One is an Italian fishing village established by the Romans, the other, a meticulous recreation opened at Universal Orlando in 1999. Though they are separated by an ocean and a millennium, the intentional similarities are striking.
The Italian version is a bonafide member of the Italian Riviera. Large yachts dot the picturesque harbor and celebrities are frequently seen in town. The atmosphere is luxurious yet relaxed, with high end boutiques mingling with comfortable sidewalk restaurants. A short hike takes you up to Castello Brown, a beautiful and strategically placed estate overlooking both the Mediterranean sea and the secluded bay, named after the many dolphin swimming in it’s blue water. From its height one can see the two main hotels in town: the 5-star Hotel Splendido up on the hill to the east and the Hotel Nazionale, a quaint pensione style inn on the main square.
While several restaurants beckon with fresh seafood and atmosphere, Gemelli’s is a local favorite. Owned by friendly Paolo and Matteo Gemelli, two modelesque twins who used to run the family gelato shop, it offers delectable dishes such as the sea bass ravioli – a homemade pasta dressed in a heavenly sauce reminiscent of lobster bisque with curry. A great place for after dinner drinks or ‘beautiful people’ watching is the Chuflay Restaurant on the main square – also owned by the Hotel Splendido.
Portofino Bay Resort, Orlando
Jetting back over to Florida, we find the newer version – a planned resort with an obvious adoration for the original. Located at Universal Orlando, it is set back from view, accessible by a tropical garden path or a quick boat ride from the main lake. The Loew’s resort includes meeting space, the Mandara Spa and several pools for the 750 room property. The check-in area is set back behind the main square, elevated on a second story. Many rooms have balconies overlooking the bay.
Upon arrival, the bay’s similarity is apparent, having the same shape and layout along with the casual boats in the harbor. As water taxi passengers disembark and walk toward town, they hear the Italian tenors echoing through the main square. Portofino aficionados are immediately struck by the attention to detail – the church tower is recreated along with the size and layout of the buildings along the bay, the cafes on the square, the Italian street signs and the white lights lining the buildings, illuminating the main square at night.
While Central Florida only affords a landlocked bay and a flat terrain, effort has been made to build several layers of the resort, replicating hills via second story mezzanines. Where key restaurants are located in the Italian version, key restaurants are located in the American one, with Bice, Sal’s and Starbucks taking their place.
Both Portofino’s are recommended, but if you are headed to Universal Orlando, and you are a lover of all things Italia, Portofino Bay is a must see. As a guest you also receive free benefits such as a Universal Express pass to skip the regular lines, a one hour early admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter before the park opens, and free delivery of purchased merchandise from the park to your hotel room. These benefits offer a major advantage over the crowds and long lines accompanying standard tickets.