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A flawed jewel in the Orient-Express crown

Published 25 May 2008
News Review
775th article

Michael at the Caruso hotel with Maurizio Saccani, left, and Mimmo Di Raffaele (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

For six years Maurizio Saccani supervised rebuilding and renovation of the hotel Caruso in Ravello. It's well south of Naples.

Work was, shall we say, "delayed" by intrusion from a local organisation. You know, southern Italy, traditional groups, one particularly powerful, even today. Geddit?

Anyway, many millions of euros later, after reality had to be faced, the hotel opened in June 2005. Mr Saccani said I shouldn't come until his gardens were fully blooming lovely. So we chose the beginning of May this year.

The Caruso is a worthy addition to the thoroughbred stable that is the Orient Express hotel group. However, it has problems, not all of which can be attributed to Mr Saccani. He's deservedly been made vice-president of the Orient-Express Italian operation and managing director of all their Italian hotels, including the great Cipriani in Venice.

The Caruso sits high on the hills above Amalfi. In its brochure and on its website there's a lovely view of tree-clad hills dropping to the sea. What they don't show (wisely) is that if you face the infinity pool and turn your head to the left there are mountains covered in tacky apartment blocks. It looks like a council estate.

What they don't tell you is that the road down to the sea at Amalfi, a mere 4½ miles, can easily take an hour. More in high season. I was once there in July and the road from Amalfi to Ravello was blocked by traffic. Even out of season, on May 3, it took an hour of tailback to get to the coast.

The Caruso is beautifully decorated with restored 18th-century wall paintings and new ones done with great flair and taste. The furnishings are discreet and elegant. The traditional pictures on the walls, carefully selected.

However, I found it itsy-bitsy. A lot of public rooms. A sprawl. The balcony of my suite faced new, white-domed buildings, which looked like a reject for the touring version of ET: the Extra-Terrestrial. Why, when old stonework abounds, did Maurizio add these bright, modern horrors? They're not helped by a cul-de-sac car park where the sun gleams off gaudily coloured motorbikes.

The grounds are spectacular. A great credit to the gardener, Gaetano Amato. There are rose arbours, white flowers rampant, lawns and trees.

The food is fantastic. I think the best of the Orient-Express Italian hotels, which all serve excellent fare. Other than the main dining room of the Cipriani, which is second rate. Full marks to chef Mimmo Di Raffaele.

Among the delights I stuffed down (and put on 7lb in six days) were risotto with pears and mussels; the best scampi I've ever eaten; "cream of tarallo" bread flavoured with anchovies and served with local scabbard fish; incredible pizzas and perfect pasta. The desserts were a delight.

They serve a refreshing drink made with lemon juice and mint, which is historic. The lemons in this area, I exaggerate not, are the size of melons.

With all this great food Geraldine was rightly appalled to find in our suite a kettle and two jars of Nescafe. That's what you expect at a Travelodge, not a five-star hotel. Why couldn't they have some fresh, ground coffee and a cafetiere?

The hotel shop is tacky. There was no one to serve when we visited. The assistant was downstairs in the stock room. Nothing worth buying anyway. Maurizio had the best hotel shop ever in the Splendido, Portofino, run by a delightfully eccentric lady called Marisa Fattori. Maurizio "let her go". Not his wisest executive decision. What came after was pathetic.

Ravello is full of tour buses and vastly overcrowded in the season, which means you're isolated in this generally lovely hotel. I still recommend it. But at the Splendido you look at a view nearer the sea and with the hillside clear of anything nasty because they haven't allowed new building since 1935.

At the incredible Villa San Michele you look down on unspoilt hills to see Florence. At the Cipriani Venice you look onto a lovely lagoon and an island with a church and an old monastery. All these beat the Caruso views into a cocked hat. Where did that expression come from, I wonder.

The Caruso staff are all exceptionally good and welcoming. The general manager, Franco Girasoli, could not have been more helpful; the concierge, Francesco Battesimo, is lively, knowledgeable and on the ball. He got me a terrific Mini Cooper convertible.

However, the Caruso lacks community, if you know what I mean. It's undoubtedly glamorous, beautifully executed, reasonably well situated. But for me it sparkled somewhat less than Maurizio's other Italian jewels.

Winner's letters

So you float past McDonald's in a vulgar limousine. Is it painted oyster gold and bedecked with jewellery? The Rolls-Royce is associated with northern industrialists, Arab sheikhs and TV entrepreneurs. Just another example of your lack of taste.
David Warboys, Sydney, Australia

Like you we dined at Thornton's in Dublin. Of the eight-course taster menu two were quite good, two pretty dreadful and the rest not up to much at all. A gaggle of staff tried to give us a certificate saying we'd dined there. What utter tosh. A one-star Michelin restaurant - my eye!
Joseph Malone, Dublin

In last week's photo someone transposed your head onto the body of a 20-year old footballer. This merits a massive fine from the Press Complaints Commission.
Veran Patel, Chiswick, London

The Ivy food gets worse. Stale bread, dried-out burger, poorly seasoned sausage, overcooked asparagus and a corned beef hash so salty it might constitute a health risk. My daughter's school canteen produces better food at considerably lower cost.
Stewart Neil, London

Reading of your huge home I'm reminded of the Yorkshire expression "You can only be in one room at a time". Or do you have special powers there, too?
Rose Birdsall, Leicestershire