Tuscan Recommendations Revisited

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Although always on the lookout for new hotels to review, we also want to ensure that longtime recommendations still deserve to be a part of the Andrew Harper Collection. There are so many wonderful places to stay in the Tuscan countryside, it would be a shame to waste time at a property that was past its prime. I resolved to re-review our three lowest-rated hotel suggestions in the region and determine if they could compete with more recent openings. As always, we visited anonymously and paid the full rate so that our experiences would be the same as any other guest’s.

Borgo San Felice

Vitiarium vineyard, Borgo San Felice
Vitiarium vineyard, Borgo San Felice - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

Two of the three hotels were just 15 minutes apart, set amid soul-stirring scenery in the heart of the Chianti Classico region northeast of Siena. We stayed first at Borgo San Felice, an entire village turned into a resort. (Official road signs still point the way to San Felice.) Vineyards surround the property, including the unique Vitiarium. There, starting in the 1980s, the village owners assembled some 270 grape varieties from around Tuscany in order to preserve indigenous vine stock. Experimentation with local grapes continues to this day: In the winery’s shop, we picked up some bottles of Pugnitello, an aromatic and well-structured red you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. (I highly recommend reserving one of the winery’s private “Thematic Tastings.”)

We enhanced our legs’ circulation by wading through hot and cold Kneipp pools and cooled off in eucalyptus-scented experience showers.

The village of San Felice itself comprises a cluster of honey-colored stone buildings interspersed with cypresses, umbrella pines, grapevine pergolas and terra-cotta urns overflowing with blazing-red geraniums. Many structures are labeled according to their original functions, such as the former school, woodshed and curate’s house. Other charming vestiges of old village life remain, such as the metal sign of the greengrocer. The 60 rooms and suites occupy various buildings throughout the village, and many of them offer private outdoor space. Most impressive is the Suite Loggia, with its splendid covered terrace adjacent to the former palazzo. But I prefer the more colorful décor of the Suite Legnaia, which comes with a garden patio.

Interested to see how we would fare if we reserved a more modest accommodation, I booked a Prestige Room, one step up from the entry-level category. It occupied part of the second floor of the former laundry, but the lodging transcended the building’s humble history. Beneath a beamed ceiling was a striking junior suite-like space, which succeeded in offering a sense of place while feeling contemporary and stylish. The padded headboards edged in velvet, embroidered drapes and framed architectural drawings made the room feel plush, as did the hardwood floors. Mirrored wardrobes lined the hall to the bath, where the spacious shower stall and tub were clad in brown travertine, giving them an ancient appearance. Handmade tiles in a red-and-white harlequin pattern added eye-catching contrast.

Bedroom of our Prestige Room, Borgo San Felice, Castelnuovo Berardenga - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Bath of our Prestige Room, Borgo San Felice - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Shower detail in our Prestige Room, Borgo San Felice - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Table set for breakfast on the patio - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Pergola leading through the vineyards - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Pugnitello wine tasting, Borgo San Felice - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

One afternoon, we reserved an hour of private time in the spa. Housed in the former olive oil mill, it had original vaulted brick ceilings that set off an otherwise airy décor with powder-blue stenciled walls and cushioned wicker loungers. I regretted not booking a treatment as soon as I saw it, but the amenities were ample consolation. We enhanced our legs’ circulation by wading through hot and cold Kneipp pools and after sweating in the sauna, we cooled off in eucalyptus-scented experience showers.

On another day, I decamped to the pool. Frankly, I don’t expect quick or attentive service at even the best hotels’ pools. All too often, it takes an age even to place a drink order. Not so at Borgo San Felice. I hopped in the water as soon as I arrived, and while swimming laps, I noticed a waiter poke his head out of the bar. He reappeared as soon as I emerged and headed to my lounger. Not five minutes later, I was sipping a glass of Franciacorta accompanied by some savory snacks. He soon returned to bring a “gift from the chef” of passion fruit sorbet flecked with chocolate.

