AMALFI, ITALY: Hotel Santa Caterina is a magnificent 5 star luxury resort hotel that has stood on the cliffs above Amalfi like a luminous beacon of glamour for more than 100 years. This incredible historic property exemplifies everything that a member of Leading Hotels of the World should be.
It exudes a glorious sense of wonderment. An atmosphere of ethereal beauty. An otherworldly sense of being transported through the ages to a stunning visionary oasis of calm and serenity.
Hotel Santa Caterina: The history of the Amalfi Coast
It very well may be the most prestigious luxury resort on earth. Legendary as the hotel where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton ran off to during the filming of Cleopatra in 1961. It remains a glamorous and intoxicating luxury hideaway. Its clientele includes luminaries and celebrities whose names we dare not speak. The former Brad and Angie come to mind.
Much more than that, it reflects the grand history of Amalfi and the whole Amalfi Coast. Built originally in 1904 by Crescenzo Gambardella, this iconic property has been owned and managed by the Gambardella family for three generations.
His daughters Giuseppina and Carmella still manage the day to day operations of the hotel. They are assisted by the next generation of the family, Crescenzo, Allesandro and Beatrice.
A Gambardella family affair since 1904
Like many of the iconic hotels along the Amalfi Coast, Hotel Santa Caterina is as much about family as it is about luxurious. A room is just four walls, but in Amalfi the sense of community and connection between a property, its employees, and its clientele reaches almost mystical proportions.
Clients frequently return several times a year to the same room, at the same time. Always to be greeted like old friends by the hotel, which they are. Celebrities the world over are frequent guests. Always certain of discretion, privacy, and the emotional security of being among friends.
With just 66 rooms spread out over the 3 acres of a largely vertical property, Hotel Santa Caterina is an immersion into a world of its own. A stunning retreat for the senses. A singular experience without peer.
Hotel Santa Caterina: the very definition of Leading Hotels of the World
The front entrance is reminiscent of the grand Victorian hotels of Europe. Its gleaming white structure jutting three floors above the twisting coast road into Amalfi. There is no mistaking its special nature. The special treasures of comfort and style that lie within.
It is completely unique among all the luxury properties along the Amalfi Coast.
The lobby is a large room with gorgeous white ceramic tile floors with multicolored floral patterns embedded throughout. The walls are a creamy white. The reception desk is like something from an Agatha Christie novel. A dark wooden classic antique manned by a well dressed impeccable staff.
The sitting room, terrace, and epic swimming pool
Just off the lobby is a sprawling sitting room. It is filled with lovely settees, comfortable couches, and the exquisite atmosphere of an English drawing room. Antique furnishings and crystal chandeliers complete the setting. The shimmering white tile floors reflect the glamour of Amalfi.
The entrance foyer to the sitting room is also the hotel bar. Gleaming with candlelight in the evening. Always manned and stocked for an aperitif in the afternoon. This leads to the patio bar on the main floor, with its stunning views of the Amalfi Coast.
And dizzying views of the hotel swimming pool and beach area hundreds of feet below.
The Hotel and grounds
The main building holds 36 rooms and 13 suites across 5 floors. Two floors above the lobby that were the original rooms when the hotel first opened. Three floors below spread out in a unique configuration. Every room is unique and special, with its own character. White vaulted ceilings, shimmering floor tiles, unique furnishings and sumptuous glory.
From the standard room, which is far from standard, to the grandest suite. There is a constant aura of opulence at every turn, in every detail. From the different tiles on each floor. To the sweeping views from each individual balcony.
Some of the rooms overlook the garden. Others are perched on their own singular platform above the elevator to the sea. All have the opulent wonder captured by its exquisite style, graceful setting, and romantic atmosphere .
Hotel Santa Caterina: a vision in the sky
The vista of Hotel Santa Caterina in guidebooks always includes the wonderous elevator clinging to the cliffs as it makes it way down to private beach club by the seaside. It is a glorious sight to behold. A fabulous excursion into the wildest fantasy La Dolce Vita of the Amalfi Coast.
Its gleaming modernist structure is a journey into paradise, hundreds of feet to the Mediterranean Sea below. There the doors open into a wonderland of earthly delights. The pool itself is nestled up next to the cliff. A series of decks at different levels set with lounge chairs are filled with sun lovers soaking in the warm Amalfi air.
Poolside by the Mediterranean
The Mediterranean is a deep blue, lapping up against the sheer cliffs. A large rectangular swimming area several hundred yards square in the sea is marked by floating buoys. A half dozen guests are enjoying the choppy, clear water. A kayak glides by with a smiling woman gleaming in the sunlight.
