Heaven on a hilltop
A former monastery in Italy has been converted into a hotel. Giovanna Dunmall checks in and likes what she finds
As you pull up outside the building's main entrance a small army of smiling staff appear. Your luggage is whisked away and a rose-scented towel and a cool drink handed to you.
Welcome to the Monastero Santa Rosa Hotel, a majestic former monastery built in 1681 into the steep cliffs overlooking Conca dei Marini on Italy's Amalfi Coast, at the tip of a bluff between the tourist meccas of Positano and Amalfi.
The building is best viewed from the sea, where its dramatic cliff location can be fully appreciated. The hotel's tiered gardens and the dazzling blue sea that can be seen from every window and terrace are just as jaw-dropping.
American owner Bianca Sharma was on a yacht with friends when she first saw the monastery 13 years ago. She was so impressed that she bought it and, after an 11-year restoration, transformed it into a hotel.
The monastery had served as a hotel for many decades but was abandoned for years and in poor condition. The structure only had three bathrooms and the sewage was being pumped into the garden. Sharma had no experience in the hotel industry; her husband Ken was the multimillionaire co-founder of i2 technologies. But the monastery soon became her life's work after he died in 1999, leaving her and their two sons. She injected all her energy into the project.
Today the fruits of that labour are obvious. The nuns' cells and their refectory have been turned into 20 beautifully furnished suites and bedrooms, all with high-vaulted ceilings and dramatic sea views. The building's food stores and wine cellars have been converted into a five-storey spa, and the monastery's unruly garden transformed by Vatican landscape gardener Tiziano Gargiulo into a park filled with herbs, climbing wisteria and fruit trees, culminating in a heated infinity pool. The atmosphere is one of rarefied elegance, but also of consummate hospitality, the way only southern Italians know how.
My first meal on the restaurant's terrace is a case in point. It was prepared under the watchful eye of executive chef Christoph Bob who worked with culinary geniuses Alain Ducasse and Heinz Beck, and in Michelin-starred restaurants such as Petermann's Kunststuben in Zurich and Torre del Saracino in Naples.
That evening I dine on smoked lobster with apple, celery and walnut, followed by home-made cavatelli pasta served with three types of broccoli and a fish soup of caught-that-day amberjack, red mullet, scorpion fish and gurnard. Other culinary highlights over the next couple of days include a lemon-infused wholewheat pasta with squid and purple sweet potato, a creamy risotto made with burrata cheese, black olives and a marinated prawn tartare and an amarena cherry bread pudding that is indescribably unctuous, all washed down with local, Italian and the odd French or organic wine from a 3,000-strong list.
The food is not the only indulgence. The spa, nominated "best newcomer" at this year's Tatler spa awards, uses products by Santa Maria Novella, a Florence-based herb-scented range first devised by Dominican monks in the 13th century. Santa Maria Novella only supplies two hotel spas in the world and Monastero Santa Rosa is one of them.
As I enjoy my breakfast (sfogliatella Santa Rosa - a re-creation of the cream-filled pastry that is said to have been created in the monastery in the 17th century - scrambled eggs and home-made rolls and jams), I contemplate the beautiful vistas. To drink in this view while going about your daily business is a divine experience. No wonder the nuns wanted to call this home. monasterosantarosa.com
MAKING A SPLASH
In the summer of 1962 then US first lady Jackie Kennedy holidayed on the sunny Amalfi Coast with her children John and Caroline, her sister and other members of her entourage. Though she stayed in Palazzo Episcopio in the genteel hilltop town of Ravello she would have lunch at the Monastero Santa Rosa Hotel with her children. The terrace she ate on is now part of the hotel's sprawling Citrus Suite. With its breathtaking coastal and sea views it's easy to see why she came back every day, sometimes accompanied by charismatic Fiat magnate Gianni Agnelli, with whom she is rumoured to have had an affair that summer. A framed copy of the front page of a local newspaper (one of thousands of photos that flooded the Italian and international press that summer) hangs in the hotel's bar and shows Kennedy expertly negotiating the waves on one of her morning water-skiing jaunts in Conca dei Marini. When Prince Albert and wife Charlene booked in as one of the Monastero Santa Rosa's first guests once it reopened this summer (they stayed in the Citrus Suite), it seems the hotel's associations with the glamorous set is as alive as ever.