Service in the restaurant was also better than expected. We’d had a substantial lunch and opted to dine in the more casual Osteria del Grigio, rather than the resort’s Michelin-starred Poggio Rosso. I started with a bowl of pici pasta topped with rabbit and wild fennel. A platter of charcuterie then appeared, though I had ordered the sea bass. It took more than a half-hour to receive my (delicious) main course, which was annoying. I thought the staff might give us complimentary glasses of wine or take the sea bass off the check. Instead, there was no check at all. Our waiter sincerely apologized and gave us our entire dinner for free! Mistakes happen at every hotel. It’s how a mistake is handled that is truly telling. At checkout, I resolved to raise the rating of Borgo San Felice.

- Hotels at a Glance -

Borgo San Felice    94Andrew Harper Bird

Like

The impressively attentive service throughout our stay; the tucked-away but convenient location; the historic buildings’ stylish décor; the fine restaurants; the pretty and well-appointed spa; the unique wines made on-site.

Dislike

Vineyards immediately surrounding the hotel have fine panoramas, but unobstructed views are harder to come by from within the village; our room had no private outdoor space.

Good to Know

Just outside the main village are two villa-style accommodations, each with its own pool.


Rates: Prestige Room, $820; Suite Loggia, $1,370
Address: Località San Felice, Castelnuovo Berardenga
Telephone: (39) 057-739-64

View Borgo San Felice Listing

Hotel Le Fontanelle

Main pool, Hotel Le Fontanelle, Castelnuovo Berardenga
Main pool, Hotel Le Fontanelle, Castelnuovo Berardenga - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

Buoyed by this wholly pleasurable stay, we drove less than 20 minutes to the Hotel Le Fontanelle, another longtime recommendation in the heart of Chianti. An olive grove and a vineyard sweep down from the hillside property, a 700-year-old farmstead painstakingly restored and converted into a 34-room hotel and restaurant. As we pulled up, a valet stood at the ready to direct us into an indoor parking garage.

While he took care of the bags, we completed arrival formalities in a cozy library-lounge. Since our room wasn’t quite ready, we made our way to the Pool Bar. Tables on the covered patio faced a broad lawn more than the pool, but it was a pleasant place for a simple, light lunch. Just as we were finishing, the concierge approached to tell us that our Junior Suite was ready.

The glory of the suite was its lengthy terrace, bordered on all sides by a profusion of white jasmine flowers. Two loungers faced a hillside and a sweep of undulating valley extending for miles. Inside, the room was comfortable, with a classic wood-beamed ceiling and terra-cotta floors, but it was dated, lacking the decorative flair and luxurious feel of our less-expensive room at Borgo San Felice. The compact shower-only bath was particularly disappointing.

Our Junior Suite bedroom, Hotel Le Fontanelle - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Bath of our Junior Suite - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Our Junior Suite terrace - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Garden patio - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Fusillotto with cherry tomatoes, ricotta salata and basil, Hotel Le Fontanelle - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

It was pleasant to read beside the pool, shaped like two overlapping rectangles overlooking the valley, though service there wasn’t especially attentive. We chose loungers in direct view of the bar, but no staff approached. Eventually, we walked up to place a drink order. Later, I headed to the spa treatment room for a massage. Unfortunately, it was decorated with large advertisements for skincare products and doubled as an office. A glowing computer screen did not contribute to an atmosphere of relaxation. Dinner in the hotel’s gourmet La Colonna restaurant was also uneven. Many dishes — the turbot baked in a clay shell broken open tableside and the unusual ditalini pasta (short tubes like abbreviated macaroni) with porcini and oyster cream — were great successes. Others, like the grainy roe deer, were not.

Beautiful though breakfast was, served on a panoramic patio, it did not make up for the Hotel Le Fontanelle’s shortcomings. The property has better views than the Borgo San Felice, but the latter is otherwise the superior choice.

- Hotel at a Glance -

Hotel Le Fontanelle    89

Like

Our Junior Suite’s magnificent terrace; the sweeping views from the well-maintained gardens and pool; the helpful concierge; the panoramic breakfast patio.

Dislike

Our lodging’s dated décor and small bath; some courses at dinner were not successful; the unattractive spa treatment room.

