Oh, That's Rich

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By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 17, 2002

Here's the poop on Monte Carlo.

And over there is some more poop on Monte Carlo. And here's a pile by this palm tree. In fact, there's quite a number of little doggie droppings on the sidewalks of the world's ritziest village. And some aren't so little; these lapdogs hold nothing back on their hurried breaks from high-rise restraint. There goes one now, a tightly coiffed little white snowball led by a capri-clad blonde. The woman has a coffee cup in her hand but no plastic baggie in sight. The very rich, it seems, don't scoop.

I'm not telling you this to be gross. It's just that in this sanctuary of ostentatious wealth, I find it strangely comforting to discover streets paved with something other than gold. And frankly, there's not much else I can relate to on my breakfast walk along Avenue Princesse Grace. On the left is a curbside phalanx of Sultan-class Bentleys, Jags and Beemers. On the right is the cobalt Mediterranean dotted with mega-yachts, aboard which, no doubt, Europe's bronzed elite, wearing thick white robes, is buttering the morning croissant. And here on the sidewalk, regular-guy me slaloms between the leavings of dogs who probably own better sweaters than I do.

I'm not alone. A lot of average tourists come to Monaco to look at billionaires in their natural habitat. It's a sort of Williamsburg of the well-to-do: Instead of wigs and muskets, the rich wander among the normal wearing two-pound Rolexes, all-over tans and top-to-bottom haute couture. They are a sight, even without Robin Leach to narrate.

Monaco is tiny. The whole "country" -- technically an autonomous principality ruled by the Grimaldi family -- is jammed onto a mere square mile of Southern France's steep rocky coast. Glittering high-rises and pastel mansions stack up in oceanfront layers connected by tight, winding roads. The air seems shot through with Riviera sun, salt breezes and Chanel No. 5. It's a crowded harbor geared to the pleasures of the very top percentiles: tax-free citizenship, no-questions banking and discreet-but-pervasive security.

There are attractions here for the traveler without a trust fund. I found a good Internet deal for a fine seaside hotel, Le Meridien. There's a whimsical antique toy museum, a decent public beach and an oceanographic museum dating back to the interests of an earlier prince. The giant salt-water pool at the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel -- an immense azure pasture -- is a truly great swimming hole at the ocean's edge. There are plenty of French and Italian restaurants that will leave francs in your wallet, and the palace is surrounded by souvenir gimcracks as tacky and cheap as you'll find in any seaside town.

But what regular folks really want to see is where the Best People come to be bad: Monte Carlo Resort proper, the mothership of the jet set.

A hill in the center of the waterfront, Monte Carlo is a little urban mountain topped by a snowcap of swank hotels, once-in-a-lifetime restaurants and the world's most famous casino. Recently, of course, they've added a spa, Les Thermes Marins de Monte-Carlo (which must mean "Where the Pampered Come to be Pampered").

Like I said, as I scaled the steep path (past Le Metropole, a shopping mall lighted by crystal chandeliers), it's comforting to know that the Guccis that ply this sidewalk are occasionally at risk of stepping in something earthier than pâté de fois gras. The classless peril of poop is a tiny bit of egalité in this French adjunct where, so far at least, fraternité and liberté have been scarce. (No one's been particularly brotherly, and absolutely nothing has been free.)

"Our dinner last night cost a fortune," wailed Catherine Wood, visiting from London with Michael, her husband of exactly 16 years. They're on an anniversary junket. Her eyes grow wide: "But it was absolutely incredible."

They ate at the Grill, the second-best restaurant of the Hotel de Paris. (The first is Alain Ducasse's Louis XV, a place of such Versailles-scale elegance and expense that you need more than a 16th anniversary to justify petitioning for a reservation. Christening a new freighter would be more like it, or surviving a coup.) Michael had lamb with rosemary; Catherine had a raspberry souffle that must be ordered as soon as you sit down to give it a chance to bake. They cautiously partook of the hotel's wine cellar, which -- at more than 300,000 bottles -- is the largest on the planet. At 10 o'clock, the entire ceiling of the rooftop restaurant rolled back and the Woods found themselves dining under the Mediterranean stars. "It was charming," she said.

The Woods are camped out next to me, nursing coffees at the Cafe de Paris. There may be no better people-watching stations in the world than these bistro tables on the Place de Casino. Right here is where the doors to the hotel, Louis XV and the casino itself all come together. We sit and watch the Rolls-Royces and Mercedeses come and go. The small valet-parking corral next to the casino is like a MotorWeek pinup calendar. There's a crowd gathered around a bright yellow Maserati Spyder Cambiocorsa with its top down. A mere James Bondian BMW Z3 roadster -- powder blue, alone in the corner -- is the junker of the lot. (In May, the real muscle cars take over when this very driveway forms one of the sharp curves of the Monte Carlo Grand Prix.)


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© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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