Best Day Ever

Portofino's Wild — and Splendido — Side

by Nick Papa
Splendido Looking onto Portofino's piazzetta from Splendido Mare. Photo by Tyson Sadlo.

The transformation of Splendido Mare, A Belmond Hotel, Portofino, celebrates its humble beginnings as a guest house for fishermen, bringing to life the natural, simple pleasures of Portofino long before it became synonymous with the Italian Riviera.

PORTOFINO, Italy — The name Portofino conjures images of all things beautiful, elegant, and exclusive. But what was Portofino before Dolce & Gabbana? Before Madonna and Jesus Luz ate breakfast on the terrace of Hotel Splendido? Even before the time when Elizabeth Taylor would appear regularly in the glamorous, swirling life of the piazzetta?

I went to Portofino searching for the world my great-great-grandfather Guiseppe DiMartini knew before he left for New York in 1904. The grand Hotel Splendido didn't seem like the type of place that would be on my list, but, as it turns out, the former monastery first opened as a hotel in 1903, meaning guests began arriving when Guiseppe still called Liguria home.

So up the winding drive to Splendido, A Belmond Hotel, Portofino I went.

Perched above the rest of the world in an otherworldly location that even monks centuries ago realized was heaven on earth, I was blown away by the simple pleasures of the grand dame. My mind still wanders to the way the thrown-open windows let in a breeze that made curtains dance across the marble floor, and the relief of cool condensation on a spritz cocktail served on the wisteria-clad terrace.

The view up to and down from Hotel Splendido. Photos by Nick Papa.
La piazzetta at the center of Portofino. Photo by Tyson Sadlo.

That day, up in the clouds, I knew the Portofino I was searching for — the one that existed before the international jet set dubbed it the Italian Riviera — was somewhere below: between the impossibly blue ocean and the green sea of palms and pines. 

Years later, it turns out I was right.

Back down the winding path to the piazzetta — the beating heart of Portofino — is Splendido Mare, Hotel Splendido's new sister hotel.

Its recent transformation by Paris design firm Festen Architecture is the first for a Belmond hotel since LVMH acquired the luxury flag in 2019. And it’s the first I've seen succeed in doing what so many others have tried and failed to do: create an authentic experience that blurs the line between the hotel and the character of the destination.

A stay here reveals what Portofino was before it became a place to see and be seen. That's why the best day ever — one that celebrates Portofino's wild side — begins and ends at The Mare.

Portofino. Photo by Tyson Sadlo.
Out on a gozzo. Photo by Oliver Astrologo.

Morning: Gozzo To Go

There's nothing as timeless as being out on the water. Years ago, far up on the terrace of Hotel Splendido, I felt disconnected from the life stirring in the town and in the water below. Down at Splendido Mare, Festen Architecture established a solid connection to the hotel's past as a guest house for fishermen.

Guest room floors, made from the same wood as the gozzo boats bobbing in the harbor, reveal one of the hotel's most exciting perks: a gorgeous "gozzo to go."

Set sail upon request and discover the local sites of San Fruttuoso, Cala degli Inglesi, and Punta Chiappa in one of the iconic boats that have become a symbol of Portofino and the last vestige of its humble beginnings as a fishing village.

Paraggi. Photo by Nick Papa.
Paraggi. Photo by Oliver Astrologo.

Noon: Paraggi Beach Lounging

The first time I arrived in Portofino, I came by foot from Santa Margherita Ligure. The hour-long walk snakes along the edge of the rocky promontory and offers endless sea views. Each bend reveals yet another breathtaking bay packed with sunbathers — primarily locals and Lacoste-sporting French tourists — occupying every flat surface in sight.

The dreamiest of all is Paraggi, the sandy beach nearest to Portofino, where sparkling aquamarine waves roll gently onto a beach without the typical tourist trappings found in nearby Santa Margherita Ligure. Take it all in from private loungers, snack on a light seafood lunch on the water, and make use of the complimentary shuttle service if you’re not feeling up to the short walk.

Back at the hotel, 7,000 terracotta tiles in DaV Mare, the casual fine dining restaurant — handmade and laid by local Ligurian artisans — evoke the undulation of water and create the feeling you're still lounging by the sea in Paraggi.

Portofino from above. Photo by Oliver Astrologo.
Scenes at San Fruttuoso. Photos by Nick Papa.

Afternoon: Visit the Lighthouse or La Portofinese Eco Farm

In Italy — even in Portofino — peeling back the veneer of luxury is effortless. 

It's a one-minute walk across the piazzetta from Ferragamo to Louis Vuitton. Walk two more minutes, and the chichi luxuries of town disappear behind a wall of swaying pines. Up a narrow cobblestone path is the 12th-century Church of San Giorgio and the ancient Castello Brown, a Roman fortress that became a castle in 1557. The century-old Portofino lighthouse is the dramatic end of the brief yet bucolic 13-minute hike, where the cliffs plunge into the sea below. The only change to the lighthouse in the last 100 years is the addition of a cocktail bar serving light bites from a sustainable local farm.

For an even bigger taste of Liguria’s wild side, visit La Portofinese Eco Farm in the hills above Portofino. Discover tranquil olive groves, beehives, and vineyards jutting towards the Cala degli Inglesi. After exploring, enjoy a hyper-local picnic in a scenic spot and feast on homemade focaccia, Parma ham, salami, fresh fruit, the farm's own honey and cheese, craft beer, and white wine. The Mare arranges the entire experience, including private transfers.

After all the walking and eating, antique fruitwood armchairs by Gio Ponti and soft Italian fabrics by Loro Piana in the guest rooms create the perfect setting for relaxation. They also mark a notable shift from marketing the famous and flashy American guests of years past to highlighting the understated Italian icons who celebrate perfection in nature.

The lobby. Photo courtesy of Splendido Mare, A Belmond Hotel, Portofino
A Village View Junior Suite. Photo by Tom Mannion.
Looking onto the harbor from the Ava Gardner Suite. Photo courtesy of Splendido Mare, A Belmond Hotel, Portofino.
DaV restaurant. Photo by Festen.

Evening: Wine Tasting Underground

La Portofinese transformed a disused underground space into an ecological wine cellar with the perfect geothermal conditions for storing wine. Guests of Splendido Mare enjoy exclusive access to the cave and a tour of I Coppelli winery, guided by an expert sommelier.

If you prefer to stay at the hotel after a long day of adventure — and who could blame you? — DaV Mare has you covered with an extensive wine list of its own. 

With everything you need to enjoy the full range of Portofino’s piazzetta pleasures, you never have to leave Splendido Mare. From aperitivo cocktails to the classic Ligurian cappon magro (an elaborate salad of seafood and vegetables) and gelato from Gelateria San Giorgio, piazzetta life is decidedly less wild, but outside, under the sky, within arm’s reach of the water lapping the square is undoubtedly no less the real Portofino.

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