I was checked into Borgo San Marco and shown around for an hour by an excitable wild-haired man whom I assumed was the owner but who turned out to be...the gardener.
"How long has the masseria been in your family?" I asked as we toured the chapel, where touch-up work was being carried out on a magnificent 17th-century fresco.
"Mia famiglia?" the gardener laughed, pointing through the chapel door at the immense courtyard. There stood a patrician man in his late forties, Alessandro Amati. You didn't have to be a genius to figure out he was San Marco's owner. It was late evening, and he was wrapping up a cell-phone conversation about the price carobs had brought that day. Amati grows carobs, figs, and almonds, but he is best known as an olive-oil baron. Staying known among Puglia's crowded stable of producers of first-quality, ever more specialized olive oils is no part-time job. A museum devoted to the subject, created by Amati at neighboring Masseria Sant'Angelo de' Graecis, helps keep his Borgo San Marco oil out front.
"Built by the Knights of Malta in the fifteenth century, San Marco was uninhabitable when I inherited it in 1981, but it took me until now to figure out what to do with the place," says Amati. "I already had enough houses, so there was no point in restoring it for me and my small family. Besides, I wanted the property to pay for itself." Transforming San Marco into a 15-room hotel gave Amati the reason he needed to rehabilitate it. The hotel offers everything you want in the masseria experience—the monumental foursquare architecture, the piquant air of exoticism—but with a difference. San Marco is the bohemian masseria alternativa. Guest rooms surrounding the former farmyard are done in sheer embroidered-patchwork textiles from Egypt and in rich man-poor man combinations of baby-blue silk grosgrain and tobacco-colored linen burlap. Mattress platforms and headboards (crowned with finials modeled on San Marco's roof ornaments) are of plastered masonry and, this being Puglia, slathered in whitewash. Canal tiles fashioned into wall lights and amber beads strung into curtains that chatter in the breeze dot the i's of a look that's bright, fresh, and just a tad enigmatic. Knowing that some people would find traditional furnishings less of a challenge, Amati has appointed rooms in the main house with painted iron beds, night tables with blousy pom-pom-fringed skirts, and antique walnut armoires.
As at all masseria hotels, eating is a central part of the experience. Amati says his most important hire for the property was Peppino Palmisano, who ran a popular restaurant in Fasano and rose to local celebrity on the wings of his eggplant Parmesan, a dish with roots in Puglia, and oven-roasted sea bream with black olives. If they're not on the menu, he'll happily make them for you the next day. The San Marco is that kind of hotel.
33 Contrada Sant'Angelo; 39-080/439-5757; www.borgosanmarco.it; doubles from $193.
Of all of Puglia's masseria properties, San Domenico is the one that feels most like a destination resort—make that a luxury destination resort. While the competition pretends to luxury, only the San Domenico, which opened in 1996, truly delivers. Before going to Puglia I assumed it was too much of a backwater to have a slickly run, you-want-it-you-got-it-style hotel. I don't like to be proven wrong, but the San Domenico can hold its own, and more.
With a dead straight, magnificently groomed 1,600-foot drive leading to a pair of electronic gates, you know the P&S (privileged and special) factor is going to be pretty high even before the 15th-century masseria looms into sight. On the way to your room, you can't help remarking on the grandiose sense of space. Each courtyard seems more massive than the one before it, and the sea is teasingly glimpsed over the treetops. The other thing you notice is the obsessive tidiness. There's not a blade of grass out of place. Wow, you think, am I going to be happy here or what?
Wealthy northern Italians are. Historically, as everyone knows, many Italians from the north have a complex relationship with the south. Their attraction to it is tempered by wariness and—how else to say it?—feelings of superiority. What they like about the San Domenico is the slightly whitewashed version of the masseria hotel experience the place offers. It's Puglia without tears. Everyone dresses for dinner and exudes an air of bourgeois self-satisfaction. Children not yet in their teens have their own cell phones, the men all sport Panerai watches, and some of the women have big hair. No one shouts "Ciao, bella!" across the bar or minds that a Negroni costs $16 (it's a very good Negroni). There's a perfume war going on, and Fendissime seems to be winning.
While the 50 guest rooms play to the San Domenico's core clientele, who place comfort above looks, I have to say they were a bit on the plain side for my taste. A touch of decorative provocation would go a long way here. Those offering the best value are the 14 junior suites, whose patios give glamorously onto ancient olive groves that seem to stretch to infinity. With just a bit of tweaking, by the way, those cute little patios could fulfill their promise of privacy.
Not that anyone spends much time hanging around their rooms. In the great tradition of upscale Italian resorts, many guests are content to park themselves beside the saltwater pool, oil up (skipping the sunblock, certo), and stay put the entire day. The free-form pool, landscaped with boulders and palms and spiky vegetation, is somebody's improbable idea of an oasis. It's hokey, but it works.
Only when the sun is at less than maximum tanning strength do you see anyone on the new 18-hole golf course or at the spa, the best in the region. The 2,220-square-foot knockout facility has an encyclopedic menu of treatments, many of them using hydrotherapy or La Prairie products. It would take weeks and many thousands of euros to work through them all. Guests do manage to unstick themselves from the pool for perfectly okay plates of fresh egg noodles with tomato sauce, green beans, and grated ricotta. Personally, I found the food at the San Domenico too fancy. But I'm sure I was the only one.
379 Strada Litoranea; 39-080/482-7769; www.masseriasandomenico.com; doubles from $425.
Christopher Petkanas is a special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.