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Eau d'Italie as seen in The Telegraph...

...and available online at Beauty Frontier

The history of Le Sirenuse, one of the world's most glamorous places to stay

From authors to actresses, everyone is seduced by this beautiful spot on the Amalfi Coast

One of the best and funniest pieces of travel writing I have ever read is John Steinbeck’s account of his visit to Positano, in an article for Harper’s Bazaar. With deft strokes, he describes everything from crazed Neapolitan driving (“in the back seat my wife and I lay clutched in each other’s arms, weeping hysterically”) to the violent demise of a drunken turkey destined for an ex-pat Thanksgiving feast. The year was 1953 and the Steinbecks stayed at, and fell for, Le Sirenuse, which had opened as a hotel just two years previously. He was seduced by it. How could he not be?

Le Sirenuse seduces most people. I first came across it when I was writing a guide to Amalfi Coast hotels in the 1980s and I have gravitated to it, whenever possible, ever since. It’s magical, and many elements combine to make it so.

After months of enforced “stay-at-home” and “staycations’” my latest visit last autumn made me almost dizzy with the pleasure of it all: the colours, of Positano clinging to its vertiginous hillside and of the sea below; the heat, even in late September; the elegance of Le Sirenuse, where traditional hospitality is cut through with a cool, contemporary and – even with people masked to the hilt – carefree vibe. I love the restrained bedrooms where charming antique pieces are set against white walls and French doors lead to enchanting balconies – not large, but timeless.

On the subject of seduction, Le Sirenuse, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, reopening May 27, has often played its part, not least in the love story of the family who created the hotel in 1951. The summer residence of the noble Neapolitan Sersale family, it was co-owned by four siblings, the eldest of whom was Marchese Paolo Sersale who, at the age of 25, became mayor of Positano in 1944. One day toward the end of the 1950s, an English lady and her husband came to stay; she did not leave – or at least, if she did, she swiftly returned.

Today her and Paolo’s daughter, Giulia, looks after the extraordinary indoor/outdoor garden that fills the hotel with lush leaves, delicate flowers and subtle scent: jasmine, oleander, frangipani, dozens of lemon trees, Sharifa Asma and Iceberg roses, bonsai and climbing bougainvillea (which only flowers where the sun strikes it), vast banana plants in the exotic entrance lobby and “Tina Turner”, a massive, wildly frizzy, 40-year-old nephrolepsis exultata fern, aptly named.

Talk about a family affair. Giulia’s sister Marina is responsible for the hotel’s own fragrance, Eau d’Italie, and for its bath products. After their father Paolo died, his brother Aldo returned from many years working and living abroad to refurbish, expand and embellish Le Sirenuse with his finds, such as the Persian wall hangings. In 1993, his son Antonio, who was educated in England, and daughter-in-law Carla, joined him. And now their two sons, Aldo and Francesco, have returned from jobs in the US to join their parents and continue a tenancy in which they have subtly moved their hotel from simple but charming to luxurious and starry – yet still charming.

“When Steinbeck stayed,” says Carla, “he expected a good bed and a good dinner and was content. Now our guests are similarly content, but they expect so much more, and we must adapt accordingly. As GiuseppeTomasi di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard, ‘if we want everything to stay as it is, everything needs to change’”. 

Carla trained as a lawyer, but that hasn’t stopped her creating an international clothing brand, Sirenuse Collection, with her niece Viola Parocchetti. Their boutique is across the street from the hotel, filled with delicate summer dresses perfect for floating on to the terrace for dinner and swimsuits designed to catch the eye at the beautiful pool that stretches out beyond the dining terrace and surveys the sea.

The way in which Antonio and Carla have weaved a contemporary vibe into traditional Italian hospitality has been subtle. There are the fashions and the scents and there is Franco’s, a stunning, intimate and panoramic open-air bar next to the hotel where the beautiful people hang out, and there are other touches, such as vibrant pink and yellow menu cards and the colourful local Solemene dinner plates that have lately replaced traditional white china.

In the white-walled, classically furnished reception rooms of the original house, decorated with deep sofas, precious family antiques, paintings and curiosities, modern art has made a refreshing and buoyant appearance. Each year since 2015, an artist is invited to make a work for a space of their choice; thus, a Martin Creed double-sided neon sign “Don’t Worry”, hangs above the Tina Turner fern; a mural by Alex Israel echoes the huge strelitzia plant beside it; one pillar in the restaurant, La Sponda, has been brought to vibrant multi-coloured life by abstract artist Matt Conners… and there is more from Rita Ackermann and Stanley Whitney, slotted in yet standing out.

Thanks to that modern requirement to change in order to remain the same, everything is sewn up for you when you stay. There’s a daily programme of activities that encompasses mountain hikes and the secret stairways of Positano (breathtaking at the top if you make it), boat trips to perfect restaurants, with stops for swimming, visits to ancient lemon groves, Pilates and Megaformer sessions, flower tours of the hotel and treatments in the slick spa. For those intent on forgoing the pleasures of the flesh during their stay, the hotel offers Dolce Vitality, a week-long fitness, detox and weight-loss retreat, including scenic workouts and a holistic reappraisal of health, exercise and nutrition.  

But for all the contemporary touches and the palpable glamour, Le Sirenuse is first and foremost a classic, down to earth, family-run Italian hotel, peopled by waiters who consider their jobs an honourable profession, such as maître Vincenzo, also a poet and an artist, with 40 years service under his belt, and assistant maître Pepe, with 30 years.

Lit by 400 candles, dinner in La Sponda, the hotel’s verdant, Michelin-starred, half-open, half-covered restaurant, is a romantic delight where guests have been gently serenaded by mandolin and guitar duo Franco and Andrea since 1993. Somewhere between going to bed and waking to the mesmerising view from your balcony and then heading for a perfect breakfast, the floor mat in the lift will have been changed to read the name of the new day lest, after the seduction of Le Sirenuse, you have forgotten which one it is.

Who else has been seduced by the hotel? All sorts, is the answer, but don’t name names. It’s the sort of place where old school aristocrats and new-wave trendsetters and celebrities happily mingle, sure of an atmosphere sophisticated enough to leave them be. Perhaps you will spot artist and designer Luke Edward Hall, who discovered Positano and the hotel in his mid-twenties in 2015 and has been coming ever since, even hand-decorated Veja sneakers for Carla’s boutique. Or, in my case, a brace of Tory grandees, equally at home.

No wonder Steinbeck was terrified on his journey to Positano: the famous switchback Amalfi coast road, a feat of engineering, had been in place since 1854, though in his day it was even narrower, and poorly paved. Back then, the vertiginous town he gratefully reached was very different from the bustling, touristy, tightly packed one of today. Lacking a quay, fishing boats were pulled up on the beach and there were swathes of gardens and lemon groves between the scattered hillside houses.

But even by 1953, Positano had begun its journey from insular fishing settlement to world-renowned holiday destination. It had already become a haven for a number of European émigré writers and artists but it was soldiers who spread the word about its charms. 

In part thanks to the friendship of Paolo Sersale and General Mark Clark of the US Fifth Army, Positano was designated a rest camp for British and American officers after the Allied landings and the capture of Naples in 1943. Private homes, including the Sersales’, were opened for them, and after the war, many of them wanted to return with their wives. The Sersale siblings rode with the trend, and their home became a proper hotel.

“Positano bites deep” wrote Steinbeck. “It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone. We went to the Sirenuse, spotless and cool, with grape arbors over its outside dining rooms. Every room has its little balcony and looks out over the blue sea to the islands of the sirens.” In essence, in 70 years very little has changed.

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