Here in Spain on 7 January – the day after the Spanish Christmas, when the Reyes Magos arrive laden with gifts – life starts to get back to normal after two weeks of holidays.
But not for me – I had a very special invitation and flew from Spain to London for an overnight stay en route to a super-exclusive party.
Bright and early the next morning I arrived in Nice Côte d’Azur Airport, I overheard the British Airways First Officer commenting to the Purser on how many private planes were parked on the apron that day. “There must be some party or event going on,” he mused. Although I knew he was right – since this was the event I was to attend – I chose not to disclose the details.
A few minutes later, myself and three other journalists were climbing into a Heli Air Monaco aircraft for the six-minute helicopter transfer to district of Fontvieille in the Principality of Monaco. We hadn´t even arrived at the hotel venue and it was felt like an occasion.
The Fairmont Monte Carlo chauffeur was waiting for us at the heliport, and the transfer was seamless. This luxury hotel property is quite something – on one side you have the legendary Monte Carlo Opera House built in 1875 by architect Charles Garnier, known as Salle Garnier, on another the mythical hairpin bend of the F1 Grand Prix circuit, so familiar from watching the race on TV (the circuit also goes through a tunnel under the hotel). The final side is full Mediterranean view in all its splendour, and all this in exclusive Monte Carlo. Talk about location, location, location. Oh, I forgot to mention that they have a rooftop pool, heated to 30c during the mild winter months.
Room 6020 at the Fairmont Monte Carlo
My nautically-themed room, harmoniously designed with a palette of blues, had a huge picture window. The sea was so calm that it reminded me of an ice-skating rink; there was hardly a wave in sight. The rooms with their private balconies seemed almost like luxury cruise ship staterooms.
I have a weakness for hotels with glamorous heritage tales and this property was inaugurated by a Princess. The much-adored Grace of Monaco opened this hotel on 22 November 1975. In December 2004, Fairmont took ownership of the hotel, which the first Fairmont property in Europe.
So what was this trip all about? Richard and Ian Livingstone, the owners of The Fairmont Monte Carlo, had invited me to a sake ceremony or “Kagami Biraki” – a traditional Japanese ceremony where the lid of a large round sake cask is broken open with wooden mallets; the shape of the lid represents harmony and good luck. Traditionally this ceremony takes place on 11 January.
The breaking is intended to bring good fortune to a brand-new restaurant: the Nobu Fairmont Monte Carlo. The ceremony was to take place in the presence of Nobu’s co-founders and co-owners: world-renowned Japanese chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa and legendary actor Robert de Niro.
The Royal Palace (Place du Palais) had also confirmed that Prince Albert of Monaco and Princess Charlene de Monaco would attend. His Serene Highness Prince Albert II is the reigning monarch of the Principality of Monaco, and head of the Princely House of Grimaldi, son of the late Rainier III, Prince of Monaco, and the American actress Grace Kelly. The House of Grimaldi have ruled Monaco, with only the briefest of interruptions, since 1297. A historic dynasty indeed.
My First trip to Monte Carlo
As this was my first trip to Monte Carlo, I decided that even though it was a very short stay, I must at least see a little of the country.
Monaco is the second smallest country in the world at just 2.02km2; only Vatican City is smaller. It is also the most densely-populated (due to the small land area available, buildings tend to be tall) and has the highest GDP per capital and the lowest unemployment – impressive statistics. It is also a tax haven, a casino capital and a huge name on the F1 circuit, with the most challenging Grand Prix course, and the only one located in a city.
Bordered by France and only 16km from Italy, Monaco stands proud on the Mediterranean Riviera. Stepping out into Monaco, everything seemed so perfect even the police station looked like a cake.
The Royal Palace (Place du Palais) stands high perched on “the Rock of Monaco” and I was lucky enough to catch the Changing of the Guard. and got bird´s eye views of the Marina.
I also saw the Casino, the Salle Garnier (Monaco Opera House) , the world-famous Oceanographic Museum, the Cathedral and the Princess Grace Rose Garden. The phrase small is beautiful definitely applies to Monaco.
Celebrity Chef Nobu and movie star Robert de Niro launch the Fairmont Nobu Restaurant
At 6.30pm on 8 January, two almost bare-chested well-toned Japanese drummers, along with female drummer wearing a traditional silk kimono, welcomed the guests as their sound broke the suspense and anticipation and grabbed the attention of guests advancing down the candle lit black carpet.
