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7 Nights, Southern Puglia, Italy

We spent seven incredible nights in the boot's heel of the Italian peninsula's Salento region of Santa Maria di Leuca, a perfect base to explore the south of Italy and its dozens of towns worth visiting. Unlike Napoli and the Amalfi Coast, Puglia is not saturated with tourists, yet. This region of Italy has slowly gained popularity over the past few years and will surely become another tourist magnet, so visit soon. The pace here is unbelievably tranquil, with slow starts to the day ending with late dinners and music pumping into the night from the various summer parties. Ancient ruins mingle with modern architecture amidst the Adriatic and Ionian Seas in the backdrop. There is nothing pretentious about Puglia- even its cuisine is modest, simply leaning on fresh seafood and vegetables. Our best meals were seasoned with olive oil, salt, and pepper allowing the flavors of the fish and veggies to carry the flavors. Senegalese migrants are woven into daily society here, adding to a diversity of people not seen in other Italian cities. The landscape is vast and undeveloped, yet plenty of charming towns are sprinkled throughout the region. The locally grown olives produce a richly flavored olive oil that is addictive, the tomatoes are sweet and juicy (I ate a few handfuls every day), and the round cucumbers called "cocomero" (a cross between a cucumber and a melon) are otherworldly. Some other foods that are unique to Puglia are taralli (small crispy dough rings), friselle (bread-like crackers served bruschetta style), focaccia, caciocavallo, mozzarella, burrata, and stracciatella cheeses, orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta), pettole (fried hot dough balls that come in a variety of ingredient combinations), and pasticciotti (sweet cake filled with cream). These foods are divine, mostly because the ingredients used are ultra-fresh. Our favorite meals were in our villa rental prepared by the warm and outgoing Donatella who spoiled us with these local delicacies and helped my Italian language skills resurface. Shops have odd hours, many honoring the ritualistic siesta, streets are desolate in the evenings until the dinner crew begins to arrive promptly at 8:30 pm, mosquitos join in on the feast (so spray often!) and the aqua waters of the Adriatic Sea can easily rival those in the Maldives any day. There is a raw quality here that cannot be replicated and may not be appreciated by everyone. I wholeheartedly welcomed its pureness, which forced me to speak only Italian for the week, mingle with the locals, and experience a magical Italian summer. Below is a flawless Salento itinerary that will ensure you feel like a local for an entire glorious week and that you'll leave feeling more sedate than ever.

Where to Stay:

This is our second time renting a villa through The Thinking Traveller, which has been voted the "best villa rental service in the world" for eight consecutive years by Conde Nast. The properties they manage are beautifully maintained and fully stocked with anything you'll need for your stay, with premier services like a private chef, grocery shopping, housekeeping, and a dedicated staff to help with all your needs. We rented Leucasia for our stay in Salento and loved every moment in the villa and on its sprawling property.

Day One:

Settle into your villa, jump into the pool, and have a sunset dinner prepared by a local chef who will make you traditional Puglian cuisines like orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) and arrosto (roasted beef) that are out of this world. Donatella was our chef for the week, our best meals in Puglia are the ones she prepared for us.

Day Two:

Beginning each day with a breakfast feast prepared with garden-fresh ingredients is the best way to start your day. Compared to prices in the USA, hiring a local chef to prepare your meals in Puglia is very reasonable. For our first breakfast, we were spoiled with ricotta stuffed squash blossoms drizzled with balsamic vinegar, an assortment of local cheeses, a homemade Nutella crumb cake, pasticciotti (cream-filled pastries), yogurts, eggs, and fruit. Some of our most special memories were made al fresco, enjoying Donatella's homemade meals.

Hit a Lido

There are many beaches to choose from in Salento. We relished our day at Le Cinque Vele, a stunning property with impeccable service and the clearest, aqua waters. There is beachside service and although it is a haven for locals, our server, Maximo, from Argentina, spoke English and made our day even more enjoyable with his conversations. The day slipped by too quickly here.

Enjoy a lunch with traditional Salento cuisine at the beach club

Our expectations were surpassed at the beach club's restaurant. Each ingredient used to prepare our meals was top-notch and regional to Salento; we even hand-selected the sea bass we wanted to be grilled. Delizioso!

Dine in a Castle at Chef's Table,  Castello di Ugento Il Tempo Nuovo

I have mixed reviews on this dining experience. The restaurant is in a seventeenth-century castle, in a romantic setting with a promising menu. Upon arrival, we were given an informative tour of the castle and then seated at the Chef's table which provided us with an up close and intimate view of the chef and his team managing the dishes and giving each plate a high level of attention to detail. The dishes are artfully displayed and are prepared with a unique combination of ingredients. Sadly, we were not impressed by the resulting flavors. The true highlights are the setting and the voyeuristic opportunity to see a fine dining kitchen at work. Castello di Ugento Il Tempo Nuovo is known as one of the best restaurants in the region with wonderful reviews, you may love it... I'm a bit of a food snob.

