We’ve been greeted at hotels with drinks before (sometimes water! Rude!) and cold towels and hot towels and face spritzes and for the last couple of years anti-bacterial gel but when you swing off the coastal highway leading to Amalfi into the Monastero Santa Rosa they ring a little church bell. Well, there is a chapel right there, it’s not like they’re going out of their way.
Welcome to this 17th-century monastery, the bell says, one for nuns. Convent then, right? We can’t keep up with these religious folk and their living arrangements.
They say it’s in the fishing village of Conca dei Marini, but that’s way down there over a cliff. You can’t even see it if you’re doing handstands in the vertiginous infinity pool, which comes across a bit like a beach in that you walk down into it, down all the tiers overlooking the Bay of Salerno. Because with Monastero Santa Rosa, you start at the top and you descend, through gardens and past fountains – all sit-out-able near – which is what gives it some of the best views on this most legendary bit of coast, a favourite with artists and writers since time immemorial, with Ravello (where Gore Vidal lived) accessible by boat in one direction, Amalfi in the other. Positano is within easy reach as well.
And this being a convent – or a monastery, if it makes you feel better – there is no grand reception, just a little entry way lined with certificates from the Monastero being voted the best hotel in all Italy (quite a few times) and a view right there in front of you. With a balcony and – oh, thank you – a drink. Not water.
The twenty herb-named rooms of the Monastero are cells, where nuns were once held in captivity. But don’t think that makes them small or spartan because they have clearly been knocked through… unless nuns really were living the life and keeping quiet about it. We can’t quite imagine a nun in the bath-with-a-view in our suite but then that’s probably a good thing. The style of these ‘cells’ is fittingly classic with muted colours and just pops of blue and red, as if not to distract from the incredible views of the sea and that coastline, which feels like it should always have someone speeding in a sports car around it like in a Hitchcock or a James Bond movie.
The story of Monastero Santa Rosa (not the whole story, clearly, we’re not going to go back four hundred years to Sister Rosa Pandolfi and her carryings on) is that an American heiress was swishing around the coast in a boat, spotted the building and found that it was abandoned. Well, not for long. That family still lives nearby and are often to be spotted down in the cocktail bar, taking in views. The cocktails, by the way, are legendary, especially the Monastero Martini, which is vodka and cream and limoncello, lemons being the be all and end all around these parts. You can even go into the sweet little town of Amalfi and get a tour around a lemon grove and end up making – from scratch, ie from flour – your own pasta, which they will cook with garlic and lemons pulled straight off the tree.
Not that you need any outside food intervention when the restaurant – either the cave-like interior or the sea-view terrace – is presided over by chef Christoph Bob from Alain Ducasse’s Michelin-starred restaurant at Plaza Athenée in Paris, where Carrie made a fool of herself at the end of the Sex and the City series. Because he clearly knows what he is doing. Italian favourites from home-made pasta (even better than ours!) and baby squid and vegetables from the hotel’s own gardens make for a fresh and healthy (don’t worry, there are demon desserts) dinner of it.
And apart from the al fresco gym, there’s quite an extensive spa located down the stairs, under the chapel, the best on the whole Amalfi coast, with a full journey of hot tubs and foot spas and steam rooms and saunas ending up with a massage in a room so big and stately it must once have been a church crypt or something. None of those small windowless rooms you often get for your massage here!
It’s a funny concept, a luxury hotel in an old nunnery but the glamour has been ladled on, there’s a real sense of humour (the suggestions box is an old confession box and there are loads of nun cartoons) and there’s no arguing with those views. Nuns, eh? Not as daft as they look.