Tuscany, But Not As You Know It

tuscanyLee Marshall, The Daily Telegraph, March 31, 2014

How many people in Britain think of the sea when they hear the word Tuscany?” asks Leonardo Ferragamo, the fashion entrepreneur-turned-hotelier who wants to change our perceptions of this much-visited summer destination. In a region that conjures up rural Chiantishire farmhouses, cypress-lined avenues leading to Renaissance villas, and rustic trattorias in walled hill towns, it is easy to forget that Tuscany has a coast at all. In some cases, this ignorance is bliss: the seaside sprawl around resort towns such as Viareggio and Marina di Pisa is no great advertisement for the Tuscan beach, unless renting a sunlounger on a square of sand where families are packed in like sardines is your idea of a good day out.

But Tuscany’s 205 miles of mainland coastline also take in long stretches of sand dunes backed by pinewoods, and rocky promontories covered in fragrant macchia. Offshore is an archipelago of seven major islands, only one of which, Elba, is much known beyond the yachting fraternity (and even Elba has its hidden bays and beaches). Some stretches of coast are protected nature reserves. One of these, the Riserva Naturale delle Bandite di Scarlino, enfolds what must be one of the most spectacular beaches on the Tuscan mainland – Cala Violina, a long violin bow of fine white sand that can only be reached on foot, on horseback or by mountain bike.

Just outside the northern gate of the reserve lies Leonardo Ferragamo’s big Tuscan seaside gamble: Marina di Scarlino, a strikingly contemporary yacht marina and leisure development. Providing 950 moorings for yachts up to 36m (118ft) long, this conch-shell-shaped harbour – reminiscent, for those in imaginative mood, of the Piazza del Campo in Siena – also takes in 39 apartments, three restaurants, shops and galleries, a beach club, spa and boatyard.

Let’s be honest: this is not postcard Tuscany. But it makes no attempt to be. There are no faux-Renaissance brick and terracotta palazzos and piazzas, of the kind you find in high-class Italianate shopping malls the world over. The design motifs here are clean horizontal lines in white-plastered concrete and brushed steel, acres of decked terraces, and wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows.

Marina di Scarlino is unashamedly contemporary – and as a result, the first impression is of a development that could be in Marbella or Miami. That impression is reinforced by the mild microclimate of the area around the resort of Golfo del Sole, which is Tuscany’s Florida or Costa del Sol: it is often seven or eight degrees warmer here than in Florence, and it’s not unusual to be able to enjoy an alfresco lunch in February.

Many Italophiles will be horrified by the Marina’s modernity; others will find it all rather refreshing. After all, if you need it, that other Tuscany – the vine-draped, hilltown-sprinkled version that always makes the covers of travel magazines – is right outside your door. Scarlino lies at the centre of the Maremma, the sparsely inhabited southern coastal swathe of Tuscany that is like Chianti on a grander scale, minus the tourist tweeness. This was once a wild area, infested by malaria, where cowboys known as butteri roamed in a landscape untouched for centuries.

Some of that wildness lingers on in the wide open landscape and the gruff, direct local character. Dotted with Etruscan tombs, hot springs, thermal vents and pyrite deposits, the Maremma possesses an archaic, earthy energy and mystique. But it has also been for many years a chic second home for smart urban Italians and foreigners who are investing not only in jet-set seaside enclaves such as Monte Argentario and Roccamare (where Leonardo Ferragamo and Roger Moore both have holiday homes) but also in several of the pretty medieval villages that dot the hinterland.

Wine has also given this southern part of the Tuscan coast an image upgrade: alongside the great aristocratic estates of Bolgheri, a 45-minute drive north of Scarlino, there are now some excellent producers closer to hand, among them the state-of-the-art Antinori estate, Le Mortelle, and Poggio Argentiera, an upcoming winery owned by Shropshire resident Gianpaolo Paglia.

I meet Leonardo Ferragamo in one of the sumptuously frescoed reception rooms of Palazzo Spini Feroni, the 13th-century property associated with the Ferragamo family since the Thirties, when Leonardo’s father Salvatore bought it as his company headquarters. “If you draw a 100km circle around Marina di Scarlino,” he says, “you get a slice of the best that Tuscany can offer on land and at sea: Pisa, Lucca, Siena and Chianti, but also Monte Argentario, the vineyards of Bolgheri and the islands of the Tuscan Archipelago. It’s a great opportunity to get to know Tuscany while living by the sea”.

For those who don’t want to buy one of the apartments, there are other ways to sample seaside living. The “hotel” side of Marina di Scarlino features 32 suites – the Puro Suites Toscana – run as a joint venture with a Spanish company which also operates the marina’s Ibiza-style Purobeach Oasis del Mar beach club with its pool, sea-view terrace, and Japanese fusion restaurant. The formula couldn’t be further from the pasta in hare sauce on offer in any number of trattorias a few miles inland, but Ferragamo’s gamble is that the marina’s international cuisine and aspirational lifestyle, combined with the reassurance of being in a safe, no-hassle enclave with a range of services and leisure activities, will look attractive not only to cultured yachties, but also to any time-strapped globetrotter who sees a big old Tuscan country villa as a logistical nightmare.

