The most ardent travelers collect hotel experiences the way other people collect 17th-century Tuscan school paintings, or Hannong faïence, or Marvelettes memorabilia. Every stay in a world-class property is another notch on their belt. A shortlist of such hotels in Italy is a cinch to compose. The Scalinatella on Capri. The Villa San Michele in Fiesole. The Pellicano in Porto Ercole. The Sirenuse and the San Pietro in Positano. The Cipriani in Venice. And, of course, the Splendido in Portofino.
The Portofinesi don't mind admitting that Hollywood put their tiny fishing village on the map. When in the 1960's a wasp-waisted Elizabeth Taylor strolled the quay in a head scarf, it was the shot seen round the world. Portofino became the proto—Italian port, the one against which all others were measured for beauty and charm. It holds up today, even if the access road is so choked in summer that an electronic sign flashes the waiting time for entering town.
Nostalgic evocations of il jet set are still used to sell Portofino and the 66-room Splendido, a former Benedictine monastery with an eagle's-nest setting above the sea. The hotel, launched in 1901, acquired what-becomes-a-legend-most status long before it was purchased by Orient-Express Hotels in 1983. But it may have taken the company's hairsplitting ministrations for the Splendido to realize its promise.
While it's nice to think that anyone is capable of recognizing chic and appreciating luxury, the hotel seems geared to that one-half of one percent who have seen it all. Back home, these people may live with richly grained olive-wood floors, his-and-her armoires, and a pop-up TV in a mirrored cabinet at the foot of the bed. But this is the first time they're seeing them in a hotel room.
As a guest, I had the palpable feeling that not only had everything been considered and reconsidered, but that the reconsideration had been reconsidered, too. I can just imagine the agony involved in choosing stainless-steel wastebaskets or in deciding to place the tissue box in a vanity drawer. (I'm still trying to figure out that one, but I'm sure the hotel has its logic.) Surrounded by terraced gardens planted with cypresses and agaves, the Splendido's pool was one of the great hotel pools anywhere even before an edge was recently lowered to create the requisite infinity effect. As on Park Avenue, no one is shy about digging in a few hundred marigolds in full bloom just to brighten things up. Perhaps it was the flowers that enticed a Florida couple to spend five consecutive weeks at the Splendido last year. This year they're booked for six. At $1,875 a night.
The service and food may also have persuaded them. Being addressed in the third person—as in, "If the gentleman would be so kind as to follow me this way"—is weird at first, but definitely something I could get used to. The maîtres d'hôtel who work the dining terrace know exactly what time the sun hits every table, and help you choose yours accordingly. The restaurant does not serve Ligurian fare dumbed down for tourists, as I feared, but the real thing, such as black-olive gnocchi with burst cherry tomatoes and basil.
The best things in life are free. Well, maybe not.
Hotel Splendido, 16 Viale Baratta, Portofino; 800/223-6800 or 39-0185/267-801, fax 39-0185/267-806; www.splendido.orient-express.com; doubles from $840, two or more nights from $596. The hotel also operates the Splendido Mare, an annex on the town's waterfront piazzetta; prices are 20 percent lower and guests have privileges at the Splendido.