Arriving at this Leading Hotel of the World through tall wrought-iron gates and along a gravel-crunching driveway is bound to make you feel special, and the first sight of tall, imposing Villa La Massa doesn't disappoint either. This 16th-century former Medici aristocratic retreat is painted a jaunty yellow and surrounded by cedar and lemon trees on terraces right above the Arno River, and will make you feel like a 19th-century Grand Tourist. Surrounding Tuscan hills are patch-worked with mansions and olive groves. The much-overused term "hidden gem" is appropriate here given the villa's out-of-town location and reputation for housing discreet movie and music stars.
The villa is eight kilometres along the Arno River from downtown Florence, not as inconvenient as that sounds since an hourly, complimentary hotel shuttle gets you to Ponte Vecchio in 20 minutes. You'll have to resort to a taxi in the evening unless you have a rental car. There's much in favour of the semi-rural setting, as Florence hotels can be cramped and subject to street noise.
The sunny grace of the main villa is contrasted with a rather brooding, masculine interior in which rooms are set around a colonnaded, multi-tiered central hall of shadowy atmosphere. More guestrooms are housed in a modern annexe and, along with the main restaurant, in a former mill outhouse. Formal gardens embedded with a heated outdoor pool dissolve into a larger park that's still something of a work in progress. The villa has a good spa lodged in its cellar, but my favourite hangout spot is the Mediceo Bar, pretty as an opera box with plush red armchairs and a baroque bar counter.
There are eight room and suite types in three buildings including an old mill and, as in any historic property, they come in a wide variety of sizes and arrangement. Expect classic Florentine decor of wooden furniture and antiques, handwoven fabrics, and paintings and mirrors in ornate frames that would gladden the heart of Liberace. Bathrooms are draped in the same Carrara marble Michelangelo used to chip out his statues. To really enjoy the old-world ambience and feel like a Medici, you'd best stay in the main Villa Nobile, where guestrooms have beamed or frescoed ceilings, four-poster beds and an autumnal palette. (The smaller, 20th-century Villino annexe has a lighter, more feminine pastel scheme.) My guestroom has a quirky dressing room in a corner tower and pretty garden views.
Il Verrocchio restaurant serves upmarket Italian cuisine that makes the most of produce (including olive oil) from the villa's own gardens, and emphasises Tuscan fare such as onion soup, stuffed zucchini flowers and Florentine steak. Eat inside under the cool of the vaulted ceiling of the former mill that houses the restaurant, or outside on the terrace overlooking the river. Head down to The Cellar for a wine tasting. The Tuscan Bistro offers simpler fare such as salads, pasta, fish fillets and Milanese veal.
Take advantage of the location to visit nearby out-of-town gems such as the superb hillside gardens of Villa Gamberaia, or attend a soccer match at nearby Artemio Franchi stadium, where ACF Fiorentina plays at the top of Italy's A-league. The hotel can organise day-long tours of Chianti wine country, or insider tours of Florence with an art professor.
You can't really go wrong staying at Leading Hotels of the World, and Villa La Massa is adroit at combining old-fashioned, understated luxury with contemporary conveniences and service. The villa, gardens, sunny aspect and views across the river all perfectly capture the Tuscan stereotype.
Via della Massa, Candeli, Florence. Rooms from $620 a night. Phone 1800 222 033. See lhw.com
Villa La Massa seems to linger in another era. The charming hideaway captures summer breezes and country tranquillity while avoiding Florence's big tourist crowds – yet it's still just a short ride from city sights.
In a hotel of this calibre, it's disappointing that bathrooms only have a shower-bath combination. In the bathroom of my particular suite I find it impossible to shower without water running all over the floor, requiring a mop-up with towels.
Brian Johnston was a guest of the Italian State Tourist Board and Leading Hotels of the World.