Keith Allan: Riviera a magnet for those who wanted to get away from it all

editorial image

It’s January. The snow is coming down in half-crown snowflakes and I can’t help thinking about the Riviera.

It’s where we British used to migrate for the winter. November to May was the season, and 100 years ago the well-to-do would gather in their villas and grand hotels overlooking the balmy Mediterranean shoreline, while the not-so well-off would book their board and lodging in something smaller, perhaps a simple room in a guest house, for as long as they could afford it.

The main thing was to get away, to leave the cold and damp behind.

And the only way to travel was by train. A return first-class ticket from London to Marseilles cost a little over £10 according to my Edwardian Riviera guidebook. You could stay in Paris and catch the special day train at 9am to reach Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo and Menton the same evening.

Half a century later there was another way to get to the Riviera. By flying boat. In 1948 Aquila Airways, the brainchild of a former wing commander who had flown Sunderland flying boats during the Second World War, bought some old Sunderlands from BOAC and offered flights from Southampton every Thursday to Santa Mar-gherita on the Italian Riviera. It cost £87 for a return ticket (about £2,000 today). A crew of seven looked after 40 passengers on two decks.

There was a dining room with silver service and fine food, a bar, library and a promenade. Just like a small cruise ship, except it flew!

Splashing down in the sheltered bay of Santa Margherita, hotel staff from the Miramare and Splendid at Portofino dutifully waited with welcoming drinks and then whisked the pampered guests off to their respective hotels.

This part of the Riviera was a magnet for the rich and famous. The Duke of Windsor stayed at the Splendid (now the Splendido) in 1952 closely followed by Rex Harrison, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Clark Gable, Ava Gardner and Groucho Marx.

Out of the blue a black-and-white photograph of a Sunderland flying boat turned up at The Old Dairy the other day (brought in by a college student studying photography). It brought back a few memories of our own travels to that part of the world and quite by chance, The Old Dairy is planning its own winter jaunt to Rapallo, probably in March. It sits next to Santa Margherita and Portofino and my old guidebook describes it as a “little seaport in a small bay backed by a semi-circle of mountains.”

Our hotel is another Miramare, owned by a good friend, Natale Rusconi, who ran the Cipriani in Venice for 30 years. Rusconi is an icon in the hotel world and he and his wife Connie are hoping to join us from their home in Venice.

So if you should happen to visit The Dairy one day in March only to find the coffee shop closed (the rest of the showrooms will be open) do forgive us. We will be back, but by March star anemones and periwinkles are springing up in the olive woods, the hillsides are fragrant with thyme and lavender and the sea is quite warm for paddling and swimming.

I can already taste the best scampi fritti and the coolest Frascati. You’d better ring first if you want a cappuccino!

•Keith and Lynne Allan run the Restoration Coffee Shop at The Old Dairy in Ford (opposite Ford Castle) where they specialise in art-isan roast coffee and freshly baked scones, soda bread, and cakes. Open Wednesday-Sunday 11am–5pm. Tel: 01890 820325/01289 302658.