Magical Monaco

BY Ayesha Shaikh / Jun 7 2017 / 16:06 PM

Located in the heart of a calm state resting on the French Riviera, Hôtel Hermitage Monte-Carlo is the poster child of luxury and joie de vivre, writes Ayesha Shaikh

Magical Monaco
Monte Carlo SBM
A view of Port Hercule from the Suite Princière at Hôtel Hermitage Monte-Carlo
Magical Monaco
Monte Carlo SBM
An exterior view of Hôtel Hermitage Monte-Carlo
Magical Monaco
Monte Carlo SBM
Thermes Marins Monte-Carlo solarium

"The weather is so nice," I say en route to Monaco from Nice on a cold, rainy Thursday afternoon. Clearly a French faux pas, the chauffeur is unimpressed. “Meh, it has been raining since yesterday and we hope the sun comes out soon.” Having arrived from Dubai’s scorching heat, a touch of dreary weather adds its own kind of beauty to the picturesque scenery of the French Riviera.

The city moves quickly before my eyes, its cobblestone streets and elegant buildings, as we make our way to the historic Hôtel Hermitage, one of Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer’s (SBM) four luxury hotels. The hotel is a stone’s throw from the fashion district and Monte-Carlo SBM’s Casino de Monte-Carlo, known the world over as a Bond location. Following years of restoration, Hôtel Hermitage now stands seven storeys tall with 278 rooms, including 88 junior and regular suites and 12 diamond suites.

Hotel Hermitage Monaco Suite

An exclusive room with sea view at the Hôtel Hermitage. Image courtesy of Monte Carlo SBM

I’m shown to my room overlooking Port Hercule, its red and ivory floral and striped fabrics a reminder of the hotel’s Belle Époque heritage. The mosaic floor of the bathroom and red chequered upholstery in the bedroom are classically elegant. Then, my ‘Carrie Bradshaw in Paris’ moment as I step onto the balcony; sea stretching out as far as the eye can see, yachts swaying in the bay below. To the right, a view of the Rock of Monaco and Old Town, and, to the left, the terrace of the hotel’s Le Vistamar restaurant.

Renowned for its vintage charm, Hôtel Hermitage is an archetypal example of European neoclassical architecture, high relief friezes and wrought iron balconies decorating the elegant ivory facade. Built in the early 20th century by Monegasque architect Jean Marquet, it was acquired by Monte-Carlo SBM in 1928, who sensitively restored it, blending its rich past with a modern flair.

Hotel Hermitage Winter Garden

Jardin d’Hiver (Winter Garden), one of the two grand lobbies in Hôtel Hermitage featuring the Eiffel Dome. Image courtesy of Monte Carlo SBM

Inside, the Jardin d’Hiver (Winter Garden), one of the two hotel lobbies that boasts the Eiffel Dome, designed by Gustave Eiffel who engineered the eponymous tower in Paris. Frescoes and stained glass of the cupola enhance its ethereal aura. The dome has been restored with pastel hues, gildings and lighting fixtures by interior designer and architect Pierre-Yves Rochon, lending a contemporary feel to the classic space. I breakfast next door, with a closer view of the Eiffel Dome, setting the mood for a glorious spread in a room fragrant with freshly baked croissants and bread.

With floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the port, the one Michelin starred Le Vistamar restaurant offers a menu that stays true to classic Mediterranean flavours. Chef Benoît Witz excels at creating dishes that are simple but pack a punch, and that night I dine on Barbajuan (golden fritters filled with cheese and spinach), pebble-cooked langoustines and creamy risotto infused with just the right amount of truffle.

Le Vistamar Monaco

The opulent restaurant Le Vistamar in Hôtel Hermitage. Image courtesy of Monte Carlo SBM

The next morning, I walk to the adjoining Thermes Marins Monte-Carlo, all lavish pink marble and boasting a spa, salon, aqua fitness centre, hammams and cryotherapy rooms. In another room with floor-to-ceiling windows to the sea, I have the Monaco La Prairie treatment, customised to my skin type, which is apparently embarrassingly poor, and fall asleep during the massage that follows. Afterwards, with my skin wonderfully revived and soft, I lunch on fresh seafood in the Thermes Marins restaurant, L’Hirondelle, taking in another breath-taking view of the sea.

Later, I change into Marchesa for the overwhelming decadence of a Surrealist Dinner at the Casino de Monte-Carlo, a 154-year-old marvel. Marking the start of Monte Carlo’s busy May and June season, the event was attended by dignitaries and royalty, including Monaco’s Prince Albert II and Princess Caroline. Ahead of the dinner, I have a tour of the casino’s Opéra de Monte-Carlo, Salle Garnier, designed by and named after French architect Charles Garnier. Luciano Pavarotti, Enrico Caruso and Lily Pons have all performed in this grand space, replete with frescoed ceilings, the steel beams designed again by Gustave Eiffel.

The dinner, designed by Belgian architect Charles Kaisin, was set within the glorious Salle Médecin, a night both theatrical and whimsical. “In a way, what we’re doing this evening has historical and traditional aspects but is also at the same time normal in a way… but of course unusual,” says Kaisin. Only in Monte-Carlo could this possibly be considered normal…

Surrealist Dinner

Servers in chequered masks depicting the art of gaming at the Surrealist Dinner. © Palais Princier/Monte Carlo SBM/Pierre Villard

Michelin-starred Chef Marcel Ravin created a multisensory menu, each of the four courses representative of a defining moment in Monaco’s history. Delights kept unfolding; after the starter, a horse-drawn carriage brought in two sopranos to perform, and servers wore gaming card headpieces depicting 2017 as the year of gaming for the Casino de Monte-Carlo.

“There are more than 400 people who worked on this dinner and it took seven to eight months to prepare it,” says Kaisin. Extraordinarily, this makes the dinner almost as grand a project as the creation of the casino’s opera house itself. “It was very funny because when the opera of the casino was constructed by Charles Garnier, it took 430 people who worked six months day and night,” Kaisin explains.

Monaco may seem the lap of luxury today, but it was not always the case, says Pascal Camia, Executive Vice President Casinos of Monaco. “Monaco was not a likely place for a resort to succeed because there was nothing,” he shares. “There were just olive trees, cypress trees here and then we built a casino and railroads from Nice to Monaco.” The rest is history.

As I pack my bags the next day, I take one last look at the glistening Mediterranean from the balcony. Walking down to the hotel’s lobby to check out, memories of the trip flash like a reel of a 1950s Hollywood film. I leave with a stomach full of croissants and a heart full of memories sure to stay with me forever. Here’s hoping it’s au revoir and not goodbye.

Junior suites start from Dhs2,060, regular suites from Dhs2,874 and diamond suites from Dhs12,050.