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On board sailing yacht Imagine with owner Aldo Melpignano
For this Roman businessman, exploring the seas under canvas is the key to happiness. Tristan Rutherford talks to the owner of Imagine about luxury tourism, Italian heritage and the joy of sailing
Chartering in the 1980s was “a very analogue experience”, remembers Aldo Melpignano. Every spring, his parents would wait for a hefty yacht brochure to arrive from Camper & Nicholsons in London to their address in Rome. “After looking at each page, my parents would call the broker in Monaco,” explains Melpignano. “They would tell you a little bit more about the boat or the crew but that was all you knew.”
Melpignano’s parents grew up in the sun-drenched Italian province of Puglia. “My father was a seaside guy,” explains his son, now 43. “He studied in Rome then set up a law practice. But we were in the water all the time, sometimes sailing in little wooden fishing boats.” Melpignano Snr’s business started going well when Aldo was “seven or eight”, and the family started to charter every summer for two weeks.
“A favourite charter was Boheme II,” recalls Melpignano. The 39-metre (now Doriana, and currently for sale), was built in 1930 in Denmark’s Frederikssund shipyard and has a rare history. After cruising the Norwegian fjords she chartered in Antigua through the 1970s, then came to Cannes in the 1980s when the Melpignanos stepped aboard. In 2003 she sailed into Villefranche-sur-Mer for a refit – then burnt to the waterline after a suspected Zodiac leaked fuel onto flammable paints. Rebuilt again in Sweden, she now cruises the Med.
After “seven or eight” charters it was a natural progression for the Melpignanos to commission a yacht of their own. “In the early 1990s, my father made a beautiful project with Germán Frers,” explains Melpignano Jnr. “Then, unexpectedly, my mum became pregnant. My dad said: ‘You know, maybe it’s not the best time to try a sailing boat!’ So instead of this Germán Frers yacht I got a little brother 15 years younger than me. We still have the project blueprint somewhere.” To make cruising easier, Melpignano Snr purchased a Canados 70 motor yacht from the Roman shipyard in 1994.
By coincidence, a far larger boat had launched the year before. Imagine is a 33.6-metre sailing yacht designed by the peerless Ed Dubois. She captured headlines for her three circumnavigations and voyage into the Arctic Circle. Little did the Melpignano family know that by 2015 they would be her owners.
Aldo Melpignano takes up the story. “My wife’s family [who once owned the Jongert 74 ketch Valial] knew the owner of Imagine. He wanted to sell her as he had already built a bigger yacht. It was a very friendly transaction – not too many complications due to the very direct relationship we had with her owner.”
Imagine’s greatest recent adventure came in 2017. “My wife, our kids and I spent six months on board in the Caribbean, from the Leewards to the Windwards, ending up in Cuba,” says Melpignano. The Caribbean’s biggest island and its 5,700 kilometres of coastline can seem intimidating. “You need a local agent. They can even arrange for you to sail inside Havana harbour. The southern coast from Maria La Gorda [a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve alive with shipwrecks and coral formations] to Cienfuegos was just incredible. At night there’s not a single light on.” Imagine’s Caribbean cruising capability was helped by her “relatively low draft of 3.5 metres, considering the size.”
“I also enjoy our range of watersports equipment,” continues Melpignano. Included on board is a BIC O’pen sailing boat, waterskis, paddleboards, fishing equipment, a glass-bottomed kayak and diving equipment with a compressor. A recent adrenalin-pumping addition is a wing, a type of surfboard that lifts at speed like an America’s Cup AC75. “It’s great for foiling!”
Melpignano claims that Imagine offers “incredibly smooth sailing, much more comfortable than all the more modern yachts I have been on”. Which is what you get from a yacht that took 300,000 working hours to build. “The previous owner kept her exceptionally well,” he adds. After yearly mechanical upgrades in Palma, the family decided on a big refit in Italy in 2018. “We kept the looks but upgraded the technology and technical parts such as battery and generators.”
Imagine’s interiors exude timeless maritime chic. “The initial [1993 design] by Agnès Comar was extremely well done,” says Melpignano, referring to the interior designer who styles private homes in Paris and palaces in Marrakech. The family did not “change the style, only upgraded the upholstery and fabrics”. The three spacious cabins, which include a family-friendly triple, look sturdy enough round Cape Horn yet cool enough to grace a Breton boutique hotel. “We like to capture the essence and sense of place,” says Melpignano. “For Imagine, that was about respecting the initial wonderful design.”
Capturing that sense of place has been central to the Melpignano family business. In the 1970s, Aldo Melpignano’s parents purchased Masseria San Domenico, a rambling only-in-Puglia whitewashed ranch, a few hundred metres from the sandy Adriatic shore. “The estate my parents purchased belonged to Italian aristocrats from Naples,” he explains. “The central building of Masseria San Domenico is an old watchtower, which was built by the Knights of Malta about five centuries ago.”
For the Melpignano parents, Masseria San Domenico was an asset worth sharing. “In the early 1990s my mum said we should do something a little more tourism related,” explains Aldo. “She used to go with my father on hunting trips to big Scottish castle hotels, and basically imported the British country home concept to Southern Italy.” The 200 hectares of farmland surrounding the masseria – abundant with peach trees, apricot and fennel and wild artichokes – would feed decorous guests and further the authentic feel.
