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Riviera Roulette

Monte Carlo brings to mind an old-fashioned sort of decadence: playboys and princesses, champagne and chemin de fer, gigolos and grand hotels. Especially grand hotels. The city — and all of two-square-mile Monaco — isn't a place many have actually lived. "A sunny place for shady people," Somerset Maugham called it, and shady people tend not to put down roots.

I'm not naïve enough to think it hasn't changed. The clock ticks, the years pass, and glamour inevitably turns to glitz. The generation gap between Grace and Stephanie seems an aeon wide. But isn't Stephanie a lot more fun?

HÔTEL DE PARIS
The first thing my friend Tim and I do is order up some bubbly; an entire page of the room-service menu is devoted to champagne. We are meeting friends for dinner—they're coming over from Cap Ferrat—and think we'll start with drinks on the terrace.

The terrace. "We have a room for you that has a beautiful terrace," said the woman who checked us in. She was right: it is fabulous, 12 feet wide and three times as long, on the top floor overlooking the port. It's almost enough to distract us from the sheer hideousness of the room. Oak dormitory furniture, industrial carpet split at the seams (both it and the wallpaper are a muddled pink—not really salmon, but salmon gone bad), ROOM 804 Magic Markered on the inside top corner of the bedspread . . . but the coup de grâce is the dirt on the walls, up near the ceiling molding.

A knock at the door. Room service! "Good morning," the waiter says, and I get that Monte Carlo tingle—for all he knows, we slept until dusk and are craving Veuve Clicquot for breakfast. We could be roués, or call boys, or programmers gone louche after an IPO. "Um, I mean good evening," he says, and the dream dies.

Our guests arrive. We nibble cherries and sip champagne; we admire the terrace's mosaic floor; we forget to talk, the view is so stunning.

We are 15 minutes late for dinner. Alain Ducasse's Michelin three-starred Louis XV is one of the most famous restaurants in the world, and many people think it's the best. Tim and I have the pour les gourmets menu, putting ourselves in Ducasse's hands. Is it good?The whole strikes me as better than the sum of its parts, even if some of those parts—risotto with spring vegetables, the cheese cart, and what appears to be an extravagant variation on a Nestlé's Crunch bar, crowned in gold leaf—are unforgettable. The service is perfect; there is no other word. (But the relentless shilling of Ducasse's cookbooks—in a display at the restaurant's entrance and in a pamphlet placed on the table?Tacky.)

The meal is four hours long and costs $900. It's 1986 all over again. We all agree that we'd love to return, even if it meant paying our own way. True decadence is going off your expense account.

We take a stroll around the lobby. Built in 1864, the hotel is a Beaux-Arts spectacle. Wood paneling, brass, distressed mirrors, and an Alexandre Reza jewelry shop—so this is where Donald Trump gets his inspiration. We walk outside; the hotel is smack on the Place du Casino. "Dionne Warwick!" says Tim, in front of a poster listing upcoming concerts. "Lionel Richie! They get everyone here!"

Talk about foreshadowing. The next morning, I'm waiting for the cashier while a woman in denim, diamonds, and a baseball cap hovers nearby, smoking. "Has he started your bill?" she says, in a faintly familiar rasp. "No," I say, "not yet." Dionne Warwick cuts in front of me. Or, better put, she walks on by.

Hôtel de Paris, Place du Casino, Monte Carlo, Monaco; 800/221-4708 or 377/92-16-30-00, fax 377/92-16-38-50; doubles from $467.

Postscript: Later, I go back to the hotel and explain I'm from T&L. I ask for a tour, since the rooms in the brochure look much nicer than ours. Those I see are more modern, more alive: navy-and-yellow color schemes, cherry-ish furniture, low-slung sofas. Ours, it turns out, was one of four rooms (out of 197 total) that hadn't been renovated. To my mind, a classic hotel shuts the crummy rooms down.

MONTE CARLO BEACH HOTEL
"Since the thirties, it has been the destination of smart society," brags the brochure for the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel. Three years at Town & Country magazine may have made me neither smart nor society, but I learned enough to recognize an oxymoron when I see one.

Away from the center of Monte Carlo, just past the principality's eastern end, the three-story peach hotel attracts none of the usual tourists scoping the grounds. The lobby is airy and light, darkened only by the bitchy woman who checks us in. She keeps swearing in French, not realizing that the first words Americans learn, after please and thank you, are the dirty ones.

We're early, so we proceed to the Monte Carlo Beach Club, adjacent to the hotel. All the properties owned by the Société des Bains de Mer—including the three in this story—give guests access to the club (and Le Casino). It's everything we want: green-and-white-striped cabanas, a saltwater Olympic-size pool, the Bambou Bar, a Ciribelli jewelry boutique. In Monte Carlo, you're never far from a jewelry boutique.

The pool boy puts us right next to some youngish guy in black Gucci trunks, who immediately whips out his cell phone. "I'm spending the summer in Paris," he says. "It's awful—but I know where to go." To our left, a younger, topless Tina Brown is bending over, wedging her bikini bottom into a thong so her potbellied Russian mafioso can apply the maximum amount of Bain de Soleil. I love Europe!

Mr. Gucci continues his call. "No, no . . . my priorities totally changed after I was kidnapped." Nearby, another topless woman is distractedly circling her areola with sunblock. The whole area is white; she's been going at it a while.

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