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Labor of Love
Diana Tychsen Bitting | Photo: Courtesy Images | December 13, 2012
A stunning hotel and spa (formerly a monastic retreat) set into the Amalfi coastline maintains its sacred aura centuries later—and wins over the hearts of one newlywed couple.
A sign that the standard vacation was amazing is usually a camera full of photos that conjure up memories of adventure, relaxation and entertainment. The sign of a great honeymoon may be (and one could argue, should be) a little less tangible. Maybe it’s a bottle of perfume you picked up on the first day in London that you wore the entire honeymoon that brings you both back. Or perhaps it’s the first bite of a delicious piece of juicy mango, like the ones you experienced in Bali. Whatever it is, it makes you look at your spouse with that nostalgic twinkle in your eye.
In my case, my most cherished souvenir from my September honeymoon may be a bit surprising: a stack of business cards—from the sommelier, the chef de cuisine, the maître d’, the bartender, the hotel manager, the concierge, the spa director, the shuttle driver and the porter. My new husband and I had made many new friends—lots of friends, basically the entire staff—at the Monastero Santa Rosa, a 17th century stone monastery turned five-star hotel perched perfectly on a ridge between the towns of Amalfi and Positano on the azure Tyrrhenian Sea. On day one, the staff was indulging us with crisp, refreshing wines from various regional wineries, but by the last day we were grabbing beers down the road at a local hole-in-the-wall for two euros a pop, asking how their children were by name, singing American pop songs a cappella at the top of our lungs and loving every minute of it.
Just to be clear, the typical experience for a guest at the Monastero does not include late-night dive bar debauchery. Au contraire... The luxury resort and spa is everything that’s classy about European travel, most obviously the historical significance of the hotel itself. Monastero was purchased in a dilapidated state by an American woman who fell in love with the Italian coastline while cruising with friends one summer. After a laborious and tedious process of conversion (the rehabilitation and preservation took more than a decade to finish), the doors finally opened this past May. An immaculate landscape composed of tiered flower gardens, the cliff-hanging infinity pool, a progressive menu, the impeccable and friendly service and a refreshingly original European rustic-meets-contemporary clean interior aesthetic—the list goes on and on—all proved to be undeniably worth the wait.
A local Neapolitan designer collaborated with the owner on the interiors, adding pops of color to the neutral all-granite backdrop of its shell with handpicked Italian antiques and unique flourishes, such as the colorful ceramic plaque hung on each door depicting a different healing herb or flower from the region (ours was “Laurus,” which, thanks to the concierge on duty, we discovered to be the laurel tree). Each guest suite was individually designed with furniture selected by the owner, Bianca Sharma, throughout her travels in Italy. One-of-a-kind antiques accent the suites while evocative historical black-and-white photographs, taken before the renovation, don the walls, evoking the hotel’s spiritual past. The marvel that is the Monastero can also be measured by the locals’ reaction to the “Where are you staying?” response—a gasp most often followed by a chorus of “oohs” and “aahs.”
This reaction is due in no small part to the spa. It is breathtaking—not just with the bells and whistles (the technology is top-of-the-line throughout) but also the knowledge that the cavernous, secluded (and super quiet) treatment rooms once served as private prayer rooms, making it a truly sacred experience. The seductive chant soundtrack helped me forget my jet lag the second I slipped on one of their plush signature robes and started inhaling the subtle scents of rosemary and lemon. My new husband, Chris, kindly booked us the “Togetherness” package, an entire day in our own spa suite inside the double-height vaulted tepidarium, to indulge in the Pomegranate Foot Bath, aromatic scrub, the Santa Maria Novella Facial and a spa massage.
An equally romantic but far more indulgent pastime is the dining experience at the Monastero. When I heard “gastronomique,” I was worried that the beautiful simplicity of the regional ingredients might be overlooked in favor of the froufrou dishes that usually accompany prix fixe restaurants. Fear not, for the restaurant offers a Mediterranean-inspired menu using the freshest ingredients from the surrounding Campania region. What does this mean? The ripest tomatoes, the sweetest lemons, perfectly al dente pastas, the just-plucked herbs, the melt-in-your-mouth cheeses… in some of the most innovative concoctions I’ve ever had the pleasure of putting between my lips. One of the dishes brought me near to tears on our last night: the tomato and mozzarella di bufala ravioli. But that could very well have been due to the realization that this trip of a lifetime was very soon coming to a close—or my third glass of exquisite Marisa Cuomo Furore Bianco. Either way, the dish was delectable.
Before that last night, I was already planning my return trip. Seeing as how our anniversary is only a year away, it could be as soon as next fall. Much more realistically, a 10-year celebration with family and friends could be just the thing. After all, Monastero Santa Rosa’s private, cliff-top locale, verdant walkways lined with rustic stone and picturesque water views present a fairy tale setting for any event. The entire bougainvillea- and lavender-laden property (including the 20 guest rooms and suites, restaurant and spa) is available for a complete buyout, so I could turn it into a fully equipped private Italian villa that caters to my—and my guests’, of course—every whim. Ten years isn’t that long, is it? My only hope is that the same staff greets us at the door a decade later: Andrea at the front desk, Christoph Bob the chef, Daniele the sommelier, Francesca the spa manager, Sassa the bartender, Alessandro, Mateo, Carmelo, Pompeo, Reno and all the rest. Until then, I’ll have to rely on some locally sourced bottles of Campanian white wine, lemon crème almonds and, yes, a few spectacular photographs.