Hidden gem won’t stay this way much longer

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Occupying a very special place on Puglia’s Gargano Peninsula – the ‘spur’ of Italy’s boot – Hotel Baia delle Zagare is one of those hard-to-reach destination resorts perched on the trifecta of three pristine beaches sheltered by spectacular jagged white limestone cliffs on the fringe of a national park. It also overlooks two very iconic ‘faraglioni’ – or sea stacks – called Arco di Diomede (Diomede Arch) and Le Forbici (The Scissors).

Decades ago, a sailor and his wife found the land from a boat and decided to settle here, putting in a tremendous amount of work to make it liveable and battling with the council for access to services such as electricity. Now, locals battle with each other for a sunbed on the beach – which, unless you’re staying here, are extremely limited. The wife of the couple who claimed the land and built the original hotel still resides here, in a prime spot jutting out between two beaches, keeping the gardeners on their toes as they maintain her lush garden filled with huge potted cacti, Mediterranean pine and citrus flowers.

Tourists come here mostly to relax and soak up the sun, choosing between three beaches, accessible by a panoramic lift (probably a huge no-no in today’s environmentally aware world) and the hotel’s pool.

THE LOOK

Recenty acquired by Accor, and under new management from staff recently departed Puglia’s celebrity haunt Borga Egnazia, there are big plans afoot for this hotel which will feature under the boutique Mgallery banner. Not that there’s anything wrong with the current setup – this whitewashed hotel with warm neutral interiors, and arched doorways and windows typical of the region, has a cool ’70s vibe – particularly the bar and lobby. But other spots definitely need work (the rooftop bar, for example, is scorching hot rendering it useless in the daytime). Everything is about to get a makeover when the hotel closes for winter, when the biggest undertaking will be turning the lacklustre gym into a spa, which has views over the faraglioni.

SERVICE

Service here is great, considering the hotel’s isolation must make it difficult to find staff. The absolute standout, and one that will stay in memory for quite some time, is their exceptional maitre d’, Antonio, who manages breakfast and dinner at the main restaurant, and then presides over lunch at the Baia Beach Grill on their northernmost beach. Not only does he understand food and wine but his long-standing history at the hotel meant he was privy to details such as exactly what time the full moon would rise over the sea, dramatically casting a path of light across the faraglioni. Hats off to you, sir.

THE ROOM

Under the renovation plans, “less is more” and rooms are to be culled to make way for more spacious accommodation. But for now, accommodation is split into two areas – one villa houses smaller, cheaper rooms and the other – which I am in – contains more spacious and newly renovated rooms with huge balconies overlooking the garden. There are also suites with sweeping views of the sea.

My room has some particularly modern features without losing any of its old world charm. In particular, I notice not one, not two, but six USB ports (most of the hotels outside Rome have none) and a linear drain in the bathroom sink. The room has a large walk-in wardrobe (no doors, so you don’t leave anything behind) plus mod-cons other Italian hotels seem to be, missing such as coffee and tea making facilities and free minibar (soft drinks only).

FOOD + DRINK

Thanks to the aforementioned maitre d’, I was able to dine on the best dishes at the Baia Beach Grill along Levante Beach (including a lasagne with prawns and a grilled seabass washed down a fine local rosé). The main restaurant upstairs, Le Faraglione – which has the best views on the entire property – also serves excellent food, and it was recommended I try the lobster – which was delicious – as was the cod spaghetti I had the following night. The chef is particularly adept at pastries and the rum baba was a standout. The lightest, rummiest cake-cloud imaginable was served with fresh fruit and creme patisserie. Breakfast was also of a high standard, with the usual Italian fare – albeit one distinction – each station had a staff member serving, so you couldn’t help yourself. The restaurant prices are very reasonable to stop guests from venturing outside the hotel for meals.

OUT + ABOUT

It’s difficult to get around without a car, and should you wish to leave this much coveted spot, then the town of Vieste is a 40-minute drive north, and the UNESCO Heritage Listed Mont S’Angelo about an hour’s drive up the hill, more or less behind the resort. Hiring a car is recommended, but if you were to get a train, the hotel has private transport to and from Foggia station (an hour away) which will get you to Rome in three hours, or escort you through Puglia all the way down south to Lecce.

THE VERDICT

Its unparalleled location makes this under-the-radar destination resort one of Italy’s hidden gems. I am seriously hoping it stays that way, but with the renovations coming, I doubt it.

THE ESSENTIALS

Recently renovated rooms start from €209 a night. hotelbaiadellezagare.it; [email protected]

OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE

★★★★★

Highlight

Swimming in the beach just prior to sunset, when most of the beachgoers have gone. Also, early in the morning before they arrive. It’s unbelievably serene.

Lowlight

Access is probably the worst part about this place – but it is also makes it one of the best.

The writer stayed as a guest of Accor.

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