From Monaco to Abu Dhabi — a tale of two beach clubs by Dubai copywriter Hisham Wyne
Dubai copywriter Hisham Wyne endures the lap of overwhelming luxury for the stoic cause of journalism.
The infinity pool seems to stretch for miles, interrupted only by a ribbon of white beach before plunging to meet the waters of the Gulf.
The atmosphere is serene as one pulls up, with no overtly cloistering staff heralding your vehicle around turns.
Swing through the large solid wooden front door and the decor is rich but understated, with solid wood a leading motif. The emphasis is on comfort and permanence, not opulence. A friendly reception desk signs in visitors.
The infinity pool is temperature controlled and superbly inviting, while the white beach glistens in the sun. The health club is in full swing and a tucked-away spa offers massages and wellbeing treatments.
It doesn't have the busy bustle of a hotel, but that's because it patently isn't one. There are no rooms for lodging. It is a private place where people can just be, and members can enjoy one of the finest beaches and pools in Abu Dhabi. The emphasis is certainly not on visitor volume.
It is the 150th birthday of SBM, the Club's parent company that has partnered with TDIC to bring the brand to Abu Dhabi. At the Saadiyat Monte-Carlo Beach Club, other milestones are being crossed. Patrick Nayrolles, the General Manager brought in to get the Club up and running, is handing over the reigns to Bill Loveday, a veteran of membership clubs.
"SBM signed me on to manage this club, with opportunities to do something else afterwards. I was signed in the finishing phases of the club when it was being built," says Patrick.
Bill is very enthusiastic about what the Monte-Carlo Beach club has to offer the Saadiyat community. He managed members-only gathering places for twelve years in the US before moving to the Middle East. He came to Dubai two years ago, where he has been managing the Capital Club in DIFC.
"I'm excited about coming to such a beautiful property here. It's the membership business, if you will. It's about creating and building a group of like-minded people that have common interests, and then exceeding their expectations," explains Bill.
The atmosphere at the Club is one of friendly exclusivity. While it is a membership establishment, the restaurants are open to anyone wanting to visit and enjoy a bit of classy hospitality.
"People who want to walk in and go the restaurants don't need to be members of the club. They can enjoy the decor or come in the evening to the Sea Lounge. Or you can just come in as a day member and take advantage of the facilities, the pool and the sea," says Patrick.
The building was built by TDIC, which then tendered out for a management company. SBM was chosen to run the club on the strength of its fantastic credentials in managing the iconic Monte-Carlo Beach Club in Monaco for almost a hundred years. The Saadiyat Club is the first extension of the brand outside of Europe. This, as Bill notes, says a lot about TDIC, the market and the venue.
Patrick explains how the Club fitted into TDIC's vision for the Saadiyat community. "TDIC's idea was to have a club here at Saadiyat for all the future houses and villa owners and apartment residents and tenants that would be coming in. I think there are going to be something like 350 villas that will be built here in total. A 100 or so are already finished. There are also six apartment buildings with 450 apartments here. Plus you have another 300 apartments in St. Regis. That's also where you have the hotel, plus a plaza. There's a whole community that's going to come online in the next five years. The idea was to have a club here for them, with fitness facilities and access to the sea."
The Monte-Carlo Beach club at Saadiyat opened in September 2011, and has only been around a couple of years. Patrick says it was very important to get the word out. "We met with the town, and explained why we had opened a new place. The beginning was tough, with people hard to attract."
But that has definitely changed. As Saadiyat's cultural and arts districts come into their own, and homeowners start moving in, traffic has certainly picked up. "There has been an upturn in membership. We've more than doubled our members in the last year. Slowly, people are discovering the idea of Saadiyat through the fact that there are two hotels, through the fact that there are art exhibitions such as the Birth of a Museum and Art Abu Dhabi. But it's also nice that it's slow, because there is a selected crowd coming in and discovering the island. People are moving onto the island to live," Patrick says.
One of the greatest assets of the Club is its stunning white sand beach. As Bill puts it, "The beach is natural. 70 metres of dunes, followed by ninety metres of beach. It's arguably the best beach in Abu Dhabi or even the UAE. And it's directly on the Gulf as opposed to being on a side canal."
The waters and beach are also protected. They are key environmental areas, teeming with dolphins, hawksbill turtles and birds. No powered crafts or engines are allowed, which makes it a proposition very different from standard hotel beaches with jet skis whizzing around.
The poolside cabanas are coveted real estate. Solid wooden structures house king-sized towel covered beds. They are definitely a cut above those in the venerable original - the Monte-Carlo beach club in Monaco.
