“Tax inspection and fishing are similar,” says Renato Cammarata, sucking on his cigar as our boat bobs on a turquoise Mediterranean. “You catch fraudsters, you catch fish. Some big, some small. I changed my career to taste the rule of nature rather than the rule of law.”
The former member of the guardia di finanza is the perfect host for the new “Ligurian fishing experience” from Portofino’s glamorous, high-end honeypot, the Hotel Splendido, which opens for the season next weekend. The muscular Salvador Dalí lookalike is a convivial blend of fisherman, philosopher and chef, alchemising the day’s catch into an on-board, gourmet treat.
Cammarata and his fishing partner, Adriano Andreis, are the real deal, spending most days at sea on the Castel Dragone, an authentic local tub with cabin and mechanised winches. But this is a softcore, velvet-lined trip: la dolce vita with fins, gills and hooks.
For starters, we leave the multi-hued trompe l’oeil facades of Camogli harbour at a very civilised 8am. Over a focaccia and white wine breakfast we’re given a relaxed lesson in traditional fishing techniques. The Tonnarella, a vast net trap, is laid off Punta Chiappa on the south-west tip of Mount Portofino’s dramatic promontory. Its “Chamber of Death” is raised three times a day from April to late September, revealing a fresh haul of fish.
It doesn’t involve us today. Instead, we motor six miles out to rich hunting grounds over a deep abyss, where a long fishing line is patiently fed out from the boat’s rear. I grimace. I’ve endured terrible bird’s nest tangles with a simple rod and reel. Today’s line is four miles long and holds more than 500 hooks, each baited with a single sardine.
Andreis makes it look easy. After attaching a buoy to one end of the weighted line, he flings out the lures while shouting instructions to Cammarata at the boat’s wheel, ensuring the line maintains the crucial 400m depth. “The lower the sun, the higher the line,” he explains. “In October, it’s 300m.”
Job done, Cammarata cranks up the music – the Age of Aquarius – and jigs around the deck. It’s party time. We jump into the impossibly blue Gulf of Paradise, sip wine, sunbathe and shoot the breeze, discussing everything from the great white shark recently spotted off Corsica to unpopular European Union restrictions, apparently hitting small-scale fishermen. They’re the reason the men diversified into pescaturismo and night-time astronomy tours under dark ocean skies.
“We no longer fish purely for fish,” says Cammarata. “We fish for people too.”
After a couple of hours, Andreis starts to wind in the line on a motorised drum. The excitement isn’t in the Hemingwayesque bend of a rod; it’s in watching the incoming line of sardines, like a road of cats’ eyes, rising from the depths.
Occasionally the glint is lighter, brighter, bigger. There’s a couple of nazello (hake), a rondanino (bream) and, most dazzling of all, a llama fish. At least 6ft long with the teeth of Nosferatu, it resembles a vast shiny stainless steel blade.
Within 20 minutes the hake have been fried in breadcrumbs and lemon juice, the llama in white wine, chilli, oregano, pine nuts and parsley. It’s divine. “Is there anything more beautiful than eating freshly caught fish?” sighs Cammarata.
I’m getting greedy. I’d like a swordfish. Cammarata has caught them up to 100kg – a cool €1,800-worth (£1,490) of fish. But it won’t happen today. The line snaps. We motor to the other buoy and start retrieving from the other end. But it also slackens. A second break. It’s never happened before. Two miles of line, 350 hooks and multiple captive fish remain trapped in the depths. We try to snag the lost line with trailing hooks but it’s no good. We draw another blank but there are compensations. The Splendido’s immaculate motor boat, its captain in floaty white linen, carries me back to Portofino for a candlelit supper at the hotel’s spectacular Terrazzo restaurant. My order? Fresh fish. What else?
The full-day fishing experience at the Hotel Splendido (www.hotelsplendido.com) costs €1,000 for up to 12 people. Abercrombie & Kent (www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers three nights from £1,095pp including private transfers from Genoa airport