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Monks move out, heaven moves in

Published 23 September 2012
News Review
1,000th article

Michael and Geraldine at the Splendido with Ermes De Megni, left, and Carlo Lazzeri

There are hotels and there are hotels. All men are not created equal. Hotels are certainly not equal. The best ever, a hotel so historic and beautifully run it almost leaves me speechless, is the Splendido in Portofino, northwest Italy.

You might ask (if you don’t, I’ll tell you anyway) what makes a hotel great. There's the setting. The Splendido is on a hill facing another, pine-covered hill with an old church and a castle on it and looks down on the port. It is one of the great views of all time. Dolce and Gabbana have two houses on the hill opposite the hotel.

The Splendido used to be a monastery but has been the jewel in the crown of the Orient Express group since 1985. The staff are beyond belief efficient, pleasant and welcoming. As near perfect as you’ll find. They’re all great characters.

The general manager, Ermes De Megni, is ever-smiling and welcoming. The restaurant manager, also the food and beverage manager, Carlo Lazzeri, is the best ever. He’s not unctuous; he has charm and dignity.

There's a flamboyant barman, Antonio Beccalli, who does a double act with the pianist, Vladimiro Gatto, a man whose glitter jackets make Liberace’s costumes look dull.

The food is fantastic. The chef, Corrado Corti, knocks up consistently excellent meals. Everything from pizzas to warm sea bass with an orange sauce served with chicory salad, to sauteed veal piccata with lemon and fresh local basil.

There's a magnificent pool with views of the bay surrounded by sun-lounger areas rising up the cliffs. They even have a photo of me on the wall of the lounge set among a celebrity collection of those who have stayed there.

I do have one complaint. Some years ago the hotel opened a gelateria (ice cream place to you) in the unspoilt harbour area of Portofino serving the worst ice cream ever. When I brought this up with Maurizio Saccani, boss of the Orient Express Italy, he offered some guff about the ice cream being made to some old-fashioned recipe.

On my last visit, Carlo Lazzeri said he now ran it and I should try again. The ice cream was fine. However, when the waitress asked, "Is everything all right?" I said: "No, it isn't. The so-called whipped cream obviously came from a plastic container."

This produced great indignation. I was assured it was real whipped cream made by some machine in the kitchen.

"If it is, then you've got a machine that produces whipped cream exactly as if it came from a plastic squirty thing," I responded.

Portofino looks as it did in its Sophia Loren days, with little coloured houses. Beautiful, except for the fact that, where the buildings were used by fishermen making nets and wicker baskets for fish, it’s now all terribly posh: Brioni, Loro Piano, expensive trinkets for the super-rich, whose vast yachts visit, and dwarf, the tranquil, cobble-stoned village.

A house near the Splendido recently sold for more than €30m (£24m). Building is not allowed, so the existing properties are snapped up by zillionaire Italians to use as summer homes.

I can offer two words of advice regarding the Splendido: go there. You won't regret it.

"That's more than two words," I hear you say. So what? Mathematics were never my strong card.

  • September 19 was my first wedding anniversary. People ask me: "What difference is there now you're married?"

    I reply: "I now say 'Darling, you're absolutely right' much more than I used to."

    Actually, of all the choices that I've made, marrying Geraldine was the greatest by far. She is known in these parts simply as Ger. We first dated in 1957, so I suppose you could say it was a long courtship. Topped by a happy ending.

  • Michael Winner's Hymie Joke Book is now to be in hard cover. It's out in early October. This masterpiece of humour retails at £12.99, but through Sunday Times Books you can get it for £9.99. If anyone wants a white sticker to go in it inscribed to whoever you like and with a cartoon, write to me at The Sunday Times. Buy at least 50 copies as Christmas gifts. Auntie Flo could die laughing, which means you inherit earlier.

  • From Anton deFanoir, from London: Becky goes to see a therapist.

    She says: "I've got a big problem, doctor. Every time Hymie and I are in bed and Hymie climaxes, he lets out this ear-splitting yell.”

    "My dear," the shrink says, "that's completely natural. I don't see what the problem is."

    "The problem is," complains Becky, "it wakes me up."

    Michael's missives

    Obviously Oxfam had a sale last week. Whatever you paid for Bernard Manning's old jacket and trousers was too much. At least the money is going to a good cause.
    Captain R Slicker, Northamptonshire

    Last week The Sunday Times reported there are only 100 adult cod left in the North Sea. You seem to have blackened cod every other week. Give the species a break. Where I grew up, fusion food was having fish and chips in the same sheet of newspaper.
    Robin Dickson, Edinburgh

    Yet another stunning picture of Geraldine. What an inspiration to have her stand next to the tailor's dummy your grandfather obviously left outside his shop. Pity you don't seem to be able to get jackets like this for yourself these days.
    Albert Rose, Northumberland

    There is an old fossil called Winner
    Who moans about his latest new dinner.
    He's a cantankerous old git,
    His clothes rarely fit
    But at least he now looks a lot thinner.

    Geoff Greensmith, Surrey

    Like you, I have my grandfather's naturalisation papers and, like your grandfather, he was born in Divinsk in 1874. He was also a tailor. Like you I can be stroppy if I get bad food or service in a restaurant. My God! We could be related!
    Richard Jaffe, Birmingham