France's famous seaside playground may get all the glory, but just over the border lies Italy's answer to the Côte d'Azur: the Ligurian coast. christopher petkanas uncovers the best, most memorable places to stay
© Douglas Peebles Photography / Alamy Top Spots for Cheap Luxury Hotels
| Credit: © Douglas Peebles Photography / Alamy

In a sly 19th-century marketing coup, the French all but co-opted the best-selling term Riviera, a single word neatly evoking a whole hedonistic way of life. But what of that other Riviera—the one over the border?As a recent, comprehensive hotel-finding mission illustrated, the pellucid waters, bone-warming sun, lazy days, and sexy nights that people associate with the Côte d'Azur are actually in better health and greater supply on the Italian Riviera. So take that, Cap d'Antibes.

Part of Liguria—a narrow, crescent-shaped region caught in a topographical vise between sea and mountain that's pure eye candy—the Italian Riviera has nearly 200 miles of coastline. It climbs from Ventimiglia in the west, sweeps around Genoa, and finishes just beyond Cinque Terre, five famously inaccessible villages with gravity-defying lemon orchards and kitchen gardens. Liguria is rich in natural reserves, the landscape bristling with palm trees, parasol pines, vineyards, olive groves. And it is home to one of Italy's great regional cuisines. Perhaps you've heard of pesto?

As with many seaside destinations, there are hotels worth leaving home for on the coast, but uncovering them is more of a challenge than the area's profile suggests. The highest concentration is in the Levante, the glamorous eastern segment that begins with Genoa and includes Portofino and Santa Margherita Ligure. Every taste, every budget is provided for. At one end of the spectrum is a hotel where a guest once parked a yacht in the harbor below, then called his soon-to-be bride onto their terrace for a look at her wedding present. At the other is an inn where an expertly prepared four-course meal is cheaper than a bad pizza in town.

Pleasure has always been its own reward on the Riviera. But never more than now, in Italy, at these hotels.

Hotel Splendido
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;; 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.

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;; doubles from $198.

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;; doubles from $126.

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;; doubles from $260.

Villa Gnocchi
The very fact that there is an inn in Santa Margherita Ligure, where la dolce vita comes at a price, is practically a miracle.

"You have to be well-off to own a B&B here, because obviously you need real estate, and real estate is expensive," said Roberto Gnocchi, the hands-on proprietor of the Villa Gnocchi, two small stone farm buildings pinned dramatically to the mountainside high above the port. "If you're lucky enough to have a property on the most famous stretch of the Ligurian coast, you keep it for yourself—you don't accept paying guests. Only I am crazy enough to do that."

If craziness it is, grazie mille. The 1999 testimony of a Chicago couple, one of dozens of fan letters displayed in the dining room, is typical: "We visited Italy and France for three weeks and, with the exception of the Villa, stayed in five-star hotels. However, we enjoyed the Villa the most!"

No one is more surprised by his success than Gnocchi, who never imagined that one day he'd be hanging snowy hemstitched linen curtains or turning out a vibrant pasta sauce of fresh tomatoes, olives, capers, and pine nuts to feed the impatient mouths of 20 strangers. After earning a degree in agriculture at Pisa University, Gnocchi served as an officer in the Italian navy, and then worked as a counselor at a farmers' union in Genoa, where he helped landowners solve their crop problems. In 1988 he moved to Santa Margherita Ligure, installing himself in what would become the inn, a pair of dilapidated farmhouses on six acres that had belonged to his grandfather. Gnocchi hoped to make a living growing olives, among other fruits and vegetables.

"But after one season it became clear I wouldn't survive," he recalls. "Tuscany was doing quite well with family-run inns, so I took a chance and borrowed the idea, restoring these beautiful houses myself." Of the nine guest rooms, all with private baths, the one to line up for is No. 6, a spacious and sun-flooded corner room on the second floor. It has oak parquet, an antique headboard carved with baskets of flowers, marble-topped bedside tables, a lovely old rocking chair— and heart-melting wraparound views.

If you arrive by train, Gnocchi is happy to pick you up at the station. The service is free, the pleasure all his. And although Santa Margherita Ligure is two miles away by car, the good news is that you don't need one to go back and forth. I always went down on foot, using a clever shortcut that delivered me to the water in 15 minutes. Back at the villa, I was charmed to find that, unlike at some inns, where you're watched as if you were a convict, nobody writes it down every time you are poured half a glass of wine. Try finding that kind of generosity at a luxury hotel. I'm practically a convert.

Villa Gnocchi, 53 Via Romana, San Lorenzo della Costa, Santa Margherita Ligure; phone and fax 39-0185/283-431;; doubles from $77.

Visit T+L’s Guide to the Italian Riviera for more Italian vacation inspiration.

Belmond Hotel Splendido

More than a few VIP's (the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Catherine Deneuve) have signed the visitor's book at this Portofino hotel. Originally a 16th-century monastery, the property was transformed into 69 guest rooms (16 at the more affordable Splendido Mare), three restaurants, and two bars. Guests can relax on the hotel's Chris-Craft Corsair 36 while enjoying champagne and canapés. Very spiritual.

Villa Gnocchi

Imperiale Palace Hotel

Grand Hotel Villa Balbi

Grand Hotel dei Castelli