It's 25 years since Olga Polizzi bought Hotel Tresanton at St Mawes, despite being advised: 'You'll never make money in Cornwall'. She shares entertaining anecdotes about the ups and downs of those early years.

It’s hard to imagine Olga Polizzi retiring. Even in her 70s, there’s no sign of her stepping back; she is speaking to me from Brown’s in London, tell-tale banging in the background indicating that she is personally overseeing the hanging of artwork in her capacity as interior design director of Rocco Forte Hotels, the chain run by her brother. ‘I like this kind of work – but there's so much to do before you get to this point,’ she muses. ‘A room won’t look good unless it has good bones.’

Pencilled in the diary are trips to Rocco hotels in Rome, Munich and Sardinia, and she recently added a third property - The Star at Alfriston in East Sussex, with daughter Alex (of TV’s Hotel Inspector fame) - to her own Polizzi Collection, just at the point when her first and flagship property, Hotel Tresanton in St Mawes, celebrates 25 years under her tutelage (the second, Hotel Endsleigh near Tavistock, was added in 2004).

‘Tresanton has a special place in my heart, as it was my first hotel, and the most exciting,’ she says. There’s a VIP party planned for September, with loyal guests invited. ‘Initially it was for anyone who had stayed 15 times, but I think even that might be too many people.’ Fact: one superfan has chalked up 34 visits.

Incredibly, what is now the epitome of modern Cornish chic grew out of a tired hotel in a former yacht club. Polizzi’s husband, William Shawcross, had holidayed in Cornwall since childhood, and introduced her to the county 30 years ago: ‘A revelation.’ Her father-in-law lived next door to the hotel, and their first dining experience left a lot to be desired. ‘I went into the kitchen – it was carpeted, and it squelched. Unbelievable.’

The hotel had enjoyed an enviable reputation during its 1960s heyday, popular with the Royal Family, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret in particular. But despite the best efforts of its owners - a husband-and-wife team, with a housekeeper as permanent staff - it had fallen upon hard times, with only six rooms serviceable (in comparison, Polizzi now employs 60 staff, while the rooms have multiplied five-fold).

Great British Life: The hotel used to be a yacht club; every room has aview of the sea (c) Charles FrancisThe hotel used to be a yacht club; every room has aview of the sea (c) Charles Francis

Shawcross had an idea. ‘He said, “You should buy this,”’ Polizzi recalls. She wasn’t entirely convinced: ‘I asked, “Why do I want a small hotel in Cornwall?” I looked at it and looked at it – it took me two and a half years to make up my mind. Nowadays, it would have been snapped up in that time.’

In the end, it proved hard to ignore the potential. ‘It was in a bad condition, but it had a stunning position in a pretty village – every room had a sea view over a finger of National Trust land with a picture-postcard lighthouse at the end. That was incredibly exciting.’ So much so that she ignored the advice of the ‘lugubrious Cornish accountant’ who told her: ‘You’ll never make money in Cornwall.’ She laughs: ‘I said, I’m not spending all this time, effort and money not to make money.’

The purchase coincided with what she describes as the ‘hostile takeover’ of the family business. Her father, Charles Forte, had started from scratch with a single ‘milk bar’ in London’s Regent Street in 1935; as Trusthouse Forte and later Forte Group, the business expanded to include household names such as Travelodge, Harvester and Little Chef.

Olga and brother Sir Rocco had started again with the group that bears his name, but there was something irresistible about acquiring her own place with the money from selling her shares. ‘I had always been my father’s daughter, my brother’s sister, my daughters’ mother. This was finally something I was doing for myself.

‘With Rocco, as far as I’m concerned, he’s the boss and he has the last word. I’ll fight my corner, but you can only have one boss. At Polizzi Collection, that boss is me. Alex says, “You make all the nicest decisions,” but at the end of the day, the buck stops with me.’

So began the arduous task of transforming the hotel into the stylish destination we see now. In the days before obligatory en suites, guests had to cross a corridor to reach the bathrooms. ‘Let them wear robes,’ said Shawcross. The answer: an emphatic no.

Great British Life: Olga Polizzi says she loves the lifestyle in Cornwall: @everyone is nicer, and life is so much easier' (c) Charles FrancisOlga Polizzi says she loves the lifestyle in Cornwall: @everyone is nicer, and life is so much easier' (c) Charles Francis

For the colour scheme, Polizzi turned to the coastal location: blue, yellow, and green. ‘When you’re in Rome, you don’t want to wake up wondering where you are – you want to wake up in Rome. It’s the same in Cornwall.’