But let it never be said that original in Monaco is not enchanting. Summer palaces on slopes look down over the rocky, undulating coastline. A sea of cobalt blue crashes in waves against vertical cliffs. Along the shoreline, small perfect bays, reflecting sea and sky, welcome the boats of pleasure-seekers.
A helicopter ride is an excellent way of traversing from Nice to Monaco, the coastline filled with the homes of the wealthy and well known. The magic of Monaco resembles that of the UAE; a wonderful mixture of nationalities who come together to create an unforgettable chemistry. Modernity and adaptability combine with a reverence for past tradition in Monaco.
The great and the good have always gone there. During the Belle Époque it was princes and nobles, with a sprinkling of intellectuals and musicians: Ravel, Debussy. Winston Churchill wrote his memoirs here after the war. Sarah Bernhardt and Diaghilev created ballets. The population flocked to the opera. Hitchcock soaked up the Monte Carlo sun.
And then there was Grace. When Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco, the principality was transformed into the epicentre of the jet-set world. Since then, it is perhaps easier to count (on one hand) the international stars who haven’t been to Monaco.
From Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli and Shirley Bassey, via Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, Claudia Schiffer and Boris Becker, to the stars of Formula 1, Lady Gaga and Rihanna, stars of stage, screen and sport are drawn to the glamour and sophistication of Monaco.
It’s easy to see why. For, even though in Monaco there’s a megastar around every corner, the principality and its population are very sensitive to preserving the privacy of their guests. So you may bump into Rod Stewart strolling through Jimmy’s nightclub, or spot Lionel Richie crossing the Avenue des Beaux Arts, eating one of the famous Monaco icecreams, but as a Monegasque, you won’t acknowledge them. You’ll leave them free to enjoy the rare luxury of being left alone.
Before 1863, Monaco was a poor principality whose population made a precarious living from fishing and farming. Then Charles III, the ruler, invited Francois Blanc to contribute some ideas for the future of the area. Blanc had had success with casinos in Hamburg, and so set one up in Monte Carlo.
The casino attracted many people- so many that it was soon no longer practical to make the daily journey from Nice. So Blanc built the Hotel de Paris to accommodate his clients. They brought their families, and so an array of entertainment options began to grow.
At the heart of it all is the institution known as the Monte Carlo Beach Club. For almost a hundred years it has welcomed illustrious guests through its doors. The club nestles on the side of a cliff that runs straight down into the ocean.
People come to laze by the pool, to stroll along the beach, to plunge into the beautiful blue sea, to feel the freshness of the breeze coming in from the Mediterranean. To take part in adrenalin-charging watersports. To enjoy a delicious lunch on the terrace.
Children roam free, barefoot, shrieking and laughing as they play with new friends, while their parents relax in one of the family tents or cabanas, secure in the knowledge that their kids will be safe.
Generations of Monaco families and visitors have had a wonderful time here. Generations of kids have played here, returning with their own children decades later, an unbroken stream of happy memories. They come back to their roots, to the source of what really matters.
The Monte Carlo Beach Club is exclusive, obviously. It is luxurious, naturally. Here, however, the notion of luxury is given a different meaning; one that comes closer to the simple things in life.
It is the history that makes the Monte-Carlo Beach Club so coveted. It's a story that is inextricably tied in to the revival of Monaco through the efforts of one can - Francois Blanc. Because long before Monte-Carlo came into being, Monaco was a lemon and olive oil exporting principality. But in 1848 it lost its agrarian resources overnight as Menton and Roquebrune declared themselves free cities.
The Principality of Monaco was in dire straits. The small, two square kilometre rocky promontory had little hope of survival even after the French had offered compensation for the lost territory. Charles III, the Prince on Monaco, had a brainwave. Why not authorise a casino to bring in wealthy tourists?
First attempts weren't successful. "Initially, Charles III's only rule was that gambling was allowed as long as the Monegasques themselves didn't gamble. That obviously didn't work," explains Patrick.
At least three sets of owners came and went as their involvement with a property, one that looked riskier by the minute, went sour. Prince Charles III then turned to François Blanc, an expert in gambling-related commerce and enterprise. After protracted negotiations with the previous owners of the gaming concession, Blanc paid 1.7 million gold francs for the concession and the first elements of the tourist resort. The very next day, on April 2nd 1863, he founded the Soceite des Bains de Mer and du Cercle Des Estrangers, now known as Monte-Carlo SBM.
