BELMOND HOTEL CARUSO
The Amalfi Coast is one of the prettiest parts of Italy. Even if you have never been there, you are likely to have seen some of its wonders, for the makers of films and the advertisers of motor cars have long used its winding roads and impressive cliffs to add glamour and romance to their productions. 1,200 feet above this stretch of sea perches the exquisite confection of ancient churches and palaces which is Ravello. A thousand years ago one of those palaces was built by the D’Afflitto family. Much altered over the centuries, the building was opened as an hotel in 1893 by a gentleman called Pantaleone Caruso. Soon it was attracting guests of the very grandest sort. Eventually, they would include Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Jackie Kennedy... and me.
Of course, a great deal has happened to the hotel since Signor Caruso opened its doors. Most importantly, its current owners have poured $30 million into its restoration. All the Belmond hotels I have visited inhabit delightfully restored buildings. This one is spectacular. 18th century frescoes have been uncovered, Norman arches have been repaired, hand-made tiles have been laid and 12th century stonework has been cleaned. The result is truly wonderful. Elegance, history and good taste have combined to produce surroundings which are welcoming, comfortable and beautiful. The interior designer, Federico Forquet, is to be congratulated on the sensitivity with which he has respected the integrity of this important building.
A great hotel needs a great manager. And it has one. Mr Franco Girasoli (pictured, with your correspondent) has that gift of ubiquity which is a characteristic of the finest practitioners of his profession throughout the world. He is here, there and everywhere – not rushing about, but serenely ensuring that all is exactly as it should be. One example will illustrate the point. I happened to mention to him, in a casual sort of way, that there was no mirror in my bedroom. I returned to my billet about half an hour later to find that a tall looking glass – perfect for my dressing – had been installed.
I was staying in a most attractive apartment on the second floor, which enjoyed the famous view down onto the sea and the coastline. Number 207 is a ‘Deluxe Suite’ and therefore 2,600€-3,500€ a night, bed and breakfast for two, according to season. I liked its cool and sophisticated colour scheme: the white walls, the green, pink and white Amalfi floor tiles, the green upholstery and the brown of the polished mahogany furniture. In the sitting room I could sit on the sofa or in one of the easy chairs, or open the door of faux books on the cabinet to reveal, not only the first of the two televisions, the dvd player and the mini bar, but also a kettle and jars of tea and coffee. The fact that these were proper glass jars and not the usual paper sachets symbolised two important points about the Belmond Caruso: here details matter and only the best will do.
In the triple-windowed bedroom the bed had been made deliciously soft for my ailing back. Of course, the bed linen was of the finest. The television rose up from its container at the touch of a button. From here there was a door into the dining and study area, with a writing table and a dining table and chairs, from which a glazed door led out onto my own private terrace, on which I could sit under a sun shade each afternoon. Back inside, my ablutions were conducted in the white marble surroundings of one of the famous Belmond bathrooms. These rooms are, indeed, famous among those of us who spend much time in luxury hotels, for they are models of what The Hotel Bathroom should be like: full of the best toiletries (by Bulgari and Penhaligon), with lots of space for a properly-shaped and properly-sized bath (and a control for the water temperature which always works), a pair of wash basins, a separate shower and a separate apartment for the loo and the bidet. Needless to say, all of this was immaculately maintained. Each feature of this accommodation caused me a little stirring of joy.
Joy was part of breakfast, too. Lovers of the sun went out onto the terrace, but I stayed within, next to the stone pillars and the mirrors with shell frames. I like elegant surroundings when I am breaking my fast. Everything I secured from the extensive buffet – the cakes, the dishes of melon, pineapple and strawberries, the mozzarella – ticked the box marked ‘top quality’. And better still, brought to me from the kitchen, came plates of bacon, tomato and poached eggs and my Grandfather’s Breakfast. This consists of a bowl of porridge (made with water, not milk), a dish of sliced raw onion and a plate of brown bread and butter. Yes, it sounds strange, but it is a delicious combination and it got my grandpapa to his ninety-first year – so I am hoping it will do the same for me.
It became my custom to linger over these comestibles and after them to meander through the hotel’s lovely gardens and walk by its ‘infinity’ swimming pool, surely one of the loveliest in the world. But, had I been a little more adventurous, I could have taken the hotel shuttle ‘bus to Amalfi and Positano. This is a free service for guests of the hotel, and it is a valuable one. Taxis in these parts are not cheap, and to go to and from Positano in one might well run up a fare of 200€.
Dinner at the Caruso is yet another joy. The excellent Restaurant Manager, Daniele Gulizia (photographed, with your correspondent), ensures that all runs smoothly and well. The glasses were by Riedel, the napery was beige, the waiters wore black tie, a single candle twinkled on each table and, from the Drawing Room, the pianist’s melodies drifted in as I and my fellow diners tucked into some really good food. The cuisine of Chef Mimmo Raffaele (pictured) is based upon fine ingredients and impressive culinary technique. And, I am pleased to report, it comes to the table in generous portions. I began with medallions of lobster with mixed vegetables and citrus fruit. The lobster was precisely cooked, full of flavour and prettily presented on a square white plate. My pasta was paccheri – short and tubular – with a marvellous ragout of lamb and mint. This pasta is usually served ‘al dente’, but I requested that it should be soft – and thus it was. A delicious dish. Then my meat course was even better. Stewed beef. It does not sound much, but it was so tender and so tasty that I fell upon it like the best of trenchermen. I concluded with a delightful confection of frozen wild strawberries, tea ice cream and almonds. (These four courses were 124€.)
The wine list is Italian and French. The prices of its 479 offerings run from 40€ for a local white (made from the asprino grape) to 8,000€ for the 2011 vintage of the greatest red burgundy, Romanée-Conti. Other French gems include 2007 La Tâche (3,500€), 2006 Pétrus (7,000€) and 2003 Yquem (450€, half). From Italy I noted 2014 Planeta chardonnay (90€), 2014 Cervaro dell Sala (95€), Mr Gaja’s 1999 barbaresco (200€), 4 vintages of Masseto (the 2006 is 780€), 7 vintages of Solaia (the 1997 is 800€) and 6 vintages of Sassicaia (the 1985 is 3,000€). My own drinking included – at the suggestion of Baldo, the maitre d’ – a red aglianico, for the sauce with the beef was made from the same variety of grape. This 2013 Furore Riserva was made by the famous lady winemaker of the Amalfi Coast, Maria Cuomo. Young and tannic, it began to open up in the glass to reveal a depth and intensity of damson and blackcurrant.
The Belmond Hotel Caruso is rightly regarded as one of Europe’s great hotels. Its privileged location, its perfectly restored building, its luxurious furnishings, its high level of service, its good food and wine and its charming General Manager combine to offer its guests an experience they are unlikely to forget.
BELMOND HOTEL CARUSO
Double rooms from 680€-900€, bed and breakfast, according to season
Check the hotel website for the rates for specific dates and for special offers
Open March to November