And being her own boss enabled her to indulge her eclectic tastes; while Rocco Forte Hotels are more consistent in their furnishings, the Polizzi Collection reflects her magpie tendencies and love of antiques (and books for anyone who’s forgotten to bring one). She has since redone all the rooms bar one, which must surely be left as a museum piece.

Among her first visitors was comedian Harry Enfield, then at the height of his fame as Kevin the Teenager, and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph. ‘He turned up with half a dozen glamorous friends,’ Polizzi recalls. ‘A few days in, he handed William an armful of washing and asked: “What should we do with this?” We didn’t have a washing machine in the hotel, so I had to use my own and then iron his trousers.’

If the vision of Shawcross holding Enfield’s dirty smalls amuses you, then so will breakfast. ‘He asked for Weetabix for his children. We had home-made muesli, but no Weetabix. I rang William and ordered him to go and buy some from the village shop.’ Enfield later wrote how he looked out of the window to see Shawcross cycling dutifully up the hill with the cherished cereal swinging from his handlebars.

It’s all hugely entertaining but was undoubtedly stressful. ‘I used to cry every night, I was so exhausted,’ she admits. But there was a remedy to hand: ‘We would watch Fawlty Towers at midnight and laugh so much at how like us it was. Thank God it straightened itself out.’

Indeed, the initial reviews were so good, business was booming. ‘It caught the moment. All the newspapers and magazines wanted to come, and we were on the BBC Holiday programme four times.’ Cue all hands-on deck as the phones rang off the hook.

Great British Life: One regular guest has clocked up 34 stays at the hotel (c) Charles FrancisOne regular guest has clocked up 34 stays at the hotel (c) Charles Francis

It turned out that Hotel Tresanton was at the vanguard of a revolution which would make Cornwall a highly desirable destination and the subject of many a TV show fronted by the likes of Rick Stein. ‘Another hard grafter,’ she concurs with approval.

It stands to reason that hospitality should have come naturally to the young Rocco and Olga. But while Rocco, as the first-born and only boy, was groomed to enter the industry, second-eldest Olga worked in the kitchens before marrying at 19 and starting a family. She only joined the firm in seriousness following the death of her first husband in an accident.

‘My father said: “You’d better start working”,’ she says. ‘He was so wise in many ways – even now, I’m always saying ‘Dad said this,’ which is rather pathetic. He was a tough dad, but if the chips were down, he was on your side.’

She’s now very close to her own daughters – Alex and Charlie are both involved in the Polizzi Collection. ‘We will scrub tables and help in the restaurant. If someone asks for something, we’ll say yes and think later about how to do it.’

In much the same way that Shawcross suggested she buy the hotel, he’s also responsible for additional purchases - including the chapel, saved from the clutches of developers. ‘He said I had to buy it - then we had to find a use for it.’ Fortunately, it’s the perfect venue for music, including a mini-festival in November and a visit from Truro Cathedral choir at Christmas.

Then there’s the beach garden, directly in front of the hotel. ‘I didn’t want anyone else to buy it and do something with it. People swim down there, and it’s good to have at busy times. I’d like to make better use of it.’ Watch this space.

How often does she make it down? ‘Not as often as I would like - I’d love to come more regularly and spend longer.’ Not that it would be a holiday as such: ‘I always see something that needs doing. William says I’ve ruined Cornwall – we used to walk for miles along the coast path, but now I never have time.’

Any regrets? ‘I could have bought one or two other hotels: I nearly did, in St Ives and Fowey and I wish I had, but I had too much on,’ she admits. ‘I only bought The Star because Alex pushed me.’

Great British Life: Olga Polizzi has transformed what was a tired hotel into a stylish destination (c) Charles FrancisOlga Polizzi has transformed what was a tired hotel into a stylish destination (c) Charles Francis

The beach garden came with a cottage, which has become Polizzi’s pied a terre – which brings us back to the subject of the mythical retirement. ‘I’m always thinking I’ll retire to Cornwall. It's a different lifestyle down here – so much calmer and nicer. Everyone is nicer, and life is so much easier.

‘But the truth is I shall probably die in the saddle. Although,’ she adds, ‘I could live next door to the hotel and go in for meals. And send my guests there, for breakfast lunch and dinner – I wouldn’t have to cook.’

And perhaps that, in a nutshell, is what keeps people coming back to Hotel Tresanton.