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Review: Seeking sun, sea and the party scene in Europe’s gaming capital

PUBLISHED: 20:37 27 June 2015 | UPDATED: 18:53 06 July 2015

Casino Square is Monaco's beating heart  (Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Casino Square is Monaco's beating heart (Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

2012 Getty Images

Ladbrokes Casino sent Zoah Hedges-Stocks to Monaco, where after a few setbacks she discovered the principality has more to offer than just yachts and racing.

And the Monte Carlo Casino is its crown jewel (Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)And the Monte Carlo Casino is its crown jewel (Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Any gambling man would think I was cursed on my recent trip to Monaco, the gaming capital of Europe. Our first night was plagued by some truly spectacular storms, and the second by illness, but it was third time lucky for our last night, when we experienced what this grand old resort has to offer a younger crowd.

As well as casinos, Monaco is of course famous for the Grand Prix. Where better to stay, then, than a hotel built by David Coulthard that has hosted Formula 1 drivers such as . Alonso, Vettel, and England’s very own Jensen Button?

Hotel Columbus is quietly fashionable, and felt much more luxurious than its three stars. We were impressed with the quality of the room, the huge plus-king-sized bed, spacious balcony, and quietly fashionable décor. However, as brits, we were quietly alarmed by the lack of a kettle in our room – then realised that was because the Hotel Columbus offers unlimited barista-style drinks downstairs, with an supply of takeaway cups.

Hotel Columbus sits in the new Fonteveille district – and when I say ‘new,’ I mean it was recently reclaimed from the sea. It has quickly become Monaco’s second port, and offers stunning views over the Princess Grace rose garden and out to sea. It’s particularly handy to those who want to make the transfer from Nice airport in style, as it’s located right by the helipad. Helicopter tranfers take just seven minutes, but will set you back 165 euro - so it’s probably best to save for your return journey when hopefully you will have won big at the casinos.

Sun, sea and plenty of gambling  (Photo by Vladimir Rys/Getty Images)Sun, sea and plenty of gambling (Photo by Vladimir Rys/Getty Images)

Chopper noise aside, the area is quiet, and the port offers a great chance to get a close-up look at some of the luxury yachts (so-called megayachts, due to their unwieldy size, are generally moored too far out for the nosy to peek inside).

After a wander around the bay, we found a much-neededCarreFour hypermarket, which brings me to a very important point about Monaco: it is very, very expensive. Despite a free hotel breakfast (which we took full advantage of) and a generous expense account, which most travellers will not be lucky enough to have, we still struggled in Monaco. The principality is very expensive, and in order to review the party scene in the evenings, we scrimped on lunch, buying bread and charcuterie from the hypermarket instead of dining in restaurants.

If that sounds dreary, don’t feel too sorry for us! This was a great chance to get a glimpse into Monagesque culture. The principality has a love affair with fresh fish, smoked salmon, and sushi. You can choose your shellfish in the supermarket while they’re still alive, or watch your maki made before your eyes by talented chefs. If you prefer to enjoy your sushi in a restaurant, you’ll be spoilt for choice in Monaco, from cheap and trendy seafront eatery Planet Sushi to international superstar Nobu in the Fairmont Hotel.

The hotel is in Larvetto, Monaco’s beach area, and it’s a tourist attraction itself. As well as designer sushi, it offers designer shopping, cocktails through the night at Saphir 24, and a pop-up rooftop club this summer, it hosts its own casino. Of the three centrally-located casinos in Monaco, we found the Fairmont’s Sun Casino to be the most accessible, with no door charge or dress code to get into the circus-themed gaming room. It also offered handy pamphlets explaining how to play the various games to the novice gambler: something that we found very reassuring! We were less impressed the Café de Paris casino, which is dominated by slot machines and feels more like a Blackpool seaside arcade - although we did enjoy a classic French meal in the adjoining Brasserie Café de Paris, which is much prettier and offers lovely evening views over the Casino Square.

