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Imperiale Palace Hotel
For an understanding of what the Italians mean by the cherished concept of far niente, or doing nothing, don't waste a second—book into the Imperiale Palace right away. My own lesson in the art of mind-emptying took place on a broiling afternoon at the hotel's private "beach," a series of rock-and-mortar platforms jutting into the water and strewn with lemony lounges and umbrellas. There I watched a woman of a certain age, in proud shape and stretched out like a cat, do nothing for five hours. She didn't read, she didn't work a crossword puzzle, she didn't play cards. She wouldn't even give the stud-muffin pool boy, who seemed interested, the time of day. Her MO was clear: Why ruin the moment by allowing anything to intrude?

A stay at the 92-room Imperiale is all about such self-loving interludes. The palace was built in 1889 by Corsican aristocrats at the entrance to Santa Margherita Ligure, which today has all the attractions—criminally golden youth, boutiques selling eight-ply Necco-colored cashmere, a scintillating passeggiata—that one identifies with a top-tier Italian holiday hub. The building became a high-style Belle Époque hotel in 1903, when the first of several wings was added. The wedding-cake architecture, sweeping exterior staircases, sprawling terraces, lush gardens tumbling to the sea, glittering gulf views, and ridiculous quantities of crystal and marble drew Pirandello, the legendary actress Eleonora Duse, and Queen Elena of Savoy. (The queen always took one of the Imperial Suites, still the best, most richly furnished accommodations.) In 1922, Germany and Russia signed the peace agreement that ended World War I at the hotel, sealing its place in the history books. The Treaty Room, decorated with Pompeiian friezes and the original Baroque furniture, is open to guests and is a must-see.

Eighty years on, the Imperiale has retained a strong sense of its own importance. Ever stayed at the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat?The Imperiale has a lot in common with that institution: it's grand, even a little imperious, the kind of place that serves cornflakes in gold-rimmed Ginori china. If it had a casino, you might think you were in Monte Carlo. In a tableau worthy of Helmut Newton, women wearing nothing more than satisfied expressions and bikini bottoms drape themselves beside the biomorphic pool, where they get a good workout doing nothing. "While not on the same level," I overhear one of them say, "this place is a lot like the Paris Ritz." Just add water.

Imperiale Palace Hotel, 19 Via Pagana, Santa Margherita Ligure; 39-0185/288-991, fax 39-0185/284-223; www.hotelimperiale.com; doubles from $260.


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