but the rather odd circular light fitting and the beige leather armchairs are new; I took against their matching rectangular stools for handbags: they reminded me of cardboard boxes. But I was not eating there. I dined in Omer, a new restaurant also by Ducasse on the ground floor of Rotunda. It feels a little bland for my rather adventurous taste buds, but the Mediterranean dishes are anything but. Behind the lobby, back-of-house courtyards have been opened up and lined with soaring palm trees to become Le Patio, an open walkway that leads directly to another luxury shopping centre, One Monte-Carlo. You can see the attraction for the super rich: hotels, restaurants, shops, a marina, and a gaming ground are now all but a designer handbag’s swing from one another. All these buildings belong to the part government-owned Société des Bains de Mer. The Société’s portfolio also includes the Thermes Marins, accessed from the Hôtel de Paris by a marble-walled tunnel. Here I wimped out of a cryotherapy session, which is apparently frightfully good for you but requires being swathed in protective bandages and standing for three minutes in a booth set at -166F (-110C). Instead, I chose a La Prairie facial and a wonderful hour in the hair salon at the hands of a master stylist. Caviar, of course, was served every 27 minutes in between all that.
All 207 rooms and suites have also been renovated. They are soothing, classic/modern spaces that have balconies or terraces on to the Opéra de Monte-Carlo. In the case of the ravishing new signature suites, Princess Grace and Prince Rainier III, they have all of the above, plus the best views in Monaco, plus rooftop infinity pools. In the Princess Grace Suite, in particular, I really felt her presence. She would surely have approved of it, right down to the film about her life made with the help of her family, the recreation of her study and the garden planted with her favourite roses.
Thank God for my new haircut and glowing skin. A drink before dinner in the American Bar with its live band is a must, and one should at least try to look the part and mingle with the couture-clad lovelies idly scrolling through their diamond-encrusted iPhones. The following day, I came across a friend’s parents from New York’s Upper East, both choreographers who were assembling a group of eighteen ballerinas for rehearsal before dinner. “What do you think?” I asked them. “Oh very posh. It’s not like home, that’s for sure.” And therein lies the magic.
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