A trip to Anantara Convento di Amalfi Grand Hotel for Hadag’s Liz O’Reilly proved nothing short of sublime.
The Amalfi Coast is not just a place, it’s a feeling. Warm sun, gorgeous pastel-hued buildings perched higgledy-piggledy on mountainsides that climb up from the glistening waters of myriad small, pretty beaches. The riotous hues of brightly coloured flowers are everywhere and huge lemons scent the air. But perhaps the most extraordinary thing is the light, almost luminescent in the early mornings giving way to a bright, exciting fizz throughout the day.
We arrived at Anantara Convento di Amalfi Grand Hotel in the early afternoon, full of anticipation to explore this gorgeous heritage building. Built into the soaring cliffside above Amalfi town itself, the 13th century, former Capuchin convent is an imposing sight, mistress of all it surveys despite its mellow, pale ochre hue.
The staff were immediately warm and welcoming, greeting us as old friends as we were shown to our amazing suite, where we encountered the softest of beds, every amenity you could wish for, a huge, opulent bathroom complete with Aqua di Parma toiletries – I absolutely adore the delicate scent of these – and not one but two balconies overlooking the town, port and far along the shoreline. To say we grabbed every possible minute out there would be an understatement.
Having experienced the town, chaotic and filled with tourists even in early October, we were amazed at the serenity and peace of the convent. You could almost forget that you were right above one of Italy’s busiest coastal areas. The building is surrounded by gardens where many of the herbs and vegetables used in the restaurants are grown and guests are free to roam.
On our first evening, we were invited to dinner at Dei Cappuccini Restaurant, an absolutely gorgeous open-air terrace overlooking the twinkling lights of Amalfi below. Thanks to my profession, I have been lucky enough to sample some extraordinary dining experiences and this has to be up there with the very best.
From the amuse bouche, a delicate croquette of crumb-coated, seasoned cabbage with lemon mayo served atop a pebble, which truly did excite the mouth preparing our taste buds for the feast to come, to Gragnano spaghettone with lemon, smoked buffalo butter and grilled squid (caught just along the coast), and potatoes from Tovere, another Amalfi neighbour, prepared with egg yolk and summer truffle, our introduction to Convento cuisine was spectacular.
These were followed by cannelloni filled with eggplant parmigiana with basil pearls and datterini coulis – the light sweetness of the tomatoes perfectly complementing the sublime mix of the al dente pasta, coupled with silky aubergine.
And, the crowning glory: sea bass meunière with grilled celery and anchovies alongside vegetables fresh from the garden. The fish was exquisitely rendered, its delicate flesh flaky but not in the least dry made all the more perfect by the soft caress of the buttery sauce.
Our repast was accompanied by a selection of grape pairings, many of them local and almost all Italian, each mouthful superbly drawing forth the flavours and textures of the food.
A Historical Adventure
Luxury travel these days is all about experiences and the next day we were treated to something very, very special and specific to Anantara Convento di Amalfi. Pace & Bene with Fra Marcus. The hotel has formed a partnership with Franciscan Friar Fra Marcus, who introduced us to the convent’s magnificent cloister, which has been sympathetically preserved (it’s possible to have the most romantic wedding or dinner ever there), and the exquisite chapel, complete with organ, which I would defy even the completely A-religious to visit without a feeling of deep spirituality.
We then travelled with him to the beautiful neighbouring town of Ravello, a favourite with those seeking escape from the crowded, coastal madness. An extremely erudite yet humble man, Fra Marcus showed us around the Baroque church, built in 1222 by Saint Francis of Assisi, and took us to his own church and convent, where he is one of only two remaining Franciscan Friars. Sharing the story of this magical place, the friar explained that the partnership with Anantara helps fund the convent, which boasts a library of more than 50,000 books, all waiting to be catalogued.
Worth a visit purely for the architecture, to hear the stories of Ravello, its famed gardens and festivals and, of course, its convent, from one who actually lives there and is truly passionate about its future, was undoubtedly one of the high spots of our whole Italian adventure. And I should mention that Fra Marcus is working with the hotel chefs to recreate some of the recipes of the ancient nuns – an excellent reason to return, if one were needed.
On the way back we stopped at the delightful Mimí Pizzeria & Cucina for lunch – honestly the antipasti was a whole meal in itself. Coming from our region, where so many of our fruits and vegetables are imported, the lush, local produce was an absolute joy and the place was buzzing with locals and vacationers alike.
On our return to Anantara Convento di Amalfi, a tour of the property was in order and we were amazed at the way it has been restored; so sympathetic to the history yet managing to introduce plenty of modern touches to make any visit one of comfort and tranquillity.
Many of the 52 guest rooms and suites – several of which were first built as monks’ quarters – feature original tiles, vaulted ceilings and limewashed walls for a sense of simplicity, blended seamlessly with rich textiles, sculptural furniture and local art.
We were particularly taken with Suite Dell’Eremita, the former hermit’s room, at the top of dozens (if not hundreds) of steep steps, which is now an amazing suite carved into the rock of the mountainside. It really is something to behold with its private terrace and lemon grove and stunning coastal views.
A signature Anantara spa treatment featuring, of course, citrus oils followed, before another amazing dinner. This time we visited La Locanda della Canonica Pizzeria by Gino Sorbillo, situated along the terrace beside the pool where, by day, we had happily basked in the late summer sun.
Hailing from one of the oldest pizza-making families in Naples, Maestro Gino Sorbillo is one of the world’s most famous pizza makers and it’s easy to see why. From unexpected toppings to the crispiest of crisp crusts, this was a taste of Naples in one of the most scenic locations in Italy and a most fitting way to end our Convento experience. To say parting was such sweet sorrow would, indeed, be an understatement. We will most definitely be back.
For more information on this truly opulent property or to make a booking, visit the hotel’s official website.