As I walk across the airstrip, the deafening thud from the helicopter’s blades cancels out our pilot’s voice, so I have no idea what he’s saying. I just smile confidently — naturally, I don’t want to be the only person in the country that doesn’t exude coolness from every pore — and hope he’s simply saying ‘Good evening’. His eyes don’t show any fear or panic so it’s reasonable to assume he’s not screaming at me to get out of harm’s way. Minutes later, we’re soaring over the Mediterranean, half watching the lights of Monte Carlo disappear behind us and half expecting James Bond to roar past.
Such is the way of life for the locals of Monaco that a helicopter transfer to or from Nice is less a rare occurrence than a realistic transport option. I’m assured by Bastien, the host at the Columbus Monte-Carlo hotel, that by the time a private coach has wound its way around the French seaside towns of La Trinité and Èze, it’s easier (and if you’re in a group of four or more, possibly cheaper after considering toll prices) to just jump in a chopper. As you do. After all, the helicopter takes only seven minutes instead of 45, and so travelling by road would mean missing out on a crucial half-hour of sunbathing and Champagne sipping.
Everything about the principality screams (or classily articulates) a laid-back elegance. Even the place names have an air of chic (it’s no wonder the English felt the need to adopt that particular French word to describe the atmosphere here). I remember passing a signpost for Beaulieu-sur-Mer, which, had it been in England and named accordingly, ‘Beautiful Place on the Sea’, would have sounded ironic.
It’s no surprise that Monaco hosts Formula 1, one of the most exclusive events in the sporting calendar. What’s more, the Monte Carlo neighbourhood is so unquestionably cool the race actually takes place on the city streets, unlike the other Grand Prix stages, which are held at specialised venues, hidden away from the usual haunts of Joe Public. Britain’s Silverstone is miles away from anywhere of significant size; anyone stumbling across the racetrack has probably got lost en route to Milton Keynes. But here, the likes of Hamilton, Button and Alonso weave their way in and out of the casinos, palaces and hotels of the city centre. So even a trip to the shops in Monaco can mean sharing tarmac with celebrities.
Our helicopter swings around and Nice Airport looms into view. Before I know it, we’re back to reality with a bump — not just from the chopper landing on the airfield but from looking at the scene around us. All of a sudden, Champagne and yachts are replaced by lager and rucksacks. It’s easy to forget that Monaco is only a few hours away — and that you can fly to Nice with EasyJet.