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Puglia Rustica

Being able to identify the unspoiled destination is a useful talent—as far as it goes. The real trick is catching the unspoiled destination at just the right moment, when rumblings of interest have given rise to a comfortable infrastructure for knowing travelers, but the crowds are at least a few years off. That's Puglia right now.

The heel of the Italian boot, Puglia humbly holds out its rich and varied portfolio of assets. Five hundred miles of Adriatic and Ionian coastline front landscapes—plains in the south, mountains in the north—with a stark, primal, almost troubling beauty. Brilliantly whitewashed towns, their cubic houses locked together like pieces in a puzzle, are a reminder that North Africa is a near neighbor. Aristocratic cities celebrate the delirious excesses of Baroque architecture.

New hotels so swooningly stylish that they're often destinations in their own right are imaginatively folded into masserie, ancient fortified farmhouses. Puglia is also home to Italy's most uncorrupted, brawniest, least known vernacular cuisine. It's a cuisine of the sun, drawing energy from one of the most punishing summer climates on the continent.

Remember Tuscany in the eighties?Umbria in the nineties?This is Puglia's moment. It's a place on the verge.

Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, Marittima di Diso

The news arrived last spring on heavy card stock, cream with solemn sang de boeuf lettering. No, it wasn't a royal birth notice.

"Athena McAlpine is happy to announce the opening of Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, a very special bed & breakfast in the southernmost tip of Italy."

It wasn't just the Smythson announcement that caused those who received it to stop in their tracks and call their best girlfriends. There was also the name. If you read Harpers & Queen and those sorts of publications, you know that two years ago Alistair McAlpine—sexagenarian lord, treasurer of the British Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher, and one of the world's great collectors—married a vivacious Greek beauty who had trained as an actress and was some 30 years his junior. Could this be she?It could.

From Annabel's to the House of Commons to the nail salon at Harvey Nick's, London was gripped by the idea that the McAlpines had opened nine rooms in their 15th-century convent to paying guests. Some just figured it could only mean that Lord McAlpine had lost his considerable fortune (not the case). Others could not understand why the couple had chosen Puglia. Tuscany would have made sense—at least there's a big English community. But a B&B in the deepest, darkest south?

Calling Santa Maria a B&B is like calling Amandari an inn. Located 30 minutes south of Lecce and a half-mile back from the Adriatic, the convent is a dramatic repository for Lord McAlpine's collections of tribal textiles, Moroccan carpets, Nigerian carvings, Aboriginal art, Zulu ceramics, Madrasi paintings on glass, and terra-cotta statuettes of yogis. Much of what you as a guest find yourself casually holding or looking at or sitting on is museum quality. Other connoisseurs turned hoteliers might have held back the best things for themselves in some roped-off wing of the house, but not the McAlpines, who saw no reason to have even their own sitting room. No space is off-limits. Ask Lord McAlpine to walk you through the library. You won't have access to a private one like it anytime soon. There are 14 tons of books.

Wags assume that Santa Maria's potent cross-cultural magic is all the work of its celebrated and unlikely master. Not true. Athena McAlpine is one of the new wave of domestic goddesses you've been hearing about. Her husband knows a prize lot of Ethiopian pilgrim staffs when he sees one, but it's Athena who gives them decorative purpose, massing the bony Y-form sticks against the creamy rendered walls of the cloister.

The convent's mistress also knows how to run a house, ordering in reserves of his (Castile) and hers (Artemisia) toiletries from Penhaligon's, choosing the books that go on the night tables (The Collected Dorothy Parker, say, plus biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt and Bruce Chatwin), and making sure the cook arrives on time with the savory portion of your breakfast (béchamel and tomatoes enclosed in flaky pastry, from the Marittima bakery). At lunch and dinner Pugliese classics are sidelined in favor of exciting salads (shredded carrots with grapefruit juice and almonds) and off-the-map risottos (with cabbage-wrapped shrimp).

With lunch—and laundry service!—included in the $300 room rate, some guests have whispered that Santa Maria may be underselling itself. "What they don't understand is that this is Puglia, not the Amalfi Coast," says Athena McAlpine. In any case, she is not interested in shortcuts. "Some of our beds are so big and elaborate, it takes three people to make them up, and I don't mind if one of those is me. The sheets are ironed twice: first on a board, then finished directly on the bed. It's the only way. The sheets are from Rossella Casa, this amazing shop in Lecce. We didn't have to toss in wine with lunch, but we've built up an incredible cellar, so...as Alistair says, we're not going to let bookkeeping get in the way."
Via Convento, Marittima di Diso; 44-7736/362-328; doubles from $300, including breakfast, lunch, wine, and laundry service.

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