POSITANO, ITALY: Il San Pietro di Positano is an astonishing internationally acclaimed 5 star luxury hotel, set on the golden Amalfi Coast, clinging to the cliffs above Positano, and featuring the exquisite Michelin starred restaurant Zass. One of Relais & Chateaux’s most impressive properties, Il San Pietro di Positano is an architectural wonder. It is literally built into the cliffside over the Mediterranean, leading all the way down to its private beach along the sea.
Il San Pietro di Positano: an amazing property
With 58 extraordinary luxury rooms and suites, Il San Pietro di Positano reaches new levels of superlatives. Its stunning location, and opulent atmosphere transcend even the immaculate standards of most Relais & Chateaux properties. Add the serenely gorgeous Michelin starred restaurant Zass and unparalleled views of Positano, Praiano and the stunning beauty of the Amalfi coast, and the result is an amazing personal experience that goes far beyond even your most vivid conceptions of Positano.
Otherworldly in its presence, and meticulously beautiful, there is no other luxury hotel property quite like Il San Pietro. An immersive dream like experience, it is hard to imagine ever leaving the property during a stay there.
Il San Pietro di Positano: The history
Opened in 1970 by visionary founder Carlino Cinque, today the hotel is in the capable hands of a third generation of owners, Virginia and Vito Cinque. But a hotel as spectacular as Il San Pietro doesn’t just open. It took 10 years of construction to build the hotel. So the origins and vision of what Il San Pietro would become began in 1960.
Imagine taking a promontory of a sheer cliff hundreds of meters high and incorporating a luxury hotel into the mountain itself. Imagine drilling an elevator shaft through sheer granite hundreds of feet to create a grotto of a beach location that is inaccessible any other way.
Il San Pietro di Positano: An engineering marvel
Consider the engineering, vision and sheer audacity of transforming an entire mountain into a luxury hotel property. Building five levels of one of a kind hotel rooms into the cliff face. Transforming one of the most beautiful and daunting locations imaginable into the most spectacular worldwide acclaimed luxury hotel property along the Amalfi Coast.
The road outside of Positano twists and turns until it comes to a hairpin curve next to a sheer rock cliffside. Above the road astounding cliffs rise several thousand more feet, topped by an enormous granite crown at the very tip of the mountain.
This is the entrance to Il San Pietro. Bucolic in appearance, like a garden on the roadside, the splendor of the hotel is hidden from the road. Literally its own peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Mediterranean Sea, and a part of the cliff stretching down to the water, Il San Pietro stands like a sentinel built into the granite cliff.
Il San Pietro di Positano: The lobby
A series of steps, or if you like, an elevator built into the top of the cliff takes the awestruck guest down several levels to the lobby of the hotel, At this point the sheer grandeur of the property becomes not just readily apparent, but awe inspiring.
The lobby is a sprawling open room reminiscent of a Roman villa. Luxurious couches and sitting areas stretching across a vast canopy of space, surrounded by floor to ceiling windows. Consider a triangle of space, where out of one corner is the most amazing view of Positano anyone could imagine.
In the center, just off the lobby, is a vast terrace that encompasses the whole of the rest of the top of the cliff. To the East are incredible views of Praiano and the Amalfi Coast, looking down on the Mediterranean. To be standing In the midst of the lobby is to be surrounded by stunning beauty in every direction.
An impecable staff: Hotel Manager Andrea Zana
The reception desk is on one side of the lobby, where Hotel Manager Andrea Zana welcomes every guest personally. This hotel has a level of service that can only be imagined in royal palaces. Every detail has been precisely anticipated. No request is too difficult to fulfill.
Andrea Zana has been managing the hotel for the last 7 years, and he clearly relishes in the glory of this one of a kind luxury property. How could he not. A genial, effervescent personality with the precision of a carefully attentive host, his presence is both gracious and reassuring.
