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Monte Carlo

Costa Rica

Monte Carlo (the centre and sea front of the only slightly bigger Monaco) is still the playground of choice for the rich and famous, where yachts are as big as mansions, champagne is the national drink, and even the railway station is as grand as a pharoah’s tomb. And once a year, in the Monaco Grand Prix, it receives the sort of international exposure other cities can only dream about. But while a Premiership football star’s salary would help you enjoy the finer luxuries of this mini state on the Med coast, I found that anyone can savour fine gardens, clean streets fit for a film set, sensational views and the world’s grandest aquarium for not very much at all. Photo: the quieter harbour in Monaco, by the writer

Arrive in style

The best way to reach Monaco is still in an Aston Martin DB5, twirling down the hairpins from the Alps. (The Bollinger with a red rose is an optional extra.) Alternatively just buy the GoldenEye DVD and see how 007 does it. There is a more affordable grand entry – by helicopter from Nice airport. A seven minute ride is upwards of €100. Failing that, the 100 bus from the airport takes 45 minutes. If you are coming from anywhere on the Cote d’Azur, take a train on the Marseilles to Nice and Ventimiglia line (tickets are much cheaper than in the UK). Arriving in the sumptuous marble halls of the new station, hollowed out of the rock in 1999, you half expect the Monte Carlo Symphony Orchestra to strike up. If you’re staying in a hotel, take a taxi from the station - you may have to ring. You could even walk to Monaco. A long-distance trail through the Alps starts at Trieste in Italy.

Full Monte

You don’t need a gold plated credit card to visit Monte Carlo (MC is the central, 370 acres, quarter, fronting the Mediterranean; it's part of the bigger - though still tiny principality of Monaco). Take a day trip there, and you’re free to walk around with the stars, the mega-rich, and the zero-taxpaying citizens. There’s lots to do for nothing, or next to nothing. First, ride the lifts to change altitude in this very steep town. There are five circular bus routes – buy tickets, 1€ any trip, on the bus, www.cam.mc. Or take the rather Toytown hop-on-hop-off Azur Express for 6€. The cathedral, where Princess Grace is buried, dominates the old town area, but there are lots of interesting, less busy little streets to delve down, as neat as a film set. Or simply mill around outside the Belle Époque Opera House and Casino (paid entry and strict dress code if you want to play the tables). Or window- shop the fabulous stores.
As a daytripper, buying a coffee and a sandwich, you could still have change for £10.

Fish viewed

The Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium, perched like a palace atop a sheer 280 ft cliff over the sea, must be the world’s finest piscatorial address. It was built in 1910 by the current Prince’s great-grandfather, polar explorer Prince Albert I - there’s lots about his expeditions inside. Famous deep-diving explorer Jacques Cousteau was a former director. Belying its venerable exterior, the aquarium is urgently up-to-date, a leading authority on the troubled Mediterranean and tropical marine ecosystems. Head first for the enormous basement tank, fed with seawater, with its vortex of multicoloured fish. They are trying to regrow a coral reef in it. Then to the roof, where the views are immense.

Grand central

If you stay in Monte Carlo, chances are it is to celebrate a special occasion. So you need somewhere sumptuous. It’s up against some classy opposition, but Hotel Metropole can claim one of the most serene settings in town. It’s only a dice’s roll from the Grand Casino and the lavish boutiques of the Carré d’Or, but the hotel, built in 1889 in the grand style, hides away behind an arch of boxwood. In the 2004 makeover, they gave it an entrance fit for a Roman emperor. You can look inside even if you aren''t staying. Pass down the 100 yard long drive lined with classical statues, cypresses, trellised vines and restful recesses. They maintain the Mediterranean palace illusion in the lobby. Sunlight through the great glass dome bathes acres of tapestries and carpets and sofas in a kaleidoscope of warm colours. There’s a two Michelin star restaurant; we settled for a hot chocolate in the bar.

BA offer three nights at the Metropole, from £406 per person, inc Heathrow to Nice flights, 0844 493 0758.

Green peace

Monaco has a far more pacific image to promote than the one we see in the Grand Prix, of fast young men tearing round the narrow streets in cars guzzling one oil well per mile. Walking around the steep centre of Monte Carlo we found delicious acres of greenery, in well tended and expensively planted public gardens. The cliff top garden just along from the Town Hall gaves a sudden startling eagle’s view of the old harbour. Green is the theme of former playboy Prince Albert, son of Princess Grace, who took the throne in 2005. The Prince Albert II Foundation (web site below) funds a raft of eco-schemes. His web site calculates the Co2 you expended getting here; you can donate to one of his projects to offset it.

Lunch box

You won’t find the seriously depleted bluefin tuna on the menu of the new Japanese restaurant YOSHI, or any other table in Monacoa. The principality leads the world by banishing the fish from its tables and calling for a worldwide ban on catches. We sat in the new restaurant, calmed by the stress-reducing décor of ivory, yellow and pale green, and investigated what chef Joël Robuchon had put in our lunchboxes. They serve the all-inclusive lunch just as Japanese workers recognize it. The mixed tempura was delicious. That night we ate on the L''Horizon Deck restaurant in the Fairmont. It’s a pleasantly informal version of fine dining, with a stupendous view over three countries – Monaco, France and Italy, represented by twinkling lights in the distance.

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