Portofino: Small but perfectly formed

Film stars and fashion moguls have long flocked to Portofino, the prettiest (and priciest) village on the Italian Riviera. Stephen Bayley joins the jet set

I told a friend who made a fortune from gastropubs that we were going to spend a few days in Portofino's Hotel Splendido. She smiled ruefully, rolled her eyes and made a gesture as if frivolously tearing up high-denomination banknotes.

Portofino, Pliny's Portus Delfinus where dolphins once played, is nowadays the playground of bigger fish. Giorgio Armani, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have holiday homes here and the local tradesmen have, quite understandably, created pricing structures to suit billionaires.

As soon as we arrived, a 40-minute ride from Genoa's Cristoforo Colombo airport, we had two coffees in the village's famous Piazzetta. We were presented with a bill for €28. It turned out this was a mistake and intended for some beer-drinking Germans at the next table, but given the terrifying aura projected by waterside shops with the names Dior and Ferragamo on the fascia boards, this was within budget expectations.

Portofino and the Splendido are almost synonymous, although the hotel is some way out of town. Happily, guests are offered a shuttle bus for the steep 1.5km climb to the vertiginously perched hotel. Otherwise, taxis will charge you €35 for a two-minute trip. And the capo of the taxi drivers uses an all-white, top-of-the-range four-wheel-drive Audi Q7. It's that sort of place.

Portofino is an almost embarrassingly pretty village on the coast of Liguria, Italy's smallest region which stretches from the French border to La Spezia. It is specially favoured by being built into a voluptuously green and protected cove. Only the most robust cynic could disguise his delight at the colour-washed houses against a riot of greenery and blue water: every visual cliché in the “Mediterranean fishing village” narrative is here, amped up to the max. It is a kitsch spectacle, but of a transcendent sort.

Hard to believe that in 1958 Samuel Chamberlain, writing his book about Italian food for US Gourmet magazine, could say of the local economy: “The husky paesano must climb the hills all day long to wrest a living from his high-walled farms.” Not any longer he mustn't. Now he has abandoned his plough and wrests a living from the rich visitors who started making their way here. The year after Chamberlain's book, Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher enjoyed their intimate honeymoon (her fourth) with attendant paparazzi, swarming around on buzzing motorini.

Portofino became le monde ou l'on s'amuse, out-glamourising the much larger and more touristy St Tropez. Slim Aarons, the photographer who turned poolside hedonism (“attractive people doing attractive things”) into an art form, made Portofino one of his special subjects rather as Raphael with angels. As a result, Portofino has now so lodged in the popular imagination as an eponym for the ultimately stylish resort with pescatoria and lashings of bianco locale, that it is reproduced in Florida's Universal Resort in Orlando and at the Tokyo Disney Sea in Chiba, Japan.

So, what do you get for your money? Many with knowledge of the situation think the Splendido “the best hotel in the world”. Of course, there can be no such single thing because excellence takes many forms, but that you hear the statement so often from the widely and expensively travelled is noteworthy. Certainly, of its type, it is hard to see how it might be improved. The plush bodies in crisp Ralph Lauren that lined the lobby implied silent agreement. As we unpacked, there was a background noise of plopping tennis balls and gurgling Lamborghinis manoeuvring in the car park.

The building is an old monastery and retains a certain cool austerity, but any ghostly sense of past privations is immediately dispelled by the spectacular site and its gorgeous gardens, with jungles of bougainvillea and delirious views of the Gulf of Tigullio. The Splendido is maintained at a level for which “meticulous” is too sloppy a term. Service is efficient, subtle, friendly and non-invasive, an artful balance achieved by Orient Express at its other hotels.

Impossible, really, to describe the style of the interior as it is neither old nor new, simply suggestive of another age. The stairs are lined with black-and-white portraits of soldiers in the battle for la dolce vita who fought here. It's that sort of place. There is, gloriously, nothing to do but test the principle of dolce far niente and to eat. Spaghetti Elizabeth Taylor, made with three types of tomato, is a headline dish in the Splendido's terrace restaurant, perhaps a telling indication of the establishment's charming historic cultural co-ordinates. Indeed, an engrossing and comfortable sense of well-padded establishment sets the Splendido's mood.

