Can’t afford Tuscany this year? Who cares - instead, head to Puglia with the in-the-know jetset
Nestling in the heel of Italy is the rustically chic region of Puglia. Long touted as the new Tuscany, it has a totally unique heart and soul of its own. With its miles of incredible beaches and dunes, whitewashed conical trulli houses, cave dwellings, the Grottos of Castellana and beautiful ‘masserias’ - former fortified watchtowers turned boutique hotels - there is much to explore.
Alberobello is the capital of the trulli, cone-shaped houses that are full of magical signs for good fortune and eternal love. Fashion-mad Lecce combines a youthful buzz with its memorable Baroque architecture. Lose yourselves in the white kasbah of Ostuni, a Greek style town overlooking the sea. For more adventurous couples, mountain biking and horse riding are a dream in this largely rural part of Italy. Foodies will be in heaven, too. More than 80 per cent of Italy’s pasta is produced here. Bread is a religion with hundreds of different kinds. Antipasta is an art form and the local wine is improving year by year.
Best place to stay
Masseria Torre Coccaro began life as a 16th-century fortified watchtower and was converted into a 37-room, five-star hangout in 2002. It highlights all the good things in life like simple fresh food, flowers on the table and taking the time to chill. With meandering lounges, outdoor areas where you can relax on big sofas and leaf through books like David Bailey’s Locations, there’s plenty of that.
The outdoor pool has pretty coloured flags, reminiscent of prayer flags, and dark loungers, or you can retreat to the cottage garden with its olive-tree-hung hammocks. The hotel can arrange picnics on Persian rugs with flames surrounding you at sunset, or, if you want something more taxing, there’s an on-site cookery school where you can learn to cook a typical Apulian dish. There are also bikes there for the taking.
Some rooms are built in cosy grotto-like caves or in the original watchtower, while classic rooms have red shuttered doors with lace curtains at the windows, whitewashed stone walls, domed ceilings and traditional furniture such as distressed white wooden wardrobes. Beds are covered with locally embroidered throws and pretty canopy overhead.
Best ways to spend your days
The hotel has an unusual Aveda spa, set in an underground grotto. Treatment rooms are candlelit and there is a small indoor pool under the rocks. Treatment Torre Coccaro involves olive-oil paste (made from olives in the garden) being massaged into the hair and scalp and wrapped in hot towels.
It’s a short drive to the hotel’s private beach club on the Adriatic. With sushi bar, exclusive fish restaurant and cocktail bar with live music after dark, there’s nothing to do there but chill out. Private gazebos are available for massages by the sea from the Aveda Spa. More active couples can play volleyball or hire the hotel’s private yacht. Yet despite all the sophistication, the hotel still keep chickens and retains its rustic heart.
If you’re thinking of tying the knot, Masseria Torre Coccaro has just about the prettiest chapel imaginable, dating back to 1730. People from the local fishing village used to worship the patron saints here. Inside the beautiful pink exterior is the dinkiest Catholic-style chapel, which seats just eight or so guests. If you have more, the doors can be flung open so that they can stand glamorously outside in the Italian sunshine. Anglican weddings or blessings are available. It’s also conveniently located next to the entrance to the Orange Suite - favoured by honeymooners (and Claudia Schiffer and Matthew Vaughan) for its cave-like room and walled, orange tree garden and a stone pool.
Best spots for a romantic dinner
• Taverna della Gelosia, in the old town of Ostuni, serves mean black pasta and you can dine on the quaint steps.
• Pasha, in the historic centre of Conversano, serves creative Apulian dishes. Bag the one terrace table, famed for its marriage proposals.
• Dine in an ancient cave overlooking the sea in Grotta Palazzese in Polignano a Mare.
• Masseria Torre Coccaro’s homegrown capers, olives, olive oil and olive oil soap.
• Any type of fresh pasta.