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At the Relais Santa Croce Florence, I channeled my inner contessa when I stayed in this meticulously restored palazzo filled with Italian treasures and majestic frescoes.
Entrance to Relais Santa Croce
Evidently, it’s good to be the treasurer of the pope. At least it was for Marchese Baldinucci, who in the early 18thcentury built Palazzo Ciofi Jacometti, that is now the Relais Santa Croce Florence.
As the saying goes, “God is in the details” and I had an inspiring – almost religious – stay.
Perhaps it was the views of Basillica di Santa Croce, the original frescoes and vast parquet floors? Or the exquisite gold leafing? Even just walking in the front door between two Roman columns was an experience in itself and had me at hello.
I felt both a part of yesterday’s Renaissance and today’s timeless chic.
One of Italy’s premiere Baglioni Hotels, this five-star gem embodies luxe and refinement. Dare I say, it’s one sexy palazzo. Pack your silk dress and well-fitted suit because here you’ll be inspired to embody your Italian-style. Comfy wrinkled travel clothes just aren’t the right vibe. Not under these vaulted ceilings.
The common rooms are anything but common. They’re an elegant mix of period pieces and restored elegance, splendor, and charm. It’s not often I use the word splendor to describe a hotel. But I do here with full regale.
The Music Room
The Music Room, the perfect place to enjoy a cocktail before dinner, is where the Marchese Baldinucci entertained Florence’s A-list in the 170o’s under a particularly enormous chandelier with an orchestra that emerged from behind removable panels in the wall.
The Sala Fumoir
And not that I advocate smoking but if you ever wanted to have an elegant puff, the Sala Fumoir is the place to light up in an atmosphere of restored sophistication with a view of Florence below.
De Pepi Presidential Suite
The rooms were just as I had expected whilst staying in a palazzo – gorgeous! Of the 24 rooms and suites the most famous are the Da Verazzano Royal Suite and the De Pepi Presidential Suite with priceless antiques and 18th century frescoes to keep you company.
Da Verazzano Royal Suite
I fell in love with even more details: the ironed linen sheets and the softest bathrobes were definitely in alignment with the hotel’s five stars.
As much as the Relais Santa Croce had me at hello, the next morning came and after a delicious hotel breakfast and cappuccino under vaulted ceilings, it was time to check out and say goodbye to my Tuscan Contessa fantasy. After all this gold leafed elegance, I knew it would be uncouth to cross my arms and refuse to leave. Although I admit the thought absolutely crossed my mind.
For me, it wasn’t just the beauty of the palazzo but also the feeling I had staying at the Relais Santa Croce that I never wanted to forget. Thankfully, you can take all your feelings with you. And when feelings turn to memories, they are yours forever. Such is my memory of contessa for a night at the Relais Santa Croce Florence.
*Photos courtesy of Relais Santa Croce Florence
*I was the guest of Relais Santa Croce Florence
Palazzo and Michelin star are three of my favorite words. At the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze in Palazzo della Gherardesca, these three words deliciously collide at the famed Il Palagio.
You can dine al fresco on the verdant garden terrace and watch the sun reflect in your glass as it sets over botanical gardens. Or indulge in modern Tuscan elegance inside under the light of its many chandeliers. Either way, even before your meal begins, Il Palagio is a feast for the senses.
It was a hot May day so we opted for the terrace, which absolutely was the right choice. The gardens were lush and magical. A stunning backdrop to an incredible meal.
I let the sommelier choose the wine. We started with a Tuscan Fattoria Di Montechiari “Donna Catherine” and then moved on to a Gavi di Gavi white that sang out of the glass.
Once our dishes arrived the negotiations began. “Can I have a gnudi, if I give you one of my prawns?” These flavorful negotiations are always a win/win.
Here are a few of the dishes that we battled over with our forks.
Warm ‘francesina’ stewed beef salad on swiss chard cream
Gnudi: traditional ricotta cheese and wild asparagus dumplings served with San Miniato saffron sauce
Cavatelli pasta ‘cacio e pepe’ with marinated red prawns and baby squid
Pigeon from Assisi with Vin Santo and thyme scented caramelised fruits.
What I enjoy so much about fine dining is that every forkful, dab, swirl, or smear on your plate offers a new experience of flavor. You never know what direction those mysterious three green dots are going to take you. Which only adds to the fun of discovering new flavors.
