Beneath the glittering chandeliers of the Casino de Monte-Carlo, I fed a few Monagesque francs into the slot machines and won enough money to buy a round of drinks at the bar for our travelling party of four (a tiny fortune, in other words). We'd come to the principality by bus, and had gaped at the Bentleys lined up outside the copper-roofed, Belle Epoque gambling house. Late that night, we'd trundled back over the mountain to our budget digs in Nice.
But oh, how things have changed! Twenty-five years have passed and I'm arriving in the fairytale principality in far more agreeable style: by helicopter. As Monacair's sleek black machine choppers me from Nice along the Cote d'Azur, Monte Carlo comes into view: a spillage of shiny apartment blocks upon the hillsides, a blooming of verdigris rooftops and emerald gardens beside the dazzling sea.
The Bentleys still monopolise the parking spaces outside the casino, I notice as I'm chauffeured to the Hotel Metropole Monte Carlo. Gliding through the lobby – thick with velveteen and gilded surfaces, elaborate with light fittings – I notice a fashion model balancing on a replica Louis XV comfort couch and pouting into a photographer's lens. She slouches against a mirror, caressing it with her silken dress and lending the space a whimsical air: don't ever take luxury too seriously, she seems to be saying.
And so I relax into these plush new surroundings and cast those modest, long-ago lodgings in Nice from my mind. Even dinner at the Michelin-starred Joel Robuchon Monte Carlo (located inside the hotel) sets me at ease; perched casually on stools beside the kitchen, we watch proteges of the late chef snipping micro-herbs and piping avocado onto plates, then eat their simultaneously comforting and superlative food: quail served with truffled mashed potatoes, a dessert trolley laden with humble delights such as fruit salad and raspberry tart and – my personal choice – rum baba moist with syrup.
The playfulness continues down the road at Alain Ducasse's fabled, Michelin-starred Le Louis XV, located in the Hotel de Paris, where I sup the next night. The restaurant is a theatre and the degustation a performance conducted with precision by the good-natured maitre d. Out streams a delight of dishes, crisp breads imprinted with the shavings of radish and zucchini flower, florets of raw fish balanced on a riverbed of pebbles and steamed beneath a cloche, tea brewed from a trolley full of unkempt, potted herbs. On my way out I'm handed a parting gift: a box containing a miniature panettone.
Next morning I make my way to the other side of Port Hercule – punched from the landscape by Hercules' heel, according to legend, and crammed with the yachts of the super-rich. The palace perches pink and enchanting upon The Rock; I'd gazed at it from outside on that first visit yet discover now that visitors are in fact welcomed like friends into its frescoed hallways and Carrara marbled-salons.
But Monaco's true splendour is contained not so much in the trappings placed upon it, but in the landscape itself. Winding through cobblestone alleyways, past the cathedral where Princess Grace and Prince Rainier were married, I reach the Jardins de Saint-Martin, rimming the cliffs like a luxuriant collar. From here, I spy chairs being set out at an outdoor theatre far below, and the ocean stretching off in a sparkling expanse.
It's an extraordinary, incongruous vista – one that's priceless and yet free-of-charge.
Catherine Marshall was a guest of the Monaco government and tourist bureau.
Rates at the Hotel Metropole Monte-Carlo start from €340 a room a night. metropole.com/en/home