La dolce vita in Tuscany; Your American niece arrives on your doorstep, wanting to see Europe. Where do you start, LISA ROLAND wonders?
What a view from the infinity pool 'YOU don't have to make an effort - just do what you'd normally do and I'll fit in," said the teenage American niece at the start of her impromptu two-month European visit.
"What about a trip to London, the Lakes or Blackpool?" friends helpfully suggested. Yeah right. Are you kidding? This was the best excuse ever - so Italy it was, allowing just enough hours for Dara's jetlag to clear before we marched her back to the airport.
We had been given the opportunity to stay in a fairytale castle converted into the ultimate boutique hotel in the sweeping Tuscan countryside with views to die for and food to match.
It would have been rude to say no. Besides, Blackpool could wait.
Castello di Casole is an idyllic set-up of 41 palatial suites in and around the main hotel plus an array of self catering farmhouses spread out around the 4,200-acre estate.
A cypress-lined lane weaves its way through the olive groves and vineyards to the elegant courtyard entrance with a welcome as warm as the heated infinity pool which the daughter was still swimming in at 7pm on an October evening.
Despite undoubtedly not being an establishment for the pennyconscious and dripping with an understated cool elegance, the Castello's staff could not have been friendlier or more approachable.
With the inevitable glass of Prosecco in one hand, we were shown around the splendid hotel, already feeling sad we were only here for two nights - and we hadn't even unpacked yet.
The 10th century Castello was bought in 2005 by the American company Timbers Resort with the meticulous conversion taking an astonishing seven years.
Anyone worrying that the US owners would risk losing its Italian identity couldn't be more wrong. The attention to detail with traditional building methods and materials from the original grounds and surrounding areas is what took the challenging project so long to complete.
The Castello has even managed to convert the building's original ancient wine cellar into an awesome Essere spa.
Within easy driving distance of various Tuscan landmarks, it's in a cracking location.
Medieval towers scatter the horizon and it's only 30 minutes from the awesome Siena where even in October we lay in the Piazzo del Campos, soaking up the late afternoon rays.
We tried to cram in as many picturesque villages as possible on our whistlestop break, swinging off the main country lanes whenever we spotted a tower.
There really is a limit to how many gigantic gelatos windy bends will stomach - but it's worth pushing it to the limit.
Despite Castello di Casole definitely being in the upper end of the holiday market, there's not an ounce of stuffiness and it positively welcomes families.
There's a host of special packages definitely encouraging well-heeled bambinos.
So when we were offered a pizza-making class I envisaged one of those kiddy-orientated 'make a smiley face out of mushrooms and olives on a Margarita'. I wasn't keen, but the American niece fancied it, and when in Rome... or Tuscany.
I couldn't have been more wrong and our two teens were the youngest participants by several decades.
Our charismatic teacher, pizza chef Alessandro, meant business and so did our fellow participants, one New Yorker even coming dressed all in white in case of floury mishaps.
Alessandro utterly spoiled pizzas for us that night as none have since tasted anywhere near as spot-on as his. And even our attempts - complete with hilarious mid-air near misses as we threw the dough - were really rather good.
We came away full of the usual holiday-induced insane euphoria of "Wouldn't it be great to have a giant pizza oven in the garden"? The more informal Pazzia bistro-style eating is inevitably partnered with the ultimate dining experience at its big brother ristorante, Tosca.
Breakfasts served here really don't come much better. Nothing was too much trouble with a spread of choices second to none.
But we were also lucky enough to try one of its tasting menus one evening.
The whole night was an absolute joy. Course after course of the ultimate dining delight explained in detail by the engaging staff. And despite its obvious ambitious sophistication, it was great fun, with diners at other tables calling over to swap enthusiastic verdicts.
And so to bed. The suites have been furnished to the highest spec with state-of-the-art bathrooms, bedrooms which are just too ridiculously comfortable and, of course, those fab views.
It was mean to make us say arriverderci so soon, but the American had the rest of her European itinerary to fit in.
Maybe we should have done Blackpool first.
travel file | LISA ROLAND stayed at Castello di Casole - a Timbers Resort - where rates start from PS460 per night per suite.
| They also have a wide range of enhanced packages available through to October, including VIP concert tickets to see tenor Andrea Bocelli and the famous Palio horse race through Sienna, pampering and exercise sessions, gourmet dining and wine tasting deals and family packages which feature painting classes and animal watching.
| See castellodicasole.com or call 39(0)577 951508 for full details.
Outside the beautiful Castello di Casole in Tuscany