One of the sad things about being a grown-up is that few events or places actually live up to expectations.
It is with a little frisson of delight, therefore, that I report that the splendidly named Hotel Splendido, in Portofino on Italy’s Mediterranean coast, actually lives up to its billing as one of the top hotels in Europe.
A terracotta-washed gem perched on a wooded, flower-strewn hill high above a navy-blue sea, it is a secluded and quietly luxurious hotel whose stone-flagged floors have been trodden by royalty and stars as diverse as the Duke of Windsor, King Constantine of Greece, the Rainiers, Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna, Naomi Campbell, John Malkovich, Sting, Billy Crystal and literally hundreds of others whose names regularly adorn the diary pages and gossip columns.
Indeed, this former monastery, built in the 16th century, has been visited by so many celebs and garlanded with so many awards (number one in Condé Nast Traveller top 15 hotels; eighth in Best 25 Small Hotels, etc), that one fears the kind of intimidating atmosphere that can make a holiday feel more like penance than pleasure.
But from the second you alight from the shiny Mercedes that whisks you from the airport (having been whizzed from London by BA to Genoa in 100 minutes, with barely another 15 from touchdown to waiting car), you are made to feel very much at home by a team of staff that is not just efficient and helpful but also quite remarkably friendly.
The rooms and suites, accessed off wide corridors flagged in black-and-white marble, dotted with beautiful antique desks and tables and arrayed with huge vases of artfully disarranged flowers, are everything you would expect from an Orient Express Hotels establishment.
Huge and comfortable with wood-panelled dressing areas, dance-floor-sized bathrooms (vast bath, vaster separate shower, twin sinks and stacks of thick, snowy-white towels), the rooms are ravishingly pretty, decorated in exotic Nina Campbell prints with Frette linen on the bed and Bulgari and Penhaligon in the bathroom.
All rooms have French windows overlooking the little harbour below, with its shiny white yachts, while suites have a terracotta-tiled terrace with rustic table and chairs for eating breakfast al fresco.
For those who prefer a buffet breakfast with its scope for greater spontaneity, the Splendido’s fabled La Terrazza restaurant with seating indoors or out (beneath a wisteria-clad wood canopy) offers a generous selection of squeezed juices (including passion fruit and sanguinello), fresh fruits (melon, berries and fruit salad), cereals, cheeses, breads, brioches and croissants, as well as cooked dishes.
After breakfast, one can sit on the terrace wreathed in the scent of roses, honeysuckle and lavender, and read a book or a newspaper, or saunter — and please forgive the somewhat Noel Coward-esque “saunter” but the word was created for a place like the Splendido — along the terrace and down the steps to the panorama pool, with its intimate little clusters of loungers for soaking up the sun, reading and sipping a glass of wine or very chilled water — kept ice-cold for hours in a wine-cooler.
For those who prefer a little gentle activity, there are sketching and cookery classes at weekends, free to hotel guests. The sketching class is taken by Sally Spector, Chicago-born Jewish artist domiciled for 14 years in Venice, who has had a long association with Orient Express Hotels, providing the calligraphy and illustrations for its legendary Venice hotel, the Cipriani, as well as writing and illustrating a glossy and lavish coffee-table book called “Venice and Food.”
The cookery class is conducted by the Splendido’s chefs, Roberto Villa and Corrado Corti, who impart secrets of their sensational cuisine — most often pasta and fish dishes, which is good news for JC readers.
During my stay, we were learning how to make potato gnocchi with pesto sauce, a risotto with basil sauce, and anchovy soup.
The course also includes a visit to the fish market in Santa Margherita Liguria. The closest large town, it is great for shopping if Portofino’s selection of luxe little emporia is not quite the ticket for your gift shopping. For the active, there is a tennis court and a gym with views of the bay.
One of the most perfect illustrations of how Orient Express Hotels — owner of the Splendido since 1985 — has succeeded in making this hotel so much more than just a glamorous showcase for the glitterati is the lively piano bar.
Here, after a sumptuous dinner in La Terrazza, elegantly clad visitors, predominantly under 40 — rare for this kind of establishment — gather for what gradually evolves into a kind of up-scale music quiz and karaoke evening MC’ed by Vladimiro (known as “Vladi”), the pianist who, is in turn, abetted by singing head barman Antonio.
Hotel guests, oozing dignity and rosy bank balances, all finish up singing along — and dancing — to an eclectic blend of music that might include Italian folk songs, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles and the Eagles, while Antonio croons like a pro, breaking off now and then to keep the Champagne, brandy and espressos flowing.
Apart from the informality and the sheer beauty, part of the charm of the Splendido is its umbilical link with the village of Portofino below, a link created by the hotel’s annexe, the Splendido Mare.
Overlooking the piazzetta, the Splendido Mare has just 16 rooms, all decorated and equipped in exactly the same style as the mother-hotel above, with huge bathrooms, dressing rooms and some with terraces overlooking the bustling little square with its bars, cafés and shops.
It is also home to the Chuflay restaurant, where chefs Villa and Corti produce the same sensational pasta and fish dishes (as well, of course, as meat and shellfish for non-kosher diners), as in the main hotel with equally slick service, but in an atmosphere which is more buzzy and slightly less formal.
For a fishing village, Portofino has more designer stores to the square metre than Sloane Street or Bond Street. There’s Vuitton, Gucci and Pucci, Cartier, Ferragamo, Armani, Celine, Hermes, Missoni, Dolce & Gabbana, and tucked between them are little shops selling souvenir creatures made of shells, fish bait and “I’ve been to Portofino” T-shirts.
The village is also home to a heritage museum and a sculpture garden, and in the hills just above, one can explore Castello Brown — currently being restored — or walk round the headland to the Faro lighthouse that offers stunning views around the coast. Exactly the mix, in fact, to make a visit to Portofino absolutely splendido.