I hadn’t been to the Amalfi coast in almost a decade. My last trip was under very different circumstances: I spent my time sweating away in the galley cooking for a boatful of above-deck guests. For this visit, I’m happy to report, the tables were definitely turned in my favour. This spring holiday weekend was to be our first proper Mr & Mrs Smith-style escapade in over a year, so I wanted it to hit all the right notes.
Expectations were super high, which is never the best starting point. But from the moment we arrived at Monastero Santa Rosa we were far from disappointed. Since the Amalfi Coast always headlines in the glossiest travel magazines as the place to be and be seen, one has such romantic notions of this celebrated Italian coastline. Images abound of Sophia Loren sunbathing her chestnut skin, dramatic winding roads overlooking the coastline as far as the eye can see, beautiful tables laid out with the best Italian fare, and of course endless blue seas and skies.
Conca dei Marini itself is a sleepy fishermen’s village 4km from Amalfi with cobblestone and lemon grove clichés that have international jetset flocking. Having just driven around countless bends like an ageing Stirling Moss, we were both feeling a little off-colour. The SatNav indicated that we had arrived, so we pulled up by an entrance, marked by a discreet tiled sign: Monastero Santa Rosa. We walked though a small archway and up a few steps, and as soon as the hotel staff caught a glimpse of us, they rang the monastery bell to signal our arrival. From this moment onwards, the experience did not resemble anything I usually associate with a hotel…
In the absence of a formal check-in, we were greeted by the large welcoming smile of a smart-looking concierge who plied us with fresh lemonade made from the hotel’s own huge Sorrento lemons. Standing in the vast majestic vaulted hallway of the monastery, a small door beckoned us onto a tempting terrace of majolica tiling. Stepping out here we were able to get a full view of the alabaster-toned splendour and tiered landscaping. Plush and immaculately groomed gardens burst with orange and lemon trees, herbs of all aromas, full-bloomed roses and endless walls festooned in fragrant jasmine… and of course there’s that dazzling panoramic view over the cliff across the blue Bay of Salerno. And there is also an infinity pool like no other – it literally appears to drop into the ocean.
As you can imagine, by now we were desperate to dump our luggage and hit that water. 27 degrees, not one cloud in the sky – this was better than any May weekend back in London. Walking down one flight of stairs and down the hall towards our suite, was enough to have us amazed by the attention to detail. Original decorative pieces dating from Monastero Santa Rosa’s original 17th-century incarnation as a monastery, and there’s even an original confession booth. Old black-and-white pictures treat guests to a clearer idea of what this unique building and its interior used to look like.
Flowers have inspired the names of all the suites, and we quickly twigged that despite the grandeur of this Amalfi hotel, there are in fact only very few bedrooms (a mere 20 in total, all ocean view). Stepping into our Sea View Deluxe Suite and we were met by wide vaulting and four windows overlooking the sea and simple but very luxurious furnishings. Once again God was in the detail: wonderful bed linen, juicy just-picked strawberries, and extremely efficient WiFi – which despite the incredibly thick walls works throughout the hotel and even by the pool. A credit to the American owner perhaps? More on that in a minute.
Filipo was at the pool to greet us, and he couldn’t have been more charming or helpful. He set us up in no time and even arranged a simple and delicious lunch from the pool menu, which offers simple classics as tomato and mozzarella and melon and Italian ham. We’d heard that the food was not too formal in the way some Italian restaurants can be. The German chef focuses on Campania flavours using local ingredients – don’t expect all the bells and whistles from the à la carte menu in the evening, just five or so choices for each course. And while this terrain never used to boast any respectable vintages, Amalfi now yields some world-class wines made from grapes grown not far from the hotel itself.
Enthused by the whole experience so far, we grilled poor Filipo about who could have been behind such a gargantuan project. We were informed that the hotel was acquired a dozen years past by an American heiress who had seen the castle-like silhouette from her boat as she sailed along the coast. Bianca Sharma fell in love with the property and set about acquiring it immediately. Its South Carolina owner then executed a 10-year renovation programme to transform the property using local artisans and craftsmen. Grazie mille for such an amazing labour of love.
Yes, the pool was wonderful, warm and oh-so inviting – who could ever tire of being perched on its edge taking in those incredible sea views? It could only take a Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella spa to tempt you inside on days like that. This too was mind blowing – particularly the couples’ facilities. Fans of the Florentine apothecary will thrill too at the treatments using the aromatic ancient-recipe products.
Little surprise then that we could have easily stayed put on the premises for all three days and nights, but since the hotel’s location is so well positioned an explore of the Amalfi Coast is irresistible. Particularly when the concierge recommends you rent a boat. On our second day we cruised to Positano and had lunch at Conca del Sogno – a beach club restaurant especially wonderful when accessed from the water. But on our way back, as we saw Monastero Santa Rosa reappear high up on its cliff, our hearts lurched again for our very special home for the weekend.