For those not up on their geography, here’s a fun fact: Florence, Cap Ferrat, and Milan form a triangle. And the drive between the locales offers some very picturesque European scenery that is ideal for road tripping — think quaint Tuscan towns and the craggy cliffs and blue waters of the Italian and French Mediterranean coastlines.
Two years ago, when the Four Seasons opened a property in Cap Ferrat, it gained a home in the final link of the triangle, and a La Dolce Vita road trip was born. The Four Seasons will set you up with a vintage car, like a Jaguar Type E Roaster. (The car-rental company the Four Seasons partners with, JoeyRent, will trail you in a more modern car for when you get tired or need assistance; inquire about rates.) But what my husband, Andrew, and I did instead was rent a manual Peugeot from Hertz for less than 15 euros a day. I was almost six months pregnant at the time, and some of the vintage cars don’t have seat belts, so we decided to save our splurges for the hotels and meals. Driving the La Dolce Vita route takes you through many different subcultures, from medieval villages to bustling urban centers. And it can provide other unexpected pleasures: There’s nothing like fresh takeout ravioli when awaiting a tow truck at a dreary gas station outside of Portofino.
So here’s how we succeeded — and occasionally failed, like our two breakdowns in the course of six days and getting locked inside a gated community in a French village — at living the sweet life, La Dolce Vita.
Arrive in Florence. While you can start at any point on the triangle, we chose Florence because of its proximity to Rome, the regional airport hub with the most direct flights from the New York area.
Explore Florence. Buy advance tickets to the Uffizi to avoid lines. A fun counterpoint to all that Renaissance art is the Ferragamo Museum, a temple to shoes. Eat an authentic Florentine meal at Trattoria Sabatino, where there is no English menu and many dishes cost less than five euros. The best gelato we had in Italy was at Gelateria Della Passera in San Frediano, one of the least touristy parts of Florence. Vivo, a low-key, well-priced fish restaurant that opened last year, serves memorable risotto and tuna Carpaccio.
Where to Stay
The luxe choice is the Four Seasons Florence. Arguably the top hotel in the city, this urban resort is situated on some of the largest private gardens in Florence in an old palazzo. The spa is considered one of the best in Europe — the tension-relief massage is a great treatment to get ready for the drive. Other perks: It’s extremely kid-friendly (there are two playgrounds on the property) and ideally situated, tucked away from the selfie-stick-wielding crowds. In the low season, a Superior Room starts at 350 euros.
For a mid-range option, try Adastra. Owned by an architect and graphic designer, the hotel has seven rooms and occupies the first floor of an ancestral family mansion in downtown Florence. The hotel has modern touches and beautiful Italian design pieces; no two rooms are identical. Bonus: The property overlooks the largest private garden in Europe. Rooms can start as low as 183 euros per night and breakfast is included.
Depart for Portofino. Drive about an hour west to the charming, exquisitely preserved Tuscan town of Lucca, a quiet walled city. Head straight for the terrace of Gli Orti Di Via Elisa, which serves tagliatelle with truffles for 15 euros and there’s an entire two-sided pizza menu. Then explore all of Lucca’s many nooks and crannies along its mostly pedestrian streets. Get back in the car for a half-hour or so, then stop in Forte dei Marmi, a seaside getaway that is popular with affluent Italians; it’s packed with high-end boutiques. Sit outside and people-watch. Then end the day in Portofino, considered the crown jewel of the Italian Riviera. Eat a bowl of the local specialty, Genovese pesto pasta, at the harbor-side restaurant I Gemelli.
Where to Stay
Splurge at the Eight Hotel Portofino (a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World), just steps from the center of town. This intimate boutique property has sleek rooms, a rooftop garden with a Jacuzzi, and a sister property in the next town over, Eight Hotel Parragi, that has direct beach access. Double standard rooms from 605 euros.
Begin the trip to Cap Ferrat, a 230-kilometer drive along the coast. Stop along the way in San Remo, on the west coast of the Italian region of Liguria, to see the exotic gardens and world-famous flowers. As you continue to drive along the A10 highway toward France, where it becomes the A8, marvel at the Italians’ engineering masterpiece: roads that burrow through mountain ranges via tunnel after tunnel, with dramatic viaducts spanning the deep valleys between them.
Explore the French Riviera. Start in Cap Ferrat at the Villa et Jardins Ephrussi de Rothschild estate, which has some of the most spectacular gardens in Europe. Then head west along the coast, past Nice, to the Cagnes-sur-Mer, where Musée Renoir is tucked away. The home and estate of the Impressionist artist boasts 14 original paintings and sculptures and is located on beautiful hilltop amid an olive grove. Antibes, a bit farther west, is another Riviera town worth visiting for its restaurants, markets, and Picasso museum. After a day of exploring afield, eat at Nonna, Cap Ferrat’s new, hip Italian restaurant that won’t break the bank.