Part of a team of colleagues that is an integral factor in the experience of Il San Pietro, he makes every guest feel as if they are returning home, if that home was a palatial property of immeasurable beauty.
Il San Pietro di Positano: The Terrace
Walking out of the lobby and onto the sprawling terrace is an out of body experience. An oblong space surrounded on three sides by sheer cliffs overlooking two separate inlets of water, the terrace ecapsulates all that is amazing at Il San Pietro.
Serene gorgeous, and breathtakingly stunning, it is enough to wander from one end of the terrace to the other, gazing out at views of Amalfi and Positano that transcend anything close to the ordinary.
To one side the town of Positano, just across the bay, climbs upward in a cacophony of villas, hotels and structures. It is just within reach, but clearly part of another world. Positano is an extraordinary sight, particularly from this vantage point. Here at Il San Pietro is a universe unto itself.
Il San Pietro di Positano: View from the terrace
Straight out over the Mediterranean yachts lie at anchor in the azure water. Somewhere below the sheer cliff is the beach area and the casual restaurant Carlino. Named for the visionary founder of Il San Pietro, it is built into the grotto just above the waterline.
To the east is Praiano, the yellow dome of the Church of San Gennaro standing out on the point of the village. In between are several grottos of cobalt blue sea and sheer cliff faces. It is literally like a vision out of a dream.
Above the terrace are three levels of hotel rooms, built into the rock face, a part of the mountain. A tree of flaming pink blossoms in the middle of the terrace frames the rooms that glide in the sky above it.
Il San Pietro di Positano: stunning rooms and a restaurants in the sky
Indeed, the rooms above the terrace level are like they have been integrated seamlessly into the granite face of the mountain, in three levels of concentric wedding cake, if each slice was an impeccable designed and individually appointed luxury suite.
To one end from the terrace is the Michelin starred restaurant Zass, with stunning views of Praiano and the sea below, situated right into the cliffside. A more spectacular location for a luxury hotel restaurant than Zass is hard to imagine.
Even more impressive, there are three levels of stunning rooms below the terrace and beneath the wing where Zass is located. Literally built into the cliffside. Suspended above the ocean like glorious Calder mobiles, these rooms transcend any concept of structural engineering. Yet there they are.
Il San Pietro di Positano: A fairy tale hotel built into a cliffside
One of the most amazing aspects of the entire hotel is how it appears suspended in air, an integral part of the mountain around it. The rooms on the four levels below the terrace are even more so.
Each room has a balcony and terrace of its own, with sheer drops of hundreds of feet to the sea below. Every room seems like its own encapsulated experience, with glorious views, complete privacy, and the extraordinary atmosphere of a one of a kind property.
Imagine the engineering feat of designing and constructing this almost futuristic structure. Then take each design element and fill each room with custom tiles, sumptuous furnishings, Murano glass chandeliers and floor to ceiling windows.
Add the custom touches of the peak of luxury, combine it with thatched canopies above each cliffside balcony, and add the romantic attraction of the exceptional atmosphere, and each room at Il San Pietro isn’t just a luxury hotel room. It is an escape capsule from ordinary existence into a dreamscape of another world. A completely unique immersion into the La Dolce Vita.
Il San Pietro di Positano: The beach at the bottom of the cliff
A separate elevator drilled into the granite cliffs descends 300 feet down to the private beach. The elevator opens into a rock grotto entrance cave, out of which emerges the tennis courts to one side and a large lawn area next to it.
Above, on terraces that stretch back up to the hotel, are the gardens that supply many of the herbs and vegetables used at the Michelin starred restaurant Zass. It is a vertical Garden of Eden of produce and fresh tomatoes.
To the left of the elevator grotto is the thatch covered lunch spot Carlino. A large terrace with a simple thatched roof, it is the essence of casual dining along the Mediterranean.
