Monaco, baby, is back

Weekend in Monte Carlo, darling? You bet. Monaco, which went into social if not economic decline after the death of Princess Grace 33 years ago, has never been hotter. Albert, 57, no longer the bachelor prince but married to an adorable South African wife and now with adorable infant twins, is on the Grimaldi throne and the loyal Monegasques, well, adore him. Haughty elder sibling Caroline sensibly keeps her distance, while naughty younger sister Steph, for so long the thorn in the principality’s side, has managed to keep out of the tabloids for a while now. The Monaco year is stuffed with tennis masters, dog shows, opera, ballet, jazz, film and TV festivals, the world’s most famous Formula One event and what is still the Riviera’s most glamorous party, the annual Red Cross Ball.

Gone are the waxed-moustache, stuffed Pucci shirts who used to clamor for Sunday afternoon tables at the Café de Paris in the Place de Casino. Gone too are the gigolos — well, most of them. These days, by comparison, Monaco is positively hip. There’s a Zara next door to Prada, coats and ties are no longer required in the fancier restaurants and female voituristes — car valets — now battle for tips with their male counterparts.

Given the Côte d’Azur’s horrendous August traffic, choppers, of course, are the only way to go. You take the 7-minute helicopter ride from Nice airport and less than an hour after your flight from New York touches down, you can be sipping a frozen daiquiri at Le Deck at the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel. Built partly on reclaimed land, winking at Cap Roquebrune across the water, this 1929 property, rebuilt and relaunched in 2005, is in the portfolio of Monaco’s all-powerful Société Bains de Mer, but is still the baby of the family in relation to the SBM’s other beaux enfants, notably the Hotel de Paris and Hotel Hermitage.

At the Bay there’s an indoor pool leading to an outdoor pool, another pool with a sandy bottom (the only one in Europe), plasma-screen TVs in the bathrooms (of course) and plastic sea horses for you to play with in the bath. It’s almost self-consciously modern with striking, chiselled marble, oversized vases and abstract sculpture on every surface, plus a bar called Blue Gin with its very own twinkly night “sky.” The Sunday brunch here — oysters, tuna tartare, hamburgers, leg of lamb, all washed down with pink Champagne — is now a Monaco institution.

And Monaco loves its institutions, one of them being fast cars. At the Ferrari garage in town, two men are permanently employed over the winter months to polish the beasts and take them for regular spins while their absentee owners are playing elsewhere.

Grand Prix weekend in May marks the start of the Monaco summer season, with 300,000 people descending on the principality (population 30,000) to be deafened for 72 hours and fill their lungs with the smell of burning rubber and Arpège. The circuit roars right past the Hotel de Paris, the grande dame of Monaco hotels, currently one year in to a four-year-long restoration to mark its 150th anniversary.

When I was recently a guest, a request for aspirin had James, the assistant concierge, knocking on the door within four minutes offering me a choice — Tylenol, sir, or Ibuprofen Extra? American breakfast, with sausages and hash browns, arrived in 12 minutes flat. There’s posh Elgydium toothpaste in the Limoges tooth mug and Hermès soap in the soap dish and the views of the harbor are dreamy. Alain Ducasse operates his flagship little bistro (three Michelin stars) on the first floor and in the eighth floor Grill, the roof glides open to reveal the stars. Okay, this isn’t Monaco’s hippest side, but it’s divinely romantic and romance, they say, never goes out of fashion.

Over at the Hermitage — another Sociéte Bains de Mer property, two minutes walk from the Hotel de Paris — you find marble so soft you want to hug it and exquisite Italian mosaics in contrast to the gilt, the frescoes and the giant chandeliers of Hotel de Paris. If restraint and discretion exist in Monte Carlo, this is where they are exercised. “In Monaco, they say, you come to the Hotel de Paris to be seen,” Mireille Rebaudo-Martini, press officer for the Sociéte Bains de Mer once told me, “but you come to l’Hermitage to disappear.”

If I go missing any time soon, my nearest and dearest will know where to find me.

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