The Monte Carlo Casino regularly plays host to celebrities such as Rafael Nadal (Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)The Monte Carlo Casino regularly plays host to celebrities such as Rafael Nadal (Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

The main gaming highlight, is, of course, the Casino de Monte Carlo itself. Whilst you have to pay 10 euro to enter the gaming rooms, tourists can enter the lobby and admire the architecture for free. If you do decide to go inside, we recommend stumping up the extra cash to enter the private rooms or La Salle Blanche, which have their own, more upscale bar (remember gentlemen will need to wear a jacket after 8pm). More relaxed players can enjoy the wider casino, which has two different restaurants and its own bar. Naturally there are a wide range of martinis of offer, and we saw more than one English party decked out in black tie. Good evening, Mr Bond!

For more old-school glamour, visit the Bar Americain at the Hotel de Paris next door. Enter through the most stunning lobby, and don’t turn right (where the restaurants are beautiful, but the prices are eyewatering), but instead head left into the classic, clubby bar. We enjoyed free live music, and were pleased by the very attentive and welcoming service despite the fact we were clearly not the highest of rollers. Unfortunately, I had fallen ill on the trip, and was desperate for a cup of tea. Although they had stopped serving hot drinks, our waiter could see I was ailing and gallantly provided me with a cuppa from a wonderful silver teapot.

Whilst the old-world glamour of Monte Carlo is amazing, the formality and the price can make it feel a bit stuffy. We were eager to find out what the younger, trendier Monagesque got up to, but as outsiders in a place where even the nightclubs have their own yachts, we found that the nightlife was largely confined to boats or private parties. However, there are still some cool places to visit on land.

Pan-Asian bar-restaurant Buddha Bar has outposts all over the world, and we found the laidback vibe (and the cocktails!) very refreshing after the formality of Monaco’s more traditional watering-holes. Set out like an old-fashioned theatre, the DJ’s booth was in the circle overlooking the giant statue of Buddha. Shoreditch’s bars could learn a thing or too: you don’t have be understated and grungy to be cool, glamour can be just as fun.

Our other favourite bar was completely different. We discovered the Oddyssey bar in the Hotel Metropole by following the sound of the music. The Karl Lagerfeld-designed bar is a modern twist on the nautical theme, with four-poster beds decked out in Breton stripes instead of sunloungers. In the evening, the mirror pool is studded with lights that look like stars emerging out of the water. We ordered ‘champagne in the swimming pool with three peppers’ – which did indeed turn out to be a globe-shaped glass of fizz with red, green and yellow peppers in it. It was Monaco in a glass: extravagant and a bit ridiculous, but very fun.

Our other highlights included an amazing meal at Mozza, a laidback restaurant that’s so well-designed that they put the architect’s name on the menu. The trendy restaurant has a mozzarella bar that offers a wide selection of the wonderful cheese including burrata, a mozzarella stuffed with fresh cream that is very hard to get in this country. For the main course, we recommend the truffle burger or the paper-baked sea bream, washed down with a glass of prosecco (at 5 euro it’s definitely the cheapest drink you’ll get in Monaco). There are innumerable beautiful seafront gardens to linger in, and we also loved Monaco’s aquarium, that was just as fascinating for grown-ups as it is for kids. Who wouldn’t love the chance to stroke sharks?

The principality is so tiny that it could fit inside Hyde Park, and it really is a rich person’s playground. It’s not somewhere to go if you like backpacking, getting ‘back to nature’. Wandering through luxury boutiques and hearing animals shriek from the exotic gardens, we were reminded that Monaco is literally a tiny mountain kingdom built to indulge the fantasies of the wealthy. It was beautiful and surreal, but it’s telling that one of our best experiences was something money couldn’t buy.

On our first night out, we braved the humid weather and walked out into Fonteveille when we saw stormclouds gathering. We ducked into the Hotel Miramar’s Mirror Image restaurant, where I enjoyed a beef tagliatia with rocket and parmesan. More special than the admittedly good food was watching the thunderstorm that we had just escaped, safe under the restaurant’s roof, but able to feel the electricity in the air through the open windows. The panoramic view as the lightening flashed over the yacht-studded bay was a site I’ll remember from the rest of my life.

Verdict: Monaco is stunning but surreal. A paradise for luxury-lovers and those who like to gamble – but probably somewhere to go after you’ve already won it big.

This trip was courtesy of Ladbrokes. For further details about this and other exciting destinations, including comprehensive city guides, please visit Ladbrokes’ Party Hotspot Guide.

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