Sorrento, Italy: Where life takes a holiday

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Sorrento, Italy: Where life takes a holiday

Giuseppe the concierge welcomes us with a slight bow and a broad smile, then waves us towards the front desk. I am flattered and surprised that he knows our names, but the reason becomes apparent as we sign in.

We are the only two guests in the 50-room Grand Hotel Cocumella which occupies a balcony seat in the pretty town of Sorrento across the bay from Naples.

The Italian Jesuits who built their monastery here in the 16th century -- which now houses the luxurious Cocumella -- obviously had a sense of humour: the place is named for the sensual nymph Colomelide.

However one of their learned number later insisted the name referred to the terracotta vase used in the region to hold the water, the cuccuma.

He may have had a point, the stone well used to take water from the underlying cistern, which dates back to the Roman era, remains at the centre of the hotel’s spacious cloister.

It is late in the season when we arrive and, although the skies are cloudless and the weather still balmy, most tourists to the region have gone home. The usually crowded streets of Sorrento are comparatively deserted. And we have Cocumella -- with its sommelier, two chefs, waiters and manager/owner Dr Lionello del Papa -- all to ourselves.

We walk to our spacious suite down marble halls between gilt-framed mirrors and antique furnishings. The place is as silent as the moon and I’m thinking this could the perfect place to settle in and write that long -overdue novel -- but images of Jack Nicholson going quietly crazy in The Shining keep coming to mind.

I mention this later in the afternoon to Dr del Papa who enjoys the joke as we relax on the terrace beside the elegant Scintilla Restaurant with its view across the small fragrant garden.

We have just returned from a stroll down the leafy path to the end of the property -- the blue pool on one side shaded by orange trees, the olive grove on the other -- where I have audibly gasped at the vista across the Bay of Naples from the white walkway along the edge of the cliff.

Before us in the heat-haze distance was Mt Vesuvius and below, maybe 100 metres down a sheer drop, the sea beside the hotel's solarium had been transparent. A couple of people with snorkels paddled around leisurely.

Around us butterflies and bees hovered in the late summer heat.

It had been a breathtaking view and the experience -- when added to the luxury of the historic Cocumella -- confirmed why this charming place attracts visitors of all persuasions.

Wildman rocker Iggy Pop has stayed here, says Dr del Papa. He was very quiet, would have one beer and be in bed by 10.30. Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin came and no one knew who he was.

The Duke of Wellington was guest here even further back.

That is the kind of place Cocumella is, a retreat from the world where you are left to enjoy the quiet of the rooms and dining areas, the extensive wine cellar, and gourmet menu.

The old chapel of the Jesuits is today used for private concerts at which hotel guests are welcome.

The Grand Hotel Cocumella is Dr del Papa’s happy inheritance. His late father, an architect, redesigned the original 1822 hotel a decade ago to turn it into something discreetly opulent -- it is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group -- where every room is different.

At only 75 minutes from Naples airport by car, it is ideally located if you wish to explore the Isle of Capri, nearby Pompeii (a 15 minute train trip), or the bustling city of Naples only a ferry ride away.

The gorgeous Amalfi Coast -- with fabled hillside towns such as Positano -- is just over the peninsula, and the hotel also has its own tall ship, the glamorous Vera built in 1880, which can take guests around the coast or to Capri.

And of course Sorrento, named for the Greek sirens who lured sailors to their deaths, is the city which drew Goethe, Homer, Byron, Keats, Dickens -- and these days hundreds of thousands of tourists. It is five minutes walk.

Cocumella however -- with its sun-drenched terrace, elevator down to the sea and tennis courts -- is situated well away from the noisy strip which is the Corso Italia.

After a day at Pompeii, which Giuseppe arranges with typical quiet efficiency, we retreat to our antique-filled room with its balcony and glimpse of the blue Bay of Naples until dinner in the Scintilla.

Giovanni our waiter arrives and presents the menus, we toy with a number of options but then he returns to sweep them away and says the chefs have decided they would like to prepare a special menu. Massimo our sommelier says he will compliment the menu with a range of wines.

There is some advantage to being the only two guests.

If Jack Nicholson had such staff, I say, he never would have gone loopy. Of course, his novel still wouldn't have been written either.

Dinner arrives: escalope of swordfish in sesame with crushed almonds; whole scampi wrapped in handmade angel hair pasta with small potato wedges in a saffron sauce; half a lobster and porcini mushrooms with more handmade pasta; mushroom-filled ravioli pasta with a delicate herb sauce; and lemon sorbet to refresh the palate.

All this before the main course of pan fried fish with a light crispy coating and steamed vegetables, then the desert of pastries.

And all the time Massimo hovers with Fragolini cocktails for openers, a crisp sauvignon blanc, a local sticky . . .

Over the following days Cocumella provides an effortless blend of sophistication and casual ambience. We have running gags with Massimo and Giovanni, and one night Dr del Papa and I sit and talk Italian politics.

The following morning I walk through the hotel and grounds admiring the antiques, sculpture, ancient paintings, the elegant dining room, the chapel and, once again, that spectacular view across to Mt Vesuvius.

I encounter Dr del Papa and he invites me to look through some of the empty rooms, each has its own decor, character and restful atmosphere.

I compliment him on how beautiful his hotel is, but he is troubled and smarting over a comment by an American travel writer who complained about the marble floor in the lobby having a crack in it. This is absurd, the floor is four centuries old.

I laugh and say the writer should have been surprised the marble was still there at all.

But later I look for this troublesome flaw.

It takes five minutes but eventually I find it.

A hairline crack in Heaven.


Grand Hotel Cocumella is one of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World and is at Via Cocumella N7, S. Angello di Sorrento, Campania, Italy.


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