The oceanside bar is manned by congenial staff, and the whole scene is like a moment out of a Fellini movie, ineffably beautiful, slightly surreal, stunningly gorgeous. Patrons sip drinks and lay back, while a young couple floats about in the pool in romantic bliss.
Lunch at ristorante Mare
Just above the beach is the lunch time restaurant Mare. It is an open terrace framed by a wooden Pacific island structure, its thatched roof held up by several large trees growing through the center.
Several dozen tables are set with fine white linens, while white jacketed waiters serve a luxurious lunch that is a fabulous fine dining experience unto itself. Guests gaze down at the pool, and out to the azure sea in an exquisite setting where time stands still in the passing moments of a glorious afternoon.
Beyond the main building are an additional 17 rooms and special suites set in a number of different villas on either side of the main building that were added to the property some 50 years ago.
Hotel Santa Caterina: Walking the grounds
This is the modern Hotel Santa Caterina, the classic original building and a series of gorgeous one of a kind suites and villas spread across a vertical paradise.
Walking across the grounds to the separate Villa Santa Caterina is be immersed in another world. Terraces are everywhere up and down the hillside, holding vegetable gardens and lemon groves that are used in the hotel restaurant.
It is a verdant garden of Eden, suspended in the air above the Mediterranean Sea. The pounding surf is a constant echo throughout the property. The deep blue skies of the Amalfi Coast beckon from above.
Cliffside suites in paradise
The Follia Amalfitana Suite is set in the midst of the gardens surrounded by orange and lemon groves. Its seclusion is unparalleled, with stunning views of the Amalfi Coast, and the privacy of an island in paradise. It has its own individual pool to one side, the serenity of a private Roman villa, and a shell shaped king size bed with a terrace overlooking the sea.
The Giulietta e Romeo Chalet is its own ethereal retreat, built on two levels, with a master suite, a private garden, and its own infinity pool. This is the perfect honeymoon location. Or the most private secluded suite for a celebrity guest. It can even be accessed from the sea, with complete discretion.
Villa Santa Caterina
Our gorgeous superior room is located in the Villa Santa Caterina at one end of the property. A spacious white chamber, with vaulted ceilings and a sumptuous king size bed, its balcony looks out across what seems like all eternity. A bathroom is a picture of emerald green tile with a deep jacuzzi tub.
The main building and its iconic elevator stands on the cliffs above in a stirring vista as the sun sets. The whole of Amalfi lies to the east, its gleaming buildings and mountaintops seeming to float above the sea. Rocky cliffs and the stunning Amalfi coastline lie to the west in an unforgettable vista for the ages.
Views of La Dolce Vita at Hotel Santa Caterina
Below is a panoramic view of the private beach club, and the Giulietta E Romeo suite. It’s A frame structure standing on the very edge of the cliff. There is no more stunning view in all of Amalfi than from the Villa Santa Caterina. Secluded, ethereal, and amazing. It is the quintessential outlook to indulge in the full range of beauty that dazzles the eye at every turn at Hotel Santa Caterina.
It feels like an integral part of the hotel, but also like your own private villa. Like Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, or Cap Estel outside of Monaco, it is perhaps the most stunning luxury accommodation imaginable.
One of a dozen rooms in the villa, and like every room at the hotel, it is a singular experience without peer. A complete immersion into the Amalfi experience. Ethereal and surreal, gorgeously amazing. A treasure of the soul to be indulged and experienced.
Fine dining at Hotel Santa Caterina
Dinner at the fine dining restaurant Santa Caterina is a feast for the senses on a magnificant terrace on the lobby floor of the hotel. The main room is awash in baby blue marble floors the color of the ocean, with a glass enclosed cupola at one end.
A lengthy terrace with red terra cotta tile floors stretches across the length of the restaurant, its balcony railing lined with romantic tables overlooking the sea. Here an evening in paradise begins, the lights of Amalfi gleaming in the distance.
A staff that has knowledge and passion
The Head Waiter Giuseppe “Pino” Francese has been with the hotel for 28 years. He is a fount of wisdom and knowledge about the both the historic legacy of the hotel and Amalfi.
Pino seems an imperial presence at first, but the dignified exterior softens to reveal a heart and soul that is the very essence of Hotel Santa Caterina.
He emphasizes the need to make the experience for each guest a special one. For the connection between the client and the hotel on a human level. He extolls his appreciation for the bonds he maintains with his guests, and more importantly, the special memories it creates.
A place to dream about
Santa Caterina isn’t just a luxury hotel. It is a family where owners, employees and guests comingle in the common thread of love for where they are, and the appreciation of it.