As the drums rolled I was lucky enough to have a few moments to chat with chef and co-founder Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa. Nobu was born in 1949 in Saitama, Japan. He set up the first Japanese restaurant in Lima, Peru in 1973, before moving to LA where he has resided since 1977. “LA is my home, but I travel for almost 10 months of the year,” he told me. Nobu is famous for blending South American cuisine, notably Peruvian, with Japanese dishes. His friendship with American movie star Robert de Niro landed him small roles in the Hollywood films Casino, Austin Powers and Memoirs of a Geisha.
This is his 27th Nobu Restaurant around the world. “Food excites me and I particularly love the fusion of Japanese and Latin American cuisine,” he explained.
Out of the blue, someone shouted to Nobu: “There´s Bob!” At first I didn’t twig – Bob? Who’s Bob? Then I realised, this was a friendly name for American actor, director and producer Robert de Niro. Bob and Nobu embraced in the way that only two old male friends can do, and I was fortunate enough to be right there to capture it on camera.
De Niro said he was delighted to be opening Nobu at The Fairmont Monte Carlo. He mentioned that Monte Carlo is a great location for Nobu, due to the world-renowned “glamorous luxury lifestyle in Monte Carlo” and he added that “my favourite hotel in the world is The Savoy in London”, which is another Fairmont property. Robert de Niro was charming and I was delighted to meet him in person.
The Sake Ceremony
The Sovereign Prince and Princess Charlène took to the stage, along with hotel co-owner Ian Livingstone, and Nobu co-owners Meir Teper, Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, and Robert De Niro, wooden mallet in hand, to break open the sake seal and spread good fortune.
Many elite members of Monegasque society were in attendance. Of course no guest list in Monte Carlo is complete without an F1 driver – in this case, David Coulthard, while other big names included singer Julian Lennon, son of the late John Lennon.
The countdown happened, the mallet broke open the lid, and Nobu Fairmont Monte Carlo was launched. We were all given sake in square cups, which were surprisingly easy to drink out of, and we toasted the restaurant’s success.
Nobu restaurant has a very high ceiling, and Jay Grierson from Martin Hulbert Design of London explained that the idea was to create a hanging culture made of thousands of steel rods, reflecting the coral reef in the Mediterranean below the property. The rods, reminiscent of chopsticks, create a fun visual effect. “I think I drove the Irish installation company mad, as each piece was added one by one under my instructions,” Grierson told me, as he looked up and admired the finished product – the effect is stunning.
There are two oval-shaped private dining areas with sheer silk curtains that float in the sea breeze and a balcony overlooking the sea. The use of mirrors brings the outside nature inside and everything fuses together; the blues and beiges are so comfortable and relaxing on the eye; even the pyramid structure behind the bar and the bonsai-style cherry tree look very much at home. The open kitchen, with raw fish, huge knives and an army of chefs, is pure theatre in itself. The cost of the project is 1.5 million euro.
Kate Winslet says that Nobu’s cuisine is “Heaven on earth and sex on a plate” and Madonna claims, “You can tell how much fun a city is going to be if Nobu has a restaurant in it.” Where do I start? I dined under that stars in Nobu and the menu went like this: Scallop new-style Sashimi, Tuna Sashimi salad with Matsuhisa dressing, Rock Shrimps with Tempura and Jalapeño, Nobu signature dish Black Cod Yuzu Miso, Beef Toban Yaki, and to finish up Japanese ice-cream, fresh fruit and cheesecake. In a word, exquisite!
The evening was a huge success, and we all swapped stories in the oval private dining area; I had the Med behind me and lots of contented faces all around. Louis Starck, Manager of the Fairmont Monte Carlo hotel, told me Monaco is “a country, a capital, a city and a village”. Whatever it is to you, my 24 hours in Monaco were certainly unforgettable.
The morning after the night before
After breakfast, travel and lifestyle writer Laura Ivill, who was covering the event for The Times, and I were transferred via helicopter back to Nice. As we boarded the BA return flight to London, I realised we had the very same crew from the day before, who were delighted to see us and asked where we had been – so we told them. “Ah,” said Debbie the Purser, “So that’s why there were so many private jets here yesterday. We have the same first officer today – I can’t wait to tell him!”