THERE ARE GOOD reasons why the Italians coined the phrase “La Dolce Vita”. They know a thing or two about living the sweet life. Stunning scenery, gorgeous weather, great food and wine, good company… that’s the Italian definition of the good life – even if the country is facing financial meltdown as the recession takes ihold.
There are certainly no signs of penury at the super-luxe five-star Borgo Egnazia in Puglia, southern Italy, a chic complex with hotel and villas, set amid an Apulian style Borgo, or ‘village’, with cobblestone streets, a church and a central piazza. With its creamy, white-washed stone walls (that are tinged with a pinky glow as the sun goes down), this is a calm and tranquil setting that nestles like a milky oasis amid an expansive backdrop of rural loveliness with row upon row of olive groves on all sides.
Designed to replicate the ancient city of Egnazia, there are echoes of Moorish, Turkish and Norman influences in the architecture, with churchly arches and columns that evoke a feeling of grandeur. Owned by a local Italian family who have hospitality in their blood (they also own two further luxury properties in the vicinity), the resort is also designed to entice families with plentiful amenities to appeal – most importantly, with a brilliant Our Space children’s club, catering for children from eight months to 13 years, and a special games area for teens, which (once the children are happily entertained) leaves parents to indulge in a Roman Bathouse-style spa, swimming pools galore, tennis, golf… There’s something for everyone.
The sky was black by the time our party of three arrived on a balmy evening and made our way into the hotel’s foyer. Inside, the décor is pure boutique, with a colour scheme made up entirely of decidedly tasteful creamy shades of beige, taupe and ecru. There are huge glass urns of wheat and lavender as a nod to a rural farmhouse heritage, as well as arty knick-knacks: giant rusted keys tied nonchalantly with thick rope, stacks of old newspapers artfully tied with string and rows of glass lanterns flickering with soft candle flames.
There was some confusion about our accommodation – I’d mistakenly told the children that our villa had its own swimming pool – so Grace, 15, and Joe, six, were a little disappointed to discover a pretty courtyard garden, complete with a lemon tree with plumptious fruit, but sadly no pool. (We did later take a tour of one of the stunning three-bedroom Imperial Garden Villas, complete with its own majestic 16x10 metre pool, not to mention the fully equipped games room with 46-inch flat-screen television and home-theatre system, and lavish living areas, but on three levels, we reluctantly agreed we’d kind of be rattling about in such a palatial space, plus there was a giant dead black beetle floating in the pool who was rather offputting. We did, however, covet the iPod docking station though).
In contrast, our two-bedroom townhouse was rather more bijou, with the same creamy colour scheme and rusty keys décor, but the bedrooms required some careful maneouvring of various doors when you wanted to open cupboards or watch TV. Downstairs was a small kitchenette (not yet stocked with utensils) and cosy sofas, with doors opening out onto the courtyard patio. In reality, we only really returned to our townhouse to sleep – with a couple of detours as we orientated ourselves, as all the villas look the same.
The relaxed ambiance of the resort is conducive to mooching about with no particular plans except to chill out. Our daily routine would involve a leisurely breakfast, after which we would drop Joe off at the children’s club and Grace and I would settle by the pool with the iPad and Kindle set, taking a dip in the pool every now and again to cool off in the heat. I drifted off with my headphones tuned into Plan B, belting out Welcome To Hell, which made me smile, considering our location was more akin to paradise.
The clientele at the Borgo are a good-looking bunch: there were lots of shiny, happy families with gorgeous mummies who looked like friends of Kate Moss, with their beautiful olive-skinned offspring. While I tried not to stand too close to the leggy blondes, Joe fitted in perfectly with the mini Polo Ralph Lauren and Crocs gang. So profuse, in fact, was the iconic polo pony, that we startedf to play a game of Count the RL Ponies, as it seemed to be the costume of choice for practically all the males, from nappy-clad tinies to silver-haired seniors. Grace was also a keen handbag-spotter, nudging me to point out an Hermes Birkin bag, advising me “There’s a waiting list to get one of them, and they cost, like, thousands of pounds.” I think Grace was just a bit concerned that the bag was sitting nonchalantly on the floor, when it clearly warranted its own cushioned throne.
