Despite introducing a hip young DJ, the siren song of Le Sirenuse is still as spellbinding as ever.
Despite introducing a hip young DJ, the siren song of Le Sirenuse is still as spellbinding as ever. William Cash meets owner Antonio Sersale
Within the most chic European circles, saying ‘I’m off to the Sirenuse this weekend’ requires no further qualification as regards destination. As tout le monde knows, from Euro-royalty to Mayfair hedge-fund managers, Le Sirenuse is in Positano, some 60 odd winding kilometres south of Naples, down the Amalfi Coast.
The hotel first opened in 1951, in the aftermath of the Second World War, when four enterprising and socially brave Neapolitan brothers, Aldo, Paolo, Franco and Anna decided to open up their 18th century Positano summer house – situated in the crystalline Sorrento Peninsular overlooking the famed island rocks of the Sirens mentioned in The Iliad – into an eight-roomed hotel. I was going to use the word ‘luxury’, only at the time the concept of the boutique luxury hotel had not yet been invented. Indeed, in many ways, Le Sirenuse helped invent the genre, decades before the world was introduced to luxury or hip hotel coffee-table books.
Back then, the decision to let paying strangers enjoy the comforts of an aristocratic family’s seaside villa was regarded as almost scandalous. Italians are much worse snobs than even the English when it comes to attitudes towards trade. But when the family capital runs out, bold action is required. Today, the hotel is still owned by the Sersale family. Now it has 62 rooms but has lost none of its charm, from the bougainvillea hanging from the vaulted ceiling of the dining room to the Vietri tiled floors.
When John Steinbeck stayed in 1953, he wrote a travel piece about Positano for Harper’s Bazaar magazine. ‘We went to the Sirenuse, an old family house converted into a first-class hotel, spotless and cool, with grape arbours over its outside dining rooms,’ he wrote. ‘Every room has its little balcony and looks out over the blue sea to the Islands of the Sirens from which those ladies sang so sweetly’.
The attention to detail makes it the Harry’s Bar of hotels along the Amalfi Coast. The passion with which the Sersale family still fuss and obsesses over every tiny detail – from washing the leaves of the indoor plants with little scrubbing brushes to the fact that all bath and body products are from the hotel’s own Eau D’Italie signature line is evident from the very start of my meeting with the debonair Antonio Sersale, Franco Sersale’s son, who now runs the hotel with his glamorous wife Carla.
The moment I sit down on one of the hotel’s little pale lime-green sofas close to the new Champagne Bar, Antonio is explaining the art of keeping the indoor plants that Steinbeck mentioned looking luscious all year -round.
‘You can have plants indoors as long as you don’t heat in the winter, or air-conditioning in the summer, because they kill them,’ says Antonio. ‘So in the summer we never use air-conditioning where there are plants and in the winter, since we close the hotel for the three coldest months, we don’t heat that much. So that allows the plants to live very happily inside!’
All family members are still given different responsibilities. The plants are kept looking beautiful by Antonio’s cousin Giulia. His wife Carla is in charge of the Emporio boutique – which sells exquiste kaftans, jewellery and beautiful hand-blown coloured Murano glasses made by a Venetian noble friend. Antonio’s father Franco still scours auction catalogues for items to add to the hotel’s eclectic collection of fine antiques. For true connoisseurs who have run out of pool-side paperbacks to read, there is even a special Sirenuse antiques guide which takes the guest through the provenance of every item, from 17th-century parchment travel passports of the Sersale family to Old Master Italian paintings. Antonio’s cousin Marina is the ‘nose’ behind the hotel’s signature scent, Eau D’Italie.
One reason the hotel is so unique today is that it is still very much a family business. When Antonio’s father Franco – who had lived in America for many years – came back to Positano to retire in 1992, he began a major renovation of the hotel. Before 1992, the hotel was run by his brother Paolo, who was twice Mayor of Positano. After he died, along with his brother Also and sister Anna – who had been the chatelaine of the hotel for decades – Antonio moved to Positano (they also keep a flat in London) with his wife and children, Also and Francesco, to take over for the next generation.
Running a family hotel and also living in the hotel with other family members results in a family soap opera. When Antonio’s father is in London, he stays with Antonio and Carla at their flat which Antonio admits is not always ideal.
‘My father and I have our moments’ admits Antonio. ‘We fight, we argue, but the thing is what makes this hotel quite special is this constant battle between my father and I because my father is a complete aesthete. For him, the only thing that matters are aesthetics. And I am more practical. He will say, “Let’s light the entire dining room by candles”. And I have to think: where can I find a candle factory? Who is going to light them and put them out? Who will clean the candlesticks? It seems rather simple but behind the scene there’s a lot of work that goes into making it possible for our guests.’
