When, in 1901, Ruggero Valentini stepped onto the terrace of the former 16th century monastery he’d just bought, to take in the jaw-dropping views down to Portofino and out across the Ligurian sea, he immediately, if not quite understandably, blurted out “Splendido!”. The name for the hotel that he would create there had effectively chosen itself, and with its glittering star-studded backstory, Hotel Splendido has remained to this day, one of the most coveted points on Europe’s hospitality compass.
The Splendido’s longstanding general manager, Ermes De Megni, surveys this same stunning panorama, and points up the hill toward Rex Harrison’s old villa to explain its pivotal role with la dolce vita of the 1950s and 1960s. Harrison enticed half of Hollywood to Portofino, and from Richard Burton proposing to Elizabeth Taylor at the Splendido, to Ava Gardner filming the Barefoot Contessa, the allure of celebrity has swirled around the town ever since.
Belmond (rebranded from Orient Express in 2014), whose cache of opulent offerings includes Venice’s Cipriani and Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in the English Cotswolds, acquired the Splendido in 1986, and the Splendido Mare, on the piazzetta, Portofino’s harbourfront, was unveiled in 1998. Always the Mini-Me to the main act on the hill behind, the Belmond Splendido Mare currently occupies center stage following a widely anticipated three-year renovation. It’s the first property to be accorded a full-scale redesign since Belmond was absorbed by LVMH in 2018.
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The Belmond Splendido Mare was formerly the Nazionale, the town’s first inn, opened by a retired fisherman whose descendants still own the adjacent property, over part of which the Mare extends. Just yards from the lapping waters of the harbor and facing the world-famous multi-colored houses curving away around the coast, the location is unassailable, the views mesmerizing. The town is now largely pedestrianized, but the hotel’s porters assist with the last couple of hundred yards undertaken on foot. Meandering corridors and condensed spaces attest to its simple origins, but also conspire to create a charming aura that guests are immediately enveloped by.
The CEO of LVMH, Bernard Arnault, Europe’s (and according to Forbes calculations, occasionally, the world’s), wealthiest individual is a long-standing Portofino habitué who would often be found playing tennis at The Splendido. As the Mare’s manager, Michela Nicosia, the very epitome of Italian poise and style elaborates, Monsieur Arnault specifically wanted the Splendido Mare to establish its own unique identity. His wish seems to have come true (something, one suspects, that happens a lot), with the Splendido Mare now reborn as a laid-back luxurious harbourside hideaway of just fourteen bedrooms and suites.
The facilities at the larger property, including its gorgeous gardens cascading down the hillside, the saltwater infinity pool, tennis courts, and spa are all either a walk or shuttle ride away, as are the hotel’s private loungers at nearby Paraggi beach.
In a part of the world where gastronomic greatness straddles the landscape, Splendido Mare’s new restaurant DaV Mare has made an impressive debut. That’s undoubtedly due to the recently conceived collaboration with one of Northern Italy’s pinnacles of epicurean excellence – the Cerea family’s Da Vittorio restaurant in Bergamo.
Established by Vittorio Cerea in 1966, with sons Enrico and Roberto now at the helm, it has consistently held three Michelin stars since 2010. Its two-starred outpost in St Moritz, under the tutelage of brother-in-law, Paolo Rota, has been adjudged the best Italian restaurant in Switzerland. Its third venture, opened in Shanghai in 2019, was already a two-starred address by 2020.
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Working alongside Roberto Villa, Splendido Mare’s long-established executive chef, Paolo Rota has been busy at DaV Mare ensuring that this new partnership of culinary creativity is properly bedded in. With their long-established affinity for seafood (Vittorio insisted on introducing it to an almost exclusively meat-eating Lombardy, back in the 1960s), and Roberto Villa’s fishing contacts along the coast, DaV Mare will exert a particular allure to those with pescatarian inclinations.
Tuna spaghetti, which didn’t sound particularly remarkable, had been recommended several times, and so was duly ordered at dinner. What eventually appeared was not what one might ordinarily expect, however; long thin ribbons of actual tuna, curled and twisted around like real spaghetti, all embellished with the most exquisite white truffle sauce. A truly sublime dish, indicative of how the gastronomic bar down on the Portofino waterfront has just been incontrovertibly raised.
The Belmond Splendido Mare’s new suit of clothes disports a decidedly mid-century cut. Unsurprisingly, its dolce vita connotations underpin the new design template, though it’s very subtle in its execution. The designers, Agence Festen, are a young Parisian couple, Charlotte de Tonnac and Hugo Sauzay, already forging an enviable reputation. Not least with their acclaimed transformation of a three-star motel in St Raphaël into one of the most uber-chic design-led destinations, on the French riviera; Les Roches Rouges.
Whilst absorbing local Ligurian influences wherever possible, this isn’t a play on Portofino’s multi-colored townscape. In fact, de Tonnac and Sauzay are self-confessed adherents of white in all its shades, so this is essentially a bright, light environment, providing a perfect backdrop for the art, curated by London based consultancy ARTIQ, which is hung all around.
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Striped marble work in the bathrooms references the local beach huts of nearby Santa Margherita, whilst subtle nods to the nautical legacy include features made from the same wood used in the construction of local boats and headboards crafted from knotted rope by acclaimed textile designer Véronique de Soultrait. Textiles from Rubelli and Loro Piana coalesce with lamps fashioned from Murano glass to forge an interior design statement aiming at timeless rather than trendy.
The muted shades of a delicately assembled melange of mid-century furniture from the likes of Gio Ponti and Paolo Buffa, contemporary pieces, and local artisanal work, are all viewed through the prism of a restrained refinement. A sophisticated makeover, undoubtedly, but one that’s whispering its accomplishments, not shouting them.
Somehow, in an over-touristed world, not least with cruise ships docking dangerously close at La Spezia down the coast, Portofino keeps its perfectly coiffed head above turbulent waters. The town hall actively engages in fending off potential threats to their tiny slither of ultra-exclusive paradise. There’s been no new building in Portofino since 1930. Nobody, not least the rollcall of celebrity that maintain villas here, encompassing Dolce & Gabanna, Berlusconi, Agnelli, Armani, Versace, and Pirelli, wishes to see their fairy tale become a nightmare.
Portofino, despite its global presence, is still somewhere that can be simply absorbed, strolled around, and shopped in. Aside from access to the larger Splendido, and Paraggi’s legendary Bagni Fiore beach club along the delightful coastal pathway, the hotel’s own traditional boat is also available for trips around the coast to places like the tiny village of San Fruttuoso with its 13th century monastery.
These days, on the headland above the town amidst rural serenity and far-reaching sea views, a different diversion is also available; La Portofinese eco-farm, where the Viacava family (six generations in Portofino), have reclaimed abandoned olive groves and vineyards and repurposed deserted farm buildings.
As elsewhere across the Mediterranean, renting out sun loungers and operating bars upended centuries-old traditional ways of life. The Viacava’s though, have not only gone back up the hill to reprise this lost world, now with a workforce of 30, they’re also doing pretty well.
With a firm emphasis on sustainability, they produce their own wine, beer, honey and a lot else besides, much of which finds its way into the Belmond Splendido Mare. The one visit a day that they host, facilitated by the hotel, might include a breathtaking picnic overlooking the Ligurian Sea, a homestyle cooking class, or wine tasting. Thankfully, for those ready for the spectacularly beautiful walk back, it’s all downhill – not somewhere picture-perfect Portofino is ever likely to be heading.
The Belmond Splendido Mare reopens March 25 until January 8 2023. Rooms available from €550 ($624) excluding local taxes. belmond.com, +39 0185 2678 02, email@example.com
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