This article was previously published by Fathom.
Otranto, ITALY – Before we had children, my husband and I used to travel to Italy every other year for vacation. The land of delicious food, incredible wine, beautiful people, and of course that way of life known as “La Dolce Vida,” Italy has it all. So, after a rainy family vacation in France last summer, it was a no brainer that this year we would need to travel further south to make sure that the only precipitation we experienced was from the crashing of waves and not from the sky. Since we prefer to travel in June before tourist season ramps up, we chose to head south to Puglia, where summer begins in May and lasts until October. We were traveling with our kids, ages 8 and 6, so prior to the trip, I scoured the archives of the Internet in search of the perfect masseria, beach clubs, and restaurants that would satisfy this discerning traveler, while also accommodate our children. What followed was a memorable trip punctuated by many plates of orecchiette, ball after ball of burrata, magical local beach clubs, welcoming family-owned hotels, and a constant supply of Aperol Spritz.
Puglia is the region of Italy known as the heel of the boot. The southern part of Puglia, where we spent our time, is known as the Salento Peninsula. With two coasts, its eastern shore gazes at the Adriatic Sea, and the west coast fades into the Ionian Sea. The east coast, while often windy, has a dramatic coastline boasting a mix of sandy beaches, rock formations, and grottos. In contrast, white sand beaches, and calm, warm, turquoise water are typical of Puglia’s west coast, often drawing comparison to the Caribbean Sea or the water of the Maldives. From north to south along Puglia’s east coast, the commercial centers are Bari, Brindisi, Lecce and Otranto. On the west coast, the largest towns are Taranto and Gallipoli. The highest concentration of masseria (small, family operated hotels) is found around Ostuni and the Valle dei Trulli between Bari and Brindisi. As a result, beaches here are more crowded with foreigners, and the villages are populated with souvenirs shops and restaurants with menus in three languages. To me, this does not translate to having an authentic Italian experience. Which is why, when researching this trip, I decided to venture further afield for our accommodations.
Masseria Prosperi: With only six rooms, a stay at this lovely farm in southern Puglia feels like visiting the home of cool friends who have decided to open their home to their in-the-know traveler friends. With all the creature comforts of a luxury hotel, the rooms at Masseria Prosperi are light, bright, and designed with the simply elegance of a country residence. When I say “farm,” I mean it. Just beyond the main part of the hotel is a huge coral, complete with a dairy cow, horses, donkeys, goats, turkeys, and geese. While this ménage of farm animals would normally not live together in such harmony, they have been raised this way and know no different (btw, the cow is the boss!). A wonderful diversion for families traveling with kids, the animals are friendly and love to be fed by little hands.
Speaking of diversions, if the kids get bored in the pool there is a swing, play structure, and trampoline accessible to younger guests. Because of the small size of Masseria Prosperi, it is natural to become acquainted with other guests, which makes aperativo hour around the pool a lively affair. Be sure to enjoy at least one dinner at Masseria Prosperi, a multi-course experience around the communal table that brings travelers together and often includes the owners, Antonio and Mercedes. Otherwise, the masseria is an easy 15-minute drive to the restaurants of Otranto.
Masseria Potenti: An Instagram paradise, Masseria Potenti is the incredible creation of mother-daughter duo Maria Grazie di Lauro and Chiara Tommasino. Located in a secluded part of the Mandurian countryside, just a short drive from the Ionian Sea, Masseria Potenti is an expansive whitewashed 16th-century farmstead that has been painstakingly converted into a beautiful and luxurious boutique hotel. The design of Masseria Potenti is what really makes it stand apart from other boutique hotels in the region. The impressive collection of furniture, textiles, and décor that Maria Grazie and Chiara have amassed are woven into the fabric of the Masseria and assembled to make guests feel like they are visiting a friend’s whimsical weekend house. With suites spread throughout the property in converted stone stables with vaulted ceilings, guests are ensured privacy and a peaceful night sleep. Meanwhile, courtyards and outdoor lounges are lit by twinkling lanterns and are fragranced by Maria Grazie’s incredible floral designs that she cuts from her garden.
