Driving Monaco to new heights


The world’s second smallest country is striving to become more than a hideout for racing drivers, finds Simon Willmore

We gaze out from the rooftop poolside of the Fairmont, at the stretch of road winding dramatically downhill past the hotel car park and towards to the seafront. To the uninitiated, this would be an uninteresting view of a traffic thoroughfare, but this particular expanse of tarmac is arguably one of the most famous street corners in the world. For here, where Avenue des Spélugues turns sharply into Avenue Princesse Grâce, is the site of – as it’s known in the industry – the Fairmont Hairpin on the Monaco Grand Prix circuit, the most demanding corner on the entire Formula 1 schedule.


Even for those who aren’t fans of racing (myself included), it’s still fascinating looking at one of the scenes that has made – and continues to make – sporting history, especially because Monaco is so different to other F1 venues. Here, in the Monte Carlo neighbourhood, the fearless drivers duke it out on the city streets themselves, and so for locals, a visit to the shops on any of the 364 other days of the year means driving on the hallowed racetrack itself.


That’s not to say that fast cars are all that the principality has to offer. Of course, a nice set of wheels is a huge part of the Monaco ‘scene’ – not just the Formula 1 supercars, but the rows of shops displaying  Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Bentleys – but the country also has a rich history, a brimming leisure and tourism industry, and, now more than ever, an extensive corporate clientele. State of the art event facilities like the Grimaldi Forum boast all the space and technology required to host a top of the range international symposium, and, with two-hour flights from all major European cities, even a short break for a departmental meeting or company seminar is a real possibility.


All the major hotels now feature conference facilities as impressive as the sea view rooms,  as the country strives to become a contender for business beyond the stereotypical ‘champagne and yachts’ market. Naturally, the bubbly and the boats are still there en masse, with some of the most striking pieces of nautical kit on the planet shored up in the harbour, but the people at SBM (Société des Bains de Mer), a publicly traded company behind most of Monaco’s tourism facilities, are racing into the business market like a speedboat through the ocean.


Promoting MICE facilities along with the existing portfolio of famed hotels, spas, casinos and restaurants, the development team behind the country’s main source of income are now aiming to capture another section of the market, to maintain Monaco’s appeal as a destination throughout the season, not just somewhere for summertime cigars, brandy and roulette.


The major players in the hotel industry include:

Fairmont – The 24-hour Saphir lounge bar, award-winning Willow Spa and rooftop pool that looks out over the sea in one direction and that stretch of road in the other means that the Fairmont has the facilities to match the perfect location for F1 fans. It’s no surprise that George Lucas stays here and that TV crews often use the Fairmont’s balcony for filming the race. The enormous hotel has 602 rooms and suites, which are bright yet cosy and well-appointed, with a large flat-screen TV and plenty of space for a writing desk, armchair and king-size bed. If you’re feeling lucky, the Fairmont has its own large casino, and there’s a shopping arcade where you can fritter away all the money you’ve just won. www.fairmont.com/montecarlo

Le Méridien – The hotel, again in prime position, has a great restaurant, Muse, with a sea-view buffet lunch. The doors, advertised as ‘transformation portals’, have vibrant designs and are supposed to symbolise the beginning of the relaxation process during visitors’ stays. It’s also the only hotel in the country to have its own private beach – surely a plus point for former guest Jennifer Lopez. www.lemeridienmontecarlo.com

Novotel – The recently opened property, set slightly away from the sea and closer to the hillside, boasts a fresh and modern interior with colour décor. The disco-style light-up floor provides a funky yet classy backdrop for a drink before moving downstairs to the poolside restaurant. Families are well catered for with a kids’ library and video games area and children under 16 stay for free. http://www.novotel.com

Hôtel Métropole – Upon entering, the enormous (fake) cherry tree in reception demonstrates the flair and grandeur of the Metropole. The restaurants, both from multi-Michelin starred Joel Robuchon, offer Mediterranean cuisine served at an open kitchen or Japanese fusion food at the fantastic Yoshi. Rooms shine with Belle Époque grandeur, even down to the light switch units which have up to nine separate switches for various parts of the room. www.metropole.com

Hôtel Hermitage – Another Belle Époque masterpiece, the Hermitage features all the stunning original architecture of the era, including painstakingly painted ceilings and intricate glass domes, some designed by Gustave Eiffel, of ‘Tower’ fame. The famous Thermes Marins spa calls the Hermitage home, and the gorgeous suites overlook the harbour so if the décor doesn’t make your jaw drop, the yachts on show will. www.hotelhermitagemontecarlo.com

Monte Carlo Bay – Found right at the eastern tip of Monaco, on the border with France – indeed the nearby Monte Carlo Country Club is actually in another country – this hotel features a bright airy décor and more-than-double-height ceilings in the bar on the seafront. Most of the rooms, some of them duplexes, come with a view of the Mediterranean. www.montecarlobay.com

Columbus – Formerly owned by David Coulthard, the Columbus is set away from the madding crowd near the Roseraie Princesse Grâce gardens. Perhaps it’s this peace and quiet that has helped the numerous F1 drivers that stay here to concentrate – the winner of the Monaco Grand Prix for the last four years running has stayed here. It’s also close to the Monaco Heliport for arriving in style. www.columbushotels.com

Simon flew to Nice with bmi, British Midland International (www.flybmi.com), which fly direct to Nice from London Heathrow. Flights are twice daily Monday to Saturday and daily on Sunday. Economy fares are available from £94 return and business class fares from £158 return including all taxes and charges. See www.visitmonaco.com for more details.

Kirker Holidays offers a ‘Monaco Passport’ which includes flights to Nice with bmi return in the low season (November –March), plus complimentary return helicopter transfers to Monaco; hotel transfer from heliport; three- nights BB at the 4 Star Columbus Hotel, plus 10 complimentary museum passes per person from £399 per person subject to availability. 

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