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DESTINATION: ITALY

`Enchanting' embodied

What's not to love about the Riviera in winter? Balmy weather, no crowds, beautiful scenery and the prices -- que bella!

February 18, 2007|Barbara A. Noe | Special to The Times

Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy — FOR a belle epoque beauty, the Hotel Metropole hardly seemed like a place to get a bargain. But here I was, feeling like royalty as I climbed three flights of carpeted stairs in the Italian Riviera resort hotel, which is still owned by the family that built it more than a century ago.

"Benvenuto," the pencil-thin attendant said with a smile, opening the door to a spacious, light-filled suite.

I loved its regal blue curtains and nautical paintings, but the flower-draped balcony overlooking palm-fringed gardens and the sparkling Mediterranean beyond really stole my heart. It was early February, and standing in the sunlight with my friend Troy, I thought: "Those Victorian tourists who put this place on the map had it right: Winter in Liguria is splendid indeed."

This time of year, there were few guests at the hotel in Santa Margherita Ligure, and we were offered a great deal: $122 per night for a luxury suite. In summer, the cheapest room is more than $250.

Over the next few days, I was reminded repeatedly of the advantage of visiting in winter: low prices, few visitors, temperatures in the 60s and 70s -- and sales at all the boutiques.

Liguria is the narrow strip of cliffs, cypress trees, beaches and villages in northern Italy that stretches from the French border to Tuscany. The Apenines shield it from Europe's cold winters.

Few outsiders knew about the area until 1855, when a homesick Giovanni Ruffini, who had been exiled to Britain, wrote "Doctor Antonio." The novel describes how a doctor and his daughter visit the town of San Remo and become intoxicated with the beauty and climate of the Mediterranean.

Word spread throughout Victorian England, and thus began the British invasion of what would later be known as the Italian Riviera. Resort hotels, esplanades and beaches soon followed.

Portofino is probably the area's best-known resort. Hotels there are prohibitively expensive, however, even in winter. So, guidebooks directed me to Santa Margherita, a central, more affordable place on the Golfo del Tigullio that turned out to be an enchanted destination in its own right. Villages in the surrounding green mountains are known for orange blossoms (which are distilled into essence) and handmade lace.

Amazed at the discovery of such a gem, Troy and I strolled along the esplanade into the heart of town, admiring the million-dollar yachts in the harbor. It felt like the place was ours alone. Elegant hotels painted rose, ocher, blue and orange shared the hillsides with onetime fishing cottages, sidewalk cafes, boutiques, churches and parks.

Despite the nearly 70-degree weather, locals were dressed for winter, wearing fur coats, hats, boots and gloves -- everyone glancing at the strangers in short sleeves and sunglasses.

Cypress-lined alleyways crisscross the steep hillsides. We followed one up a slope behind the waterfront to find a crumbling castle. It was built in a record six months in 1550 and included the oratory of Sant'Erasmo, a 17th century chapel with dioramas inside depicting fishermen going about their business (Erasmo is the patron saint of sailors).

Farther up the hill is the 17th century church of San Giacomo di Corte, its Baroque interior shimmering with crystal chandeliers and gilded trimmings. Next door, a formal Italian park surrounds the Villa Durazzo, a mansion dating to 1560.

Historically, Santa Margherita is a maritime town of fishermen and merchants; beneath its resort veneer, it still is. The intense colors of the houses, for instance, once helped sailors spot them from afar.

On the first night, Troy and I had dinner at the Metropole. Being the low season, we again were offered a deal: a five-course, prix fixe meal -- typically priced at $51 per person -- for $13. The only thing missing from the dining room's rows of white-clothed tables was ambience; the room was deserted.

I began with the pasta and bean soup. Troy had flat spaghetti with seafood. We passed on the sliced, pressed octopus with tomatoes and both chose the dorata medallions with Ligurian spices for the entree. Mixed green salad followed this local specialty, and then there came an Italian cheese cart with thick slabs of pecorino, bleu d'Aoste and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

We tried to pass on dessert, something the waiter found unacceptable.

"You must," he said, listing marmalade cake, vanilla ice cream drizzled with chocolate-hazelnut sauce, fruit cup and a specialty of the house.

"We'll split the fruit," I said, knowing I couldn't eat another bite.

"You will not share," the waiter replied. "It is, after all, only fruit."

It was not, however, "only fruit." It was a crystal bowl filled with kiwis and apples and grapes and blood oranges -- and I ate nearly every bite.

Playground of the stars

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