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Il Pellicano, Porto Ercole

Romantic Italy

After five days of walking in Rome–it is after all, the most efficient transportation in a city that was never meant for cars–a change of pace seemed called for. A bit of calm and a dollop of discovery would be perfect. We found both at Il Pellicano in the well-known Italian resort village of Porto Ercole on the Argentario Peninsula.

When you drive across the small bridge that links the peninsula to the mainland the terrain is flat. Tall trees, precisely planted, line the wide road. Not a particularly interesting landscape–an occasional gas station and a few road signs indicating the best route to Porto Ercole. Just before the town another sign shaped as an arrow points to Il Pellicano. Abruptly, the terrain changes. Soon you are climbing. Soon after, the route evolves into a prototypical Italian hairpin road hugging the mountainside. Only the passenger can appreciate the spectacular view of the sea and the sailboats below. Then, just as unexpectedly, another sign points downward and within a few minutes you enter the grounds of Il Pellicano, one of Europe's superb perched hotels.

Poised between the mountain as its backdrop and the Tyrrhenian Sea as its foreground this small, 32 room, terra-cotta villa and cottages offer exactly the right blend of simplicity and luxury–in its furnishings and its surroundings. A guest feels as though he is entering a home, not a hotel. A rather large home to be sure, with a welcoming foyer and sitting rooms, indoors and outdoors. Field flowers artfully arranged on end tables and coffee tables, a larger bouquet on the desk set the tone. As charming as they are, so too is a pretty young woman named Cinzia Fanciulli, the concierge. Charm is only one of her assets. Competence is another.

As you pass through the corridors on the way to your room you notice games–backgammon boards, chess and checkers resting on the shelf. There is a billiards room and the table top games of skill my sons played as teenagers. Books line the library walls and comfortable sofas and chairs are arranged in front of a fireplace. You notice a clothing shop discreetly tucked off the foyer–almost a large closet—nothing more, and make a mental note to stop in. When you do, you find that it is carefully stocked with designer bathing suits and resort wear for both men and women.

An eclectic mix of antique country furniture and fresh woven fabrics makes for a smartly sophisticated seaside decor. A small writing table, a curtain covered closet and a handsome, Etruscan-inspired painted headboard bring an approving nod. Yes, this is a room we will enjoy living in. The patio outside the room is spacious. The chaise lounges, wide and soft. The table, inviting for a private breakfast by the sea. Only the birds will visit after the waiter has left your tray. For a little while you entertain thoughts of cocooning.

But the view from your terrace is enticing–a large and inviting swimming pool several levels down and lower still, a small private beach. A good book, lunch, a nap, a stroll, sailing or simply staring at the sky, the changing colors of the sea and the monolithic rocks that remind you of Capri. And when you are sated with sea air, a walk through the terraced gardens is a pleasant distraction. Further afield, the fashionable fishing village of Porto Ercole is only a short ride away. Markets line the seaside quay and because this is Italy, shellfish of every variety and a creditable assortment of fish, fresh enough to have twinkling eyes, are arranged in the most artistic patterns imaginable. On the drive back, take a detour to the medieval castle that dominates the landscape.

Dinner at Il Pellicano is a formal affair. The dining room is small, comfortable and subterranean and while the staff is attentive and solicitous, and the menu is varied enough, the kitchen could stand some beefing-up to meet the hotel's general level of excellence. Finally, ask Fanciulli to tell you how Il Pellicano got its name. It's a great romantic tale right out of Hollywood. Truly.

Il Pellicano, Cala dei Santi, 58018, Porto Ercole, Italy, tel. 39-0564-83-38-01, is a member of Relaix & Chateaux, tel. 212-856-0115. Rates start at $106 per night. www.pellicanohotel.com/

– Elaine B. Steiner

Winter 1995-96