My first afternoon in Monaco I head for that bastion of the Belle Époque, the Hôtel de Paris, arguably the Principality’s most prestigious address, as eternally chic as Chanel’s little black dress. I order the signature cocktail – Le Borromeo – in the famed Bar Américain, whose mahogany moldings, marble tables, gold-tasseled damask curtains and black-and-white photos of celebrities still evoke the Gilded Age… no matter how many iPads and cell phones click and beep in the background.
Here the violently beautiful and merely wealthy – rock stars and Rockefellers, real and reel royalty – play at anonymity, violate personal trainers’ and nutritionists’ advice, and indulge in the occasional vice away from the paparazzi’s popping bulbs. As I leave, a sleek Bentley Mulsanne disgorges its cargo outside the grand Casino de Monte-Carlo: Two nouveau riche Russian emigrés, hiding behind Bvlgari sunglasses and bulldog bodyguards, wear willowy models like Rolexes on their arms. An elegant blonde of a certain age – nails freshly lacquered, hair perfectly coiffed à la Deneuve – walks a tiny white bichon frise, yapping madly, its collar of diamonds (larger than most engagement rings) glinting in the fading sun. They’re all on parade, even in winter. Monaco among many other things, is sublime people-watching. It’s pure living theater, at times of the absurd, but always invigorating – and don’t we love dining as entertainment?
Somerset Maugham famously dubbed the Cote d’Azur “A sunny place for shady people,” but in Monaco, at least, there is no chiaroscuro of the soul, merely the play of light and shadow across the mega-yachts in Port Hercule. Something I savor the next day on the terrace of L’Hirondelle, the lovely little gem tucked away in the Thermes Marins spa.