Portofino isn’t exactly Italy’s best-kept secret. The picturesque town, which is nestled between the Ligurian Sea and the Appennines, has been a playground for the rich and famous for decades with its magnificent harbour surrounded by pretty pastel-washed houses.
While it may still look the same, it’s certainly not the secluded paradise it once was. Thanks to Slim Aarons photographs, laptop screensavers and even a Portofino-themed resort in Disneyworld, Florida, it’s been brought to the masses. Today, the small fishing boats that once dotted its emerald waters are long gone and instead you’ll find superyachts and hoards of tourists wanting to experience its over-the-top glamour in person.
The town’s main square (known as La Piazzetta) is the perfect place to soak it all in. It’s so small that you can stroll around it in a matter of minutes, but the people-watching guarantees a whole day of fun.
Rich Americans, Russians and Europeans parade around as if they’re on a Parisian catwalk, dressed head-to-toe in Dolce and Louis Vuitton (almost every major designer has a boutique in Portofino). Restaurants such as Chuflay and Puny – both institutions have prime views of the harbour – are jammed with billionaires dripping in diamonds and sipping Cristal. Then add swarms of day-trippers to the mix, many of them coming in droves from nearby towns or disembarking from cruise ships docked nearby.
Fortunately, this is just a small part of the Portofino experience. Away from the harbour in the verdant hills above, one can uncover the Portofino of days past – its charm, laid-back vibe and understated luxury – at the Belmond Hotel Splendido. It may sound odd to associate a five-star luxury hotel with a quaint seaside town, but Hotel Splendido forms a core part of Portofino’s history, having just celebrated its 115th anniversary. Originally a monastery, it was attacked by pirates so frequently in the 16th century that the monks decided to abandon it. From the 19th century it became the private home of an Italian aristocrat until it was transformed into Grand Hotel Splendid in 1901 (the first two floors are part of the original monastery). An old advert on the second floor of the hotel proudly advertises a room for 20 lira – how things have changed.
Since then the Splendido (it was rechristened during the Mussolini era) has hosted the crème de la crème of the international leisure set. The Duke of Windsor was first to sign the visitors’ book, and Hollywood stars followed, including Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable and Rex Harrison (if you need a reminder, their photographs line the hallways).
Elizabeth Taylor honeymooned here not once, not twice, but four times (the hotel has named a pasta after her). Ava Gardner was such a frequent guest that her name adorns a suite in the hotel’s harbour annexe, Splendido Mare. The list of recent visiting luminaries is equally long – Mariah Carey, Lewis Hamilton, George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, Madonna, Kate Moss and Gwyneth Paltrow have all been lured by Splendido’s charms.
Its isolated and dramatic setting, a stone’s throw from the holiday villas of Giorgio Armani, and Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, makes it the perfect escape. The elegant four-storey building is picture perfect, thanks to its immaculately landscaped Mediterranean gardens dotted with stone paths, colourful hydrangeas and sweet-smelling wisteria (they aren’t indigenous to the area but a full-time time team including a landscape designer ensures they bloom throughout the season). An infinity pool beckons and overlooks the sparkling emerald harbour down below.
The entrance is inconspicuous, but you can spot it quickly thanks to a red carpet and team of well-dressed bellboys at your beck and call. Once inside, the hotel feels more like a private residence, albeit a very glamorous one. The interiors are elegant yet warm with golden tones, Persian rugs and pale wood flooring.
The hotel rooms have more character and are decked out in vibrant blues reminiscent of the ocean. Although they were all designed by architect Michel Jouannet, each one is unique and contains small details that reference Portofino’s history. The highlight is, of course, the newly built Dolce Vita Suite, located away from the main building, with its 500-square-foot terrace framing the best view in town.
While the grounds and building are stunningly beautiful, what draws guests back time and again is the fact that it feels like a home away from home. The jovial manager Ermes De Megni, who has been part of the team for 25 years, wins you over with his warmth and generous spirit, and has memorised the names (and whims) of every resident.
The hotel staff work like a well-oiled machine designed solely to ensure that your desires are catered to. Love gelato? A tasting can be organised at the gelateria down in La Piazzetta (I was particularly partial to the salted chocolate). For food lovers there’s a pesto-making class, where I discovered that the secret to making the perfect pesto is the order in which you mix in the ingredients (the basil goes in last so as to avoid oxidisation). It’s not just humans that are spoilt – the hotel will take your dog to the hairdresser while the wellness centre specialises in canine massages done in a designated open-air zone.
The hotel also offers several adventures outside its walls. Pretend you’re a local and take a tour of the countryside on a Vespa. Try an underwater photography session with scuba drivers or a private dinner with the sharks at the nearby Acquario di Genova. Perhaps most memorable is a sunset cruise to the magical San Fruttuoso bay, which is only accessible by boat. It ends with a romantic dinner on the beach as violinists play in the background. It almost brings tears to the eyes.
If those don’t tickle your fancy, spend the day lounging by the pool while enjoying pizza made by a real Neapolitan at Pool Restaurant, or local dishes and fresh seafood at the more upscale La Terrazza Restaurant with its breathtaking views of the bay. The hotel updated its Wellness Centre in 2011 and it offers yoga, Pilates and spa treatments.
The Splendido really comes to life, though, when the sun sets. The terrace is usually jam-packed before dinner, thanks to a killer menu of cocktails including Dolce Vita and Portofino Mojito. Most hotel guests are also waiting to see what outfit Antonio, resident pianist for 40 years, will be wearing (it usually consists of a sequinned jacket and equally flamboyant shoes to match).
After dinner, all formality goes out the window. Everyone retires to a smaller bar while Antonio bangs out singalong feel-good tunes on the piano. Sooner rather than later you’ll end up dancing on the expensive furniture, tambourines and maracas in hand, belting out the words to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”.
Needless to say breakfast is empty the next morning, as most guests nurse hangovers or enjoy breakfast in the seclusion of their private balcony. There’s no place like home.