Reviewing Monte Carlo's top three hotels, we let the chips fall where they may


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?

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.

"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.

"I wouldn't trade places with Albert or William. Anyway, I have to marry a true princess." With that, Prince Gucci goes back to his Game Boy. I head for the high dive, telling Tim to start a conversation (he has a convenient lack of pride).

By the time I get back, he has learned the indiscretions of every royal in Europe—the prince loves to gossip about what he calls "the family." (Buy me a drink someday, and I'll spill it all.) I tell him we're staying at the hotel. "How is it?" he asks halfheartedly. He doesn't care; it is, as they say, not about us.

For the record, then, our room—one of 54, all of which are the same, save for a suite—is nice. And that's not faint praise. Pinks, greens, terra-cotta tiles, a yellow dresser painted with red flourishes—who needs more?It's what you think you're going to get at a high-end Caribbean resort but so often don't. The terrace is small but has enough space for a table and two chairs, and with the doors open we can hear the waves crashing outside (as can the people we call back home). The towels are the biggest I've seen anywhere. I wrap one around my waist, and it's so long I have to walk as if wearing high heels. Which I do for longer than I care to admit.

As at the Hôtel de Paris, the rooms at the Beach Hotel have automatic blinds that hermetically seal out all the light (and the paparazzi?). We sleep for 10 hours, and I wake depressed. I haven't come to Monte Carlo to rest. Then again, maybe this is the nineties version of debauchery.

Monte Carlo Beach Hotel, Ave. Princesse Grace, Roquebrune Cap-Martin, France; 800/221-4708 or 33-4/93-28-66-66, fax 33-4/93-78-14-18; doubles from $233.

Built in the early 1900's, the Hermitage sits quite literally in the shadow of the Hôtel de Paris (in fact, we could see it from our beautiful terrace there). It has an air of discretion about it, with none of the flash of its sister across the street. "People who want to show their money go to the Hôtel de Paris," the prince had said. "People who want to enjoy their money stay at the Hermitage."

Now, I've always thought quiet money equals boring money; nothing's worse than those ungrateful souls who inherit a gazillion dollars, then don't have any real fun with it. Then again, the poolside activity at the Beach Club was a bit much. Maybe the Hermitage is what we crave.

The hotel had a makeover a few months ago, which is both easy and hard to believe. Parts are gorgeous. There's a stunning ballroom, and certain exquisite hallways have coffered ceilings, intricate molding, and mosaic floors. The vaguely tropical secondary lobby, called the Jardin d'Hiver, has a stained-glass dome designed by Gustave Eiffel. We turn a corner, and there's a delicate yellow courtyard with a palm tree or two. Then we turn another corner, and the hallway is pure Hilton, circa 1977. The main lobby, Beaumarchais, has a low ceiling and horrendous green, white, and brown floral carpet (and vitrines advertising Gianfranco Ferré, Christian Dior, Valentino). The lapses in taste only intensify the too-rich-to-care vibe.

Meanwhile, we keep passing people in robes, coming from Les Thermes Marins de Monte Carlo, a.k.a. the spa. A massage is a good idea; investigating luxury hotels is work.

Les Thermes consists of five floors of chrome, glass, and mirror. I half expect Catherine Deneuve to show up in a white coat to lead us to her laboratoire de beauté. For my algae wrap, I am made to get naked, slathered with wet fish food, wrapped in Saran Wrap, and left to bake for 20 minutes. "It is for la circulation, le skin, and le slimming," says the attendant when she comes back to hose me down. I have to apologize for the stink when I go for my massage.

Tim and I recover in our room, which is done in a soothing range of blues. There's blue-and-white floral fabric on one wall, a blue carpet with a subtle white floral pattern, blue-and-white-striped curtains. It works, until we focus on the clashing lilac sconces. Yuck. Elegant white wooden headboards repair some of the damage, as do the two small terraces. The gray, blue, and white bathroom is cold, clean, and very masculine. I like the separate shower stall, with its floor-to-ceiling glass door (HH is etched onto it). Tim prefers the tub; in fact, he steeps himself in a Bulgari tea-bag bath.

At Vistamar, the hotel's new restaurant, the waiters can't remember who is having what, even though I've ordered the set menu. Tim's dessert comes out five minutes before mine. I tell him to start without me: I'm not eating it anyway, not once I see a waiter sneeze onto the dessert cart.

Time for bed. I lie down and gaze at the wall across the room. My eyes rest on what I realize is a monstrous dirt spot. Grand hotels are often called grandes dames, and any grande dame will tell you that glamour takes upkeep. "Looking good is the prerogative of every woman," wrote Joan Collins in Health, Youth and Happiness: My Secrets, "if she cares enough to make the effort."

On a dare from Tim, I hurl my turndown cookie at the dirt spot. Bull's-eye!

Hôtel Hermitage, Beaumarchais Square, Monte Carlo, Monaco; 800/221-4708 or 377/92-16-40-00, fax 377/92-16-38-52; doubles from $354.

Erik Torkells is a senior editor at Travel & Leisure.