Ask anyone who has floated on anything down the coast of Italy and 95 percent of them will tell you that the most charming port of them all is Portofino. Even the super rich buying the superbig 300- to 500-foot boats suffer a stroke of regret because they will not be able to visit Portofino; the sweet port is too small to berth those boats that are as big as cruise ships. Not all that long ago, before boats went on steroids, it was a very important stop for every boat. It is still a summer dream come true for modest boats and, alternatively, it is lovely to drive down the coast road from France to Portofino. There is a handsome hotel on the hill, the Splendido, with a wide dining terrace draped in shade trees and a piano player who has heard of Frank Sinatra and Michael Buble. It is always full up in a nice way with ladies wearing fluttery long things and gentlemen in white jackets.
Down the hill there is the Splendido Maré, the hip kid sister of the grand hotel above. The Splendido Maré sits smack in the middle of the port and I think it has the best waiters in the world. They become family very soon and call you at Christmas. It too has a piano player and, though he certainly isn’t playing rap, he has more verve; he makes more noise and he invites the waiters to sing, and they do. He will invite you to sing and that’s up to you. The restaurant terrace outside is one of the places I want to be. I want to rest my eyes on the little boats bobbing in the marina. The port is never overrun at night with too many people making summer feel sticky hot like in St-Tropez. The Splendido Maré makes simple food like fresh-caught fish that tastes like you hope it will and it specializes in skinny slivers of zucchini perfectly deep-fried to a crisp; bowls of them appear. This minute I am thinking of being there: it is evening, I am there with someone fun to be with and the waiters bring out those bowls of hot crispy zucchini slivers. You may think that is not a great evening. Well, book a trip to Genoa and rent a car to Portofino and take a room at the Splendido Maré — it once was a house so it has interesting rooms with little terraces. Take one with a terrace for breakfast with one of the best views in southern Italy. At dinner, tell them you want Mary Wells Lawrence’s deep-fried zucchini and, when it arrives, know for sure that, wherever I am, I will feel your bliss.
Italy has more than its share of places you want to be. The Argentario is a peninsula jutting into the sea with two attractive towns on each side: Porto Santo Stefano and Porto Ercole. In the center is II Pellicano, a hotel that has been promoting romance for years. It’s run by an English couple but it reminds me of the Bel Aire Hotel in Beverly Hills, except that it is on the sea. It has a comfortable stage-set feeling with good, cozy service, music at dinner always played with Humphrey Bogart in mind. A private place with great swimming in the sea or in the pool. But it isn’t slick. Not a place you are likely to forget. Fall in love there if you can manage it. It’s a place where you look at each other and smile and go to bed early.
You may not think of Rome as being on the Mediterranean but it is merely a hop from it. And there is a perfect launching lunch place in the Posta Vecchia hotel on the sea. It was once a Getty home and nothing much has changed in the way of its grandeur-on-the-sea. It is a fantasy experience: lunch is on the terrace with the sea view, grand rooms to enjoy wine in, an indoor swimming pool that is not an underground smelly place but more like an orangery with lots of glass that can be opened. Bedrooms are amazing. Lunching there before slipping into Rome gives you the impression that you are a luxe woman without breaking your bank, and you don’t have to go out of your way to have it (tel: 0039 06 9949501).
Rome is down the road. Rome never had a top-quality cool hotel. Top of the line was always the Hassler at the top of the Spanish Steps and the Piazza di Spagna, but now its original elaborate decor is so old and drab and faded — even grimy — and its high prices haven’t changed. At those prices you expect clean-up, turn-down service at night but most nights pass without the sign of a fresh towel. The Hotel Eden is still OK in an old-fashioned way. The only bright spot is the restaurant, La Terrazza, and its terrific views — and you don’t have to stay at the hotel to enjoy the restaurant. Then along came Rocco Forte to build the Hotel de Russie with real style and beautiful gardens in which you can have a drink, read your paper or have a good dinner. Its location is good; it is at the Piazza del Popolo end of the Via del Babuino, a street jammed with good shops that runs into the Piazza di Spagna. Try to get one of the junior suites or a full suite overlooking the garden. The Rocco Forte hotels all have a refreshing modern but comfortable style — the one in Munich and the one in Florence are as good as you hope when you reserve.