Speaking of Maria Grazie, every morning at 4 am. she wakes and begins baking bread, cakes, and other pastries for her guests’ breakfast. In the afternoon, she conducts a cooking class where she teaches guests about Apulian cuisine and imparts a few of her family’s recipes. When she is not in the kitchen or playing hostess, Maria Grazie can be found in her garden, harvesting vegetables, herbs, and fruit for the afternoon and evening meals served in the Masseria’s outdoor dining room. This woman never stops, and is the heart and soul of this place. TIP: Most weekends in the high season, Masseria Potenti plays host to lavish weddings. So if you wish to book a stay here, make accommodations in your itinerary for a mid-week visit.
Masseria Cervarolo: My main regret about our visit to Masseria Cervarolo is that we only got to spend two nights here. Located near Ostuni in the Valle dei Trulli, Masseria Cervarolo is a lovely, small hotel tucked into the side of a verdant hill, and surrounded by ancient olive groves and vineyards. Guest accommodations consist of rooms in the main villa or in a series of trulli, the unique conical buildings that dot the countryside in this part of Puglia. Guestrooms are simply designed with an Italian-country flare that complements the unique architecture of the trulli.
Be sure to explore the nooks and crannies of this property, that reveal a painstakingly restored, tiny 17th-century chapel and a warren of charming and comfortable indoor living rooms. Seeking a break from playing tourist? The pool at Masseria Cervarolo is the largest hotel pool I have experienced, and is perfect for small children, lap swimmers, or couples seeking solitude in the shade. Plus, lunch or an aperativo under the pergola of the pool bar is pretty fantastic.
Restaurant Tip: Whether it is a beach club or a restaurant, always book in advance, even if you call the same day. Italians like reservations!
La Terrazza 300 mila: From the owners of Bar 300 mila in Lecce, this is hands down the best pizza in Otranto! Located up high in the old town with a huge water-facing terrace, this is a great spot to enjoy a casual sunset dinner. The pizza is thin crust and made to order depending on the size of your group – which means that the pizza can be made as long as your table.
L’Altro Baffo: Fantastic seafood restaurant just outside the castle walls in Otranto. While a more refined dining experience, kids are welcome so long as they behave. Enjoy a meal in the intimate dining room or up on the breezy terrace. This is the best restaurant in Otranto.
Ristorante Cibus: We loved this restaurant in tiny Ceglie Messepica so much that we ate here twice and told everyone we met about it. Ceglie Messepica is a small hilltop village with few tourists, charming streets, and lovely baroque architecture. Cibus, tucked down a quiet alley and housed in a restored fifteenth century convent, is a lovely slow food restaurant owned and operated by Lillino Silibello and his family. With a passion for ingredients and an exceptional wine list, a meal at Cibus is as delicious as it is memorable. Be sure to order the house antipasti and the cold spaghetti with stracciatella cheese, fresh tomatoes, and basil – it’s the dish I would go back for again and again!
Mora Mora Bistro del Mare: When we first touched down in Puglia, our host from Masseria Prosperi suggested that we stop at this beach club on a lovely cove between Brindisi and Otranto for a casual seaside lunch. Being a weekday, and somewhat windy, Mora Mora was pretty quiet, i.e. the DJ was still getting his gear set up and the few diners consisted of the owner’s relatives and friends. The new chef, who had just arrived after traveling and cooking around the globe, was busy in the kitchen turning out fresh seafood and pastas with his own signature style of international contemporary cuisine. If its the weekend, be sure to book in advance.
Lo Scalo: Ever since the 1990’s, when I visited La Fontellina, a local beach club tucked into the rocks on Capri, I am always in search of the locals only, in-the-know, beach club-restaurant combination that no one has ever heard of. Lo Scalo comes pretty close to meeting these criteria! Built into the rocky coastline just outside the hamlet of Marina di Novaglie at the tip of Salento, this seafood restaurant is perched right above the water with endless views of the Adriatic Sea. Feast on fresh lobster, fish, and just made burrata, or enjoy a simple dish of spaghetti with clams. After lunch and a couple of glasses of wine, take a snooze in one of the lounge chairs on the terrace below. When it is time to pull it together and head out, take one last plunge into the crystal blue-green water before walking up the hill to the car. Lo Scalo also rents rooms.