On the balcony next to our room we saw a distinguished-looking couple and one double-take later we were saying “what-on-earth-are-you-doing-here?” to Richard and Ruth Rogers. So, here were the proprietors of The River Café, routinely called the best Italian restaurant in London, spending their own money at what is routinely called the best hotel in the world. Take note.

Pesto is the signature dish of the area and you can eat a fine trofie alla Genovese in the hotel. The local fish is besugo, a variety of sea bream and the restaurant is sensible to serve it simply baked. Liguria is not dairy country, so there are no significant cheeses. Red wines include Rossese di Dolceacqua from vineyards near Vermentino in the far west of Liguria. Burton Anderson describes the Rossese as possessing a “forthright goodness that demands to be noticed”, but simple white wine predominates. Cinque Terre DOC is a reliable crisp white, but Pigato is reckoned superior by most experts.

The Splendido's kitchen fixes up high-quality ingredients with care and precision, but there are too many grand hotel elaborations for everyday eating (although at lunch the pool bar does a very good, if geographically incongruous, pizza made by a proper Neapolitan). Historical recommendations dating back to the Elizabeth Taylor-era suggest that the Ristorante Puny in the pretty Piazzetta is a good workaday alternative, but I thought the menu looked a bit turistico. Besides, Ruth Rogers had given us her own tap-you-on-the-elbow-and-look-you-in-the-eye recommendation. Since the profession of the very finest Italian food is her business, only a fool would ignore her.

So we went to Batti in the next little town of Santa Margherita Ligure, 15 minutes up the coast by bus or €50 in a taxi. I know this is turning into a review of brainless enthusiasm, but Batti served the best fish we have ever eaten. It is a brightly lit, ugly cavern of a room one street back from the sea with a cucina di nonna feel created by a chubby, jolly waitress-manageress. First course was a range of raw, marinated fish. Second, the house special of scampi, violently and briefly cooked in stock and brandy. That sounds disgusting, but was shockingly delicious and has given me an unforgettable taste memory.

If the sweetness of doing nothing begins to dull your nerves, rent a boat for the day. We took a Chris Craft Corsair 36, a Slim Aarons-style waterborne 30 knot hot-rod (which should have a pouting Marisa Berenson as an optional extra), on a half-hour choppy ride to San Fruttuoso. Here is another tiny cove, inaccessible by anything other than boat or goat, where a monastery was built on the beach in 409.

Alas, it has recently been discovered by ferried French schoolchildren, but none of them was in the little trattoria called Giorgio perched on the rocks. Next door, a shack called Laura, a favourite too of Ruth Rogers. Here you eat fritto misto with your feet in the water.

Back at the hotel, we sat on the terrace and contemplated the co-ordinates of the experience. A strimmer and a distant piano tuner were the background for this meditation about the Mediterranean idyll, a glass of rather grand Gavi the accompaniment.

Nonsense to say that the Splendido, is “the best hotel in the world”. I thought some of the furniture was terrible, but if you have high denomination banknotes in large piles ready for tearing up, this hotel would be a good place to do it. I do not know where you could find more conventional comfort or more conventional beauty.

You need to walk down the steep, delightful path to the Piazzetta to reconsider Portofino itself. The Bar Morena da Ugo became our favourite; here the rascally proprietor serves fresh tomatoes with the bianco locale. Ruth Rogers was a bit disdainful of the fancy shops hereabouts and said a little grumpily, “It is what it is.” Of course, it rather depends what you mean by “it”, but I also like the comment of the old gourmet-traveller Samuel Chamberlain: “After Portofino, anything would be an anti-climax”.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Genoa is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Gatwick and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted.

Staying there

Hotel Splendido, Salita Baratta 16, Portofino, Liguria (00 39 0185 267 800; hotelsplendido .com). Doubles start at £655 per night in a garden room with breakfast (UK reservations: 0845 077 2222).

Eating & drinking

Ristorante Puny, Piazza Martiri dell'Olivetta 5, Portofino (00 39 185 269 037).

Ristorante Da U Batti, Via Jacopo Ruffini 2, Santa Margherita Ligure (00 39 185 287 570). Ristorante Giorgio, San Fruttuoso di Camogli (00 39 185 771 781; ristorante sanfruttuoso.it).

Getting around

Water taxis: 00 39 333 435 2502.

More information: Italian State Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254; italia.it

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