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Two Amalfi gems that haven't gone off the rails

Published 14 September 2008
News Review
791st article

Michael and Vito Cinque standing behind Virginia Cinque at San Pietro (Gerladine Lynton-Edwards)

Even my favourite hotel group, Orient-Express, can fall down. If you want to visit the beautiful Amalfi coast, I can't recommend its hotel Caruso in Ravello. Although the hotel has qualities (food and staff) it's ill laid out, higgledy-piggledy, a mess. The sun loungers are in a garden here, another bit of garden there. The view isn't great. Most lounger-inhabitants can't see it anyway.

Now I tremble. Will I get another ridiculous letter from the Caruso's managing director, Maurizio Saccani, vice-president of O-E Italy? When I last dared to say less than complimentary things about the Caruso he accused me of misleading you on a number of factual matters, on all of which I was correct and he was wrong. That after I'd praised his hotels the Splendido in Portofino, Villa San Michele in Florence and the Cipriani Venice endlessly for 10 years.

In the history of hotel critics, none have lauded a hotel group as much as I've praised Orient-Express. I named Maurizio best hotel manager outside the UK in three Winner Guide books. Never a letter of thanks. Only his vitriolic outburst. Maurizio's a loose cannon. Loose cannons have a habit of shooting themselves in the leg.

I was surprised when Pippa Isbell, Orient-Express "vice-president corporate communications", said she'd told Maurizio to send his offensive letter. If that isn't sleepwalking on duty, what is? Particularly as the O-E president, Paul White, had just announced the group's Italian hotels were "flat" in the second quarter of 2008 and in the second half of 2008 he expected "margin compression". Definitely the time to insult one of the company's greatest fans. I don't think.

"If the Caruso disappointed you, Michael, recommend somewhere else on the Amalfi coast," I hear you chant. I will. Not one hotel, but two. The first is the San Pietro, which rises from the rocks outside Positano and offers a breathtaking view of Positano and the sea.

It's run very personally and immaculately by Virginia Cinque and her sons Carlo and Vito. There's a helicopter pad where I landed when I flew in from Capri a few years ago. That'll be useful for you.

The dining room and an enormous terrace are elegant and with unbeatable sea and coast views. I had a great vegetable terrine, spaghetti with tomato sauce, and a delicious white fish, which I forget the name of. Geraldine had wonderful giant shrimps. "The best food we've had since we've been here," she said. She didn't mean since we'd been at the San Pietro. Geraldine meant since we'd been on the Amalfi coast.

It's a Michelin-starred restaurant and, joy of joys, Virginia doesn't allow children unless they're over 10. Not surprising, because when she showed me one of her best suites the bath had a full-sized eunuch with an enormous erection as a tap. For sensitive Sunday Times readers, Virginia's prepared to drape a union jack over the offending protrusion. That's what I call service.

The other fantastic hotel is Le Sirenuse actually in Positano itself, on the coast and with an incredible view of the town, the sea and the Byzantine church of Santa Maria Assunta. The hotel is a 17th-century villa owned by the Sersale family. They turned it into a hotel in 1951.

Some incredible antiques, a sea-view dining room lit at night with 420 candles, a swimming pool and a lift where they change the mat so it gives you the days of the week. If you don't know what day it is, push the button for the lift and when the doors open say, "Gosh, it's Tuesday." Or whatever.

At lunch we looked out onto the island of Gallo Lungo, which Geraldine assured me is where Ulysses resisted the sirens. It's shaped like a woman. Rudolph Nureyev used to live there.

Between us we had ham and melon; grilled fish and crustaceans with a salad of cherry tomatoes and rugola; spaghetti with clams; a rum baba with fruit salad and two bowls, one of whipped cream, one of zabaglione. The best rum baba I've ever had.

Geraldine said, "You don't get food like this anywhere else." A well-deserved compliment. The waiter intelligently wrote down our order and then read it back. London restaurant staff, please note.

Come here or to the San Pietro. Avoid the coast road. Geraldine rightly described it as "the most horrible road ever. You're endlessly dodging tour buses and other cars". Instead of driving, rent a boat. Visit Amalfi and go to the restaurant Lido Azzurro di Antonio Pisani. Check out the cathedral, then nip over to Capri.

It's not essential to go up to Ravello. In high season the road is so traffic blocked you probably won't be able to anyway. If you do manage to get up there and see Maurizio Saccani writing another rude letter to me, just say, "Calm down, dear, it's only Michael Winner." It probably won't shut him up. But it's worth a try.

Michael's letters

I hope you never again need skin taken from your thighs for grafting purposes. If you do, here's a tip. Take a Viagra tablet with your bedtime cocoa. It won't ease the pain, but it will keep the bedclothes off your legs.
Colin Drury, Vale of Glamorgan

Going out in pyjamas, as you did last week, tends to attract the attention of the medical and social services.
David Garwood, Wiltshire

Since you appeared so well dressed at the Ritz, I have to take breakfast in a ridiculous blazer. "If that slovenly old git cleans his act up, you can," I'm told. Damn it, man, think of others when you perform your next U-turn.
Iain Chapman, Marciac, France

I see Michael Kotb, Egyptian manager of the Ritz Palm Court, tied a Windsor whereas you did knot. Please explain.
Paul Nichols, Bahrain

My daughter discovered a piece of blue cleaning cloth in her milk jug during tea at the Ritz. The manager halved the cost of our bill for four. Very professional.
Derek Holland, Kent

If, like the Ritz, you and Geraldine served tea for 420 people each day in your magnificent bedroom you'd be well on the way to paying off your hideous £6m debt.
Martin Langley, Surrey

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk