48 hours in Monaco

Go to Monaco in the summer? Darling, how last century. The time to get cleaned out at the casino is now, when the millionaires head for the Med
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?It's The Season, dahlink. Or, at least, it used to be. Before the jetsetters had jets to take them to the Seychelles for an afternoon, they'd nip down to Monaco for a few months of soaking in the thermal baths, being cleaned out at the gaming-tables and gossiping about that outrageous Prince What's-His-Name. Now that Monaco has become a major financial and hi-tech centre, winter has become the season to keep the city's hard(ish) working residents entertained. The festivals are non-stop; the 40th Monte Carlo Television Festival is about to get underway (17-23 February). Then there's operas and orchestras in March, dog shows, tennis and show-jumping in April and, of course, the Monaco Grand Prix in May.

WHY GO NOW?It's The Season, dahlink. Or, at least, it used to be. Before the jetsetters had jets to take them to the Seychelles for an afternoon, they'd nip down to Monaco for a few months of soaking in the thermal baths, being cleaned out at the gaming-tables and gossiping about that outrageous Prince What's-His-Name. Now that Monaco has become a major financial and hi-tech centre, winter has become the season to keep the city's hard(ish) working residents entertained. The festivals are non-stop; the 40th Monte Carlo Television Festival is about to get underway (17-23 February). Then there's operas and orchestras in March, dog shows, tennis and show-jumping in April and, of course, the Monaco Grand Prix in May.

BEAM DOWNFly to Nice from Luton or Liverpool with easyJet (0870 6 000 000, easyjet.com), for around £80 return, or if you need frills then try British Airways or British Midland (which also flies on behalf of Air France). A bus takes you to Nice railway station, a 20-minute train ride from Monaco. "Real" Monégasques take the helicopter direct from Nice airport. This usually costs around £60 each way but, if you contact the Monaco Government Tourist Office (freephone 0500 006 114 or: monaco-congres.com) in the UK, you can buy a Red Diamond Club discount card (£35) and get the helicopter ride free of charge.

GET YOUR BEARINGSMonaco is on the Mediterranean, surrounded by France and just down the road from Italy. About three miles long and half-a-mile wide, it's growing all the time; since Prince Rainier III came to the throne just over 50 years ago, he has expanded the principality by one-sixth through land reclamation (some joke that he wants to create a land bridge to North Africa). Most tourist activity - including the Casino, the Opéra, and the Chanel boutique - is centred on Monte Carlo. "The Rock", the old fort area, is where you'll find the Pink Palace, surrounded by charming narrow streets.

CHECK INAs you might expect, Monaco is not a budget destination. The Hÿtel de Paris (Place du Casino, 00 377 92 16 30 00) is the classic choice. Right in the heart of things and offering direct access to the swimming pools of Thermes Marins de Monte Carlo, it's oh-so-Euro and costs from FFr 3000 (£300) per night for a double room. Alternatively, the Hÿtel Mirabeau (1 avenue Princesse Grace, 00 377 92 16 65 65) offers one of the best-value deals (FFr 1510, or around £150 per double) but is still hardly cheap. Both offer packages that include the SBM Gold Card, so giving access to facilities such as tennis courts. The best budget alternative is to stay in Nice, for example at the cheap and cheerful Les Orangers (00 33 4 87 51 41), which is close to the railway station.

TAKE A RIDEThe local buses are cheap and fast. It's worth randomly boarding one and seeing where you end up (the worst that can happen is that you'll be a mile-and-a-half from the town centre). You could also take a train ride out to Menton, the last fragment of the French Riviera before Italy begins and a place where you can see, feel and smell the two cultures merging. It takes 12 minutes from Monaco train Station.

WINDOW SHOPPING

If you want to realise how much money you don't have, wander down Boulevard des Moulins or anywhere near the Casino. If you're tempted to splurge, just remember that French shopping rules apply - the snootier you are to the shop assistant, the better the service.

