I've always espoused the mantra (if I can trap someone long enough while I bang on) that if you could take Italy's hinterland, and Greece's coastline and islands, you'd have arguably the world's perfect destination. That was until I had the very, very great pleasure of spending a couple of days aboard Blue Deer sailing around Italy's Pontine Islands. Greece, consider yourself redundant.
From Couture to Catamaran
First, the backstory. Blue Deer is a sublimely elegant catamaran owned by the even more sublimely elegant Stefano and Georgia Barbini, who were both grandi parrucche (big wigs, in Italian) in the fashion industry before one of the great midlife pivots into the world of luxury travel. 'Giorgia and I went from designing clothes to redesigning our lives. We started to… in Italian we say "dream with our eyes open."'
The first dream to come to fruition was San Lorenzo Mountain Lodge (now White Deer), their stunning chalet in the heart of the Dolomites, which they converted into quite possibly the finest 'homestay' in Italy. Lucky families or groups of friends can stay in extreme comfort while Giorgia knocks up Michelin-star quality Italian food and Stefano leads you on truffle or funghi hunting missions in the surrounding woodland or superb ski touring, depending on the season, before showing off the finer wines in his world class cellar of Italian vintages.
The thought of having your hosts actually staying with you might not appeal to everyone, but in this case it is an enormous enhancement to the trip and, in truth, its very essence.
Concept proven, Stefano and Giorgia turned their attention from Italy's mountains to the country's coastline and islands, and commissioned the building of a catamaran, Blue Deer.
That's how, after dropping some deeply unsubtle hints to Stefano, I found myself flying to Rome and driving two hours south to the charming port of Gaeta past endless gorgeous and empty beaches. 'What's this coastline called, Stefano?' I asked, excited at the prospects of having 'discovered' an entirely new region of Italy. 'Oh, it doesn't really have a name' said Stefano, otherwise occupied with being a comically stereotypical Italian driver on the autostrada (not for the faint-hearted), 'but this is the heart of the buffalo mozzarella producing region. The locals will only eat the cheese before lunch on the day it is produced.' Only in Italy could there be a region of such stunning coastline and culinary importance that doesn't even really warrant a name of its own.
And then there she was - Blue Deer - 74ft of twin-hulled gorgeousness, off whom trooped the three equally glossy crew.
We headed due west out of Gaeta until the only clue that there had been land somewhere behind us was a low ribbon of cotton wool cloud indicating where the coastline had been.
Ahead of us, and out of the haze, loomed the hints, then the silhouettes, and finally the realities of the Pontine Islands. First, Ponza, a dramatic basalt lump tilting out of the azure sea like a capsized white hull; then Isla Zannone, a designated nature reserve and home to just one house, inhabited by the forest ranger.
An Obsession With Detail
We moored up off Ponza in the shadow of vast cliffs behind which the sun dipped, and after a quick shower in the slate lined bathroom ('When we designed her' said Stefano, 'we started with the bathrooms - very importante') it was time for a not even remotely well-earned but very welcome apertivo and what would prove to be the first of several sensational meals on board.
As any sailor will tell you, the galley is normally tucked away deep below decks, but Stefano had decreed it should be at the open plan heart of Blue Deer, so guests can watch Paulo the Puglian chef (Stefano again: 'always have a Puglian in the kitchen; always') work his mouth-watering magic. Tonight's particular conjuring trick consisted of incredibly fresh grouper, a super-sized and perfectly al dente rigatoni, complemented by a crisp Sicilian white wine that's in such short supply and so popular with knowing Sicilians it never normally leaves the island.
The wine is just one example. 'We source the finest olive oil from Puglia;' says Stefano, 'Zibello Parmesan cheese - it has to be 2012; Langirano Parma ham from Santa Elario; tomatoes from Mariano; pasta from Graniarno; La Secchia 20-year old balsamic vinegar from Modena - bellissima; honey from near White Deer in South Tyrol and anchovies from Trapani in Sicily - a very beautiful place. Oh, and jam. The jam is made by my mum.'
You may have noticed by this point Stefano's attention to - no, that's not nearly strong enough - obsession with, detail. He and Giorgia try - and resoundingly succeed in my humble opinion - to present the perfect Italian experience. It's about showing people from less serenely blessed destinations that the genius of Italy is in its innate authenticity and simplicity.