MARATEA, ITALY - As our waiter pours the last of the evening’s wine, we look out on the black Tyrrhenian Sea from our el fresco dining perch and wonder what the lights twinkling like diamonds on the water are.
“That is the octopus fishermen, señor,” says the dapper Fortunato. “They use the lights to attract the fish. Tomorrow, we will make you a nice octopus dish from what they catch tonight, okay?”
Our first evening at romantic Hotel Santavenere ends with a stroll along the property’s flower-lined paths under a canopy of stars. We pause to admire the lights of charming Calabria in the distance and are awed by Maratea’s illuminated statue of Christ The Redeemer — it’s just a few metres shorter than the original in Rio de Janeiro — standing boldly atop a volcanic peak behind the hotel, his outstretched arms seemingly protecting the residents of this ancient southern Italian town.
For the next three days, the legendary Hotel Santavenere serves as our front-row seat to one of the most beautiful and unspoiled parts of Italy, where volcanic mountains sweep down to the Gulf of Policastro, terracotta homes cling to a jagged coastline, turquoise water laps the rocky shore and tourists are treated to real Italian hospitality.
Each morning we draw back the shutters of our well-appointed room and are treated to a glorious scene — the dramatic cliffs stand silhouetted against the rising sun and in the early-morning light we see boats taking tourists out to explore the area’s many watery caves.
The air here is always perfumed with the scent of lemons — lots of citrus and olive trees dot the hotel’s sprawling property, which sits atop a majestic cliff like a crown.
Above: The lovely Hotel Santavenere is surrounded by bold mountains and jaw dropping sea views.
Staff treats us like family and before long we know each by their first names — Daniella, Carmen, Fortunato, Roberta and, of course, the lovely Juana, the Romanian girl who escorts us to our terrace table overlooking the jaw-dropping splendour each day.
Denise, head of guest services, joins us for a cup of coffee one morning and tells us a famous Italian, Count Stefano Rivetti, is the man responsible for the hotel’s existence.
The count apparently wanted to create a hotel where guests felt they were at home, Denise, a transplanted Brazilian whose family has deep roots in this part of Italy, tells me. “He wanted them to feel like this was their home.”
There are plenty of homey touches at the sophisticated Hotel Santavenere, like quaint parlours with large picture windows that look out on what can only be described as a breathtaking scene.
The main dining hall — mostly used in the winter months — looks like grandma’s house but with lots of elegant touches.
Antiques fill the 34 charming rooms and public spaces and most were picked out by the count himself. Each room is different — this is not your cookie-cutter hotel folks — and each is tastefully decorated and distinct. Some of the rooms have been upgraded in recent years — the bathrooms especially have been brought up to modern-day expectations — but the original charm of each room was not compromised.
“The count also had the Cristo Redentore di Maratea (Christ The Redeemer) statue built,” Denise informs.
The statue, which stands 21.23-metres high — the Rio version is 38 metres — was erected 50 years ago and portrays Christ as a younger man with very little facial hair. It’s stunning and stands next to a revered local basilica, where the bones of a local saint — Saint Blaise — are kept in the alter. The small basilica, by the way, sits atop the ruins of a Greek temple.
Left: El fresco dining is popular at the hotel and with views like this, it is no wonder. Right: Cozy corners are plenty at the Hotel Santavenere.
Dining at Hotel Santavenere is an orgasmic experience for the senses. The taste and smell of the food prepared in the hotel’s kitchen is divine, and the freshness of the locally grown vegetables and fruits enhances every dish with colour and flavour.
In summer, most guests dine on the hotel’s outdoor terraces, which are usually bathed in sunlight or canopied by stars. For lunch, we favour the small lookout terrace opposite the pool that offers uninterrupted views of the coastline that stretches all the way to Calabria.
Juana suggests we order a local favourite, pomodoro core di bue, a unique tomato that’s green on the outside and bright red on the inside. A splash of local olive oil enhances the taste of the tomato, which is sinfully sweet.
The hotel also features a seaside restaurant that is every bit as good as the main dining room. The coastal breeze and the sea vista offered here, though, make this a dining experience of a lifetime.
Our days are spent soaking up the sun on the hotel’s private beach. The water is crystal clear and bathtub warm in the summer and the staff offer us beach shoes to deal with the rocky shore. The cove in which the beach is located is usually full of boats — locals like to dive into the gentle surf.
The pool is constantly being monitored by lifeguards so parents can relax while their children enjoy themselves in the shallow water.
Hotel Santavenere is actually a perfect place for families and the luxury cottages opposite the pool are large enough to welcome a family of four. The walkout play area in front of the cottages means kids have plenty of space to work off their boundless energy.
Left: A homey atmosphere prevails at this hotel. Right: The property is lush with olive and citrus trees.
This is a place guests come to totally immerse themselves in relaxation and the Hotel Santavenere helps them achieve that goal with one of Italy’s best spas, Le Grotte, which comes complete with innovative treatment rooms — the salt room was our favourite.
The grotto-style spa’s therapists are well trained and well versed in all the latest treatments. Many guests elect to have their massage in one of the outdoor treatment rooms set on a cliff overlooking the natural splendour. You feel better even before the spa begins, thanks to the view.
There’s a heavy emphasis placed on service at the Hotel Santavenere and in summer the resort employs 60 people to make sure your every whim is catered to quickly. The peak months are June, July and August, but winter comes late to this lovely region of Italy, so guests who come in spring or fall are usually treated to lots of sunshine and warm weather. By the way, the coldest it gets here in winter is around 10C.
Maratea’s quaint town centre is within walking distance of the Hotel Santavenere, but staff is only too happy to drive you to the main square, where you can enjoy a glass of wine at one of the many outdoor cafés, or wander the narrow streets filled with artisan shops.
When it comes time to go, it will be hard to leave Hotel Santavenere — because it’s really your home away from home.
Off-season rates at the Hotel Santavenere start at 160 euros (about $300 Cdn) a night. High season rates can reach 700 euros a night. Because the temperatures in this part of Italy raraly dip below 15C at any time of the year, off season is a great time to visit. / The best way to get to Hotel Santavenere is through Naples, a two-hour train ride away. Alitalia offers direct flights from Toronto to Naples via Rome. / There’s lots to do and see in this area of Italy and Hotel Santavenere is a great place to base yourself. Day trips to the historic town of Maratea is one option but you can also rent a car and drive south towards Calabria where you will be rewarded with stunning coastal views along the way. / The hotel’s Le Grotte Spa is one of the best in Europe and offers a full range of treatments administered by some of the world’s best therapists. The spa’s intimate treatment rooms are truly state of the art. For something really special, though, we recommend you book an outdoor treatment — your session will take place overlooking the hotel’s azure beach and will provide you with an experience you can’t imagine. / To find out what’s the best time of the year to visit this remarkable property with the friendliest hotel staff in all of Italy, visit the their website www.hotelsantavenere.com