A grand time at the Grand Excelsior Vittoria, Sorrento
An early season stay at the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria offers the wonders of Sorrento and Pompeii without the crowds, finds Kate Wickers
It’s not what we were expecting to see at the ruins of Pompeii – a snigger-inducing phallus shaped road sign dating from AD79 carved into the road – but it’s certainly piqued my 13-year-old son Freddie’s attention. “OK if I tell him where it points to?” whispers Francesca, our guide. I already know what she’s referring to, the blatantly named Villa of Pornography. You can’t miss it, as there’s always a queue to get in. “All in the name of education,” I tell her.
Early April in Sorrento and the orange and lemon blossom haven’t yet perfumed the air, but you can rely on the wisteria and bougainvillea to brighten the scene. Already they drip extravagantly over walls and trellis, making the town a sight for sore winter eyes. We were staying at Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, set haughtily on the cliffs, which is as glamorous as its name and past guest list suggests – Enrico Caruso, Princess Margaret, Sophia Loren, Luciano Pavarotti and Marilyn Monroe all have suites named in honour of their visits. Opened in 1834, it is fifth generation family run and its interior – all polished marbled floors, antiques, potted palms and wrought iron fretwork – looks like the kind of place you’d expect to find in Poirot. The view from our balcony, across the Bay of Naples, is to Mount Vesuvius and having recently completed a geography project on said volcano, Freddie is thrilled. “You do know that if it blows, we stand no chance,” he tells me, looking pleased with himself.
Next day, after a decadent breakfast of honey croissants and fig and ricotta tart, scoffed under the 19th century frescoed ceiling of the Vittoria breakfast room, we head off to take a closer look at this snoozing troublemaker. If Vesuvius erupts it threatens to engulf more than half a million people who live in what’s known as the red zone and it strikes me that, in true Italian style, our visit is just about as casual as calling in on an active volcano could possibly be. After buying our summit entry tickets at the car park, we download a simple map from the park’s website and strike out alone up the 860-metre volcanic gravel path to the crater, disappearing in and out of a mist of swirling cloud that adds to my sense of unease. Half-way up we see an old lava flow from the last eruption in 1944, and at the rim of the Grand Como, which spans 650 metres, steam rises. There’s not much to view as we peer in, just a landslide of volcanic stones slipping down to a pit, but it’s knowing what lies beneath that gets my heart pumping.
I’m calmer later with a glass of prosecco in hand. A Michelin-starred restaurant wouldn’t normally be first choice for a family meal, but Chef
Antonino Montefusco at Excelsior Vittoria’s Terrazza Bosquet is part magician, and his food is more fun than formal. I order his homage to the region’s most famous salad – insalata Caprese (tomato and mozzarella) and I’m presented with a juicy red tomato. Only when I cut into it, is the illusion broken, as I discover a creamy burrata (buffalo milk mozzarella), encased in a tomato glaze. Our next course is pasta, with a side order of theatre.
“Oh no, Chef ’s forgotten the ravioli,” exclaims our anxious eye-rolling waiter, as he lifts the lid off each of our bowls to reveal a tomato sauce. We get the joke a few moments later as he comes scurrying back with a small box upon which is written ‘Ready Ravioli’. Inside we find piping hot parcels of pasta, which we slide into the sauce. We finish with a signature dessert, Ricordo d’infanzia (childhood memory), a sponge cake with chocolate, orange and praline, candyfloss and popping candy. “It’s like something Willy Wonka might make,” says Freddie. One of Montefusco’s influences? I wouldn’t rule it out.
We set off to Capri in true jet-set style, gliding down Sorrento’s cliffs in the private lift from the Excelsior Vittoria’s terrace to the port, where
Half-way up we see an old lava flow from the last eruption in 1944