Travel review: Monaco and French Riviera still destination of choice for world’s super rich
For centuries, the world’s super rich have flocked to Monaco on the beautiful Cote d’Azur to indulge in the luxurious lifestyle this billionaires’ playground has to offer.
In the late 1800s, the Impressionist artists were inspired by the stunning French Riviera, entranced by its iridescent light and vivid scenery where picturesque villages are set against the striking blue of the Mediterranean and framed by the majestic Alps.
Today, Hollywood stars and business moguls, racing drivers and royalty continue to flock to enjoy its jazz age charm.
Best known for its super-yachts, sports cars and casinos, the city state of Monaco sits atop a narrow coastal area surrounded on three sides by France and the fourth by the Mediterranean Sea. The Principality is perhaps most famous for its renowned Grand Prix and the flamboyant Casino de Monte-Carlo, which opened 150 years ago and was the initial source of the vast wealth that has allowed Monaco its policy of not charging citizens personal income tax since the 1870s.
At the heart of this cosmopolitan enclave is the casino, which offers a contemporary approach to gambling in opulent surroundings, the pristine felt of French roulette tables alongside the gaudy bright lights of slot machines.
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Owned by the Monte-Carlo SBM group, which also operates four luxury hotels in Monaco and is part owned by the Monaco royal family, the casino’s concept for its wealthy guests is a concierge service super max operated with complete discretion. Tickets are kept for the Monte-Carlo Masters tennis tournament and the Formula 1 Grand Prix, the casino will organise limousines to take your wife shopping or your family to the beach and ensure absolute discretion.
When the casino experimented with abandoning its strict tie and jacket dress code, guests were not keen – instead demanding the high level of formality where women can wear diamonds to the opera and drink into the small hours at the casino bars without fear.
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The lavish Opera de Monte-Carlo, part of the casino, is the only opera house in the world with a sea view if you discount the open-air amphitheatre in Sicily’s Taormina. This gorgeous venue offers a feast for the senses with lavish gold interior and rich red velvet curtains.
Monaco’s royal family is still very much involved in the development of the Principality, which in the next few years is expected to include constructing a man-made island floating off the coast to add up to five hectares to the state.
Land is the one thing that is not in abundance. Monaco is the second smallest country in the world, with only Vatican City smaller, and apartment block after apartment block is squeezed onto the hillside above the Monte-Carlo harbour. The disjointed architecture speaks of aristocratic elegance of yesteryear competing with brash new wealth.
Enter one of Monte-Carlo’s few remaining townhouse villas, perched on the narrow streets overlooking the harbour, and you step into a world of glamour and elegance that time seems to have forgotten.
An ornate cast iron lift runs through the centre of one rarely seen villa, a perfect set for a James Bond stunt, while Andy Warhol prints hang near portraits of adored family cats, and a rare collection of motorsport encyclopaedias hand-bound by the owner’s late husband fill a bookcase near the entrance.
Steeped in history, this villa is not available to buy. But on the odd occasion when these properties do come onto the market, the price tag is rarely less than 25million euros. Sadly, they are often snapped up by developers who patiently wait to acquire enough real estate to build the next block of high rise apartments.
Sitting high above the twisting streets made world famous by the Monaco Grand Prix are sleek penthouse apartments full to bursting with walk-in wardrobes, palatial bathrooms and basements packed with Ferraris. A vision of feng shui chic and sleek white minimalism, they have large sweeping terraces with views of the coast and marina, slate waterfall walls, marble lobbies, underground swimming pools, infinity lightbox toilets – all the mod cons.
The price tags are jaw-droppingly expensive. One seven-bedroom duplex penthouse, near Larvotto Beach, is currently on the market with La Costa Properties Monaco for an estimated 26.5million euros. Real estate is priced at a maximum of 60,000 euros per square metre, more expensive than London. This must add to the charm for the rich who seek anonymity here, safe in the knowledge that their neighbours will be similarly wealthy.
But the dream of Cote d’Azur luxury is most fully realised if you take a drive out of Monte-Carlo to an elite hillside villa with breathtaking views of the coastline. For the seriously high-end tourist, the Carlton Estate, nestled in luscious olive groves and decorated in classic Provencal style with beamed ceilings and huge outside terraces, offers stunning panoramic views of sweeping Cannes beach from across its immaculate infinity pool.
Four villas with 16 bedrooms and suites are nestled across the 75-acre estate, which also has a helipad, heated pool, tennis court, sauna, steam room, jacuzzi and gym. The master suite offers a living room, huge dressing area and en-suite with a TV over the bath.
It is the flagship property of Carlton International, a company that offers grand private homes for hire with all the services you would expect from a five-star hotel, including a concierge and in-house chauffeur, a two-star Michelin chef, butler, security and housekeeping.
The concierge service can organise everything from yacht charters to helicopter hire and private chef Emmanuel Sofonea, who has cooked for famous clientele, including Will Smith, Cyndi Lauper, the Shah of Iran, and world-renowned CEOs, is on hand to rustle up a banquet at a moment’s notice, while Jules Wines provides luxury vintages to accompany dinner.
But it all comes at a price. The Carlton Estate is available to hire from 105,000 euros a week and the full package of staff and services will cost considerably more. It is a bargain compared to chartering a yacht which could cost up to four times as much for a vessel with 16 bedrooms.
For decades, Monaco lived solely on the profits of its casinos, but efforts to diversify its economy have made tourism the number one source of income and the Principality continues to innovate to attract wealthy tourists and investors from all over the world, as well as the European elite who have long indulged in its charms. But the cornerstone of this brand of tourism is privacy and discretion – a place where it is easy for the seriously wealthy to feel at ease in a tiny world of their peers.