Marina di Scarlino is not Leonardo Ferragamo’s first venture into the hotel and leisure sector. In 1995, frustrated by the staid hotel scene in Florence, he contacted Michele Bonan, a young interior designer, and asked him to give a new look to a hotel on the Arno, overlooking the Ponte Vecchio, that was already owned by the Ferragamo family. “I didn’t want to do another stereotype design hotel,” Ferragamo says. “My aim was to create something that felt more like a home. Michele and I shared the same style, the same taste”.

The result was the Hotel Lungarno – the first in a portfolio, called Lungarno Collection, that today includes four Florence hotels (the others being the Continentale, the Gallery Hotel Art, and the Lungarno Suites) and another in Rome – the Portrait Suites, just off the Via Condotti. All are designed by Bonan, in styles that vary from the Sixties retro of the Continentale to the Florentine elegance of the Gallery Hotel Art. The aim, says Ferragamo, is to “design not just the furniture, but the atmosphere… and to make it timeless, so that 20 years from now it won’t look out of date”. Lungarno Collection also includes the seven-bedroom Villa Le Rose, south of Florence, whose frescoed splendour can be yours for €40,000 (about £33,000) a week.

Unlike Giorgio Armani, whose Armani Hotels group trades heavily on his brand, Ferragamo does not push the fashion button in his hotel, marina and yachting businesses: many of the guests who stay in the Continentale or Portrait Suites are not even aware of the connection. “I believe that if you engage in a new activity, it should stand on its own feet,” he says.

That is what his mother had to do in 1960, when her husband Salvatore, the brand’s dynamic founder, died at the age of just 62, leaving her with six children between the ages of two and 18. Now in her nineties, la signora Wanda still comes into the office every day. “She does a lot more than just warm up a chair,” says Ferragamo, wryly. “You know when she’s there.”

The best of coastal Tuscany

Where else to stay
This super-elegant country-resort-by-the-sea in Castiglione della Pescaia is co-owned by Alain Ducasse, so not surprisingly, food and wine take centre stage. An ESPA spa, golf driving range and private chapel complete the package. Doubles from £270.

Il Pellicano: Perched just above its own private beach on the rocky promontory of Monte Argentario in Porto Ercole, this historic 50-room Relais&Chateaux resort with a two-Michelin-star restaurant does discreet seaside luxury like few others. Doubles from £345.

Poggio ai Santi: It may be at the more affordable end of the luxury spectrum, but it’s easy to see why Amanresorts founder Adrian Zecha is a fan of this laid-back relais set in the hills just above the fishing port of San Vincenzo. Tasteful country decor, good food and a warm welcome are three persuasive factors. Doubles from £125.

Where else to eat
La Pineta:
Built right by the water at Marina di Bibbona, La Pineta looks like a humble beach bar on the outside, but inside the elegant table settings and shelves of stellar wines tell another tale: this is, quite simply, Tuscany’s best seafood restaurant. Book well in advance, especially for dinner. Call 0039 0586 600016 - there is no website; average £60 a head without wine.

Osteria del Mare: In a quiet street of quietly chic Castiglione della Pescaia, chef Massimiliano Ciregia and his wife Monica preside over this tiny 18-cover restaurant – which used to be known as Il Vòtapentole. Massimiliano is a seafood wizard whose creations range from party pieces such as shrimp parmigiana to the simplest steamed fish served with home-made mayonnaise. Average £35 a head without wine.

Where else to play

Parco Regionale della Maremma: The Monti dell’Uccellina, an undulating chain of low coastal hills covered in fragrant macchia shrubland and dotted with medieval watchtowers, form the backbone of this well-run regional park in Alberese, which features some of Tuscany’s wildest beaches.

Bolgheri: The double line of cypresses leading up to this pretty castellated village was famously lauded by the poet Giosuè Carducci, but today it is the grapes that most people come for. This is the heartland of Sassicaia, a wine of legendary power (and price). Winery visits can be arranged via the local consortium .

Marina di Scarlino has a range of accommodation. The Puro Suites Toscano start at €135 (£112) a night in low season. A three-night cruise on Ferragamo’s 90ft-yacht Solleone costs from €20,000 (£16,680). Chesterton Humberts manages sales of the Marina di Scarlino apartments. Prices start at £290,000 for a 75-year lease. Until sales complete, they can be rented for €190 (£160) a night or €1,050 (£880) a week for a one-bedroom sea-view suite in low season, rising to €320 (£270) a night or €1,800 (£1,510) a week in August.

This feature originally appeared in the spring 2014 issue of UltratravelThe Telegraph's luxury-travel magazine. Catch up on previous issues  here