Can the Borgo Santandrea take on the Amalfi all-stars?
In 2021, what does it take to open a world-beating hotel – a really breathtaking, pull-out-all-the-stops one – on the Amalfi Coast?
Because it’s not as if there’s a dearth of them here, in this place that for so many is an idea and a feeling – a very good feeling – as much as a location on the map. Its 30-some miles of cliffs, coves and colourful villages sequester at least half a dozen properties that regularly feature at the very top of annual “Gold” and “Best” lists. Many have been in the hands of the same families since they received their first guests back in the 1970s or the 1950s – or even the 1830s. They have deeply loyal clienteles, cultivated over years of satisfying the most discerning of travellers. The finest ones at once reflect a sense of place and are little worlds unto themselves.
A tall order, then, creating another one from scratch. Ambition is a prerequisite. You’d also bring – if you’re smart – extensive hospitality experience, a degree of design nous, familiarity with the area, reserves of patience and the inclination to lay down large quantities of cash.
All of it is brought to bear at Borgo Santandrea, which opened quietly in July in the tiny town of Conca dei Marini, a few miles west of Amalfi. It’s the result of four years of collaboration between two families from the island of Ischia – each established hotel owners – and local artisans, from ceramicists to landscape designers to ironmongers.
From the entrance almost 100m above the sea, its seven floors spill prettily down a steep terraced incline. The gardens are lush: mature olive, lemon and pomegranate trees are skirted with stands of wildflowers and blue myrtle; winter jasmine curls around the white columns along the wide terrace of Alici, one of the hotel’s three restaurants.
At every other turn, tall arched windows or floor-to-ceiling glass doors frame the inimitable horizon – a soaring milky blue-white sky above the deeper, truer blue sea. That elemental palette informs the backdrop throughout the interiors: whitewashed walls, white marble paving, and a full 31 unique majolica tile designs, almost entirely in the blue-to-white spectrum, which took artisans in nearby Salerno two years to produce. There are chevrons and herringbones, lozenges and basket weaves, undulating ribbons and geometric labyrinths – but not a floral elaboration or baroque flourish in sight.
The commitment to a 20th-century vision is down to one of Borgo Santandrea’s ischitano co-owners (who prefers to remain anonymous), who regularly considered a life as an architect while at university before ascending the corporate ladder to a senior position at a global bank in London. He began collecting midcentury furniture, with a focus on Italy and the Nordic countries, in his 20s.
Part of what appealed to him about Conca dei Marini’s ageing Gran Hotel Saraceno, when it came on the market several years ago, was that hiding underneath its ornate, heavy interior design (dark-wood furniture, black marble and Corinthian columns featured throughout) was a clean-lined and quite beautiful 1960s structure. “When we bought the [Saraceno] in 2017, it was clear we had to bring it back to its ’60s roots, when the vast majority of the property – with its distinct modernist features – was built,” he says.
“Passion project” is a descriptor that has probably passed its sell-by date, particularly when considering small hotels like this one. But here the passion manifests in very concrete terms; almost all of this co-owner’s extensive personal furniture collection was shipped south from his home and integrated into the design of the hotel. “We wanted to recreate the atmosphere of a sophisticated Italian coastal villa,” he says. “In that context, [sending] my midcentury pieces to Borgo Santandrea was a natural move.” The idea was to strip all the way back to the building’s good bones, then layer up to create a credible sense of lived-in-ness so that when guests encountered his gallery-worthy assemblage, purchased in Milan, London, Copenhagen and elsewhere, “it [would feel] like they have been there in Amalfi for the past few decades.”
Their beauty competes with the tile designs, and show-stopping views, for your attention. That glass-topped concierge desk is actually a rare late-1940s issue of Carlo Mollino’s Reale dining table. All those armchairs, gathered in clusters by tall windows and around a marble mantelpiece, were designed by Englander & Bonta (Argentina, the 1950s), Hans Wegner (Denmark, vintage mid-1960s), Fredrik A Kayser (the Model 711, also mid-1960s) and Erik Worst (Denmark, 1970s – there are a dozen scattered throughout the hotel). The leggy, sexy teak and glass tasting table in the wine cellar is another rare Englander & Bonta edition, purchased at auction in Buenos Aires.
All have been refurbished with textiles that hew 100 per cent Made In Italy, in true-to-period combinations of blue and white, including original designs signed Gio Ponti for Rubelli. Dozens of Ponti’s own 811 chair series, faithfully reproduced by Molteni, are scattered throughout the 45 rooms and suites, some of which have grassy terraces and plunge pools, curated libraries, or bathtubs nestled next to picture windows (all have balconies and sea views, double-king beds and slick marble-majolica bathrooms). “Ponti in particular had to play a central role,” says the co-owner, “and that’s not only because of the beauty and versatility of what he made but also the connection to the area, where he did one of our favourite projects [the Hotel Parco dei Principi in nearby Sorrento].”
But for many the ace in Borgo Santandrea’s pocket will be its beach, one of the very few naturally occurring private ones on this coast. The elevator descends through solid rock to a stone passageway that opens onto the beach club – a former fishermen’s boathouse, dressed perfectly in low-slung white sofas and ’70s rattan lounge chairs (some of the few pieces held over from the Saraceno, refurbished and dressed in a jaunty navy-and-white striped cotton). There’s a long bar with indoor-outdoor seating and on a terrace just above, Al Borgo, the hotel’s alfresco beach restaurant serving simple classics which, for my money, is the most enjoyable food in the place. (Executive chef Crescenzo Scotti does impressive things at Alici and at La Libreria, the fine-dining restaurant; but informal canvassing would indicate that most people just want a faultless spaghetti vongole or grilled pezzogna when they hit this part of the world.)
And then the beach itself: a long melange of white and grey pebbles descending into aquamarine water, clear and eminently swimmable and serviced by a squadron of locals in smart navy shorts and polo shirts. It all fits in particularly well in Conca dei Marini – a tiny, pretty hamlet, more of an elaborated highway stop than an actual town along the lines of Praiano or Positano, and quieter than either. Small boats buzz in and out, ferrying guests to La Tonnarella, to the right of the hotel (go at least once, put your feet literally in the sand and feast on their sublime spaghetti alla Jacqueline – named after La Onassis, who loved Conca), or the excellent Zeffiro Sereno, at the other end of the beach.
As the hotel’s general manager, Maurizio Orlacchio, was quick (and laudably modest enough) to note, it may take years for Borgo Santandrea to become what he and his fellow stakeholders aspire for it to be, which is an integral part of the dream of this coast. It’s early days to judge on service – particularly for a place that opened in the can-we/can’t-we travel days of summer 2021 – or on that ineffable, intuitive thing called ambience, which often requires years to bring about, and which is still very nascent here. But they’re off to a pretty promising start upstairs. And from down at the beach, the view is better still.
Maria Shollenbarger travelled as a guest of borgosantandrea.it; doubles from €770