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The Ligurian Riviera

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Grand Hotel Dei Castelli
Growing up in Sestri Levante in the shadow of the Grand Hotel dei Castelli is like growing up in Manhattan in the shadow of the Plaza: it's inescapable, an immutable part of the landscape. Indeed, its standing as a local landmark makes every young girl dream of getting married there. Out-of-town relations are duly impressed, and the bride has instant credit with the butcher. Staying at the hotel, I felt that the same mantle of privilege and importance was conferred on me, even if my Opel Astra paled beside the Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Mercedes 300 SL's of my fellow guests.

Sestri itself is awesome—my new favorite Italian seaside town after Positano, though much less posh. Families make the scene here, not the fashion mafia. Driving south from Rapallo, I left the coastal road for the palm-fringed boulevard that hugs Sestri's longest beach. Soon the land narrowed into a bottleneck flanked by the Bay of Fables on one side and the Bay of Silence on the other. Rising in front of me was the dramatic promontory—more than a hill, not quite a mountain—that the Castelli has commanded since 1145.

Built by the Fieschis, then the most powerful family in Genoa, the two fortified castles that make up the hotel suffered ruinous attacks by the Florentines and Venetians in the 15th century. Today they house 29 deliciously old-fashioned, slightly fatigué guest rooms. Ever since the buildings were restored in 1925, people have enjoyed playing the what's-old, what's-new game. Magnificent doorways, staircases, windows, mosaics, and fireplaces represent a catalogue of styles, from Romanesque to Gothic to Renaissance. Byzantine stone transoms are chiseled with intertwined palm leaves and grape bunches. The kitschy, life-sized marble maidens are more today than yesterday.

So is the shuddering elevator that descends 985 feet through the earth, carrying jittery guests to street level. (I got used to it.) At the tip of the headland is the hotel's huge "natural swimming pool," surrounded by cliffs, changing rooms, and a short beach on an edge of an inlet. Walkways climb to a spectacular series of platforms blasted out of the rock, an extravagantly private perch where I kissed away an afternoon. No beach up here—you lower yourself into the Mediterranean on a ladder, or simply dive in. A nap, an aperitivo on the awninged garden swing, and it was time for dinner, served on a cantilevered terrace that looks straight across the gulf to Portofino. I found the food oddly dressy—tagliata di manzo comes with puréed arugula rather than the usual whole leaves—but consistent with the hotel's quirkiness. It works.

Even if the Castelli weren't a monument, its unscripted naïveté would be remarkable. The brochure looks as if it hasn't been updated since 1960, with charmingly awkward translations and a decorative if useless map. The pictures on the Web site are endearingly artless. With such blessedly limited marketing tools, the Castelli handily manages to maintain its atmosphere of exclusivity, of being a hidden find. Looking to reconnect with the plainspoken pleasures of a place that doesn't pay dues to a fancy hotel group and that has certainly never heard of "branding"?Check in here.

Grand Hotel dei Castelli, 26 Via Penisola, Sestri Levante; 39-0185/487-220, fax 39-0185/44767; www.rainbownet.it/htl.castelli; doubles from $198.

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