Monaco a haven for the very rich |

Monaco a haven for the very rich

Monaco, seeming to rise out of the sea, is nestled against the Maritime Alps.
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Boxcars! That’s the resounding refrain heard in gambling casinos the world over, including aboard cruise ships, when a roll of the dice, usually on a green felt tablecloth, produces double sixes. The odds against it are 35-1.

Something similar happened to us in Monaco, not at the fashionable and famous Monte Carlo Casino, but on two sleek passenger ships on separate cruises. While neither resembled a clumsy boxcar, the two combined to make a perfect pair of sixes.

One was the Rotterdam VI, Holland America’s flagship, which dropped anchor off the tiny principality and shuttled passengers to and from shore on tenders. The other was the Renaissance 6, which docked at Nice, 20 miles west, and transported passengers to Monaco on motorcoaches.

The Rotterdam VI is on the high seas as you read this. The less fortunate R6, along with nine of her sister ships, has been consigned to the mothball fleet ever since Renaissance Cruises filed for bankruptcy days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

VI or 6, the two shore excursions confirmed suspicions we had long harbored: if there is an earthly utopia, it must be Monaco. It’s one of the safest places to live, offers a balmy year-round climate, and for foreigners who choose to establish permanent residence here, there are no income or inheritance taxes.

That the province’s crime rate is extremely low is attributable to two factors: a ratio of one gendarme (policeman) for every 100 residents and an abundance of closed-circuit surveillance cameras in high pedestrian traffic areas – streets, underpasses, hotels and the famous casino.

Measuring only three miles in length and but a half-mile wide, Monaco is sandwiched between the Mediterranean and the steep Maritime Alps, a situation that keeps year-round temperatures in the 45- to 85-degree range.

While those are compelling incentives, the “no-taxes” edict may be the main lure for foreigners, who comprise 80 percent of Monaco’s 30,000 population and include 600 North Americans.

Robin Leach must have had Monaco in mind when he introduced his “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” network television series. Surely this is haven for the ultra affluent – the international financiers, powerbrokers, noblemen, jet-setters, heiresses, entertainers and world-class athletes who call this home, at least part-time.

After the usual gambits on each of our trips to Monaco (visiting the palace where Prince Rainier holds forth, the church in which his late wife, Grace Kelly, is entombed and the gambling casino), we slipped away to do some research on our own.

It was a surprise initially to learn that, unobtrusive amidst those high rises were some factories making chemicals, precision instruments and plastics, and that Monaco’s total work force matches its population. (Many of the workers commute from Italy and France.)

While tourism remains a vital source of income, gambling has dropped dramatically and now accounts for only 5 percent of total revenues.

Even more surprising was what we learned about the real estate market. If you’re toying with the idea of looking into property, you’ll have no trouble finding an agent. There are over 90 immobilieres (Realtors) here. About 90 percent of the residences are rentals.

Century-old villas are being replaced by high-rise structures. Space is so tight that Monaco can only grow in one direction: up. Often the only lawn to be found at a high-rise is atop the roof.

One ocean-front skyscraper is occupied by upwards of 200 tenants who pay monthly rents ranging from $4,000 to $5,000 for two- or three-bedroom units with two or three baths and a like number of balconies. Even if you have the cash, don’t get your hopes up; all units are rented, and there’s a waiting list. One broker I talked with told of a client who wanted to purchase a home priced between $8 million and $10 million.

Earlier it was noted that collectively and almost without exception residents here wear a cloak of anonymity. That cloak, and the secrecy and intrigue that go with it, was torn away in dramatic fashion Dec. 3, 1999.

That night, multibillionaire Edmond J. Safra, reputedly the second most powerful person in Monaco after Prince Rainier, and one of his female nurses died under mysterious circumstances in a locked, fortress-like bathroom in his ornate penthouse.

The deaths were attributed to asphyxiation by fire. Three days later, a male nurse from New York reportedly confessed to starting the fire. At this writing, the nurse, Ted Maher, remains imprisoned in Monaco and awaiting trial.

The case remains a major subject of conversation at such Monaco meeting places as the Louis XV Restaurant, patronized by royalty and millionaires throughout its 137 years; Stars ‘N’ Bars, a popular nightclub; Jimmy’z Disco, where a glass of champagne costs only slightly more than a glass of mineral water (but both are expensive); and, lastly, the ubiquitous McDonald’s.

Another frequently discussed topic is when Prince Albert, now 43, will succeed his father as ruler of Monaco. Albert has given no hint of impatience. A former captain of the principality’s Olympic bobsled team, he serves on the International Olympic Committee. His childhood summers and college years (he’s an Amherst graduate) were spent in the United States.

Albert returns to the United States frequently, sometimes to run cattle with friends in Texas, other times in quest of new business for Monaco. A month after the September terrorist attacks, he was in New York to present Mayor Rudolph Giuliani with a check from Monaco for $710,000 for the World Trade Center’s twin towers relief fund.

From all this, it seems abundantly clear that when Albert eventually becomes Monaco’s leader, it will be with one quality unchanged: he will remain an Americanized prince.

Meanwhile, Monaco, like other cruise ship destinations, is geared for a decline in ship arrivals and shore-going passengers. Most here are guardedly optimistic about the future yet confident their tiny province will remain the creme de la creme of Mediterranean ports.

Bob Richelson lives in Penn Valley.

Holland America1s Noordham will make two calls at Monaco this year, on May 20 and Nov. 2.

Delta Airlines offers daily nonstop flights between New York and Nice, the nearest international airport to Monaco.

For more information, call Holland America 1- (877) SAIL HAL; Delta Airlines 1-(800) 221-1212; Monaco Government Tourist Office 1- (800) 753-9696.

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