Stephen Doig soaks up perfect views in glamorous Portofino
Introverts look away; no matter how unassuming you try to make your entrance, there is no low-key way to dock in Portofino harbour if arriving by the Itama Forty open cruiser boat. The handsome 13-metre vessel – gleaming glacial white against the cobalt Ligurian Sea – glides into the bustling harbour, throbbing with ferry boats throughout the high season, with the stealth of a great white shark.
The boat, an Itama Forty named “Be Mine”, is part of the impressive fleet managed by AMM Charter, a local company based near Portofino which arranges boat tours along the coast, as far down as Cinque Terre. Inclement weather means conditions are tricky on the day we sail, but it’s testament to the company’s commitment that not once do we feel anything but relaxed and looked after on its sun deck.
Getting in to the harbour at Portofino is no small task: our driver has to negotiate a (highly glamorous) traffic jam of yachts and steer us in with “20 seconds” to get alight. It’s done with precision and grace, depositing us in the middle of Portofino’s glorious paintbox-hued harbour with more than a few glances.
Splendid boats and people watching go hand-in-hand in Portofino, which since the 1950s has been synonymous with a kind of Italianate glamour. At the time of Cinecittà in Rome the matinee idols of the day would, in their downtime, take the winding, mountainous routes through Liguria to this little village on the coast.
Elizabeth Taylor came to drink and debate diamonds with Richard Burton, Ava Gardner would take a suite over the harbour, Sophia Loren used the sand and saffron shades of the waterfront as inspiration for all her homes, Greta Garbo came to be alone and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were photographed in exile on its cobbled streets. Of which there are scant few; the destination itself is tiny, with a warren of just a few vias spitting you into the harbour, but oh so beautiful.
While it’s tempting to pull up a chair at La Gritta bar and watch life unfold, a host of experiences are on hand in the region to lend a deeper understanding of the culture of this stretch of Italy. The Ligurian coast may be less renowned than Amalfi, but it’s spellbinding in its own way; the landscape is more rugged and less manicured, the bays less populated and driven by tourism.
‘Elizabeth Taylor came to drink and debate diamonds with Richard Burton, Ava Gardner would take a suite over the harbour’
We get a sense of that when the Itama Forty glides into the inlet of San Fruttuoso in less than smooth conditions. The weather has been blustery all day, and in less assured hands we would have given up hope of making it to the bay that’s only reachable by boat or down a stone path, but the cruiser eases in gently and deftly as the waves crash.
If Portofino is the dashing playboy, San Fruttuoso is his more unassuming – but perhaps more soulful – little brother. Beyond the pine tree-strewn headland at Portofino (past a cluster of palazzos belonging to Messrs Dolce & Gabbana), the bay’s 10th-century abbey overlooks a shingle beach (whereas in Portofino, Chanel is the church that greets you), with restaurants built into the rocks.
If you’re particularly adventurous, a dive below the surface reveals a ghostly apparition: Christ of the Abyss. The 8ft statue of Christ with his arms outstretched has rested on the seafloor here since 1954, to mark the spot where pioneering Italian diver Dario Gonzatti lost his life. On a clear day, it’s visible beneath the green-blue waters, but it’s too choppy for us to explore. From the boat, we see just a shimmering – slightly threatening – mass beneath the waves.
Back on board after a lunch of the local pesto Genovese, the boat cuts across the waves to take in the Ligurian coastline and the Alps in the background. Our guide, the owner of AMM Charter, Anna provides fascinating commentary – alongside drinks and nibbles – about the astonishing grand palazzos we see.
We drift past the sprawling gardens and neo-gothic grandeur of the 18th-century Villa Durazzo, built by renowned botanist Clelia Durazzo Grimaldi, and the Cervara Abbey on the Tigullio Gulf, its name derived from the the Latin “Silvaria” for woods, a nod to the knot of forests that dot the coast.
Far more scurrilous in history is the Italianate wedding cake of a castle, Bonomi-Bolchini, which sticks out on a headland; it is the sumptuous holiday home of Berlusconi.
In between the cultural highlights, the Itama Forty drops anchor in calmer waters to allow for a dip; pillowy towels and refreshments await as we emerge.
After a day’s bay-hopping, it’s time to stretch the sea legs. We head up the winding path to the spice-shaded grandeur of the Splendido Hotel. If Portofino is the fizz in the bellini, then this grand contessa is its peach puree: the destination’s glamour stems from the Splendido’s steady roll call of MGM starlets that have stalked its marble hallways.
Situated in the hills overlooking the bay, the former monastery was purchased by the fabulously titled Baron Baratta in the early 1900s, and later transformed into a hotel. The icons of the day came flocking.
Staying here is like stepping into a 1950s Fellini film; the decor is traditional but not dated, and the service wonderfully old school; white-jacketed waiters discreetly top up your water poolside, or ask in the politest terms whether they might have the honour of polishing your sunglasses.
The hotel’s rooms look out over the harbour, private balconies are studded with fragrant, blush-shaded pelargoniums, and as the sky fades to coral the soundtrack of corks popping and music rise from the La Terrazza restaurant.
‘Splendid boats and people watching go hand-in-hand in Portofino’
There the food – much like the interior design – is classic but done to perfection. A dish of local lobster is buttery and feather-light. A plate of taglierini arrives encased in a dome of shaved black truffle, perhaps the most decadent edible cloche in existence.
Soon the guests – all of whom have made the effort to dress for dinner – drift towards the Piano Bar, where waiters double as entertainers, taking the mic to sing Tu Vuo Fa L’Americano.
Guests twirl across the marble floors to dance, watched over by black and white photos of the starlets who’ve done the same in this very room. The scene is like a vignette of a bygone era.
Should the sense of languor seem a tad indulgent, the Splendido also arranges local experiences. The hotel’s second site is more boutique; a smaller iteration called the Splendido Mare, it’s nestled in the hubbub of the main harbour, a 10-minute walk (via red carpet, naturally) from the hilltop main building.
Its Ava Gardner suite is named after the actress – she preferred the bustle of activity here. And it’s in the Mare’s more informal Chuflay restaurant that a pesto-making tutorial takes diners on a fascinating tour through the particulars of local produce (generic basil doesn’t quite cut it, for example, it has to be the finer, more peppery Ligurian variety infused with the salt from the sea air).
The hotel’s concierge can also arrange a tour of a local sustainable farm or a visit to some local wine cellars.
The Amalfi coast may be one of the most Instagrammed of Italian summer destinations, but Liguria has a charm and allure all of its own.
Inspired to travel? To book a trip, call +971 4 316 6666 or visit dnatatravel.com
Credit: Stephen Doig/ The Telegraph/ The Interview People