The picturesque bay tucked behind the hills of Porto Ercole beckons invitingly as I drive up to Il Pellicano, the five-star Relais&Chateaux property, to meet its general manager, Cinzia Fanciulli. With her friendly smile and sparkling blue eyes she looks as welcoming as the Mediterranean in the background.
As general manager of Roberto Scio’s Il Pellicano and La Posta Vecchia, as well as delegate of the Italian Relais&Chateaux Association and consultant on the tourism board for the southern Tuscan region of Grosseto, she makes her mark.
Il Pellicano is a romantic retreat in a magical spot with exclusive access to a private bay on the peninsula of Porto Ercole. The actual property consists of rooms in the main house and cottages dotted around the Tuscan hills hidden by cypresses and olives trees, all with a view of the crystal blue sea.
A LOVE STORY
Over a divine seafood lunch, my host tells me the story of Il Pellicano, a story of love, pioneering spirits and exclusivity. Michael Graham, an Englishman in search of business opportunities in the USA after the war, fell for the beautiful Patsy Dalzell, who at the time was being courted by no less than Clark Gable. The couple met at Pelican point in California and fell deeply in love.
When Graham’s longing for Europe grew too strong, they moved to Italy, where his initial idea was to open a club, something exclusive to fill a gap in the market.
One of the couple’s strong points was their remarkable networking skills. They dined with Hollywood divas and European royals, and were famed for their connections.
"I think Michael was – for his time – a pioneer in public relations," Cinzia remarks. "Nowadays, enterprises invest heavily and outsource their PR, but Michael was a natural."
The Italian Prince Borghese family, who owned the entire stretch of the Grosseto coast, offered Graham this particular point to establish a hotel for VIPs, as the prince wanted to attract a specific type of guest to this part of the country.
He gratefully accepted the opportunity, and on 2 June 1965 opened a small hotel named Il Pellicano after the place where he and his wife first met. With their high-profile connections, Il Pellicano soon became the place to be, and celebrity guests included the Kennedy family and Charlie Chaplin.
FROM PAST TO PRESENT
Today, prestigious guests still visit this special place. I missed Michael Caine by a week and other regulars include Sting, Barbara Streisand, Roger Moore and Meg Ryan. But the hotel is in no way pretentious; it is more like a relaxing getaway.
Cinzia tells me that Graham’s spirit still lives on; indeed, his sense of style and English understatement has set the tone of the premises. "Although," she continues, "in those days the hotel was more like a club. Michael was very selective. He turned royalty away if he found their dress inappropriate. He loved Il Pellicano so much; maybe even too much, as profit never really came into the equation. Elegance and exclusivity ruled."
Throughout my stay I hear many stories from the Graham days. Cinzia’s husband Richard remembers those days very well. Born in Tasmania, he moved to Italy as a young man and enjoyed the heyday of Il Pellicano as a barman.
"Those were the days when Michael would encourage drinking competitions and plunging in the pool in the middle of the night," he remembers. "Things have calmed down, but it’s still a place of enjoyment."
Graham sold the property in 1979 after 14 years as general manager.
Cinzia believes it is not coincidental that he sold the property to Scio, a wealthy businessman with enterprises all over the world. "Despite Scio not having any experience as a hotelier," Cinzia explains, "Michael knew that he would preserve the property and its philosophy."
THE HOTEL THEME
Cinzia has been in charge for 12 years now. In the spirit of the hotel, a bond of love is also the reason for Cinzia’s arrival at this special spot.
Scio approached Richard to see if he would return to Il Pellicano as he felt that he represented a part of its history, but Richard said he was married and now had new priorities.
However, when Scio found out that the wife in question had hotel management experience and a good reputation in the industry, he decided to interview her for the position of GM. The couple returned to Il Pellicano together and 12 years later Cinzia has also become a part of Il Pellicano.
When I ask Cinzia to describe the soul of the hotel she says: "You have to feel the place. I can tell you about the place from a manager’s point of view, but the philosophy of the place can only be experienced, not described."
Only three hours after getting off the plane, I find myself swimming in the sea, and I realise that in such a tranquil setting it is impossible not to feel calm and relaxed.
THE SECRET OF SUCCESS
Meanwhile, I’m curious to find out the secret of Cinzia’s success and how she has excelled in such a traditional business. One seldom comes across female GMs in the hotel industry, but it seems her ambition came naturally. She has not adopted a masculine demeanour and, if anything, seems rather feminine. She also has a son of 16 and is happily married, so she has not had to give anything up.
"I was fortunate," she says, "firstly that my parents always taught me to be (financially) independent. Secondly, to have a wonderful husband who is always supportive and encourages me to do what I feel I need to do. No jealousy, no chip on the shoulder. Richard is very English in that way," she adds with a smile.
One thing she loves about her work is that she deals with an international industry. "This opens the mind," she says, "and it’s a great opportunity for my son." Mother, manager and wife, Cinzia believes that: "With the right people and the right place, everything’s possible!"
HAVING IT ALL
Cinzia is the perfect host. I watch her speak to a Baroness, chat with a German industrial giant and his wife, and deal with some unwelcome paparazzi that an Italian TV star seems to have attracted. She is proactive and forceful, but she has an air of calm that fits perfectly with the elite resort.
The facilities also reflect top quality. Il Pellicano has a Michelin-starred restaurant and an enormous kitchen that prepares everything daily on site from fresh ingredients.
"We are fortunate here in Italy," Cinzia says modestly. "We have natural products that are delicious. Everything is produced locally; you can’t beat that fresh taste. All in all, we have a magical spot here that provides natural guest satisfaction, with its beautiful landscape and clean, clear waters. The only thing we need to do is top it up with superlative service."
Indeed, the service here is excellent, flowing naturally and efficiently. Her 105 head staff, mainly Italian, are charming and quick. "The heads of my departments," she confesses, "are better at their jobs than I could ever be; they are specialists. So I need to trust in their ability and give them chances."
It surely helps that most staff have been with the hotel ever since she joined or longer. Despite being a seasonal resort open for only seven months a year, people seem to get very attached to Il Pellicano.
"If we do need to find new staff, it always helps immensely that I’m a member of both EHMA and the Relais&Chateaux Association," she says. "I can contact them to exchange ideas and staff recommendations with other members. It’s the most reliable source out there."
The surroundings may be a gift from nature, but the high standard of water purity is down to the region’s tourism council, which ensures optimal waste management and so forth. Cinzia is involved in these processes and is proud to say that the stretch of sea by Il Pellicano has received the blue flag, the highest mark of clean water in the world.
In this way, Il Pellicano has been preserved as an exclusive, romantic hideaway and most of its guests are repeat customers.
Il Pellicano is famous for many things, but it is fair to say that a big part of the hotel’s appeal is its general manager, Cinzia Fanciulli.