To awaken the hibernating Cosmo girl in me and flirt with an elegant Monegasque - whose name I don't know but whose champagne I accepted -- on the terrace of the very shiny and shipshape Norman Foster-designed Yacht Club de Monaco (where Prince Albert's vote decides your inclusion) was worth the price of admission to this precious principality where crime and garbage are basically nonexistent and sinfully enormous yachts with names like "Mr. Chic," "Xanadu" and "Bronzo" rest comfortably in Port Hercule. Bonjour and welcome to Disneyland for the uber rich and the safety deposit box of my happiest memories. But for the uninitiated, unless you've come into an inheritance or are keeping company with a Russian oligarch or Middle Eastern sheik, those splashy bijoux displayed in vitrines and mashed potatoes that make you weep with joy at Joel Robuchon's restaurant are not for those on a budget. Quite frankly, the only thing affordable in Monte Carlo -- the holy grail of Monaco -- is window shopping. For me on this third visit, with decades in between and expensive memories from another life tagging along, the goal was to retrace a few happy footsteps. Fortunately, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."
Monaco has always been hallowed ground for me. Coming first as a spirited 24-year-old Harper's Bazaar editor sent to cover the Grand Prix, I spent two weeks at the very grand Hotel de Paris and vaguely remember a French photographer whose dog came along and ate my blue suede Henri Bendel loafers. But it's a memory slightly confused by endless champagne and riotous nights at Jimmy Z's, the boom boom night club (thankfully still there) where I danced next to Albert and Caroline, then the naughty members of the royal and ruling Grimaldi tribe, and spent days eating langoustines on Helene Rochas' yacht. Considering the Grand Prix took only hours to cover, the two week stay, in retrospect, was odd but in the 70's a good time trumped all.
Almost two decades later I visited with the great love of my life and spent hours shopping at Valentino and Chanel -- those were the days when the dollar ruled. Who could have anticipated that only a year later, I would be widowed left with a closet full of clothes and Chanel bags, but not much else.
And now thirty years later, I realized for the first time, I was solo in the land of my happiest memories. No longer the spirited ingenue galloping up Monaco's hilly streets in ballet flats nor the bride with a husband whose love and credit card limit seemed endless, I was curious how I would feel maneuvering as one, instead of deux. As it turned out -- baby simple.
From check in to check out, there is probably no such thing as a bad hotel in Monte Carlo, but the Metropole is top tier not just for its Robuchon restaurants, but for maintaining that "je ne sais quoi" elegance and details like rose petals on the sink and Hermes products clearly legible so I didn't substitute mouthwash for shampoo without my reading glasses. Totally renovated ten years ago, their signature anniversary cocktail had me happily loopy from the combination of champagne, creme de peche, cinnamon liquor, cherries and shredded gold; It's lucky there's a deluxe underground shopping center right out the door, so when you're tipsy enough you too can buy a Gottex bathing suit I could have found at Bloomingdales.
Restaurants and their rock star chefs are a huge draw with Alain Ducasse's summer restaurant, La Trattoria, now residing in Monte Carlo's "Le Sporting" -- the principality's major summer entertainment complex. Once you finish hoovering in the pasta, and watch the weekly fireworks with that extra glass of vin rouge, you can go next door to Jimmy'z and shake off the lbs. (I was very sad to miss Robin Thicke's performance but the list of performers proves their summer festival is every reason the rich tie up their yachts and hop the dingy to shore). Even sitting in the cafes around the worn-out casinos -- which are so not like a James Bond movie -- and watching the 20 something girls in knock off Legers maneuver into egg yolk yellow Bentleys is mesmerizing; one wonders if they're really models?
Though walking was my goal in this 1.2 mile-ish kingdom, I took the detritus-free public bus to the Princess Grace Memorial Rose Garden, open all year round and filled with roses named after every Grimaldi past and present, various royalty and artists like Michelangelo as well as Charles Aznavour. Walking back through lush gardens,I watched turtles sunning themselves, took escalators thoughtfully positioned to help us up and down from harbor to heights, and climbed the many steps to the Palace where on one landing a sign points to a "Defibrillateur." For sure it has come in handy. (Not to be snide, the real reason for visiting Le Palais is to gawk at a portrait of the Royal family so ghastly one wonders if it was from the paint-by-numbers school. In any case, the artist should have his brush taken away as dear Grace would be horrified.)
Ultimately, it's a walkable city (in chic sneakers please) and after climbing back up the various streets -- good for your derriere -- I stopped at the famous Hermitage Hotel, sister to the Hotel de Paris -- for a glass of rosé while fending off a crazed pigeon as we both tried to enjoy the view. (Within months a huge renovation is taking place and when finished both hotels and their spa will probably be booked year round within minutes.) But for me there's no view that makes me giggle more than watching slightly stooped men walk behind their wives, holding not just multiple shopping bags but their pocket books as well. Such is the life of the holder of plastic.
Window shopping at my own speed, enjoying a pastry when the urge struck and a harmless flirtation for which I am grateful, are what I'll remember this time. So while squiggling up the Riviera coastline in a comfy Premier Class Rail Europe train from Monaco to Nice and ultimately Paris, I had this thought to share the next trip with my delicious granddaughter -- perhaps a future Cosmo girl -- when she's old enough to appreciate an oasis so removed from reality that both turmoil and sweatpants are most likely outlawed. Who can help but enjoy stores displaying $160 neon pink baby shoes, dog beds in the style of Marie-Antoinette with little sheets turned down, and towers of colorful Laduree macaroons? Even a few days of suspended belief will never disappoint.