Grand Hotel Villa Balbi
Thanks to its center-of-town location, Villa Balbi offers a more involved way to experience Sestri Levante. Shops selling some of the region's best gelato, pastry, and born-in-Liguria street food like focaccia are just steps away. For a primer in the elaborate rituals of Italian beach culture (cane-tapping nonni wearing shoes, socks, suits, and ties in the punishing heat), you have only to cross the street to the Balbi's full-service beach club, which is also open to the paying public. People-watching is first-rate at the hotel itself as well. Sooner or later, everyone in Sestri comes under the gaze of Prosecco-sipping guests on the sidewalk terrace, illuminated by lovely old cast-iron streetlamps.
The Balbi was built in the early 17th century for the Brignole doges of Genoa. The marble statue on the lobby stair landing is thought to represent the family's first doge, and the flag of the former Genoese republic is still proudly flown. In 1947 the palazzo morphed into a grand seaside pleasure dome with the addition of two wings tucked neatly out of sight behind the original building's vivacious façade, a beautiful example of trompe l'oeil stonework—another regional specialty. The rear garden, planted with ancient camphor, plane, and magnolia trees, has an inviting alfresco dining terrace, its tables laid with warm, irrefutably Italian salmon-colored linens. Although I'd already had lunch, I seized the chance to eat pesto the way it was meant to be eaten: with the charming little twists of pasta called trofie and slender green beans.
The Balbi is laissez-faire enough to make kids feel at home, but plush enough to persuade a world-weary grown-up like me that he's somewhere special. Public spaces are adorned with frescoes, delicate crystal chandeliers, gilded consoles, and the slouchiest club chairs. Many of the 101 guest rooms have blond herringbone parquet floors and suites of gaily painted furniture, including adorable little bombé night tables. All contributed to the comfort and pleasure of my stay. As did being able to shuffle around the corner at 7 a.m. for the first focaccia of the day.
Grand Hotel Villa Balbi, 1 Viale Rimem-branza, Sestri Levante; 39-0185/42941, fax 39-0185/482-459; www.villabalbi.it; doubles from $126.