Day Three:

Each morning, Donatella impressed us with a new regional breakfast dish. For breakfast on day three, she proudly prepared a "pizza" with eggs and zucchini. Seeing her face light up with pride as we praised her for her tasty homemade meals, started our days off warm and fuzzy.

Explore the Coastal Towns on the Way to Otranto

A day trip along the coast is a wonderful way to get to know Salento. A drive from Santa Maria di Leuca to Otranto takes approximately one hour, longer of course with stops to discover some towns along the way.

Tricase Porto & Tricase: The port has a small promenade along the sea with a colorful marina and plenty of swimming holes. It makes for a cute, quick stop. I recommend veering off the coast and driving six minutes inland to Tricase, which boasts a fortress, a baroque church, a piazza with historic landmarks, and plenty of alleys to get lost in.

In Tricase, a visit to Martinucci is a must. The local bakery chain is tucked inside the walls of The Castello Gallone, a former fortress built in the 14th century, and makes a delicious caffe leccese (an espresso shot with ice and a touch of almond syrup).

A little further north along the coastal route is the city of Castro, a fairly large town facing the Adriatic Sea towards Corfu and Albania. Castro has a 12th-century cathedral and the remains of a 10th-century Byzantine church. It's fascinating to see the bars, restaurants, and shops integrated into the historic landmarks while integrating the sea.

Otranto is another lovely coastal town with popular beaches and plenty of history. It is known to be the easternmost part of Italy and one can see the coast of Albania on a clear day. There is a lively stretch along the promenade dotted with restaurants and cafes and plenty more dining options in the town center enclosed by medieval walls. For history buffs, there is Aragonese Castle built in the 15th century, Santa Maria Annunziata Cathedral built in the 12th century, and a clock tower built in 1799. The cathedral is famous for having one of the world's largest floor mosaics you can walk on! It's fun to get lost in the narrow streets and alleys especially once you realize you are walking through ancient ruins that hug the crystal blue waters of a popular beach destination.

Lunch & learn ...

Our villa concierge team recommended we make a lunch reservation at ArborVitae. We learned here that some fish on the menu in Puglia are frozen and not always served fresh from the sea. This disappointing new information helped us when we ordered seafood in future restaurants. We chose only the dishes prepared with freshly caught fish of the day: yellowtail carpaccio a whole grain orecchiette with sea bass, and burrata with grilled vegetables and the beef filet. While the garden setting was quaint, and the service was friendly, we didn't love our meal - everything was just short of the wow factor we experienced in other Italian restaurants.

Treat yourself to Gelato Pasticceria Merola

This gelato shop is a stunning display of creamy gelato and decadent pastries and makes the creamiest and dreamiest gelato. I selected my favorite flavor, nocciola (hazelnut), and cherished every spoonful.

Dine with the locals at Rua de li travaj

Our dinner reservation was at 7:30 pm, early by Italian standards. By 8:30 pm the restaurant was packed with Italians. We were the only tourists dining here, a sure sign that the food was promising. Although we were unimpressed by the croquettes that were a bit dry or the traditional "la Scurddijata" dish of peas and chickpeas that was once a meal for peasants, we did enjoy the grilled beef and simple pasta with pomodoro and shaved ricotta. The highlight for us was sipping the nine-euro bottle of local wine surrounded by animated Italians.

Day Four:

Today's breakfast included rustica (a savory stuffed dough) with bechamel sauce and tomatoes and friselline all 'olio (little bread-like crackers) topped with tomatoes and basil. Donatella outdid herself again. By this third breakfast meal, I started thinking of ways to lure her to San Diego.

Charter a boat with Sea Luxury Yachts and spend the day at sea

I strongly recommend booking a boat for the day and enjoying Puglia's coast from the sea. There is no better way to spend the day than jumping into the crystal blue water at your will, sipping wine, and eating incredibly fresh local cuisine, then jumping back into the waters to explore caves and continuing this pattern on repeat all day long. This company delivers impeccable service, leaving no details overlooked. Not only were we fed like royalty, but we were also generously given a bottle of what we were told was the healthiest olive oil in the world along with a variety of digestivi (a sweet liquor) in an abundance of flavors including artichoke and limoni (my favorite) to sample. They had a variety of water toys for us (paddle boards, a floating dock, noodles, snorkels, and water scooter jets) and truly did everything to make our day at sea unforgettable. The crew of four catered to our every need including anchoring often to swim in the most incredible, translucent bays.

Wrap the day with a fantastic dinner at Trattoria Il Borghetto

Il Borghetto has the best pettole (fried dough balls) in Puglia and the most sensational seafood we have eaten since we hit the peninsula. We savored every bite of each dish (the grilled swordfish, the grilled prawns, the grilled vegetables, the seafood linguine pasta, and the fried seafood) and wiped our plates clean. As usual, we were the first to arrive and by 8:30 pm the courtyard was filled with locals.