There was just one problem. A project that paired rural luxury with locally grown food was unheard of in the mid 1990s. As was the internet. “Back in 1996, when I was 19, my sister and I got involved,” says Melpignano. “We were the only ones in our family who spoke English, so I took a gap year to help her promote the property internationally. Fortunately we received help from a family friend who lived in Capri. He worked in luxury hospitality for many years and introduced us to the right contacts for top tour operators in the UK, Germany and the rest of Europe.”
The Melpignanos also had contacts of their own. “With our own network of friends we hosted dinners in Milan and Rome and got nice people to come and discover Puglia.” Word spread fast. Elegant Milanese and Roman urbanites would bomb down the Autostrada Adriatica in a convoy of Lancias and Alfa Romeos to a white stone escape with its languorous seawater swimming pool. Little has changed since 1996, apart from the addition of Wi-Fi in the dining salon, which was converted from an 18th-century olive oil press.
Aldo Melpignano’s “gap year” promoting luxury tourism proved that decanting Puglia’s historical elegance could be profitable. All he needed now was to hone his business sense. A finance degree from Cass Business School in London was followed by an MBA at Wharton, with working stints at Credit Suisse and Morgans Hotels. The latter group is credited with inventing the boutique hotel concept at Miami’s Delano and London’s Sanderson.
Experience abroad highlighted a luxurious gap in the local market. “That’s when we started to build Borgo Egnazia,” says Melpignano. “Something of the same quality but a completely different experience.” The five-star resort, which opened in 2010, is certainly different. This Italian fantasy is where Justin Timberlake, among others, part with millions to get married in style. Madonna also checked in for her 59th birthday celebrations.
Cuisine further showcases Puglia’s rural bliss. Local chef Domingo Schingaro rules a Michelin-starred restaurant that serves Adriatic clams with wild rucola, and sea urchins with pecorino. There’s an osteria-cum-cookery-school that teaches traditional recipes handed down from Pugliese nonne (grandmothers), and a mini restaurant, Da Frisella, dedicated entirely to children, where they enjoy orecchiette pasta and taralli crackers. “About 75 per cent of the ingredients used on our estates, which include 18th-century agricultural mansion Masseria Cimino and timeless Masseria Le Carrube, are home grown,” explains Melpignano.
Such authenticity is inspiring. If Melpignano can distil and dispense Italian culture to a moneyed elite, can his nation do the same? For him, it’s all about promoting what the country already has. “There’s a huge opportunity to reposition our natural heritage, our history, the fact that Italy has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than anywhere else,” he explains. “It would be good if the ethos of the Italian population - quality of life, friendliness, well-being – came out more. Those aspects are in line with current sustainability trends but we don’t really market ourselves on them.”
Melpignano understands the need more than most. He sits on “a couple of boards” and is vice chairman of Altagamma, a network of Italy’s top marques that includes Alessi, Baglietto, Cantiere delle Marche, Perini Navi and Ferrari to name but a few. “Research from Altagamma found that 60 per cent of Italian luxury goods are purchased by foreign tourists,” explains Melpignano. The luxury yacht industry, where guests drop thousands of euros per day, could be more appreciated too. “The new VAT regime on charters didn’t help and there are not enough superyacht berths in prime places like Sardinia. We need to incentivise this area because, on the industrial side, the largest yacht producers are Italian.”
With so much on the table, it must be hard for Melpignano to relax. His iPhone chirps like a cicada during our conversation, as one might expect from a business-owning father of two in his mid forties. “My wider family and I like to wine and dine and entertain,” he explains. “And to explore the English countryside,” to where he recently relocated, dividing his time between there and a property on the Borgo Egnazia estate. Is he always working? “My wife makes fun of me, but it’s part of my work to be always looking around. In a restaurant I lift the plate and check the taps. Many of our conversations are about this!”
Sailing offers the Melpignano family further escape. “My wife and I, my mum, my sister and younger brother own Imagine and share her together,” explains Melpignano. “Because we work in hospitality, we tend to work when most people are on holiday so, as such, usually there are no ‘fights’ over who goes when.”
Like their masserie, the Melpignano family use their prized asset for business and pleasure. Imagine charters with Camper & Nicholsons from €54,500 (£49,000) per week. Was the brokerage chosen because of their 1980s affinity? “It’s funny – we chartered with them in the 1980s,” admits Melpignano, “but the team we work with now came well recommended by friends.
“We have a transatlantic charter this month, with another transpacific charter in April 2021, before she continues to Australasia,” explains Melpignano. “In between charters we will use her to explore the Western Caribbean like Costa Rica, Belize and Panama.” Any plans to slow down? “She’ll keep going around the world as long as she can… and as long as we’re able to.”
Chef or chauffeur?
A chauffeur. I can cook myself
Speed or style?
Style. I drive vintage cars and sailing boats. There’s not much speed in them!
How many watches?
Twelve. The most special is an Audemars-Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar in titanium It’s a limited edition that my father bought years ago
First item you pack?
Sports gear – usually my snorkel or skis
Grotto della Poesia in Puglia. You access an emerald seawater swimming pool from a hole hidden in the rocks
Your idea of luxury?
Time alone in the open sea
First published in the January 2021 edition of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.