It is the realization that what matters in life is not the pursuit of luxury, but the human connection made between the people who return again and again because they are like family. That connection is real and palpable, and is pervasive among both the staff and management.
The room is aglow with candlelight. It fills with guests as dinner begins with an aperitif of Prosecco, and an amuse bouche Raqueri pasta stuffed with Ricotta and a side of beetroot sauce.
Lobster salad with raw and fried Mediterranean vegetables is heavenly. The lobster meat is luscious and tender. The salad of herbs and arugula is a lovely counterpoint. The portions are not small, but not overwhelming.
Fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with Ricotta cheese and local salami and basil cream is fantastic. Each delicate zucchini flower a perfectly cooked blossom of joy. The taste explodes across the palette in a rich burst of flavor. While the serving seams generous, it is devoured with energetic gusto nonetheless.
Campania wines and Greek influences
Sommelier Luca Amato discussed the wine list, which tonight will focus on the Campania region of Italy. It stretches from Naples to past Salerno, just down the coast. Attention to the great wines of Italy usually tends to focus on regions outside Campania.
Brunello Montalcino and Chianti Classico from Tuscany, Borolo from Piedmonte, and Amarone Valpolicella from Venato dominate most American’s awareness of Italian wine.
But Campania, and along the Amalfi Coast is where wine cultivation and winemaking in Italy has its deepest roots. Long before the Etruscans managed to cultivate the Sangiovese grape that most think of when they imagine great Italian wines, the Greeks introduced and made stirring wines in the Amalfi region 1000 years earlier.
The legacy of Greece
All of Italy is a response to Greek influence. From the Roman adaptation and transfiguration of the Greek Gods as their own To the exposure to and cultivation of fine wine. Greek colonists and influence were were endemic to Campania, Naples, Amalfi and Salerno long before the Roman republic.
The remnants of Greek influence in ancient Rome and in pre-Roman Campania are everywhere. Napoli was for centuries the center of early Roman power. They were heavily influenced by Greek culture until the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius shifted the power center northward towards Rome.
So it was that the Greeks introduced two grape varieties to the Amalfi, Salerno and Napoli centuries before Christ. The Greco Di Tufo white grape, and the Aglianico red grape. Both varieties of grape have the world Greek in their names. Both persist to this day as the heart of great wines from Campania.
The Anglianico grape and the wines of Campania
As such, Sommelier Luca Amato leads us on a journey to begin an exploration of this truly noble grape, particularly the Aglianico. It is an eye opening education in a stunningly beautiful wine that up to now had never been a part of our wine drinking vocabulary. By the end of the evening it opens a new vista in appreciation both for the Greek culture, and the ancient wines of Campania.
A bottle of Montevertrano 2013, from a small but very exclusive vineyard on the sloping hills outside Salerno is a beautiful introduction to the joys of the Aglianico grape.
Explosively gorgeous, fruit forward , and supremely elegant, it is 55% Aglianico, 32% Cabernet, and 13% Merlot, sort of a Super Tuscan version of Aglianico. It is the proprietors first blend, being one of the first to grow Cabernet and Merlot agt her small but notable vineyard. Up to now all her releases have been 100 Aglianico.
An evening to remember
It is a triumph of elegant winemaking, beautifully smooth, as it opens over the course of our two hours meal. For Luca it is a triumph to be able to impart his considerable knowledge. It is also an essential demonstration of the personal connection that develop at Hotel Santa Caterina between staff and guests.
On this evening we are exposed to an experience we will never forget. With wine knowledge we will now carry forward to the next restaurant, when we will be more aware of, and open to the fruits of Campania and the wonders of the Aglianico grape.
A stellar parade of main courses
Spaghettoni di Gragano ai Frutti di Mare is an incredible expression of classic Italian cuisine presented in unforgettable fashion. Homemade spaghetti is combined with mussels, clams and squid in a fabulous taste triumph of categorical wonder. Beautifully fresh, thunderously tasty. It takes a staple dish of Italian dining to completely new levels of sophistication and eloquence.
Raviolis and lobster
Home made raviolis filled with zucchini, freshly made cow ricotta cheese in a lemon cream sauce is a tour de force of refined cooking. Zesty undertones of lemon and soft creamy ricotta counterbalance sumptuous raviolis that sing with taste and flavor. A generous portion is consumed voraciously, as the Anglianico super Campania continues to blossom with the pasta course.
Broiled lobster in the shell is an incredible first main course. Generous meaty lobster melts in the mouth, beautifully prepared, perfectly succulent. It is the finest expression of lobster in two weeks along the Amalfi course, at many extremely good restaurants. Here at Santa Caterina it is finally done right, memorably, precisely, and succulently consumed.