By now the sun had set and twilight had faded into black. Which meant it was time for dessert.
With desert came even more negotiations and fork fighting over ‘Amedei’ chocolate and cardamon mousse with coffee ice-cream and the Mascarpone lingot with salted caramel pecan nuts and ‘Malaga’ ice cream.
Like the last page of your new favorite book that you don’t want to put down, this was a dinner that I didn’t want to end. More than just delicious. It was dreamy. A pinch yourself surreal “La Dolce Vita” moment. I was even tempted to leave behind an earring. Something to come back for.
But then I remembered how beautiful Il Palagio was also on the inside. And how it would be an entirely new experience to dine under its chandeliers.
Tonight, I could keep my earring. I had found my reason to return.
*Photos courtesy of the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze
*I was a guest of the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze
Before you begin reading, first pour yourself a glass of proseco and toast yourself. Why? Because you have chosen to leave the road most traveled (Rome, Florence, Venice) and venture into Umbria – the green heart of Italy – where you can experience la vera Italia.
You might know which Umbrian wineries to visit and what medieval hilltop towns to tour. But where should you stay?
Certainly Umbria’s hamlets and walled cities are full of hotels. But why not try something different? Like a private villa or an agritourismo, where you can make the most of Umbria’s vistas of never-ending rolling hills? After six visits to Umbria, I’ve tried both. Here are my top two picks.
Private Villa: Fondo la Teglie
A restored 17th century farmhouse, this 5-bedroom private villa is what Italian countryside dreams are made of.
The villa itself exudes a rustic country feel but it is fully equipped with all modern amenities. There’s a marvelous kitchen, outdoor grill, and wood-burning pizza oven to please the chef(s) of your group. The master bedroom made me feel like an Italian contessa with a canopy bed and gorgeous traditional Umbrian linens.
The master bathroom with its sweeping views of the Umbrian countryside made getting ready – even just for a walk through local vineyards – a luxurious affair.
One of the things I love about Fondo la Teglie is the dilemma where to have my morning coffee. Under a canopy of wisteria overlooking a hilltop town in the distance? Under the olive trees? Or by the pool, which introduced me to an entirely different view of the Umbrian landscape. I settled on enjoying my caffé under the olive trees. Then I had lunch by the pool. And enjoyed an evening apero under the wisteria watching the full moon rise. A perfect trifecta.
So, what’s the allure of an Italian villa?
There’s something utterly magical about having all this all to yourself. It’s just you, the olive trees, the lavender and rosemary, the hills, the views, the wine, the food, and your closest friends and family living it up La Dolce Vita-style.
The gardens, orchards, and olive groves surrounding Fondo Le Teglie are bursting with colors and scents. Even the trees buzz with life. And with so many gorgeous spaces for dining al fresco, or just taking in the views, a day spent on property is a vacation in itself. Pick tomatoes from the proprietor’s orto. Or plums from her orchard. Stroll the garden path with a glass of wine in hand. Cool off in the pool. Work on your tan. Dine under the stars. And you’ll never want to leave. I didn’t.
Whatever you need is just a phone call away. The proprietor can arrange almost anything. A Vespa tour. Wine tastings. Private chef and traditional Umbrian home cooking classes with the talented Senora Dina.Tickets to Umbria Jazz. Hot air balloon rides. Even transportation by helicopter.
Getting to Fondo le Teglie is easy enough. Simply fly into Rome or Florence. Then you can arrive either directly by car or take a train to Terni. From the Terni train station, private pick-up is available.
Somethings in life – like a private villa in Umbria – are just worth it. Fondo le Teglie isn’t a place to stay. It’s a life-changing experience. La Dolce Vita at its best shared with the ones you love.
I Gergoni: Agriturismo
So, what if ten of your closest friends can’t commit to an Italian villa in Umbria? Or you love mingling with other international guests and want a more communal Italian countryside experience? Then stay at I Gergoni Agriturismo. With six luxury apartments on property, accommodating from two to six guests – each with a gorgeous kitchen and spacious private patio – county living Umbrian-style is easy to get used to.
About 90-minutes equidistant from Rome and Florence by train, you can get away with not having a car and arrange with the proprietors to pick you up from the train station, just 10 minutes away. From I Gergoni, you can easily pop into Rome, Florence, or Orvieto and be back in time to enjoy wine on your balcony as the sun sets and fireflies flicker amongst the oaks.