ON THE SIDE
EXPLORE: You can’t really experience Puglia without renting a car, so make use of it! There are so many wonderful villages in this part of Italy that haven’t been completely destroyed by tourists that you can actually have an authentic Italian experience. With the exception of the towns of Alerobello (which felt like we were exploring Puglia’s version of Disneyland) and Ostuni, we saw very little impact of foreign tourism on the Italian way of life, because Puglia is where Italians go for their vacation. So, stop for a swim with the locals in Castro Marina, stroll through Cisternino and Martina Franco, stop for a gelato in the square in Fasano, and take the windy coastal road instead of the highway. There are so many wonderful spots in Puglia that are just waiting to be explored.
BEACHES: The main thing to do in Puglia during summer is hit the beach! The beach clubs that we loved and returned to are family operated, and with the exception of one, located on small private coves where the sea is calm. When in doubt, always ask a local for a recommendation.
Lido La Castellana: Located just outside of Otranto, this little beach club is a slice of paradise. Owned by Ennio and Carlo Capasa – Milan based fashion designers who grew up in Puglia; Lido La Castellana is a family operation where kids scamper and swim, while nonnas sip cappuccino and decide what to serve for lunch. The small cove, with beautiful, shallow blue-green water, is dotted with white umbrellas and loungers and backs up to a lush, grassy lawn. Lunch is served on the patio shaded by a pergola draped in grape vines, and surrounded by a collection of blue and white cabanas. The menu is brief, consisting of food that is fresh that day, such as friselle Puglisi, a regional dish of crusty, hard bread drizzled with olive oil and topped with a fresh salad of tomatoes, burrata, arugula, or whatever is crisp that day. Days spent at Castellana are lazy, quiet, and family oriented. Don’t come here expecting a disco or DJ (as many of the beach clubs advertise), this is a local place, that is small, chic, and perfectly executed.
Lido Santo Stefano: We were the only Americans in sight at this local beach club just south of Monopoli. Larger and more casual than Lido La Castellana, Santo Stefano is a sandy cove sandwiched between rocky outcroppings and the ramparts of Castello di Santo Stefano. Orange and green umbrellas dot the sand and provide shade for families and friends relaxing and catching up by the sea. While the beach is busy on weekends, it is virtually empty during the week, a reflection of the fact that this is a local spot that tourists don’t usually visit. Lunch here is simple and unsophisticated, and consists of prepackaged salads, paninis, and ice-cold Moretti beer. If you need a break from sitting in the sand, head over to the bar, where the octogenarians play dominos and smoke cigars, or swim out to the raft and lounge in the sun. Whatever your jam, bring your best Italian to Lido Santo Stefano, because English is happily not spoken here.
Lido at Bacino Grande: Located at the south end of the sweeping bay of Porto Cesareo, this small beach club on the Ionian Sea is part of the Bacino Grande Hotel, and is a quiet, family friendly spot with unbelievable shallow, warm water and a great restaurant. While this long, sandy beach can get crowded, most of the beach clubs and bars are mostly concentrated towards the north end of the beach, making the location of Bacino Grande more relaxed. For lunch, Bacino Grande has a casual outdoor bar serving delicious pizza, pasta, and pugliese fare. If you want to dress up for lunch, a formal enclosed restaurant fronting the beach appeared to draw business people and well dressed locals for a long, seafood lunch.
When to Go: In Puglia, summer starts in May and lasts until October. If you can swing it, the shoulder season sees fewer crowds than July and August, when all of Europe is on vacation.
Transportation: A 50-minute flight on Alitalia takes you from Rome directly into Bari or Brindisi. Car rental in Puglia is essential. Be prepared for lines and inefficiency at the rental car counter. Driving from place to place in Puglia is straightforward with the help of GPS, but expect to spend a lot of time traveling on country roads.
Money: The currency in Puglia, like the rest of Italy, is the Euro.
Language: The spoken language in Puglia is Italian, however English is widely understood.
There is nothing worse than arriving at a beach club, only to find that the sun beds, umbrellas, and restaurant are priced to target tourists, especially when the locals beach club next door is a fraction of the price, less crowded, and shares the same sand. That mistake was made once on our trip, and thankfully never repeated.
Before we embarked on this adventure, I had compiled a long list of beaches, towns, and restaurants that I wanted to experience. My best advice is to try not to see and do too much. Take things slow in Puglia.
Whats to Come:
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