Day Five:

For our fourth breakfast meal, Donatella pampered us with a potato and asparagus frittata and a spinach and ricotta pizza with a spread of tomatoes, olives, and fruit. She takes breakfast to a new level. Throughout the meal, I kept plotting ways to convince her to live with us in the States.

Stroll the Streets of Santa Maria di Leuca

This coastal town sits on the southernmost point of Salento's peninsula where the Adriatic and Ionian seas cross paths. It is known as a summer destination for wealthy Italians who want to enjoy its many beautifully pristine beaches. During our seven-night visit, each summer evening was filled with parties, concerts, and even fireworks. The promenade stretches far with many spots to jump in the pristine water and lidos with beach service. Colorful villas line the streets with ruins interspersed to highlight the old and new. Of all the southern Puglia towns, this one captures vacation mode best.

Have a seaside lunch in Lo Scalo

The seventeen-minute drive to Lo Scalo from Santa Maria di Leuca along the coastal route is beautiful but arriving at this hidden gem is the real treat. Perched above rocky cliffs with clear aqua swimming holes, this seafood restaurant is visually attractive and makes a stellar lunch. Disco. The burrata salad over tomato carpaccio, cod croquettes with mint and tomato gazpacho, ravioli stuffed with burrata and topped with pureed squash, and the grilled lobster kept us talking about our meal all day.

Discover the magic of Gallipoli

Peruse the island's perimeter overlooking the Ionian Sea and stroll inside the city walls. This picturesque island is not to be missed when traveling to southern Italy. The way the old city, comprised of churches, a castle, and one of Italy's oldest libraries, is woven into the new city is quite remarkable. The surrounding promenade is lined with bars and restaurants that overlook the sea, while Corso Roma (the main street tucked inside the city), is bustling with activity along its narrow road that connects to little alleys filled with striking architecture, many of which have gorgeous garden settings. Gallipoli is meant to be explored, savored, and cherished; it is truly a unique landscape.

Reserve a table at La Vinaigrette for a sunset dinner

The setting here is elegant and impressive from the moment you walk in. The indoor dining room is vast and beautifully decorated. The day's fresh catches are displayed as soon as you enter the restaurant, highlighting the fresh menu that awaits. Upstairs is the outdoor terrace overlooking the sea. Featuring seafood, the food is delectable, and is prepared raw, fried, and baked masterfully.

Day Six:

Caciocavallo is a cheese regional to Puglia, reminiscent of provolone, but better. Donatella made us another delicious spread of local dishes including grilled zucchini with a touch of balsamic, a tomato salad, a cocomero salad, eggs, and friselle topped with tomatoes and basil.

Cool off in crystal waters

A summer in Europe without a heat wave is rare. However, having one in June is even more uncommon. When temperatures rise to 95 degrees, you go to the beach. Lido Gold is a laid-back beach club without beachside service. The staff doesn't seem interested in ensuring customer satisfaction, barely greeting people as they check in. However, the club's private stretch along the emerald waters of the Adriatic makes up for what the lido lacks in service and amenities.

Lunch at Lido Gold Lounge Restaurant is sufficient to curtail your afternoon hunger, nothing more. The food is good enough for lunch, but nothing like the lunch served at Cinque Vele, which was outstanding.

Jump in the pool, enjoy your rental

Puglia's pace moves very slowly, in the best way possible. When not sightseeing, you're left with little more to do than lazily spend the day by the beach or pool. Setting aside a couple of decadent days doing nothing but lounging and swimming is good for the soul. Make sure to carve a few days like this into your itinerary: breakfast, beach, lunch, pool time at the villa, nap, and dinner. Perfetto!

Make a toast to the sea & sun

After an epically relaxing day, dinner at Relax Leuca seemed appropriate to continue the flow of ultra-tranquility. Although the food here is nothing to write home about, the vibe is perfect for sunset drinks. The view from the terrace is lovely, American music fills the air, and the staff is friendly. Come here for drinks (a glass of wine is only 3.5 euros!) and then head to dinner elsewhere.

Day Seven:

Donatella outdid herself again! I would have never imgained eating string beans for breakfast, but served cold with ricotta cheese and fresh mint has won me over! She also made us homemade panzerotti (fried dough stuffed with tomatoes and mozeralla). If this isn't enough, she prepared a creamy sweet treat topped with fruit. We officially asked her to move in with us this morning.

Go with the flow

We initially had reservations at Balelido but after making the thirty-minute drive we arrived to be informed that the beach club did not provide towels. Since we were unprepared, we decided to enjoy an afternoon swim at the villa. The saltwater pool overlooking Santa Maria di Leuca and the expansive sea was exactly what we needed to cool off during a heat wave. Thinking Traveller does not disappoint with their portfolio of villas.

Try Pizza in Puglia

We've been eating a lot of seafood and my hus