Private and serene or communal, if you want it to be, I loved the farm feeling to my stay. Which is what an agriturismo is all about. And if you like animals this is the place to be.
I could collect eggs or truffles. And give scratches to Gretta, the proprietors’ adorable rescue dog. One afternoon their neighbor visited bearing gifts: delicious cherries fresh from his tree, which were shared amongst guests.
Some guests come to I Gergoni with ten books and the only place they go is the pool. Others are day-trippers, leaving early in the morning and back in time for a relaxing dinner. As for me, I enjoyed a bit of both. A day trip to Montepulciano was a delight. And while staying in on property, I dipped my feet in the pool and thought about how life in Umbria – whether staying in a private villa or at an agriturismo, indeed is a bowl of cherries.
*Photos courtesy of Fondo Le Teglie and I Gergoni.
*Note: I was the guest of Fondo Le Teglie and I Gergoni but all opinions are entirely my own.
Whilst in Umbria, Roccafiore is what the locals call da vedere….which means it’s a must see. An even greater compliment to Roccafiore is that you’ll find locals dining at the table next to you and ordering their wine from the cantina.
What often starts as just lunch at Roccafiore turns into hours under the Umbrian sun dining al fresco with sweeping views of Todi, a hilltop medieval town, visiting Roccafiore’s lavender gardens, organic wine tasting in their cantina, sunbathing by their luxurious pool or indulging in a day pass at the Wellness Center. Or just give in and stay the night in one of Roccafiore’s 13 luxurious rooms. Then you can wake up and do it all over again. Even picnic in the surrounding Grechetto vineyards.
My love affair with Roccafiore began with lunch last year. An exceptional white tablecloth fine dining affair at their Fiorfiore Restaurant, I was spoiled with unparalleled farm-to-table dishes on their seasonal menu like the Torretta: eggplant with bufala mozzarella, tomatoes and oregano, Chianino beef: with froth of parmesan cheese, salad and toasted almonds and homemade strangozzi pasta: with sausage, lemon and anchovies.
Accompanying our meal, we sipped on organic wines – Grechetto di Todi, Trebbiano Spoletino and Sangiovese – from their cantina. Talk about Zero Kilometer commitment. The cantina isn’t next door. It’s on property. Roccofiore also generates its own solar energy that saves up to 90.000 Kg of carbon emissions annually. I’ll drink to that. And, we did!
I also found the staff to be more than accommodating. Once on a windy June afternoon, they kindly set up a table outside, just for the two of us, on the terrace. We couldn’t pass up the stunning views of Todi, vineyards, hills, and gardens and didn’t mind chasing after a few cloth napkins to enjoy it. The waitstaff are well educated on food and wine pairings offered delicious suggestions that I would never have thought of. Even the biscotti with my espresso after our meal were homemade and truly exceptional.
So, get out your navigation device and make your way to Roccafiore. Pack your swimsuit and I wouldn’t make any other afternoon plans. Because there is a high probability that you will not want to leave.
For just 15-35 Euros – an incredible deal – treat yourself to a day pass at the spa complete with a Kneipp bath, Jacuzzi, equatorial showers and more.
When is the right time to go to Roccafiore?
After six visits to Umbria, I find the countryside stunning and magical in all seasons. The colors of the hills are constantly changing. Every time I visit Roccafiore, I sink deeper into simple delicious pleasures of Umbria. The views. The hills. The lavender gardens and vineyards. And then there’s the pool, the cuisine, the spa, and the wine. Roccofiore’s 38 Euro seasonal wine tasting menu brings it all together – a tour of the flavors of Umbria on your tongue. Just make sure you designate a driver. Tasting pours are more than generous.
As far as luxury, quality and value, I have yet to find a hotel, restaurant and spa in Italy that offers even close to what Roccafiore provides guests. Every time, it fully delivers on my dream of the Italian countryside experience. Which is why I go back again and again. For me Roccafiore is da vedere di nuovo. I pinch myself and ask “can life really be this good?” Yes, it can. At Roccofiore, it is.
