Along with Alessi lemon squeezers, Loro Piana cashmere, and Cipriani pasta, water is one of Italy's top draws. Hoteliers figured this out a long time ago: a room on the Tyrrhenian or Ionian is more than a room, it's a chance to live a myth. The most intoxicating elixir at each of the following establishments isn't a cocktail but a horizon composed of sea and sky. Drink up and get your feet wet.
SAN DOMENICO PALACE HOTEL, TAORMINA
As two American women breakfasted on ricotta (both the fresh and the deliciously oven-blackened kinds) on the terrace of the San Domenico, two hibiscus flowers floated to the ground, brushing the white toile of their market umbrella, the curlicues of their chairbacks, the smart navy-blue canvas of their seat pads, and, finally, the white linen skirt of their tablecloth. Before the women could lift their heads, a waiter had scooped up and presented the flowers to them. "Per loro," he said.
Of such fragrant niceties and soft-focus surprises is a stay at Sicily's San Domenico made. The main part of the hotel was built as a Dominican monastery in 1430; my first morning I found, posed on the altar in the jewel-box prayer niche opposite my room, the bouquet of the bride I had watched being married the day before. To be wed amid the famous fish-scale columns of local pink marble in Taormina's splendid 13th-century duomo, and to follow that wedding with a honeymoon at the San Domenico, must be the dream of every young girl growing up on Persephone's island. It's a dream worth pursuing, for the San Domenico fulfills its promise as the most luxurious and romantic hotel in Sicily.
The San Domenico is wonderfully, exhilaratingly big— so big you don't have to feel embarrassed about getting lost. (Guess who that happened to.) Besides, getting lost is a great way to explore the hotel. In the cloistered, glass-walled courtyard where all manner of drinks are served at any hour, lemon trees brush their glossy perfumed leaves against palm trees as thick and pleated as elephant legs. In another, more intimate open-to-the-sky enclosure, the hush is broken only by the music of a single-jet fountain rigged inside an ancient terra-cotta olive urn, and the ground is neatly scattered with ravishing bits of scagliola and fragments of stone sculpture. In the vast gardens, with their transfixing views of Mount Etna and numerous pockets where you can be alone, somebody's sun-wizened grandfather soundlessly tends prim beds of zinnias, dusty miller, and lavender.
Many of the San Domenico's 96 guest rooms and 15 suites are the actual cells where monks rested their bones, up until the last century. These spaces are tight, highly disciplined models of efficiency. Nothing is left out: lacy wroughtiron beds, interior shutters, gold damask curtains, big-bellied marble-topped commodes painted with chinoiserie decorations, and Communion-white bedspreads. I cherished my ivory-colored rotary telephone.
For years after moving to Europe in the early 1980's I carried around a black-and-white postcard of a room at the San Domenico, intrigued by the image and anxious that I might never make it to Taormina to find out what it's like to spend a night in a former monk's cell. In the event, it was a thrill, and a privilege.
5 Piazza San Domenico; 39-942/23701, fax 39-942/625-506; doubles from $385.
IL PELLICANO, PORTO ERCOLE
Even the most spoiled water babies— both those who like to go in and those who like to only look— have trouble imagining ways to improve Il Pellicano. Clinging to a dramatic cliff face in Monte Argentario— a bracingly wild promontory with 171/2 miles of coastline, 75 miles northwest of Rome— the hotel surveys the Tyrrhenian Sea at a whisperingly near remove. Here and there off the zigzag path that delivers you to the water (don't even think about taking the elevator) are wonderfully private terraces for sunning and watching the show.
The setting is spectacular, and the Pellicano offers some of the most satisfying swimming anywhere. If your idea of heaven is to paddle in pellucid blue-green waters while looking up at steep Mediterranean scrubland bristling with rosemary, myrtle, and juniper, you've come to the right place.
Founded in 1965 by Michael Graham, a World War II RAF veteran, and his American wife, Patsy, the Pellicano was conceived as a compound where non-guests are distinctly unwelcome. Its 26 rooms and 13 suites are divided among seven cottages. The buildings, freely modeled on traditional Tuscan farmhouses, are scattered across 7 1/2 acres.