You can rent a house in most European countries. In Italy there is a standout agency called The Best in Italy run by Countess Simonetta Brandolini d’Adda, a charming young woman who calls on her friends to rent their homes and to arrange almost anything you need to make an Italian holiday a dream come true.
Forget Naples. The garbage hangs around and is thrown into the sea. There was an outcry recently because that stinky garbage was keeping the boats away and no one would swim. They promise that they are cleaning it up. But I wouldn’t go to Sorrento either until that whole area is clean. I hear that Ischia reports a clean sea but Ischia is now boring and, at the dollar rate of today’s euro, I’m sure you don’t want to be bored and you don’t want to swim in garbage.
Positano is far enough from Naples to be safe. Funny place and so pretty to look at, it is all rocky hills full of inexpensive charming summer clothing and Italian ceramics for sale in shops that are on all those stairs. It is not a chic place but it is just as colorful and as much fun as it has always been. And it does have one of the loveliest and best-run hotels in the Mediterranean, the Sireneuse. The hotel is made up of a cunning connection of old Positano homes and it has a style that gives it the right to be the crown of Positano’s hill. There is another hotel nearby, out of town, where a lot of Americans go for honeymoons: the IL San Pietro. It DOES have an elevator to its sea terrace and the sea so boats can come and go — very handy — and it has a flowery and green atmosphere. If you are in Positano you would want to experience the San Pietro. But it isn’t the top of the line that the Sireneuse is. There is great casual dining in Positano too, down near the beach. Positano is so easy — lots of boats to hire to amble around, and it’s comparatively inexpensive (although it IS euro country). Keep it in mind if you are traveling with teens.
You will feel like a pretzel by the time you wind up the curvy road to Ravello but it is such a pretty town so it is worth it. A new hotel has opened that is really good news: the Caruso. I was there the day before it opened and there was no grass, no hedges. An army must have sneaked in during the night because when I opened the windows in the morning, the whole place looked as if it had been there for many years: thick grass, big trees, flowers galore. I thought I was having a suspicious “moment” but somehow or other the Italians pulled every last string that last night. I have been back since and it is just great — pretty as can be, comfortable, an infinity pool so dramatic you may want to tie a rope around a tree and your waist so you can look down down down and more down at the sea below. Woof! You will appreciate the service, too: good, intelligent and friendly.
We’ve talked about Capri (click here to read about Capri and to see my photos) but in short order, here are the places I really like: La Fontelina on the sea facing the Faraglioni rocks is a great summer place to swim and lunch. You walk through town all the way past the shops to the Edode restaurant and you see a sign leading you to La Fontelina. It is a happy walk down. It is a heart-bumping walk up. Take it easy or arrange for a boat to pick you up at Fontelina and take you for a cruise. The best hotel in just about everyone’s opinion is la Scalinatella; it’s not easy to get reservations, but worth it. Otherwise, go to the new JK hotel on the side of the island overlooking the main marina. It is very smart. It is the summer house you always wanted and you will feel as if it is yours when you are there — that is the idea. Or go up to Anacapri to the Capri Palace Hotel, a theatrical wonderland with an imaginative restaurant and an imaginative point of view. It is a must to visit. It is fun. And luxe. In Capri, go to Umberto’s new restaurant, Geranio, especially for lunch because he has the perfect view and the perfect attitude. You will love it (tel: 39 081 837 0616). And go to Villa Verde for a fun — no, a hilarious evening with Franco who makes life happier for everyone (tel: 39 081 837 7024). Aurora is a favorite of the people who live there — best pizza, great fish, homey service (tel: 39 081 837 0181). I spend a lot of time drinking true Italian espresso in the Piazzetta watching the people come and go. That’s where Emilio Pucci had his first shop when he introduced the idea of wearing pants to smart society women. Now every big-name shop is in town and everybody’s in pants. There are a couple of really good fish restaurants on the shore of Nerano on the mainland, a short fast boat ride from Capri and a real treat.
