The Dolce Vita discovered Portofino in the 1950s. Suddenly, the little jewel on the Italian Riviera saw its sapphire and emerald waters dazzling by diamonds-drenched stars and royals. Liz Taylor with her various husbands, Grace Kelly with her only husband, Sophia Loren without any husband all turned up as did Clarke Gabel, Humphrey Bogart, Rex Harrison, Winston Churchill, Aristotle Onasis and princes from the world over… Literary giants like Ernest Hemmingway, Ezra Pound and Orson Wells couldn’t stay away either. Portofino effervesced with glamour. Once the rage of Europe, this fishing port is ever à la mode with the fashion people, today inextricably associated with Dolce & Gabbana’s weekly villa parties and Roberto Cavalli’s colour-changing yacht which chameleon-like blends with the shades of the surrounds (yes…)
The summer season’s when the fun bunch roll up in boats bigger than the bay and the festivities begin. But if you don’t like the landscape littered with bling bling people, go just before the season begins in June. Slither down off-the-beaten-track lanes on Portofino Hill and you’ll find pieces of paradisiacal beach. But not recommended is attempting to clamour up hills in high heels. However the fashion-obsessed Italian lovelies manage to do it, you’re likely to end up with a broken ankle or a broken heel, which if Gucci will cost you more to repair than the ankle…
Hotel Haven: Belmond Hotel Splendido is the only place to stay and Portofino life revolves around it. During its vibrant and vicissitudinous history the edifice transformed from a monastery to an aristocratic home to a grand hotel prettily posed like a four-tiered cake upon cedar-soaked slopes. The Duke of Windsor and Wallis were amongst the first to grace this legendary hotel which continues to host the likes of Madonna, Sophie Marceau, Robert de Niro, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Bill Gates etc etc. Ensconced amidst an explosion of flagrantly fabulous flora and fauna, with its abundant gardens spilling copiously over the cliff, the setting is a veritable onslaught of the senses.
The interiors retain the intimacy of a private home. A quaint charm hangs like a tapestry. Deliciously light and airy Italian-villa suites peer over boats adrift languid waters. The serenity of the surrounds is interrupted but by the vrrm vrrm of Ferraris, Porches, Lambos… Some young English football players think the old-fashioned Splendido is too “third-world.” But for those not irredeemably devoid of imagination, this hotel is ineffably magical. Even footballers must admit that the views from the fabled terrace are disarmingly dramatic. No less dramatic are staff members with a flurry of gallantries- typically Italian, completely OTT, utterly adorable and inevitably unforgettable. Marcello at the reception is especially remarkable for making you feel like you’ve known him all your life. As for Dimetrio at breakfast or Luca at supper- they charm irresistibly. The song goes “Come fall in love in Portofino…” Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
The Splendido has a smaller property, Splendido Mare, which might lack the glamour of its more celebrated sibling, but it does have the endless Ava Gardener suite with a terrific private terrace overlooking the port and Castello Brown. This is the suite that the actress lived in for months and can today be rented out for private parties. The charming little hotel offers all the facilities of the Splendido and has the advantage of being right on the piazetta, which is convenient for those who haven’t the patience to be shuttled up and down the cliff to the lofty Hotel Splendido.
Lovely Lunches: The Chuflay is the place to see and be seen on the Piazetta at lunch time, or indeed at any time… The terrace unabashedly seeks attention with its enviable position right at the centre of the piazetta. The chef seduces with his seafood specialties and wonderfully prepared pastas whilst the twinkling blue-eyed Maitre D relies on his Don Juanesque charm… Hang around to savour the chef’s adventurous herb-flavoured sorbets (including basil, rosemary etc) before the Maitre D persuades you to abscond with him. After a few glasses of the excellent wines that he matches perfectly with each dish, you might find it difficult to resist… For mesmerising views and Mediterranean fare, lunch lightly at the Splendido’s Poolside Terrace restaurant. Then head down to the port for the local ice cream speciality paciugo at Gelataria San Giorgio.