LUNCH ON THE RUNLunch on the run is not the done thing in Monaco. If you want fast(ish) food, the best option (other than a baguette at one of the many bakers) is Stars and Bars (6 quai Antoine Ier, 00 377 93 50 95 95), the local version of an "authentic" American sports bar. Chow down on burgers and deli sandwiches, within sports memorabilia-decorated walls (much of which has been donated by famous, athletic visitors). Look out for celebrities - everyone from Chuck Berry to Prince seems to have performed here.

A WALK IN THE PARKProportionally, Monaco is one of the greenest places in the world. All new buildings have to devote around 65 per cent of their surface area to garden - and include a roof garden. There are also several public gardens, including the 10-acre Princess Grace Rose Garden in Fontvieille; the Exotic Gardens (62 Blvd du Jardin Exotique, 00 377 93 30 33 65), whose 7,000 desert plants cling to the hillside; and the stunning new Japanese Garden (Av Princesse Grace). Down by the beach and blessed by a Shinto priest, it's a wonderful place to contemplate how you just lost your house at the roulette wheel.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCHAttending Mass at one of the many churches is a splendid way of seeing the "real" Monaco. Actual Monégasques make up about 5,000 of the 30,000 people who live in the Principality, and they are a pretty devout bunch - the national holiday, celebrated in January, is even called the Feast of Saint-Dévote. One of the nicest churches to visit is the 17th-century Chapelle de la Miséricorde. On the eve of Good Friday, this is the starting point for a splendid torchlit procession through the centre of the country.

SUNDAY BRUNCHBear in mind that brunch in Monaco means about 3pm, so finding somewhere open shouldn't be a problem. Try the Paris brasserie-style Quai des Artistes (near Quai Antoine Ier, 00 377 93 30 20 03). It's new and very trendy at the moment.

TAKE A HIKEA walk from one end of the principality to the other (and back) takes only a few hours. Monaco is layered up a hillside so you can walk at one level one-way and then get a different perspective from another. If you don't feel like walking up the hillside between layers, there are excellent public elevators. There's even half a mile of shock-absorbing pavement in the north-east of the country, designed especially for joggers with tender knees. Sweet, eh?

ICING ON THE CAKE

The Opera House (00 377 92 16 23 18) is in the same complex as the Casino and is a dazzling piece of belle époque splendour. Designed by Garnier, the architect of the Paris Opéra, it is elegance in miniature, epitomising the glamour of Monaco at the turn of the century.

CULTURAL AFTERNOONPrince Rainier's great-grandfather, Albert I, was a committed marine biologist. The Oceanographic Museum, which he built on "The Rock" (Av Saint-Martin, 00 377 92 16 77 93) in 1910, is one of the best and most eclectic in the world. Jacques Cousteau was its director for 30 years and the displays offer a glimpse of everything from eels in pickling jars to a live coral ecosystem. Those not marine-minded can walk over to the Pink Palace and see the result of another Grimaldi obsession, the Museum of Napoleonic Souvenirs. Its exhibits include the compulsory hair-clipping (Place du Palais, 00 377 93 25 18 31).

AN APERITIFThe bar at the Hÿtel de Paris is a champagne-cocktail sort of place, with an elegant, older, crowd of locals. Sass Café (11 avenue Princesse Grace, 00 377 93 25 52 00) is a trendy piano- bar where old-enough-to-know-better captains of industry are often lured into karaoke renditions of Seventies and Eighties standards. If you're feeling homesick, there is always Flashman's Pub just behind the Casino (7 Avenue Princesse Alice, 00 377 93 30 09 03). But to see Monaco nightlife in full swing, you have to go to Jimmy'z (26 Avenue Princesse Grace, 00 377 92 16 22 77) and watch young babes sniffing out sugar-daddies, and sexy young Italian men seeking rich ladies to appreciate their special gifts. A lot more fun than it sounds.

DEMURE DINNERCafé de Paris (Place du Casino, 00 377 92 16 20 20), right by the Casino, is a classic choice but the service dances on that thin line between superb and snotty. An alternative (but one that necessitates a wardrobe to match) is the two restaurants at the Hÿtel de Paris. Le Louis XV (00 377 92 16 30 01) has three Michelin stars (dinner £25-£45 per head); The Grill upstairs (00 377 92 16 30 02), does sublime soufflés (from £40 per head).

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