Somewhere for the weekend: Monaco

The tax haven of the rich and famous is a great late-summer destination, says Rhiannon Batten. Just make sure you've got plenty of cash (or know where to find Lady Luck)
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Roll up, roll up! The sun's still shining but the midsummer crowds are thinning, so go now and catch Jours de Cirque, a dazzling exhibition about the colourful life of the circus. It juggles major works by Picasso, Manet and Chagall with films, sculptures, models and parades (no mention of local girl Princess Stephanie's scandalous love affair with an elephant tamer, though). The show goes on from 10am to 8pm daily until 8 September, at the Grimaldi Forum (10, Avenue Princesse Grace, Monte Carlo). Tickets cost €8 (£5.50) for over 25s, €4 (£2.75) for 12-25s and are free for under-12s (00 377 99 99 3000, www.grimaldiforum.com).

DOWN PAYMENT

The most direct way to get there is to fly to Nice Côte d'Azur airport. Many airlines fly direct from the UK, including British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester; BMI (0870 607 0555, www.flybmi.com) from Heathrow; bmibaby (0870 264 2229, www.bmibaby.com) from East Midlands; easyJet (0870 600 0000, www.easyjet.co.uk) from Liverpool, Luton and Gat- wick; and Go (0870 607 6543, www.gofly.com) from Bristol and Stansted. If you book well in advance fares can be as low as £65 return but this weekend they're rather higher; BA from Heathrow costs at least £358; easyJet from Liverpool starts at £145. From Nice airport, take a seven-minute helicopter ride (€80/£50 per person each way, 00 377 92 05 0050, www.heliairmonaco.com), or a 45-minute bus journey (€12/£8 each way) for the 25km into Monaco. For general information, the main Monaco Tourist Office is at 2a Boulevard Des Moulins, Monte Carlo (00 377 92 16 6116, www.monaco-tourisme.com). Contact them in the UK on 020-7352 9962.

INSTANT BRIEFING

A tiny principality in the far south-eastern corner of France, Monaco measures less than two square kilometres. But despite its size, it has a large presence. Much of that is down to its status as a tax haven but it's also thanks to the very public goings-on of the ruling Grimaldi family. It has been a hot spot for the rich since 1863, when what is said to be Europe's first casino opened here. Today the setting is as dazzling as ever, with yachts bobbing about in the harbour against a backdrop of the Cote d'Azur cliffs.

Monaco has lost a little of its cachet in recent years. Above the boats and the opulent old buildings of Monaco Ville rises a very unglamorous wall of ugly apartments built in the 1980s and, strolling around the frequently empty pavements (no one walks, darling), it's as though you've wandered on to the set of Dynasty. Hair is just a touch too big, shoulders too padded, money too new and the whole effect just a little too flashy. Thankfully, that looks set to change, as new developments such as the swanky Columbus hotel gradually reinstate a sense of that old Riviera style.

REST ASSURED

The grand dame of the Monaco hotel scene is the 19th-century Hôtel de Paris (see Room Service, below), whose main selling point these days is its direct access to the Thermes Marins spa. Rooms here start at a lofty €365/£233 per double (place du Casino, 00 377 92 16 3000, www. montecarloresort.com). If it's luxury you're after, Columbus Monaco is the best place to stay. Rooms come with CD players and internet access and there is also a decent restaurant, funky bar and, in summer months, a swimming pool. Doubles start at €245 (£150), a bargain for Monaco (23 avenue des Papalins, 00 377 92 05 9000, www.columbushotels.com). Budget accommodation is harder to find, but two options worth trying are the Hotel de France (6 rue de la Turbie, 00 377 93 30 24 64), with doubles from €84 (£54), or the youth hostel (24 ave Prince Pierre, 00 377 93 50 83 20), with beds from £10.

MUST SEE

There are three main areas to aim for. The harbour is Monaco's heart, and worth seeing up close just to gawp at the yachts. To one side of this is the pretty, hilltop old town, Monaco Ville, with its villas, narrow streets, ornate Musee Oceanographique (ave St-Martin, 00 377 93 15 36 00; entrance €11 (£7) adults and €6 (£4) children) and Palais du Prince (00 377 93 25 18 31; entrance €6 (£4) adults, €3 (£2) children). For peace and quiet try the leafy Jardins St-Martin, with views over the Fontvielle district and out to sea. To the other side is Monte Carlo, with its swish apartment blocks, fancy restaurants and shops and, of course, the Casino.

MUST BUY

The fact that Monaco is largely inhabited by the world's wealthy (and non tax-paying) elite means that this isn't a place for bargain hunting. Unless you're in the market for expensive antiques or designer clothes, you'd do better hopping on a train and heading for Nice instead. Not only does it have better shops and great outdoor markets, but the spectacular train journey along the mountainous coast (25 minutes, around €7.60/£4.80) is a bargain in itself.

MUST EAT

Run by the celebrated French chef Alain Ducasse, Monaco's finest restaurant, Le Louis XV, is located at the Hotel de Paris and boasts three Michelin stars. Its star status is reflected in the prices: dinner for two, including wine, will set you back around €390/£250 (place du Casino, 00 377 92 16 2976). Ducasse's other Monaco restaurant, Bar & Boeuf, was designed by Philippe Starck and is equally popular although it's further out of town (Sporting d'Ete, ave Princesse Grace, 00 377 92 16 6060). A more reasonable option is Zebra Square, a sleek, modern bar and restaurant (Grimaldi Forum, 10 avenue Princesse Grace, 00 377 99 99 2550). Dinner here costs around €93/£60 for two. For less minimal surroundings head to Il Terrazzino (2, rue des Iris, 00 377 93 50 2427), a small Italian restaurant where three courses cost around €78/£50 for two.

INTO THE NIGHT

Monte Carlo casino is the obvious choice, although unless you really want to gamble it's not great entertainment. You have to pay €10 (£6.60) and show your passport to get in and, although the belle-époque building is spectacular from the outside, inside it's less glamorous and often rather empty (place du Casino, 00 377 92 16 2121). Much more fun is Jimmy'z, Monaco's best known nightclub (ave Princesse Grace, 00 377 92 16 2277). The "z" says it all here; as far as music and decor go this is entertainingly naff. Just beware that what you save on the free entrance you will spend at the bar; a bottle of water costs an astonishing €31/£20. It's enough to drive you to drink.

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