There is certainly that parallel between the Monte-Carlo Beach club in Saadiyat and the one in Monaco - both started when there was nothing much else around. But while Blanc brought the trains, roads and tourists to Monaco, Saadiyat has the benefit of TDIC's master plan. The 2030 vision for the island expects it to house 120,000 residents. Patrick notes that TDIC has signed with Rotana, Shangri-La and Mandarin hotels to add to the hotel portfolio. St Regis and the Park Hayat are already present. The New York University has a campus slated to open in 2014. And as Bill says, the Sheikh Zayed Museum is coming up. "And that's really the anchor for Saadiyat, that it's the anchor for culture for Abu Dhabi and the UAE. Culture and tourism are its main thing."
In certain ways the Saadiyat edition of the Monte-Carlo Beach Club outscores the original. The setting is better. The beach is superior. "In Monte Carlo, you don't really have a white sand beach. You have pebbles. And with four or five storms every winter, the pebbles are flying onto the road. It's a really concrete slab where the cabanas are installed today," says Patrick.
But the allure of the Monaco original is not in its furnishings and trappings but the pull of history and celebrity. "There, it has the history. It has the 90 plus, almost a hundred years now, of serving royalty, celebrities, and it has all the stories and the cachet that goes with it. Of course, that's part of the idea of growing the brand outside of Monaco is that these stories from Monaco will come here and will accompany the brand," says Bill.
And of course, the membership is full in Monaco, with frightening waiting queues populated by the rich and famous. The cabanas on the concrete slab are probably Europe's most expensive real estate.
"Every year, they have multiple requests for additional members, use of the cabanas, even though there isn't a sand beach. It's the seaside, the sunbathing. The pool there is fantastic and Olympic sized. And the restaurants are well developed," Bill adds.
The prized restaurants of the original have been replicated in Saadiyat. The Deck, Sea Lounge and others share motifs with their originals, even as the Club’s offerings are tailored to the local market.
The Monte-Carlo Beach club in Saadiyat is a unique proposition in Abu Dhabi. "It's unique in the sense that for the time being, you don't have a beach club on its own elsewhere. So that's the big advantage. All the other beach clubs here are attached to hotels. There's no clash between people coming from outside who feel hotel guests are being given priority. On the contrary, you have people coming in from Abu Dhabi and Dubai on the weekends, and you also have people coming in from the hotels because there aren't very many beaches like this."
Membership might be full up in Monaco, but it’s excellent time to grab a slice on Monegasque history in Abu Dhabi. Because Bill Loveday has plans to grow, and eventually cap, membership.
"What I would like to see, and what our parent company Monte Carlo SBM, which is looking at this as the first time their brand has gone outside Europe, what they would like to see is membership growth. And there is good, solid growth. We want to continue to grow the business with F&B, with visits to the club. But we also want to grow the membership."
At present, the Club is very open to guests and walk-ins. That happy state of affairs may not last. "As membership grows, the public access will become more limited because then that of course increases the value of membership. With a larger membership base, members will need to have their membership experience protected. There's only a certain amount of areas available, and overcrowding will harm the experience. And as the residential community grows, this will, as every club does, have a cap. Just as golf clubs do. The restaurants, etc., will continue to be public access areas. But the core experiences such as the pool, the lifestyle, the beach, the spa, the workout facilities - all things part of becoming a centre for health and wellness for its members - will be members only," he says.
Membership at the Saadiyat Monte-Carlo beach club is definitely a bargain at present, compared to what things might be like in a few years. "This is the best time for anyone to join the club because we're welcoming everyone from the community. Currently, we're not charging initiation fees. Eventually, in the natural progression of developing club membership, there will come that time when we will start to charge a joining fee as well, as we get closer and closer to a cap."
While, as Patrick says, the Saadiyat Monte-Carlo Beach Club is very independent and has adapted to its local market, it shares pedigree with its sister institution. Not just that, but a membership in Saadiyat offers a backdoor route to privileges in Monaco. "Those who do travel to Monaco will have an extension of value because they are members here. They will be able to access the club without paying the day fee; they'll have access to the whole portfolio there with added value because they're members. And it's reciprocal. Members of the Monaco club will be well looked after here," says Bill.
What is the greatest luxury? Isn’t it spending a delightful day at the beach, the whole family together, in safety and privacy? Drinking a cool drink on the terrace, taking deep breaths of fresh sea air? Watching the sunset from the beach, feet in the sand, holding hands with a loved one? An emotional moment, an unforgettable memory, a child’s laugh; these cannot be bought. The Monte-Carlo Beach Clubs offer the stunningly simple luxury of privacy and wellbeing where anyone, regardless of rank and stature, can just be.