Locally sourced lamb chops
The final main course of the evening is an astounding broiled lamb chops from a local farm in the hills above Amalfi. Sweet undertones of perfectly cooked lamb are a thing of beauty. Tender, medium rare, with a dusting of herbs and an Aglianico wine sauce intertwines with each juicy bite like symbiotic twins.
Both the lobster and the lamb are beautifully complemented by the wine, which leads Sommelier Luca Amato to press our knowledge even further. Knowing we had ordered a blend, we wondered what 100% Aglionica tastes like. He takes the challenge in hand with gorgeous results.
A deep dive into Aglianico in the heart of Campania
He produces two additional takes on Aglianico from different distinctive vineyards. A 2011 Taurasi Machi dei Goti and a 2005 Zappino Taurasi, both 100% Aglianico. With three glasses lined up, each a different expression from a different expression of Aglianico from a different year, the remainder of the lamb course becomes a template for an exploration of the best of Campania wine.
The 2013 has by now blossomed into an elegant blend, smooth and powerful. The 2011 by contrast is dryer, less fruit forward, more complex, but with the fuller tones of Aglianico that are missing form the blend. As such, we expect a similar result from the 2005. We could not be more wrong.
The 2005 Zappino Tuarasi is phenomenal, even more elegant than the blend, not as dry as the 2011, stunning in its flavor profile, amazing in its rich taste, and a perfect complement to the wine. Luca explains that is a difference in the winemaker, the year, and the terroir, the land it is grown in.
The great wines of Campania
Like all great wines, the terroir or qualities of the land and vineyard, are paramount to the final flavor profile of the wines. Here the 2013 is a blenmd form the slopes of Salerno, the 2011 from a region further inland, and the 2005 from an area closer to Napoli. 2005 was also a landmark year for wines across Europe, certainly in Burgundy and Bordeaux. It is the same in Italy.
The difference also lies in the seasonal rain, the fog that wraps the area where the 2005 is grown, the greater hot sun wherfe the 2011 was grown, and the sensational winemaking skills of the 2013, also a good but difficult year with low yields of very concentrated fruit. The French say a great wine must be tortured in the growing process to produce great fruit. Luca would agree.
Thus it was that the wines of Campania were added to the vocabulary of our knowledge through the ancient Greeks, who brought Aglianica to Napoli, Salerno and Amalfi 3000 years ago, only to be discovered in a scintillating evening of stunning cuisine in an amazing location
The wisdom of the ages
That alone has made the evening an amazing experience. The wisdom of the ages revealed in an intimate dinner made eternally memorable by Pino and Luca, and the lesson they have brought from an evening at Santa Caterina. It is the essence of the personal connection they seek to make with all their guests. Tonight they have succeeded magnificently.
The evening concludes with lemon sorbet, marscapone, and genial hugs all around. Pino beams with pride, and Luca is blessed to have expanded our knowledge and openness to the wines of Campania. For our part we have a greater appreciation for the history of Greek culture, we are in awe of the legacy of the Aglianico grape, and have newfound respect and fascination for the wines of Campania.
Hotel Santa Caterina: a vision of paradise on the Amalfi Coast
The sun rises over Amalfi to the east in a glorious display of pinks and emerging deep blue. A bountiful breakfast is served in the main restaurant as the glow of the previous evening persists. We sit in soft contemplation of the gorgeous surroundings, the glittering town of Amalfi to the east, and the azure sea below.
Two days past like a fever dream at Hotel Santa Caterina. This oasis of beauty, and island unto itself redefines the meaning of immersive experience. Transfixed by the beauty of our surroundings, we leave with memories of an experience that is singularly spectacular, on many levels.
Yes, it is a magnificent 5 star luxury hotel, the very definition of what it means to be in Leading Hotels of the World. Indeed it is an amazing property with astounding accommodations, in a glorious setting.
The spirit of Taylor and Burton lingers still
Integral to the history of Amalfi, possessed by the spirit of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, it is infused with the glamour of celebrity and the indulgence of discreet wonders. But that has always depended on the discretion of a special place that knows how to put its guests at ease.
Most of all we stand in awe at the ephemeral connection made with the hotel and its staff. Of an amazing evening with Pino and Nico, and the history of Campania. The personal experience of feeling a part of the Santa Caterina family. Knowing they will await our return with open arms, and knowing they will be there to greet us, like returning family. That is a luxury that is truly priceless.
Joel Berliner is a travel writer based in Los Angeles. @Joel Berliner
All photos by Alison Reynolds. @BigAlPeoplesPal