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January 7, 2012

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Monaco playground for the rich

MONACO is all about luxury and high-end fun on the French Riviera: palatial casinos, Formula One racing, yachts and sports cars, extravagant shopping, glamorous beaches and magnificent views of the Mediterranean Sea. Fu Rong pays a visit.

Magical Monaco conjures up images of legendary Monte Carlo and Le Grand Casino, the blue-green Mediterranean, the beautiful people of the French Riviera with their fast cars and sleek yachts.

It has been famous as a lavish watering hole for Europe's elite in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and a magnet for great opera performances. Because it levies no personal income tax (the casino profits made it unnecessary) the rich made Monaco their playground and it is a very high-end shopping destination.

Monaco is also the site of the annual Formula One Monaco Grand Prix; the first Grand Prix was held in 1929. The Principality of Monaco is a sovereign city state on the French Riviera and at just 1.95 square kilometers, it's the second smallest country in the world, just behind the Vatican. The coastline is just over 4 kilometers. Tourism has been Monaco's No. 1 business since Monte Carlo, the principality's major district, was founded in 1866. Leisure tourism, business tourism and increasingly cruising and yachting make up a major market share.

Rich history

Monaco's history dates back to the Ligurians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans. The Phoenicians built the castle that became the city under the protection of the Republic of Genoa in the Middle Ages. In 1297, the Grimaldi family captured the castle fortress guarding Monaco Rock and ruled for more than 700 years, making Monaco the country with the longest-ruling family in Europe. The Principality of Monaco was founded in 1338.

Monaco has the world's highest life expectancy at almost 90 years and the lowest unemployment rate, considered zero percent, with about 30,000 workers who commute from France and Italy each day.

The economy relies on gambling, tourism and banking.

F1 and casino

The Monte Carlo track is one of the most famous Formula One tracks, a one-of-a kind city track that has not changed at all in the past half century. The race in May is one of the most important stops in the World Rally Championship and the Formula One Grand Prix.

Every year, it takes six weeks to set up the Circuit de Monaco, and another three weeks to remove it. It has many elevation changes, winding streets and a tunnel and is the kind that every driver loves to hate. It has been called the jewel in the crown of Formula One and the trophy is coveted. The late Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna is still the most successful driver with the title of six championships. Every year, wealthy fans from around the world sail their yachts to Monaco for the race.

Even when the race isn't on, visitors walk the course laced with braking trails and can imagine the speed excitement and cheers of crowds along the way.

Monaco is famous for its casinos, the most famous being Le Grand Casino de Monte Carlo, which made Monaco and its Grimaldi rulers wealthy. One building, constructed in 1863, is the city-state's main source of income.

Even in the off-tourism season, fancy cars are lined up in front of glittering casinos that are built like opulent palaces with high ceilings and chandeliers. Monegasque citizens (only around 7,600 in a resident population of 35,880) are not permitted to gamble in the casinos, which are open to foreigners. With a passport and 10 euros visitors can become one-day members and play to their heart's content. In the casino's VIP areas, only the doorman admits guests, you can't buy a ticket.

Part of Le Grand Casino de Monte Carlo is the Opera de Monte-Carlo, an ornate opera house built in 1879. Sarah Bernhardt staged the opening show and from then on the stage attracted theater luminaries.

Art and culture

In addition to racing and gaming, Monaco is a country of art and culture. It has many museums and art galleries, cultural events, trade fairs and exhibitions.

In Monaco Ville, the old town of Monaco, stands the world's oldest oceanographic museum, Musee Oceanographique de Monaco.

It was founded by Albert I of Monaco, the scholar prince, in 1910 to exhibit hitherto unknown marine species. The white stone structure was built on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It contains more than 6,000 specimens from around the world in naturalistic habitats, including a living coral reef and a 400,000-liter shark lagoon.

Albert I (1848-1922) undertook many scientific maritime expeditions to collect specimens. Visitors can read his manuscript about his adventures at sea.

The neo-Romanesque cathedral was completed in 1884 in Monaco Ville, built of white stone from La Turbie. As a museum it features Renaissance artists and art through the Napoleonic period. It also houses the tombs of princes and former Princess Grace (1929-82), the American actress Grace Kelly who died in a car accident.

Though Monaco is considered a tax-free haven, commodity prices are very high. It's a luxury shopping destination for wealthy people from around the world.

How to get there:

Monaco does not have its own airport, and the nearest is the famous Nice C?te d'Azur Airport, where travelers can take a 6-8 minute business helicopter to the principality. Since Monaco is on the French Riviera, it can be reached by a train running along the Mediterranean coastline.

Where to eat:

Brasserie de Monaco is a top-tier seaside restaurant offering the true flavor of Monaco, with excellent food and drink. The signature beer is fresh brewed, not filtered, and the crowds love it. The crowds are a testament to its popularity.

The Explorers Pub next door is a fancier restaurant serving authentic Mediterranean food. The signature lamb is cooked with home-brewed beer; the fish in cream sauce is recommended. Walls are lined with photos giving an introduction to Monaco's royal family and its history.

Where to stay:

Monaco has four 5-star hotels, five 4-star hotels, five 3-star hotels and two 2-star hotels. The 4-star Fairmont Monte Carlo is the choice of many Formula One fans. It is designed like a cruise ship at the dock and has a magnificent ocean view on one side - and on another a close-up view of a spectacular bend in the Formula One track. Guests are so close they can almost see the drivers' expressions (if they were not wearing helmets). The hotel is outfitted like a luxury liner with hatches and portholes.

The 5-star Hotel Metropole Monte-Carlo offers European luxury with delux decor, hospitality and a private garden. The hotel was refurbished in 2004 but it retains all its old world elegance. The hotel's Yoshi Japanese restaurant is recommended.

Recently renovated Columbus Hotel targets low-budget travelers and offers 3-star-plus accommodation.

Though it lacks sea views, it has friendly, efficient service, a cozy environment and The Princess Grace Rose Gardern just across the street. The hotel's specialty Rose Champagne sweetens the stay.


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