Sensual Suppers: Everyone who’s anyone has done it: dine on the fairytale terrace of the Splendido. Not only have Brad Bitt and George Clooney stayed at the hotel, but they have returned with mate Matt Damon whilst filming Ocean’s 13 in Lake Como just to sup on this deliriously enchanting terrace enveloped in flickering candles and a flourish of fragrances- lavender, bougainvillea, rose… Panoramic views of Portofino take the breath away. The setting certainly detracts attention from the food. But the wonderful Maitre D’ keeps you entertained and treats you to olive oil and Italian cheese tasting. The heady wines will have you swaying. If you see a frump in an ill-fitting, straw-coloured wig and ghastly oversized glasses, it’s likely to be Elton John and not a superfluity of wine… For the best food in all Portofino, head to Magasin. The itsy family-run restaurant right on the boat-fringed water’s-edge is renowned for its fish specialities. There’s no fishy business here- the fish is brought in fresh every morning and the menu changes daily depending on the ingredients of the day. The octopus and all the rest is fancy food but try also the Parpadello Portofino. Their signature perfectly al dente pasta comes in the most divinely unusual home-made sauce. Leave room for desert, or several deserts. From rustic fruit tarts to tender tiramisu, everything is must-try. Another restaurant on the port renowned for their grilled and baked fish are Puny. Lord Byron is the gastronomic restaurant at Excelsior Palace and the only gourmet restaurant around. Treat yourself to a regional Ligurian Menu degustation in a quaint setting. Try also the exquisitely pretty Eden Roc at Excelsior Palace. This fine dining al fresco terrace restaurant specialises in sea food.
Star Bar: The Splendido’s Piano Bar is where all Portofino convenes to sip on cocktails whipped up by barman Antonio who has been around forever. Ask him how he manages to look so young despite late nights (and he’s always around at breakfast too), he quips, “Never look at the time.” Time certainly has stopped at the bar which recaptures the romance of a bygone era. And if you spot someone skirting around in flamboyant pink jackets and slickly jelled back hair, it isn’t a jet setter but the star of the evening, the pianist Vladamiro. Never mind that he doesn’t actually play the grand piano he sits behind. For he sings and does get the elderly clientele dancing if not to his tunes then to the electric organ’s tunes. With fresh doses of youth, the dancers do not turn into pumpkins at midnight but persevere on silly stilettos until the wee hours.
Start off a balmy evening tasting wines and nibbling antipasti at Winterose Wine Bar. Get there early for the close by 7.00 pm. Finish off at The Gritti next door which was THE haunt of the stars in the 50’s and continues to attract the beautiful people during the summer season.
Spa-ctacular: Few spas in the world can beat the spa at the Splendido in the sheer splendour of its setting. Teetering on the cliff-edge, the outdoor spa cocooned in canopies of kaleidoscopic blossoms and cactuses is accessed via lavender-licked winding lanes. If you have serious shoulder problems (and who doesn’t in this computer-enslaved age) be sure to book a massage with Katia who is perhaps the only therapist capable of doing a “real” massage between St Tropez and Portofino. She knows all the “pressure points” and stress-relieving techniques and will have you coming back for more. Ask Denzil Washington. The spa overlooks the D&G villa so if you fancy some entertainment take along a pair of binoculars. Of course, if you’re undressing in the open, bear in mind that the villa occupants might be glued to a telescope too…
Stop-to-Shop: Minuscule as Portofino might be, it boasts boutiques offering fare exclusively available there. La Vela does its own range of summery linens, leather accessories and cashmeres. Blue Dream has a superb collection of jewellery from Italy’s master artisans. Expect everything from the ultra refined to the kitsch and funky. You’ll fall in love with this tiny but grandly decorated boutique. If you get addicted to the jewellery, you’ll just have to return to Portofino because you won’t find the same collection elsewhere. Aqua di Portofino is a range of perfumes exclusive to the luxury port village. The same boutique offers cool cashmeres and its own designer, tres trendy t-shirts and tops. Gennaker brings assembles a selection of fancy footwear from lesser known but no less wonderful Italian shoe specialists like Rene Caovilla, Cesare Pagotti, Sergio Rossi etc And if you can only deign to do the biggest names in fashion, Spinnaker has the best collection of clothes (but check out also the Kristina TI), shoes and handbags. For sequined kaftans, Summertime it is. The Splendido also has a boutique with its very own brand of flowery, summery clothes. Chalk and cheese don’t mix but fashion and food will do with the soon-to-be-launched Splendido olive oil collection…
Culture: In an hour you can exhaust the cultural treasures of Portofino which comprise not much more than the hilltop Castle Brown, a couple of cute churches and a lighthouse which is a long way out and not worth the trek unless you insist on having an ice cream on the terrace. However, perambulating around the lush, tree-shaded paths of Portofino Hill is integral to the joys of sojourning in the port village. From the historic Castle Brown enjoy views over boat-spangled waters, the Splendido on the hill opposite and the villa-encrusted, undulating environs.
Excursions: Cinque Terre comprising 5 little villages set amidst brilliant waters and steep, verdant hills make for a wonderful half-day trip which the hotel can arrange on request.
Top Tips: The two Splendido properties are splendid, but also boutique and alas have only so many rooms. If you aren’t lucky enough to grab rooms there, the other alternative is The Excelsior Palace in Rapallo. You won’t have the cliff-embraced, bejewelled waters of Portofino there, but at least you’ll have a bed in peak season.
Belmond Hotel Splendido, Portofino
Via Roma, 2, 16034 Portofino GE, Italy