Puglia, Italy

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Puglia offers many options for cooking tours—groups or individuals. For instance, chefs at the 33-room Masseria Torre Coccaro—a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World—teach guests how to make homemade pasta, for no Pugliese meal is complete without those little ear-shaped orecchiette (and two kinds of pasta a meal are common). Other aspects of this handsomely restored and luxuriously appointed masseria range from an Aveda spa tucked into a grotto, to a lagoon-like pool and a 9-hole golf course. The location—in Savelletri di Fasano—is excellent for exploring the Murge plain (and its frescoed cave churches), plus the Adriatic Coast. Rates start at $485 dbl with breakfast.

Our tour was headquartered in the Grand Hotel Masseria San Lucia outside Ostuni. It’s a modern resort with an outward appearance typical of the regional farm-house estate. Its 131 rooms occupy the main hotel, and fan out in separate bungalows toward a large pool, tennis courts and a tree-lined promenade leading to a private beach by the sea. Facilities include a restaurant serving regional dishes, a piano bar, spa and exercise room. Rates half-board pp dbl start at $154.

For almost all of the travel agents on this trip, this was a first-time visit to Puglia. Christine Pettingel, senior travel consultant at Vista Travel in Cambridge, MA, perhaps best summed up the group’s opinion of selling the region: while first-time travelers want to do the big three—Rome, Florence and Venice—“for my clients, Puglia can be sold as a single destination for repeat travelers. It’s a great week-long fly-drive, for the roads are excellent and easy to navigate. It’s an easy-to-travel in, laid-back and friendly place, perfect for young people and those with families, for there is lots to see and do.” And, she adds, “Puglia is very affordable, half the price of a vacation in say Rome or Tuscany.”

Another tour participant was Tami Cortez, Southern Europe product manager for Avanti Destinations. “This is our second year selling Puglia in our Italian offerings and we wrapped Puglia into a 9-night, deluxe package that also includes Rome and Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast, traveling between all points by rail. This way, clients don’t have to think about how to get there and get around.” The cost is $2,925 pp dbl, including 3-night deluxe accommodations with breakfast throughout, guided sightseeing, vineyard visits, special 3-course dinners, first class rail transport, and arrival and departure transfers at each destination.

On a week-long visit to Puglia, recommend clients see the frescoes of the rock churches in Massafra and Mottola, then treat themselves to a night or two at La Sommita, a gorgeous little white hotel atop the cool, white-washed hill town of Ostuni. Be sure to be in Trani when fishermen bring in the afternoon catch, and, of course, hang around for dinner. Next, go across to the neighboring region of Basilicata to the town of Matera to see the sassi neighborhoods—cave shelters carved into two ravines that slice through town and have been inhabited since ancient times (a UNESCO World Heritage site, “The Passion of Christ” was filmed here). Springtime brings the region’s wild flowers, while come September, it’s wine harvest time, then in October, olives are ripe for picking. Actually, a biking trip might be perfect—the relatively flat land is this cyclist’s dream. Both Backroads and Butterfield & Robinson offer cycling trips to Puglia.

accommodations The cities of Puglia have hotels of every size and shape and fit all sorts of budgets. But for the most authentic flavor of the region, choose a masseria, a traditional fortified farmhouse complex or rural hamlet, often walled and gated. Many—and the number keeps growing—are restored with great charm and attention to detail, and among those, many are of resort-like proportions. Here’s a sampling:

One of the first conversions was the 37-room Il Melograno, a member of Relais & Chateaux, with an 18-hole golf course, a spa and access to a beach. It is just outside Monopoli on the Adriatic Coast, midway between Bari and Brindisi and an easy drive to Taranto. Double room with breakfast and taxes from $462.

Another is Il Convento di S. Maria de Costantinopoli, a 15th century convent beautifully restored by British owners and furnished with eclectic collections from all corners of the globe. Rather like a private country house, Il Convento is located not far from the coast of the Basso Salento below Lecce.