Tuscany is something of a classic travel experience and after my September visit I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a stay at the region’s best Belmond hotels. It was a beautiful month to visit, with sunshine the whole time, temperatures warm enough to swim outside and everywhere ‘out of season’ quiet.
Beginning with a British Airways flight from Heathrow to Pisa – a superb way to start the trip – I was then taken to Belmond Castello di Casole, which is in the very heart of Tuscany and an easy, scenic 90-minute transfer from the airport should you wish to hire a car and drive it for yourself.
This 10th century castle wowed from the moment we arrived, set amidst vineyards and olive groves with a beautiful sweeping driveway lined with Cypriot trees. The 4,200-acre estate is deeply rooted in the region’s history and while I was impressed by the modern conveniences and luxuries, it was wonderful to spend a few days in a setting that felt so immensely authentic and storied.
The hotel is a fabulous option for those seeking to explore Chianti, Siena and San Gimignano and is an excellent location for the annual Andrea Bocelli concert at Lajatico. Belmond group took over management of the property in early 2018, so the Castello di Casole experience is now underpinned by their iconic signature service.
Check-in was slick and speedy; and within minutes of arriving I was sat in a glorious courtyard with a chilled glass of local vino bianco, pondering over a menu of Italian favourites including bruschetta and antipasti.
My suite was in the main house and was absolutely huge with high ceilings, cool terracotta floors, sash windows, a super-comfy bed and a vast bathroom with a roll-top bath and Bvlgari beauty products. I also had a snoop around the other accommodation options during my stay and the suites away from the main building were larger – over two storeys – and more private, making them an ideal option for a honeymoon or for guests with children.
Highlights were: the service by the infinity swimming pool, with attendants to see to my every whim whilst I kicked back and enjoyed the view; the panoramic terrace, which is a dreamy, laidback spot to watch the sunset with a glass of wine in hand; and the unique spa, where treatments are carried out in the cool environs of a former wine cellar.
I’d also recommend spending an afternoon or two enjoying one of the many experiences on offer. The Etruscan Workshop saw our group learn how to make products using local ingredients and gave us a keepsake to bring home. Making fresh pasta during a cooking class was something I’ll never forget and next time I visit I’ll be making time for truffle hunting on the estate.
En route to our second stop - the Belmond Villa San Michele, close to Florence - we stopped for an afternoon in the town of San Gimignano, a gorgeous place to wander around and explore, camera in hand. My top tip is to visit around 4.30pm, when the streets are quieter and the light is beautiful.
Tucked away in the Fiesole hills, Belmond Villa San Michele boasts astonishing views of Florence which are the first thing you see on arrival. This former medieval monastery, with a façade by Michelangelo, is a wonderful base for a stay in the famous city; just 10 minutes away yet in its own tranquil setting.
My Executive Junior Suite was absolutely stunning and so private, with an insanely large bathroom and walk-in shower. With its own roof terrace and sun loungers, I’d recommend the standalone ‘The Greenhouse’ for those seeking additional seclusion.
The panoramic, heated swimming pool is at the top of the hotel’s lush grounds, meaning wonderful views across the Arno Valley and with the addition of the pool snack bar so you spend all day up there.
Dinner at the hotel’s La Loggia restaurant was a stand-out experience of my trip, where a live pianist accompanied the city views and the exceptional Italian fine fare to create an atmosphere bar none. Each dish was artistic, using local flavours and well-known Italian favourites in a refined way. The cheesecake di mozzarella di bufala con pomodorini confit, caviale di acciughe e bruschette di pane toscano (savoury buffalo mozzarella cheesecake with confit tomatoes, anchovies caviar and traditional Tuscan bread) was sublime, and if you’re feeling indecisive then the Tasting Menu will take you on a culinary journey perfectly paired with sommelier-chosen wines.
Obviously, a day spent in Florence wandering around its many fabulous sights is a ‘must’, but Belmond Villa San Michele also boasts a great selection of experiences for real Tuscan immersion too. Learn to make ice cream in a world-famous gelateria, take a guided raft journey down the San Niccolo weir and under the Ponte Vecchio, or watch the kids hunt for clues on a museum treasure hunt. My favourite activity was a Florentine art class, led by a hugely eccentric character who kept our group giggling throughout. We started with simple exercises and then created a group frieze of a field of flowers.
What’s more, the hotel also has its own cookery school, in which I enjoyed a lesson at my own work station… which made me feel like I was on Masterchef! There’s a real mixture of courses, but of course the best bit is getting to try your dish at the end.
Overall, the combination of these two Belmond hotels made for a terrific Tuscan holiday, with the group’s hallmark details weaving their way through my stay and with each and every member of staff offering a personalised and friendly service. I spent the incredibly picturesque (Mercedes) transfer back to the airport planning my next visit.
Inspired by Anna’s trip? Discover more about holidays to Tuscany here.
This article originally appeared in the ITC Travel Group’s magazine Other Shores; order your copy here.