Along the coast from the better-known French Riviera, is the arguably more scenic Italian Riviera, and here, at Rapallo, perched on a cliff, is the Excelsior Palace Hotel, one of only two five-star hotels on the Portofino Coast. 45 minutes’ drive from the airport, it’s an ideal weekend getaway.
The Excelsior Palace Hotel first opened in 1901 as a casino, the first in Italy. It continued to be patronised by the great and the good – Rita Heyworth, Ernest Hemingway, Wallis Simpson, and King Hussein of Jordan until the 1960s, when the area fell out of fashion. Over the next twenty years, the hotel building fell into serious disrepair but was rescued by a Turin-based hotel group in 1995. They took the opportunity to build more floors, but the basic structure was preserved.
In 2011, new owners took over and now it really is a showcase hotel, with more improvements in the pipeline. One of the directors of the group is a keen art collector – especially of 15C and 16C Belgian and French pieces – and uses the hotel to display some of his acquisitions. The elegant public rooms, high ceilings and large walls lend themselves to these original oil paintings and help to give it give it a ‘country house’ feel.
From the moment you enter through the old fashioned revolving wooden-framed door and step into the magnificent open plan lobby, you know you are somewhere special. Large sofas group around coffee tables, placed on the renovated original polished parquet floor, beside towering marble columns. To the rear is a panoramic view of the turquoise waters of the Portofino coast.
The hotel is not so large that it feels impersonal – with just 130 rooms – many of them with sea views and most with balconies. The suites have a lounge area with a picture window overlooking the water.
Rooms are generously proportioned, with a seven-foot double bed or large twins and well-equipped bathroom. Breakfast is included in the rate and Wi-Fi is free – something other hotels could learn from.
The spa offers a variety of treatments, especially those that use water therapy and across an enclosed road bridge is the pool and sunning area. It’s rather small, so in busy periods, you may need to bag your spot.
Breakfast may be eaten inside or out – and out on the terrace, with sea views, is far preferable if the weather is sunny. Almost everything you could possibly want is available from the buffet: fresh fruit, cold meats, hot food, cheese, cereals, juices, a variety of breads and all sorts of spreads. An egg chef will cook your omelette exactly as you like.
The Yachting Bar is worth a special mention. Its walls are hung with a few aforementioned paintings and together with plush lemon silk covered sofas and views to the pretty terrace through the French doors, it’s a pleasant place to while away half an hour or so before dinner. Over 20 whiskeys are on offer and a selection of suitably expensive Montecristo and Romeo y Julieta cigars.
Eden Roc is one of the two hotel’s restaurants, dramatically perched above the rocks. Tables for two are arranged so you have your private view of the sea crashing below. It’s probably one of the most expensive meals I’ve had for a long time, but also one of the best. After a minestrone soup, drizzled with local olive oil and fresh pesto, I enjoyed an obviously home made parmigiano: the thinnest of char-grilled aubergine, layered with plump tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, lightly fried courgettes and topped with a creamy yogurt sauce. Rich crème caramel is served with forest fruits – wild raspberries I had seen earlier for sale in a street market – to cut through the richness. With a bold Ligurian red wine to accompany it, I couldn’t have asked for more. Service is as impeccable as the food.
The hotel is only ten minutes from the centre – a short walk down through the gardens and then across a fairly busy road to the harbour. It’s pretty and clean, with a semi-circular promenade backed by palm trees and lined with pavement cafes. Here you will find very good simple restaurants, assuming Eden Roc is out of your budget every night. In the alleyways and backstreets away from the harbour, you should find enough shops and bars to keep your interest piqued.
I took at half-day boat trip to more famous Portofino nearby. It’s a picture postcard tourist trap, with prices to match; the £10m private yacht in the harbour should have given me a clue. Have a meal if you must, but perhaps better to stick to an overpriced ice cream and dine in Rapallo later.
For an indulgent weekend, the Excelsior is hard to beat. It’s exclusive and luxurious but not snooty. Rapallo is delightfully unsung. And I couldn’t find a fridge magnet anywhere, which perhaps says it all.
St Michele Di Pagana 8, Rapallo, Italy
Cost standard double room: ££££, suite: £££££
Services spa, swimming pool, fitness equipment, parking, hotel restaurant, hotel bar, room service, business services, internet access, concierge, air-conditioning