06 JUN 2019: Even on a regular non-descript day Monaco is packed with millionaires. The second smallest country in the world by area, it’s also the most densely populated and the richest in per capita wealth. A stay at Monte-Carlo’s great 1864 landmark, the Hôtel de Paris put my husband and I in the centre of all this glitz and glam for a thrilling few days.

We were there a week before the 77th Monaco Formula 1 Grand Prix in May and high society was out in droves. This circuit is renowned as the slowest and hardest of the Formula 1 World Championship. From the front patio of our hotel we watched local residents drive slowly past the hotel on part of the route where the racers would later compete. (It’s impossible to drive fast on the twisty and steep Monaco streets). It was a constant parade of Ferraris, Bugattis, Bentleys, McLarens, Lamborghinis, Rolls Royce’s and Mercedes-Maybachs. It seemed a Porsche would be a step down here.

The population of Monaco is just under 39,000 and one in three are millionaires. Most of us are not likely to live at this classic luxury address along the French Riviera but a great many visit. Luxury cruise ships dock among the super yachts in its harbour, regularly disgorging thousands of tourists. It’s also a picturesque and easy 40-minute drive from the international airport in Nice.

Smaller in size than New York’s Central Park, it’s easy to see on foot – it takes about 45 minutes to walk from one end to the other along the waterfront. To take us up the steep hillsides there was a series of public lifts and escalators and a frequent local bus system.

We were happy to be there before the Grand Prix crush.  We saw the set up of the stands and the exact circuit of the race through the Principality but were spared the sky-rocketing prices that the event brings. A seat for a three course lunch on the front patio of the Hôtel de Paris during the race is a thousand Euro a person (about $1,500 Canadian).

The hotel’s top restaurant, the three star Michelin Le Louis XV - Alain Ducasse à l'Hôtel de Paris wasn’t open during our stay. A disappointment perhaps, but undoubtedly saving us from a large bill. However we did know beforehand that this wouldn’t be the time to skimp and we ate and drank in style. Monaco has excellent restaurants serving up fresh Mediterranean style cuisine.

At our hotel, which recently completed a four-year multi-million dollar reconstruction and thorough renovation was in top form. Two guest wings were rebuilt from the ground up and an interior garden courtyard complete with palm trees was created. The hotel’s Belle Époque lobby was “refreshed” but still had its famous glass ceiling dome and bronze equestrian statue that guests rub for good luck on their way to the gaming tables across the road at the Casino de Monte-Carlo.

We dined at Le Grill, an elegant one star Michelin spot on the eighth floor with a panoramic view of the Principality, its marina and the Mediterranean Sea. Executive Chef of the hotel, Franck Cerutti’s vision for Le Grill is focussed – quite naturally – on Mediterranean and marine. The wood-fired rotisserie is the restaurant's centrepiece where meats and fish skewered on the spit are slowly cooked.

The tony Bar Américain on the ground floor still had its original look and feel as a gentleman’s clubhouse though the dolled up young ladies in body hugging outfits made the atmosphere more scintillating. Given all the eye candy, my husband didn’t seem to mind that a single scotch on the rocks cost about $40. The bar’s new terrace I’m sure was prime for watching the Grand Prix de Monaco this spring and for discreetly watching the watchers.

The Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer group which owns and operates our hotel also has many other prestigious establishments under its umbrella in Monaco, including 22 restaurants and four hotels. All we had to do was flash our hotel room card and we could charge meals at any of their establishments to our room.

We had our favourite meal at Hôtel Hermitage Monte-Carlo just behind our hotel at their one star Michelin Vistamar restaurant. Chef Benoît Witz had a lightness to his dishes that used fresh, seasonal and local product. Our fish was perfectly cooked and expertly presented.

Our simplest meal was at the Café de Paris Monte-Carlo, a brasserie across the Place du Casino square from our hotel and clearly a popular hang out at all times of the day. It’s been at its legendary location in the heart of Monaco for 150 years. It served classic French bistro fare such as salad Niçoise, onion soup, fish soup and steak tartar with frites.

For the frugal and the cruise passengers, Monaco is a great day trip. However we found that staying a few days to revel in the playground of the rich was well worth the splurge.

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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