Talk about farm-to-table, Lodi’s legendary Towne House restaurant was located on a historic farm where the restaurant was the original house to the Towne family. Keeping that homestead vibe, delicious wine country cuisine is served family-style. Elegant but without pretense, I found every detail thought of and carried out with warmth and excellent service. It’s the kind of place where you actually feel a connection to those who aren’t just your servers but feel more like long-time friends.
Located at the Wine & Roses Hotel, amongst vineyards, tall oaks, redwoods, and weeping willows, The Town House’s ingredients come from local farms, including their own garden. Fresh and crisp, everything had that extra crunch to it that made you feel like you were eating something truly homemade.
Romantic inside and out, it’s perfect for twilight dining under a fairy lit gazebo on a warm balmy night. And there are plenty of balmy nights in Lodi. And lucky me, on Tuesday’s in the Town House’s lounge I joined in for their piano sing-along. Their award-winning local Lodi wines are said to “sing out of the glass.” At the Towne House, I was invited to sing with my glass. Holding my wine glass like a microphone gave me a little extra courage to belt out some tunes with the rest of the fun loving and surprising talented locals.
Now that Lodi has emerged as a wine making region (not just grape growers) it’s worth circling on your wine road map. And with restaurants like the Towne House, you get all the perks of wine country – farm fresh ingredients and sumptuous recipes paired delicious old vine Zinfandel wine, but without any of the pretense of the more commercial wine country regions.
*I was a guest of Charles Communication and the Lodi Wine & Visitors Center
*Photo courtesy of the Wine & Roses Hotel
It’s not often that I could spend my entire stay on hotel property. Let alone enjoying an entire afternoon in my room and its environs. But such is at the MacArthur Place in Sonoma. Located walking distance from tasting rooms and minutes from stunning wineries, it’s a unique classic. A gem. Just 45 minutes from San Francisco, it’s worth not just staying at, but also staying in.
After check in, I followed a narrow garden path on the way to my room where I discovered one whimsical nook after another. Art and sculptures emerged, all with a sense of humor. Swings beckoned and sunny spots invited me to whittle away the afternoon reading a new book or record random musings in my journal.
MacArthur Place both impressed and inspired me. I felt my stay unlocked my creativity. Ideas flowed as I was both entertained and utterly spoiled. From feeling old-Hollywood glamorous in the outdoor cabana shower to the pure indulgence while sipping champagne in the morning on my veranda overlooking a garden full of oversized playful jacks. Like watching a good movie twice and enjoying it even more the second time, I’m counting the days until I can return.
And then there was the pool to soak up a few afternoon rays in luxury and day dream if only just a little while. On the way, I meandered through the Spa Gardens where they harvest fresh herbs for signature spa remedies. The pool is understated and elegant surrounded by a lush garden view in every direction. Even the jacuzzi was bordered by white roses and lavender.
But time slipped away and I realized that it was nearly happy hour held in the Library. Now, the Library at MacArthur Place is hardly quiet. It’s a fun and lively gathering place for guests where our entertaining hostess, Cynthia, generously poured delicious local wines. After a glass or two (but who is counting?) with a Chardonnay smile, I happily stumbled to my suite for a disco nap before dinner.
When it was time to sleep and party with my pillow, I took the “long” way back to my suite and sat in a swing contemplating the stars and my good luck. And not wanting the night to end, I took a bath enjoying yet another perk; complementary Grape Seed Bath Soaking Tea from the Spa.
The next morning I work up feeling utterly refreshed. I treated myself to a glass of champagne in my white fuzzy bathrobe on my suite’s front porch. Looking down, I saw yet another subtle art installation. A life-like dog sat to my left, who left paw prints in the “wet” cement under my feet. More whimsy to make me smile.
I could have relaxed on my front porch for another hour, but I didn’t want to miss breakfast. So I traded in my fuzzy bathrobe for real clothes and headed over to The Barn for its complimentary buffet for guests. Sitting in their garden room with nearly floor to ceiling shutters with lush green views, I fully enjoyed homemade muffins and a fresh breakfast that lived up to all that I had experienced before.
Looking at my watch, checkout was looming. I could have easily have stayed another day or ten reveling in the charm and whimsical elegance that is MacArthur Place.
Disclosure: I was the guest of MacArthur Place Inn & Spa and Photos courtesy of MacArthur Place Inn & Spa.