Carlino’s restaurant and the beach
A small beach lies at the foot of an inlet, several small boats laying along the sand. Next door is the sunning area, a large terrace with a series of orange lounges filled with guests enjoying the sun, the waves lapping at the shoreline, and the crystal clear blue Mediterranean Sea.
Next to the terrace a large bar has been carved out of the rock, like a shell shaped cavern with an opulent bar area. It is the merging of the natural with the sublime. The sheer audacity of its construction is impressive enough.
To stand in the cavern, next to the bar, and gaze across the terrace lounge chairs, and the beach and the inlet of water is almost hallucinatory. Off shore a guest navigates the currents in a small kayak.
The atmosphere is sublime. The visual spectacle is something from another world. This is the essence of the dream of Positano, brought to life at Il San Pietro. Taking the elevator back up to the lobby, its almost like it was something we imagined.
Il San Pietro di Positano: The pool
Two floors above the lobby and main terrace is a lovely fresh water swimming pool, with its own terrace overlooking Praiano. Casually chic, its crescent shape complements the terrace design, and is a hidden corner of the property where guests can luxuriate with a drink in the afternoon sun.
Above the pool are a series of suites at the very apex of the property, each with its own balcony and terrace, each an individual work of art. Indeed every room is its own design, with its own signature look, from the most modest but still spectacular room to the largest most opulent suite.
Il San Pietro di Positano: The Rooms
Two examples are a room with spectacular orange design, and a sweeping bathroom with a deep jacuzzi tub overlooking the ocean. Every detail is synchronous with the design of the room. The custom floor tiles match the furniture. The overall effect is glorious.
Another stunning room, done all in robin blue design, sits near the top of the hotel, its curved glass floor to ceiling picture window looking straight down on the town of Positano. If there is a more spectacular view from a hotel room, it is hard to imagine.
The luscious king size bed dominates the room. An Aqua blue Murano Glass chandelier hangs in the center. A private balcony streams off the opulent bathroom. Positano and the sea below are so close you can almost touch them. At high season the room is almost $3000 a night. The views and opulent setting are worth every penny.
Lunch at Michelin starred Zass
Then it is time for a spectacular lunch at the Michelin starred restaurant Zass. The restaurant fills an entire wing of the main floor of the hotel, overlooking the sea below and the village of Praiano.
Today lunch is served in the main dining room at the far end of the restaurant. It is towards the end of the season, but in high season the entire wing is filled with tables both inside and along the railing overlooking the sea. Today is a more intimate setting, in an atmosphere of glorious serenity.
The skies are a deep blue, with wafting gentle winds blowing across the terrace. Restaurant manager Giuliano Marrone greets us and shows us to our table, just yards from the railing. A genial, precise, and dignified presence, he has been with the hotel for 28 years. It has held a Michelin star each of those years.
Michelin starred Chef Alois Vanlangenaeker
Zass is under the direction of Michelin Starred Chef Alois Vanlangenaeker. He has been at Zass since 2002 and has held a MIchelin star for 20 years. He brings a fresh innovative approach to Haute Cuisine, emphasizing local ingredients, bountiful seafood, and a farm to table supply chain featuring the freshest seasonal harvest and meats.
The setting is beyond imagination. The terrace at Zass fills with casually dressed diners. It is a Sunday afternoon lunch after all. The village of Praiano looms on the opposite cliff. The Mediterranean surges in the inlet below.
Sommelier Salvatore Marrone begins the occasion with a custom Blini aperitif of peach juice and Prosecco sparkling wine. It is effervescent as we toast the beginning of a fabulous meal.
Zass at Il San Pietro di Positano: Lunch with a view
A dignified, immaculate man, Salvatore has the looks of an Italian movie star, and the genial friendly manner of an old friend. His encyclopedic knowledge of the intricacies of Italian wine is fantastic.
The setting is glorious, pink tablecloths covering elegant tables, orange tiles covering the sprawling floor under high ceilings, with rose colored walls. The sound of the ocean permeates the serenity.