Good to Know

The hotel’s fine Vallepicciola winery has a strikingly sited contemporary tasting room that is worth a visit even if you’re not staying in the hotel.


Rates: Deluxe Room, $780; Junior Suite, $960
Address: SP 408 - Km 14.7, Pianella, Castelnuovo Berardenga
Telephone: (39) 057-735-751

Hotel Le Fontanelle

La Chiusa

View from the semiprivate patio of our Deluxe Suite, La Chiusa, Montefollonico
View from the semiprivate patio of our Deluxe Suite, La Chiusa, Montefollonico - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

Driving south into the acclaimed Vino Nobile di Montepulciano wine region — not to be confused with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo in east-central Italy — we came to La Chiusa, set on the edge of the village of Montefollonico, within sight of the hill town of Montepulciano itself.  

In the 16th century, La Chiusa served as an olive oil mill, and terraced olive groves occupy much of its land to this day. Its vaulted restaurant was once a communal kitchen for the village. Nowadays, the 18-room hotel serves as a base for popular weeklong cooking school programs (half-day classes are also available). But in order to maintain a recommendation in the Andrew Harper Collection, a property has to stand on its own as a fine hotel.

We timed our visit poorly: The hotel’s website says that the restaurant is closed on Tuesdays, but when we stayed, it was closed on Mondays. Even so, the staff was able to arrange a platter of local cheese, prosciutto, salumi, caprese salad and fresh bread, plus figs and olive oil from the estate, accompanied by glasses of white wine. (Unfortunately, La Chiusa’s beehives hadn’t produced enough honey in the recent past for us to sample some.) We lunched on the patio outside the restaurant, which offered vistas of the exquisite countryside below.

Bedroom of our Deluxe Suite, La Chiusa - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Bath of our Deluxe Suite, La Chiusa - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Our semiprivate patio outside our suite at dawn - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Swimming pool, La Chuisa - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Lunch of cheese and charcuterie on the terrace - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

Even better views could be had from the pool, beyond. It was here, though, that I started to have misgivings about La Chiusa. Inflatable toys and foam noodles floated about in the pool, which marred the atmosphere and destroyed the beauty of the view.

I also had mixed feelings about our immense Deluxe Suite. Like our lunch, it was surprisingly inexpensive, costing a fraction of what we paid for lodgings elsewhere. A semiprivate patio outside our front door offered sensational views. But the underfurnished living room felt cavernous. The bedroom was cozier, but the overdecorated bed became cumbersome at night since there was no turndown service. Nor was there a phone. Unlabeled light switches, however, seemed to be everywhere, as were quirky knickknacks. A painting of a glasses-wearing giraffe gazed at the large blue-tile bath, cutesy ceramic frogs lined the shelf above the sink, and inspirational sayings encouraged us to “Dream” and remember that “Life is better when you’re laughing.” In short, the suite offered a disappointing combination of American taste and European convenience.

La Chiusa has great potential due to its historical pedigree, stupendous views and wonderfully warm and friendly staff. Its casual come-as-you-are atmosphere has a certain appeal, as do its refreshingly low rates. But the limited service and idiosyncratic style prevent me from recommending it. When I next have the chance to stay near Montepulciano, I hope to review Lupaia, a 12-room inn just down the hill that was sold out when I planned this itinerary.

- Hotel at a Glance -

La Chiusa    88

Like

The stupendous views of unspoiled Tuscan countryside and the hill town of Montepulciano; the welcoming staff and owners; the scenic restaurant terrace.

Dislike

Our suite’s cloying décor, tiny safe and underfurnished living room; the limited services; the silly pool toys.

Good to Know

Cooking classes and weeklong courses sell out well in advance; as of this writing, the restaurant is closed Monday, not Tuesday, as noted on the hotel website.


Rates: Deluxe Room, $290; Deluxe Suite, $350
Address: Via della Madonnina 88, Montefollonico
Telephone: (39) 057-766-9668

The Clifton

Read more about our editor’s trip to Tuscany and Umbria

By Andrew Harper Editor Andrew Harper editors travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who the editors are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.
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