One area of constant debate between father and son has been over the sort of music to play. Up until about six years ago the hotel didn’t have any music in the bar and the lighting was quite bright. That all changed after Antonio and Carla went away to Paris and stayed at the Hotel Costes. ‘I suddenly thought, how is it possible that in Paris they’re able to create such an amazingly intimate and romantic atmosphere. And we that live in Positano, that is such a romantic place, don’t have it?’
So on his return to Positano, Antonio convinced his father, overnight, to create a new Champagne-Bar area. And then his father got excited and picked out some new chairs designed by Mongiardino, the famous Italian decorator. ‘And now I even have a trendy disc jockey,’ adds Sersale.
Another reason guests enjoy coming back is that they know when they return the hotel will always have been tweaked. Fabrics are always being slightly changed. Because of the climate, the hotel spends a fortune on new upholstery every few years. Faded grandeur, or stained sofas, is not the Sersale style. One of my favourite rooms – by the downstairs bar – has several armchairs decorated in a lime-green damask picked out by Franco.
‘My father has a tremendous eye and he is able to see things very well,’ says Antonio. ‘He buys all the fabrics with our upholsterer, who is from Rome. He’s quite famous. And he’s very quick. He comes down, picks up things, brings them to Rome and brings them back. We don’t allow any stains.’
Another reason the hotel looks so pristine is that it is re-painted almost every year. ‘To make the hotel look so clean and immaculate, we have about six painters working full time for about five months,’ says Antonio.
A hotel like Le Sirenuse is a little bit like a private club in that, once guests have been seduced by the charm of the hotel, and once they know its little rituals and quirks, they know that it has very little in common with other chain-operated boutique hotels that have central reservation lines and guest quotas – like Badrutt’s Palace in St Moritz, for example – for, say, Russians.
How do you ensure that your friends and the sort of people you want staying in the hotel can book it? Is it like a restaurant such as the Ivy or a hotel such as Claridge’s where they always keep a few tables or rooms back for regular guests?
‘No, we don’t keep rooms back,’ says Sersale. ‘We really believe in first come, first served. But we do have a waiting list. Some people book us a year in advance.’
What about children? ‘We have a policy that we don’t accept children less than eight years old. There are other hotels to go to if you want to bring the whole family.’
The Sirenuse has a pretty regular seasonal pattern of international guest migration. Italians mostly come in July and August and pretty much take over the hotel. In March and April you get Germans and Americans. And a smattering of gourmand, society-type Brits tend to visit throughout the year.
Since Antonio and Carla have so many international friends (Antonio is half-American and was brought up partly in America) they invariably find themselves table hopping from table to table every night; or having a drink with friends or guests before, during, and after dinner. The night I was staying, the Sersales were hosting a dinner for a small group of freinds, ranging from British financier types to Venetian aristos. The champagne and grappa was still flowing at 1am.
‘If someone’s a friend of a friend, we’ll sit and have a drink or we’ll have dinner, because our life rotates around who’s staying in the hotel. Because we love to socialise. Carla and I never eat at home. We’re always eating here with someone.’
Antonio says the perfect way to enjoy Positano is probably to combine a stay at Le Sirenuse with a trip to Capri – only an hour by hydrofoil – and other places such as Amalfi, Ravello, Pompeii and Herculaneum and, of course, Naples.
‘Some people like to go to one place, put your luggage down and not move. Some other people also like the adventure of changing. Each place has its special moments. The beautiful hours in Capri are the ones before all the day trippers arrive and after all the day trippers have left. So if you stay here and go to Capri just for the day, you see it at its worst. So I’d advise staying two days in Capri. Or you can base yourself here go and could do two days in Ravello, for example, and listen to some concerts’.
Many Italians are self-confessed Anglophiles, but the Sersales seem to be especially so. Not only do they have a flat in London, where they live when not in Italy, but their two children are also educated in England. Over the years, Franco Sersale and Mark Birley, founder of Annabel’s, became the greatest of friends. I asked why his family seemed to have such a bond with the English.
‘My father and I love England, and we love London,’ says Antonio. ‘I’m very happy that my boys go to school there. I love the city, I love my English friends. It’s very funny, because when I go to London I never see Italians. We only see English people. We love to be around English people, I love their sense of humour. I went to Millfield school myself, so I feel a bond with the English that I hope I’ve transmitted to my children as well.’
Antonio also enjoys his American side. His mother was American and he worked in New York and Washington after finishing hotel school in Switzerland. Although he grew up partly in America, he always knew that he was expected to join the family business.
‘Oh, yes. This was the business. And also I think one realises, when one has a family business, one also has a responsibility to keep it alive. I think that any individual who started a business, it’s his right to decide what he wants to do. But if someone inherits it, like I did, or like I was in line to do, partly, you think, what right do I have to alienate something that has taken so much effort from my predecessors? If you feel that generational sense then I think it puts everything into a different perspective.’
So that means bookings are now available for at least the next 50 years.