The real name of the First Dates Hotel is Aquapetra Spa and Resort. It’s a four-star resort in southern Italy, but is it really as romantic as it looks on screen?
One wet, windy Wednesday in January, our Travel Editor flew to Naples and checked in.
Aquapetra is an hour’s drive and a world away from boisterous, busy Naples.
It was dark when I arrived. I crept up the stone path feeling like I’d stepped back in time. Before it was lovingly restored by the architect owner, the hotel was an abandoned 19th-century hamlet.
Some of the rooms are in former cottages and the restaurant is an old wine cellar. There’s even a church licensed for weddings.
The next morning, I awoke to glorious sunshine and a lovely view. Perched high in sleepy Sannio Valley, Aquapetra is surrounded by mountains, woodland, olive groves and rolling vineyards.
Think Tuscany without the hordes of tourists. And thanks to the peaks that loom over it, this valley is almost always blessed with blue skies.
The hotel’s restaurant, La Locanda del Borgo, had a complete makeover for the show: the walls aren’t usually crowded with hearts, there isn’t a bar, it’s not unflatteringly over-lit.
The real thing is more sophisticated. It feels historic but modern: stone walls, inky blue vaulted ceilings, a roaring fire, acres of space so the table next door can’t eavesdrop on your sweet nothings.
If you do need a shot of Dutch courage before dinner, there’s a chic bar downstairs (which doubled as the reception during filming).
Sadly there was no sign of Fred the maitre’d, nor the buff Italian waiter, but First Dates Hotel’s restaurant manager Francesca showed me to my table. She’s just as energetic and funny off-camera – and a wine expert.
She recommended trying the local vino because there are 70 vineyards within 30km of Aquapetra and “wine is good company for love”.
No sooner had she poured a glass of sparkling wine as quaffable as any Prosecco, than a waitress appeared with dainty breadsticks and cloud-like focaccia to dip in olive oil from the hotel’s own groves.
During filming, the menu was made Brit-friendly and included dishes you’d never usually find in this region, or in Italy at all, like spaghetti bolognese (here’s Francesca on the dos and don’ts of dining like an Italian). The real menu is posher. In fact, it’s so fancy La Locanda won a Michelin star in November.
Chef Luciano Villani has taken local ingredients, his mother’s hearty recipes and transformed them with Heston-esque culinary alchemy into dishes almost too pretty to eat: dinky ricotta-stuffed tubes of cannelloni topped with tender veal ragu, even daintier ravioli stuffed with raw beef and a creamy parmigiano sauce.
My favourite dish was a perfectly cooked poached deep-fried egg in an impossibly light taleggio cheese foam, washed down with a local white wine – a sharp, minerally Falanghina.
Forget all that rubbish about the Mediterranean diet being healthy. The food from this region is fabulously rich.
The producer was very wise: if they’d stuck with the normal menu, the daters would have been so cooing over the chef’s magic, they’d have forgotten to flirt with each other.
The breakfast buffet was also a sumptuous spread, with all the usuals plus half a dozen delicious torta: chocolate cake, lemon cake, nut and pear cake, polenta cake… Yes, apparently it’s perfectly acceptable to eat cake for breakfast in Italy.
It was a relief to discover my room was a relaxing duck-egg blue rather than headache-fuchsia. All the rooms were painted pink for filming but have since been redecorated.
It was spacious and comfortable without being fussy: ensuite, minibar, flatscreen TV. The balcony looked out onto the belltower and would be a lovely spot for an apertivo when the evenings warm up.
The vast bed turned out to be two singles squashed together, which isn’t terribly romantic – unless, like me, you’re the independent type and value your personal space even while asleep.
The outdoor pool looked just as luscious as it does on screen, except there were are no scantily clad guests posing on the sunbeds because it’s pretty chilly at this time of year.
For a moment I wondered if I really had stepped into a rom-com because tinkling piano music accompanied my every step… then I spied the poolside speakers.
There’s also a balmy indoor pool with jacuzzi jets that’s better suited to canoodling than swimming. You can get steamy in the sauna and steam room, then cool off in icy plunge pools.
Or you can simply sink into a lounger as big and soft as a bed and drift off to the dulcet muzak, as I did.
Being a spa novice, I opted for the first massage on the list – the Swedish – and a serene woman led me into a fragrant, candlelit room and pummelled me mercilessly for 40 minutes.
I’d highly recommend it, but if pain isn’t your thing, she also does a dozen other massages including a Hawaiian Lomi Lomi one, whatever that is.
A new spa with a bigger indoor pool, rooftop jacuzzis, anti-ageing treatments and a woodland gym is due to open in March.
You have to hand it to Channel 4: Aquapetra is as gorgeous as it looks on camera. If your date likes sun, tranquility, fine food and interesting wine, this is the perfect place for a romantic weekend away.
Dinner: €65 for a four-course menu and aperitif
Swedish massage: €90
Room: €195 midweek, €260 at weekends in low season
First Dates Hotel is on Mondays at 10pm