Where to Stay
The Four Seasons Cap Ferrat is surrounded by stately homes and Mediterranean gardens on a secluded peninsula and has an enormous saltwater pool, a beautiful spa, and direct access to the sea. The grounds have a sweeping feel to them, but the hotel is quite intimate with only 74 rooms. La Veranda, the hotel’s restaurant, is the the perfect place for a cocktail and excellent Mediterranean cuisine with an Italian twist. Superior rooms start from 320 euros per night in the low season. Deal-seekers should look into La Villa Cap Ferrat, located a five-minute walk from the main village. It has a terrific sun deck with a pool and cabanas, great views of the Mediterranean, a sauna and steam room, and easy parking, and over half the rooms come with large terraces. A recent search turned up a double terrace room for 117 euros per night.
Depart Cap Ferrat for Milan. About a 20-minute drive east from Cap Ferrat is the Èze commune — stop to take a photo from the medieval French hilltop town with sweeping views. (Parking can be difficult.) Then head on to Milan, roughly four hours of driving.
Walk around Milan, making sure to linger in the arcades. A Santa Lucia, one of the oldest restaurants in Milan, is not overrun by tourists and serves great no-frills food at reasonable prices. Make sure to venture outside of the main shopping arteries and explore areas such as Brea, Corso Como, and Port Nuova.
Where to Stay in Milan
The Four Seasons Milan is located in the heart of the luxury district on Via Gesù. The convent turned hotel feels very Milanese — elegant, chic, and authentically Italian — and the staff is excellent (concierges are spot-on with recommendations). Superior rooms start at 590 euros per night. If you need a lower-priced option, try the Carlyle Brea Hotel. A four-star hotel that offers rates as low as 150 euros per night, the property is centrally located (there’s a metro station 100 feet from the entrance), offers free WiFi, and is in of one of the most vibrant retail and culture areas of Milan.
A perfect coda to your La Dolce Vita experience is a trip to the Grand Hotel Tremezzo and the surrounding environs of the mountainous Lake Como region. Take your car or the train to the city of Como. From there, it’s a cab ride, a seven-euro bus, or a high-speed water taxi for the 45-to-60-minute ride to Tremezzo. Even if you are going for only the day, book a cooking lesson with one of Milan’s hot young chefs, Martin Vitaloni, who just this year opened his contemporary Italian restaurant L’Escale at the Grand Tremezzo. But it’s worth staying the night (rooms from 466 euros). If you do, try the caprese salad and saffron risotto at La Terrazza, which is overseen by Gualtiero Marchesi, considered to be the founder of modern Italian cuisine.
As for non-culinary attractions: There’s a floating pool on Lake Como, a top-of-the-line spa, and a private boat for guests to tour the area. And the Villa Carlotta next door to the hotel has some of the best botanical gardens in Italy. Or take a vigorous hike up to Chiesa Santa Maria for a stunning overlook of Lake Como.
A Few Tips
Getting to Florence From New York
No carrier flies nonstop to Florence from New York, but you could take La Compagnie — a bit of a secret among frequent travelers — to Paris. The business-class-only airline, which flies twice daily from Newark to Charles de Gaulle, has the feel of a private plane but at a fraction of the price. Tickets can start as low as $1,000 round trip. There’s gourmet food, efficient service, and lie-flat seats. Aside from those luxuries, there’s the convenience of a number of easy connections to Florence, a two-hour flight once you arrive at Charles de Gaulle.
Getting from Milan to New York
Emirates has a daily 4 p.m. nonstop flight to JFK, which is a bit more civilized than the morning departure times of many of the other carriers. One-way tickets can start from $599, and Emirates has one of the most flexible and easy upgrade programs in the industry. (And in business class on the airline’s 380s, there’s a walk-up bar, which is pretty much as great as it sounds.)
And Other Things to Know
—Toll roads in Italy and France are expensive. Plan to budget around 75 euros for the entire trip.
—To avoid crowds, sweltering temperatures, and sky-high hotel prices, the best times of year for the road trip are the shoulder seasons, in early spring and the fall. Keep in mind that much of Cap Ferrat, as well as Portofino, shuts down between November and March.
—The roads in these parts of Italy and France are like a bowl of linguini — very narrow, windy, and steep. Andrew, who did all the driving, described it as an arcade game but with higher stakes.
—If driving the whole La Dolce Vita route seems like too much, JoeyRent provides daily rentals directly from all three of the Four Seasons properties. You can, for example, pick up a car in Cap Ferrat and drop it off in Milan later that day. Rates vary depending on the type of car.
—If you rent your own car, splurge for a built in GPS called “Never Lost” that, in many cases, is much better than GoogleMaps. Italy has a number of poorly marked roads and confusing rotaries. We originally renamed the “Never Lost” the “Never Upset” but did encounter a few snafus with this device, including being misdirected up an extremely steep hill and into a gated community where we were (temporarily) locked inside.