It’s not often that your hotel lobby also hosts a tasting room featuring the best local wines both grown and produced in the region. Well, hello daring! This is my kind of place. But you might expect that from a hotel called Wine & Roses. Casual wine country chic, my stay was much like the whites I tasted: elegant and well balanced with a smooth finish. If Robert M. Parker rated hotels, he might give Wine & Roses 91 points.
I stayed in the Spa Room with sky blue walls, a pebble stone floor, a cozy fireplace and an oversized bathtub that made me want to light candles and soak all night. One highlight of my stay was what I call “the bed of all beds”. I had such a brilliant night sleep that only the allure of tasting wine off the back of a truck in one of Lodi’s oldest Zinfandel vineyards got me out of bed. I heard later that their mattresses have such a cozy reputation that the Summit Hotel Group sells them. I’m definitely looking into that.
Once up and about, I strolled around the grounds. They were lush, elegant, and romantic with garden dining at the Towne House farm-to-table restaurant which offered, dare I say, a superb breakfast. The red delicious berries, white linen tablecloths, perfect espresso, and homemade spa granola were worth coming back for. Dinner at the restaurant was a feast of farm fresh vegetables and meats served family style. If you can carry a tune, have a drink before dinner in the bar for Tuesday night sing-a-longs.
The pool was separate from the hotel but worth a walk across the parking lot to relax in cushy oversized lounge chairs under - thankfully – a cabana that shaded my pale skin from the sun.
While it’s true that in Lodi there are no fancy castles or topiary garden sculptures, one of the aspects I enjoyed most was what Lodi was missing as well. There are no curtains between you, the wine growers, wine makers, and the award winning wines that sing out of the glass. Most often the lovely folks pouring also grew the grapes and made the wine they opened for you to enjoy. Perhaps, their hands were in the dirt just that morning. Which makes for what I found to be a real conversation around something I love – casually enjoying a beautiful glass of wine. I found this approachable “come as you are” mentality pervaded in the hotel from the spa to the tasting room and their Towne House restaurant.
Perhaps this relaxed atmosphere comes from Lodi’s Italian and German heritage where they take a more European approach to enjoying the pleasure of a beautiful glass of wine every day. Not just for special occasions. Or perhaps it’s just the Wine & Roses chic casual touch. It’s not often that I actually want to stay on the hotel grounds and enjoy my day relaxing, dining, sipping, and noshing.
*I was a guest of Charles Communication and the Lodi Wine & Visitors Center
*Photos courtesy of the Wine & Roses Hotel
It’s not an official or scientific test. Yet, generally, I can tell how good a spa is by the quality of their granola. When I go back for a second helping, I relax and trust that I’m in good hands. My granola litmus test at the Wine & Roses Spa was an accurate massage prediction. Both were amazing.
I arrived an hour early to soak in one of the spa’s two outdoor plunge pools. After a late deadline and an early flight, I needed it. Under gentle pines and elegant landscaping, I watched the leaves fall beside me as a jet gave my back a pre-massage. Then I headed to the outdoor sauna with a looking glass door. Usually, I’m not a fan of saunas or steam rooms. I always feel so boxed in. But being able to see the lush garden through the glass, I felt expansive and relaxed. Pampered. At least for a hot minute before the glass door steamed up and my gorgeous view disappeared into a white fragrant fog.
After my steam, I waited in the octagon relaxation room for my massage. Indeed, I indulged in a few more spoonfuls of delicious granola. I appreciated that the lounge chairs faced away from each with either a fire or garden view. It relaxed me and felt so private not having to look across the room at someone else.
My masseuse arrived. She was tiny but mighty. I was invited to a lay down on a massage table with soft linens where she began to work her magic. There was an amazing flow to her massage. A series of hot towels kept me warm and relaxed my muscles as she dug in deep and relieved my stress-related kinks. Afterwards, I felt like I was walking on rose petals. At first, I thought it was just me. Was this really one of the best massages I have had? But when one of my travel companions unprompted said the same, we both knew it was really, that good.
Still basking in my after-massage bliss, I slathered on a caramel body lotion that smelled so sweet it satisfied my sweet tooth. Then in ladies changing room, I traded in my cushy bathrobe for heels, skinny jeans, and a satin top and headed to dinner smelling like “spa”. Underneath my relaxed smile, I silently wished that every day be like this.
*I was a guest of Charles Communications and The Lodi Wine and Visitors Center
*Photos courtesy of Wine & Roses Hotel