THE GRAND HOTEL EXCELSIOR VITTORIA
Sorrento is situated on top of cliffs above a spectacular bay. Its buildings are handsome, and include a cathedral with a remarkable interior. Its location makes it easy to make day excursions to the islands of Capri and Ischia. And those with an interest in the things of Antiquity are delighted by the proximity of Pompeii and Herculanaeum. But it has something else which means it should be on the itinerary of every discerning traveller: one of the most famous hotels in southern Italy. I have known The Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria for some years. When I return, it is always with keen anticipation.
Since it was first opened in 1834 the Excelsior Vittoria has been owned and managed by the Fiorentino family – indeed, the General Manager today is Mr Guido Fiorentino. Of course, its buildings have been renewed and expanded in the last 180 years. But I suspect that the aura of grandeur has been constant, which is why it has always attracted the sort of artistic folk who know what real luxury is all about – people of the stature of Richard Wagner and Enrico Caruso. It is ‘the grand hotel’ of Sorrento, and it is no wonder that there has to be a gentleman at the gate to decline entry to the many sightseers who – quite understandably – want to wander through the 20,000 square metres of luscious gardens and have a look at one of the best views on the Italian coast.
The hotel is right in the centre of town, but the gardens keep the hustle and bustle well away. And, on the other side, there is the sheer drop of the cliff and the sea. Should you wish to get close to the water, the hotel’s private lift will waft you right down to sea level. But I preferred to remain on the terrace, shaded from the sun and with a pot of Earl Grey at my side. Tea is my normal afternoon ritual, and there can be few places in Christendom more charming for its enactment than the terrace of The Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria (especially after one of the kind waiters or waitresses has turned off the canned music). To reach it requires a meander through some of the sitting rooms, which I find so delightfully old-fashioned and so exquisitely furnished that sometimes I wonder if I have wandered onto the set of a film about the Edwardian nobility. The service throughout the hotel is properly traditional, too, and the smart and courteous members of staff on this visit, as previously, were careful to use my name – a tribute, I think, to the excellent Lady Manager, Tiziana Laterza.
My apartment was charming. Room 644 is on the 6th floor and is a Garden View Suite – although this appellation does not quite do it justice, for I had a charming view of the sea from one of my three (yes, three) balconies. (You will need to check the hotel website for the rates for specific dates.) This was accommodation entirely to my taste, decorated in a traditional and luxurious fashion in cream and gold, with pretty stencilling on the walls and floors of polished parquet. The door to the bathroom was on the right of the entrance corridor, and was a chamber of green and beige marble with one wash basin, a properly sized bath, a separate shower, a bidet and a loo. It also had an extendable washing-line over the tub, a facility which I find useful.
The sitting room was straight on, and provided a sofa, a writing table, a glass-topped coffee table and some fitted wardrobes. Its wall lights were of gilt metal. From here, beyond the French window, was the balcony with the sea view. Behind double doors was the largest of my rooms, the bedroom. Its balconies looked over the luxuriant gardens at the rear of the property. Here there were pieces of antique wooden furniture, with the free-standing wardrobe and the chest of drawers being the most dominant. I was impressed that the pretty carriage clock was telling the correct time.
I decided that two items were needed: a cd player for my daily dose of Elgar and a rug for the bedroom. Both appeared within a few minutes of my request, and the latter turned out to be very pretty carpet in the Aubusson style. I awarded the hotel ten out of ten for servce.
Rested and suitably attired – suit, starched collar, polished shoes etc. – I set out for dinner. The hotel’s restaurant is called the Terrazza Bosquet. It has a Michelin star and is highly regarded not only for its food but also for the view from its eponymous terrace. Here I settled myself at my table and gazed out – as the sun subsided majestically on the horizon, between the mainland and the island of Procida. Before me Riedel glasses stood on a light grey tablecloth. The service from the waiters in their grey aprons was formal: silver domes were lifted and napkins were replaced.
Executive Chef Luigi Tramontano is a talented cook. His dishes are complex, prettily presented and based on good ingredients. He offers two set menus for dinner (at 100€ and 130€). My four courses from the carte were 100€.
I began with a dish which was well-balanced in both its tastes and its textures: slices of roasted duck breast with juniper berries, crispy fried semolina amaretto and kumquat and ginger compote. My pasta was even better. The capelli filled with rabbit confit came with asparagus and a spicy sauce. Prettily served on a round white plate, it was rich, yielding and luscious. Then came the star of the evening, on another round white plate. (I mention these plates because they are so much better than the strangely coloured ‘designer’ crockery I too often have to suffer.) This lamb fillet in breadcrumbs was brilliant, and served so well by the delicate fragrance of fresh lavender, the precisely cooked baby vegetables and the excellent star anise sauce. The concluding symphony of raspberries was nearly as good – even if, sadly, it was served on a square of black slate – and included a truly wonderful mint sorbet.
The wine list has 420 offerings, and is strongest in its Italian and the French sections. 16 wines are offered by the glass. Prices run from 25€ for a local white to 900€ and 1,000€ for the 2008 vintage of Haut Brion and Margaux respectively. It always cheers me to see German Rieslings on a list, and here there are four. Those of you who love your super Tuscans can choose between 1997 Solaia (330€), 2007 Sassicaia (280€), 2010 Masseto (700€) and 2011 Tignanello (90€). One of my favourite bottles of bubbly, Franciacorta, Anna Maria Clementi, Cà de Bosco, is here in its 2005 vintage for 140€. 2000 Chateau Musar from the Lebanon is rather a snip at 80€, and Antinori’s 2012 Cervaro della Sala is also good value at 65€.
Breakfast at The Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria is always a special treat. Not only is it served in the lovely Vittoria Room, a large and elegant chamber with painted ceilings and magnificent views, but also a lady plays jolly melodies on a grand piano. There are surely few more pleasing experiences than breaking the fast to the sound of good music, properly performed.
I was therefore particularly happy as I tucked into the comestibles from the extensive buffet. The waiters – smart in their short white jackets and brown bow ties – brought me silver pots of coffee, dishes of ice cubes and my concluding cappuccini – and I obtained from the laden tables plates of food of the very highest quality: baby tomatoes and rocket, bacon and mushrooms, pineapple and melon, poached pears and strawberry tart. As you might have gathered, I did not leave breakfast hungry. These morning occasions were highly civilised.
And perhaps that is the right word to sum up this remarkable hotel – civilised. It is a bastion of traditional luxury, with a magnificent location and a fine staff. Sorrento is a beautiful city, and it has a beautiful hotel: The Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria.
THE GRAND HOTEL EXCELSIOR VITTORIA
Piazza Tasso 34, 80067 Sorrento, Italy.
Telephone +39 081 877 7111
Fax +39 081 877 1206
Double rooms from 330€, including breakfast
Check the hotel website for the rates for specific dates