Crab with tomato salad with cucumber and Campari mayonnaise is a wonderful opening course. The tomato is like a gelee, with a covering of succulent crab meat in a pressed round presentation. The Crab is a lovely contrast to the fresh tomato, light and refreshing while succulently delicious.
Crudo of Scampi, and Gnochi with Octopus carpaccio
Scampi and amberjack tartare with wild strawberry is a sheer delight. The crudo of fish and scampi is simply magnificent, again presented in a round compression. Delicate, light, and exceptionally tasty.
Codfish gnocchi with octopus carpaccio and white truffle is simply spectacular, a triumph of Haute Cuisine. First, making a carpaccio of octopus is damn near impossible.
Then layering delicious balls of delicate gnocchi above that, and then shaving generous portions of white truffle is a true taste experience.No one element overpowers the other.
The gnocchi is effervescent, and the musky subtle aura of truffle lends depth to the presentation without overpowering it. Each forkful of octopus, gnocchi and white truffle is heavenly rapturous, a culinary moment in time to be savored in the memory.
Pasta and lobster, Duck breast with artichokes
Egg tagliatelle with lobster and porcini mushrooms is a classic Italian pasta dish made more so by the freshness of the lobster and the richness of the mushrooms. The sauce is a sumptuous thing of beauty.
The pasta is a hearty yellow, rich with egg yolk. The lobster and sauce blend with the porcini mushroom to explode across the palette with thunderous taste. In a blink of an eye the plate is fully consumed.
The meal is accompanied by a delightful 2011 Chianti Classico Baron Ugo Monterapomi from Tuscany. A classic Italian expression of 100% Sangiovese grape, it is blended in an almost Pinot Noir style, fruit forward and bountiful in taste, but not heavy in texture. It opens beautifully in the course of an extended three hour luncheon extravaganza.
Caramelized duck breast with Jerusalem artichokes and figs is a succulent main course. The duck is perfectly prepared, medium rare with a juicy pink interior and a crispy external crust. It is almost as tender as a fillet, while the contrast with the artichoke and fig sauce is ethereally fantastic.
Red Mullet finale
Red mullet with chestnut tomato and sweet and sour persimmon is phenomenal, in both presentation and taste. A staple of the Mediterranean diet, the red mullet is firm and meaty, surrounded in a rich sauce that complements without overpowering the more delicate aspects of the fish.
The afternoon comes to a genial close with a dessert of fig sorbet and a Mont Blanc with blueberries served in a martini glass. The fig sorbet is extraordinary, beautifully done, while the Mont Blanc is a fantastical construction of different elements that blend into a sumptuously rich delight.
We savor the moments over coffee and a touch of dessert wine. The afternoon is waning into the early evening. A thin layer of clouds begins to cover the horizon. The days events dance in our mind in a dazzling series of impermeable memories.
Il San Pietro di Positano: A day in paradise
Salvatore, Giuliano, and Andrea gather to say goodbye. Their enthusiasm is heartfelt. Their pleasure in being an integral part of the Il San Pietro experience is palpable. The air of familia and their warmth towards their guests is genuine.
Il San Pietro and the Michelin starred restaurant Zass are the highest expression of 5 star luxury accommodations and fine dining. For years this writer has dreamed of this stellar Relais & Chateaux property, wondering how it could be nearly as magnificent as it looks in the hotel guidebook.
The reality is that the experience of Il San Pietro transcends even the glory of how wonderful it appears. To indulge Il San Pietro is to be left awestruck with amazement that such a place could truly exist.
It does, and is there to welcome each and every one of its treasured guests. Rest assured that upon arrival and departure Andrea Zana and his entire team will be there to insure an immaculate experience.
It simply doesn’t get any better than this.
Relais & Chateaux www.relaischateaux.com @RelaisChateaux
• Joel Berliner is a travel writer based in Los Angeles @JoelBerliner
• All photos by Alison Reynolds @BigAlPeoplesPal