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On the narrow road that bobs and weaves across the rocky Argentario peninsula to Il Pellicano's secluded seaside acreage, we were passed by a late-model Bentley convertible.

It was being driven with admirable brio by a grey-haired man in an open-collared sport shirt, to the evident enjoyment of his elderly female companions. There were two of them nestled in the glove-leather seats, one in the front and one in the back and both were flagrantly ignoring Isadora Duncan's rule about long scarves in topless automobiles. As the car whisked past us, bright-patterned silk flailing in the wind, we could hear their laughter.

When we reached the hotel and parked our dusty Opal wagon in the garage beneath the tennis courts, we found, along with the Bentley, a vintage Mercedes 300 SL and a spotless E-type Jaguar plus a nice selection of Porsches, Beemers and Audis. This was a place, apparently, for people who take their driving pleasures seriously.

While the 300 SL and the Jag were of La Dolce Vita vintage, the atmosphere at this famous resort hotel is more Fitzgerald than Fellini. The story of its genesis sounds like something out of The Great Gatsby and the punctilious country club atmosphere of the place helps the illusion along.

Nowadays on just about everybody's list of top resort hotels of the world, Il Pellicano started out as a private villa, a love nest built by a romantic couple named Patsy Daszel and Michael Graham. She was a California heiress; he was a dashing British airman who'd won worldwide fame in the early sixties by bailing out of his stricken aircraft over the African bush. The newsworthy part of the story was that he'd done it without a parachute, hoping the trees would break his fall (and nothing else). It worked, and the story caught the attention half a world away of Daszel, who filed it away in the back of her mind under "fascinating males I'd love to know." At the time Clark Gable was filling that niche in her life.

Through a series of coincidences, the airman and the heiress attended the same party in California, Graham by then in the employ of Volkswagen. Love bloomed and, so the story goes, the two travelled the world looking for a money-is-no-object place to live that satisfied their shared passion for the exotic and romantic.

They found it on this rocky, pine-carpeted peninsula, a spur on Italy's kneebone 150 kilometres north of Rome. The ruggedly beautiful Tyrrhenian coastline with its sprinkling of islands had appealed to early Roman aristocrats as well, and ruins of their villas can be found nearby. A thousand years later the Medici built fortifications, as did the Spaniards, who claimed the territory briefly. Formally a part of Tuscany, it has a wildness in its rocky escarpments and pine woods that contrasts sharply with the quiet, pastoral beauty of the inland portion of the province. It is no surprise to learn that the peninsula and adjoining islands were for centuries a favourite haunt of seagoing brigands.

The original villa built by Graham and Daszel has for about a quarter-century now been a part of a scattering of secluded cottages that together offer 27 rooms, eight junior suites and six deluxe suites. The tile-roofed buildings spill down a hillside to a cliff overlooking the sea. A swimming pool shimmers at the edge of the cliff, and there is an elevator that takes you down to where the sea meets the rock face. There, some very expensive engineering work has provided a secluded sun deck and bathing platform. Or you can take the stairs, if you've a strong stomach for heights.

There is nothing hotel-like about Il Pellicano. For one thing, you seldom see the other guests, except at dinner and lunch. Even their cars are hidden away in the underground garage. The experience is more akin to staying at a very well-appointed summer cottage. Except that just down the hill you can dine elegantly in the restaurant with its panoramic view of the sea and its top-notch cuisine. The seafood is especially memorable. Service is superb. For lunch, there's open-air dining by the pool with a hot and cold buffet that is truly exceptional. Waiters driving silent electric golf carts bring breakfast to your terrace doorstep along with the morning paper.

It is impossible to avoid using superlatives in connection with Il Pellicano. In its aim to provide secluded, informal, romantic luxury in a setting that blends perfectly with its spectacular setting, it could scarcely be improved upon. Like a dinner in a Michelin three-star restaurant, for most of us this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that is shockingly expensive -- but worth it. The memories are priceless and they last forever.

Il Pellicano 58018, Porto Ercole (GR), Italy, phone from Canada 011 39 0564 833801, fax 011 39 0564 833418, e-mail, Web site Rates for a double room vary from lire (about $250) for bed and breakfast and 590,000 lire ($385) for half board in low season (late October) 1,060,000 ($690) and 1,280,000 ($835), respectively, in high season (mid-June to mid-September). Deluxe suites begin at 1,269,000 ($827) for B&B in low season, and soar to 2,610,000 lire ($1,700) for half-board in high season.