The grounds adhere to the everything-in-its-place, country-club school of landscape design. Fiery bougainvilleas look great against the matte green leaves of olive trees. In July and August, the scent of jasmine and lavender follows you down to the daily lunchtime barbecue served on a terrace among towering pines, their trunks leggy as stilts, the canopy plump as a pincushion. The trees drop a handful of needles, gulls cry in the distance, everyone sighs.
If the Pellicano sounds almost unreasonably civilized, you are getting the point. Guest rooms have terra-cotta floor tiles, sea-grass mats, the odd bombé chest painted with ruins, fabrics printed in Matisse-style cutouts, and ribbed cotton blanket covers.
With such civility comes a certain formality— not to say starchiness— a quality many American travelers are unaccustomed to in Italy and may find surprising, even irritating, especially given the seaside setting. Not only do meals in the tented dining room arrive under silver cloches, but the maÓtre d'hôtel adjusts the angle of the plate after the dome comes off, just as they do in the fanciest French restaurants. My T-shirt was in the season's hot color (orange), my white Levi's were beautifully laundered, and my footwear had come from the best sandalmaker in Positano, but I cannot say I had made the most appropriate choice of dinner attire. I knew I was in a different kind of establishment when I had to deep-six the impulse to carry my coffee down to the beach. At places like the Pellicano, that's what waiters are for.
Porto Ercole; 39-564/833-801, fax 800/565-1148 or 39-564/833-418; doubles from $450.
GRAND HOTEL QUISISANA, CAPRI
Amid the swooping arches, pedigreed carpets, and bronze cupids in the lobby of the Quisisana, Adnan Khashoggi pouted when the concierge said there were no faxes for him. And now here was Mr. Khashoggi again, lunching opposite me at La Bersagliera, across the bay from Capri in Naples. Was I being followed?
The glamour quotient on Capri is so high, the effect so heady, that I allowed myself to believe I was someone whom fabulous people wanted to be near. After all, hadn't I run into Naomi Campbell on the Via L'Abate, only to be the target of her best smile the same night under the lemon trees at the restaurant Da Paolino?Jackie Collins had spied me just a couple of days earlier at the Hotel Hassler in Rome, and now here she was again.
Located a few minutes from Capri's main square, the Quisisana was built as a sanatorium in 1845 and became a hotel 20 years later. It occupies a five-acre plot in the core of the island's humming retail district. As a result of a rather too exuberant borrowing of elements from classical architecture, the building projects self-importance, not unlike certain boutiques on Rodeo Drive.
I felt as if I were starring in my own segment of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Like other Italian hotels with fortified positions at the top of the luxury heap, the Quisisana has a talent for fluffing the egos of ordinary travelers. These run the gamut from grandmothers warding off the chill of southern Italy in mid-July with fur stoles (no kidding) to pareu-clad Baywatch types sporting bamboo-handled bags (the Gucci original, certo, not the Banana Republic copy).
The first act of esteem-boosting at the Quisisana is breakfast, taken at extravagantly spaced tables under an enormous awning by a garden planted with palm trees. Here the staff is made up of terrifyingly alert men with cheeks that look like they have just been pinched. They seem too young for the job— surely they should be home practicing math sums. The ballet of caffè e cornetto they stage is so beautiful that it is impossible to keep your eyes on your newspaper.
Like everything about the Quisisana, its 150 guest rooms and suites are none too subtle. Think bright, efficient, comfortable, with a few extra points earned for the bonus bed pillow so soft you can pull it, like a shah-tush shawl, through a wedding band. Unfortunately, I was obliged to take away those points (and then some) when a concierge, seriously uninformed about boat schedules, caused me to lose practically an entire day. The four-story hotel is set way back from the water, so don't assume your room will have a view of it— when reserving, ask about obtrusive treetops.
2 Via Camerelle; 39-81/837-0788, fax 39-81/837-6080; doubles from $250.