The island, Giglio, is cute for a drop-in. But we are going to bypass Sardinia. It is unreal — a bit of a cartoon – and it is hot and windy. (The Pitrizza is a smart hotel and the restaurant is what you imagine a restaurant there would be [tel: 39 078 993 0111]. The Cala di Volpe has a huge pool and a huge outdoor buffet and it looks like an idea from Walt Disney so it is good for children [tel: 39 078 997 6111].) But after two days I want out of there. We are going to bypass Panarea and Lipari, two islands in Sicily that I thought would become the stars of a new world. They didn’t. It looks to me as if there wasn’t enough money around to keep them moving up into the upper strata. Now they are not worth going out of your way for. There is a very deep sea so you can’t anchor and you have to keep your eye on the weather.
The Greek islands don’t seem to change. Although in Athens the Grande Bretagne was redone for the Olympics and now has an amazing roof terrace restaurant that looks straight into the Acropolis with all its night lights on — it’s glamorous, it’s fun. I know nothing at all about the rooms or the sheets or the service of the Grande Bretagne. But this story about the best of the Med takes us out to the islands and I am happy to say they haven’t changed much either. Greece has never been known for its classy, designy hotels. You go for the beauty of the sea, the sparkle in the morning, the sunset, the beaches, the craziness of the little towns on the islands, the relaxed anything-goes atmosphere. You still find that in Mykonos but there is a new hotel, the Mykonos Grace, that I checked out that has a minimalist decor and has Wi-Fi and flat-screen televisions and private terraces with hot tubs. It isn’t in the hot center of town but it isn’t wildly expensive either. If you are looking to see and be seen in Mykonos, choose the more expensive Belvedere Hotel. Its CBar is the glamour hangout with great snacks and it has the Matsuhisa Mykonos restaurant, that is called the local Nobu, where you can eat and drink well until into the next day.
My favorite place in Greece is Kastro’s Bar in the Venice section — it looks like a clean opium den but it’s run very well and the music is unusual and moving. You sink into cushions, look out the windows at the moon on the sea, listen to music that is unusual in a bar; it’s madly dangerously romantic. If you can find Kastro’s Bar in the winding lanes of Mykonos, it says something about you — something good. Tell me if you do.
The best way to get to Venice from Greece is to wind through the Croatian islands. It is hard to choose which island you think the most beautiful. There are so many different styles of islands. But whatever you do don’t start this sojourn with a visit to the Bay of Kotor of Montenegro. The beaches and hotels on the outer shores may be OK but the internal bay goes on and on and as it goes on and on the jellyfish multiply and grow larger. It is a very big and lengthy bay and the jellyfish have no way to leave, I suppose, so they stay there and grow — they flower, they cabbage themselves, they get so big and there are so many of them crushing and stinging each other and turning dirty shades of maroon-gray that they fill the entire bay at the town of Kotor. You could imagine an evil leader of a country tossing his adversaries into this sea of mushrooming maroon jelly whereupon they would be stung to death and would disappear below the heaving mess.
Dubrovnik was destroyed during the war in Croatia and was rebuilt carefully to live again. I would love to clear it of all the tourists and see it really well. It must have been a massive job to rebuild it. But it is jam-packed in good weather seasons. There are many very large hotels around built in early days and some are supposed to have been bought by important hotel chains and are scheduled for new lives themselves. That would be very good for Croatia because there are few good hotels on all those lovely islands. The islands went through five years of excitement about themselves because all the fancy boats were heading there and tourism was growing and there were rumors of big resorts being planned. Prices went up quickly and then the local troubles began again. So there aren’t many good hotels around. Hvar is one of the most developed islands and it has the first harborfront hotel that is anything like what was promised for so long. It has an indoor-outdoor seawater pool as well as its good sea. The hotel is filled with movie-set people and the whole scene is like the cover of a fashion magazine. It’s good. It’s chic. Congratulations to Hvar. My friends complain about the service but the hotel will get it right. They understand I think.
So sail through those gorgeous islands over to Venice. It is the best of all ways to arrive in Venice. I will tell you what is really good in Venice soon. I have so many things to tell you …