Trail of the Unexpected: La dolce vita lives and lunches at the Hotel Splendido
Saturday 13 June 2009
The best travel tip I ever had came from my late father. If you don't have the money to stay in a smart hotel, he said, then stay somewhere cheap but try to muster enough for lunch in the posh place. Then you can legitimately arrive early, linger all afternoon, and feel as though you're part of the beau monde. After all, who needs a cavernous bedroom with swags on the tails and tails on the swags? All you need is a bed. But every holiday should have a long, lazy lunch in fabulous surroundings, then an hour or two by a sparkling pool, ideally with waiters providing small chilled aerosols of mist to stop you overheating. If you can afford to stay the night, so much the better. If you can't, you've still had a five-star experience.
All of which brings me – not to mention my wife, three children, and my daughter Eleanor's best friend, TJ – to the celebrated Hotel Splendido in Portofino, on the Italian Riviera. After spending a week in a rented and fairly basic Ligurian villa, we had a day and a night left before our flight back to Birmingham from Nice. So we booked ourselves into a two-star hotel in a shabby backstreet in nearby Santa Margherita Ligure, and then descended for lunch at the Splendido, which I had wanted to visit long before Wayne and Coleen Rooney had part of their wedding celebrations there (a detail that excited my sons, if not my wife).
I could sense my father looking through his celestial binoculars and nodding with approval, especially when we spilt out of our dusty hire car looking like the Clampetts of Beverly Hills, and placed it in the reliable hands of a uniformed doorman. My dad was wont to do the same with his Austin Cambridge.
Now, Wayne and Coleen might not be known for their innate class and discernment, but they got it right by putting their guests up at the Splendido. Everything about the place whispers glamour, from the black-and-white photographs of its most famous guests festooning the walls (Maria Callas, Humphrey Bogart, Orson Welles, Alain Delon, and a shrivelled, sour-looking Duke and Duchess of Windsor), to the spectacular outlook over the holiday homes of Italy's titans of fashion and industry – Dolce and Gabbana, the Agnellis, the Pirelli tyre people – to the shimmering Mediterranean beyond.
Until the 16th century, the building was a monastery, and you can always rely on ascetics for a good view – although the monks would doubtless be appalled at the way the place has been claimed by la dolce vita. In 1901, Ruggero Valentini, the man who realised Portofino's potential as a tourist haven, turned it into a hotel.
The Hollywood stars started coming in the 1950s and they're coming still. Had we arrived the previous Thursday, an indiscreet member of staff told us, we might well have bumped into Michael Douglas. The Tuesday before that, Kim Basinger. And two weeks earlier, Jennifer Lopez had been for dinner with Signor Dolce and Signor Gabbana.
In these star-spangled surroundings, we all felt that pre-prandial drinks were obligatory, although not before our youngest child, 10-year-old Jacob, who has a well-developed sense of occasion, had retired to the loo and reappeared not only with his hair carefully combed, but also wearing a crisp, white shirt. "You a-look a-like a waiter," said the waiter. It wasn't really the impression Jacob was aiming for – he had Brad Pitt more in mind – but he laughed anyway. The service throughout was cheerful and attentive, but without the genuflection that can sometimes put you on edge in the world's great hotels.
Lunch, in the outdoor Terrazza restaurant, was simply superb. It started with a bewildering array of breads made in the hotel kitchens. "I basically want to marry that bread basket," chirped Jacob, his shirt already looking less crisp and indeed less white, now bearing a few spots of extra-virgin olive oil (needless to say, made especially for the Splendido).
We were then brought a platter of four different kinds of mozzarella, a revelation to those of us who thought there was only Italian and Danish. As a main course the children had fantastic spaghettini con vongole, while my wife and I shared sea bass so fresh that its friends couldn't even have noticed it had gone.
After the further hour or so it took to demolish a perfect tiramisu, we staked our somewhat tenuous claim to some poolside sunbeds and, alongside a pair of Russian oligarchs and their trophy wives, passed one of the most contented holiday afternoons I can remember, even heading back to our shabby backstreet with a collective spring in our step.
Hotel Splendido, Salita Baratta, Portofino, Genoa, Liguria, Italy (00 39 0185 267 801; hotelsplendido.com ). Lunch at Terrazza costs from around €85 per person, excluding drinks. For reservations, call 0845 077 2222 (UK only) or email email@example.com.
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