We’d nip back regularly to the children’s club to see if Joe wanted to join us, but more often than not, he preferred to stay with his new international buddies (mostly, fluent English-speaking native Italians), and fill his day with fun activities. He had aligned himself with one of the English nannies who was helping make copious treasure maps, as well as enjoying trips to the indoor swimming pool, cooking sessions, and time in the playground with its giant trampoline or playing on the Wii. The staff were really friendly and very conscientious, always checking that Joe had his sunscreen and hat for playtime. There was a nice number of children at the club, too (in my experience, it can be tricky if there are no same-age children for your child to buddy up with) including a couple of babes-in-arms who had the nannies cooing and queuing up to have a cuddle. Open all day, the club also offers a dinner time service, and Joe would often make plans to meet one of his new friends later in the children’s club rather than dine with Grace and I, which worked well all round.
The children’s club was really bright and cheerful, like a top-notch kindergarten, with children’s artworks hanging on the wall and smiley happy staff that really seemed pleased to greet every child. Since our visit, the club has relocated to an even larger space, towards the back of the resort and further from the main hotel, with its own dedicated children’s pool and playground, plus a bigger area for teens, too.
One of the highlights of an Italian vacation has to be the food and, with two Michelin-starred chef Mario Musoni at the helm, the cuisine at Borgo Egnazia doesn’t disappoint. Breakfast was one of those serve-yourself buffet affairs (where you invariably end up piling your plate with food that you would never usually eat for breakfast) with a tantalizing display of fruits and cereals, pastries and yogurts as well as a plethora of continental cold meats, cheese and smoked salmon. For those who prefer their breakfasts hot, there were trays of scrambled eggs, sausages and bacon, or you could place a personal order so the skinny blondes were able to have their whites-only omelettes.
Our favourite dish on the lunch and evening menu was the local Puglian pasta, Orecchiette, little flat discs of homemade pasta, served with a sweet cherry tomato sauce. Other enticing dishes were the licorice risotto (with just the subtlest hint of licorice), Orange & Lobster Risotto, dressed with a claw atop, and the juicy fillet steaks that were so good we ignored the advice to limit red meat and tucked in nearly every night. Joe loved the meatballs, even making a special request to head chef, Mario, who generously delivered a second portion. For dessert, the homemade pistachio ice cream and refreshing fruit sorbets were just delish.
One afternoon, Grace and I were treated to a cooking session with Mario, who came out in the highest chef’s hat I’ve seen – perhaps a symbol of his Michelin-star prowess, which was awarded for his restaurant Al Pino in Pavia, where regular guests include Giorgio Armani. We chatted about London restaurants and he asked if we had dined at his friend, Giorgio Locatelli’s eaterie – his favourite place to eat when he’s in town. Cooking al fresco in a little sort of cooking alcove, we were shown how to knead dough to make pizzas, topped with tomatoes, mozzarella and sprinkled with fresh herbs, before the sous-chef placed it on a giant pizza shovel and slid it into the flaming wood-fired oven.
As our pizzas sizzled, we moved onto our next culinary challenge of making Orecchiette, starting from scratch this time with a polenta mountain into which we poured water then mixed into a dough, rolled into long sausages then cut into slices before the tricky finale of sliding the edge of a knife to flatten the disc and give a satisfying little cur to the edges. Grace was quite the natural, and quickly got the knack of finely turned out specimens, while the sous-chef seemed a little irritated by my cackhanded attempts that, despite my best efforts, still looked more like rabbit droppings.
Mario summoned one of his minions to fetch a glass of chilled white wine (he did offer one to Grace, which made her blush, as she settled for a lemonade) and Grace and I were left to savour the sunshine and tuck into probably the tastiest pizzas we’ve ever eaten.
We were also among the first guests to try out the brand-new Vair Spa, which is fashioned after a Roman bathhouse, with the gentle sounds of trickling water at every corner and soft aromas in the air. While Grace enjoyed a teen massage, I was curious to see whether the Loma Kian massage, which focused purely on the head, face and feet, would proffer its promise to offer stress relief and relaxation. And I must say, it’s quite unusual to have someone spend 50 minutes tugging your toes, ears and hair, but it was a strangely pleasant experience, even if Grace did laugh at me when I emerged with crazy, disheveled hair.
After ten years in development and four years in the making, this is only Borgo Egnazia’s second summer, and the resort still has that air of newness. But you have the feeling that it will also blossom even more – just like the gorgeous bright pink bouganvillia that clambers so prettily over the walls – as the resort becomes more established. Ah yes, it looks like la dolce vita is set to get even sweeter in years to come
We travelled to Borgo Egnazia with Western & Oriental