La Dolce Vita...Amalfi Coast
Activities & Entertainment
We woke up to thunder and what looked like opaque curtains of running water draped against the windows of our hotel room. In an hour we were meant to be heading to Pompeii for a tour of the city. Not thrilled about sightseeing in the rain, we met the bus driver in the hotel lobby and climbed on board for the hour-long bus ride—praying that the rain would eventually stop. Upon arrival the weather got worse as we scurried to the entrance buying useless ponchos to protect our already soaked clothes. Cold and wet, we soon forgot all about the water audibly squishing in our sneakers as we wandered down the streets of this ancient city once home to 11,000 Italians. More spectacular and expansive than I had imagined, this pumice preserved time capsule stretching over 170 acres had amphitheaters, gymnasiums, sauna and steam rooms and more than one brothel cleverly marked by stone-carvings of erect penises. In its heyday, advance water and sewage systems coupled with sophisticated architectural design set this city apart from other neighboring metropolises. Only 8 miles north, the still active Mt. Vesuvius stood proudly in the background, grumbling deep below the earth’s surface. As the sun began to shine and our sneakers began to dry, the tour guide shared more about the people of Pompeii and their customs. The significance of this city and its contribution to modern society was remarkable. Archeologists are still excavating and restoring parts of Pompeii covered in 20 feet of hardened volcanic ash. I highly recommend visiting these iconic ruins—come rain or come shine.
Stone staircases leading to multi-colored private villas and large mansions are embedded in the Italian sea cliffs of Positano. Lavish boats float in the bluish-green Tyrrhenian Sea while tourist lounge on chairs and towels along the beach. There are so many flowers blooming and so much citrus perfuming the air, it’s intoxicating. Some of the Amalfi Coast’s preeminent restaurants and stores are located in Positano and after two days of eating and shopping, we sit at a café located at the top of the main road sipping cappuccinos and pinching ourselves. Little did I know that just a ferry ride away was an even more stunningly beautiful island called Capri. It would soon become my favorite place on earth.
Half way through the 40-minute ferry ride I started to feel a little seasick from the choppy water and had to take a Dramamine. The sun was particularly bright that day—casting the perfect light on the hills filled with white stucco buildings. A porter from our hotel was there to collect our bags and give us our trolley tickets so we could reach the top of the mountain where the Piazzetta stood. A series of cobblestone streets created a maze-like grid connecting 5 star hotels and world-class shops and restaurants. 4 days of beach clubs, shopping, and eating fresh seafood in the most breath-taking place I’ve ever visited in my life was not nearly enough. Like a spoiled child on the brink of throwing a temper tantrum, I resisted the impulse to sulk and slip into a major depression on our last day. Capri was paradise.
Hilton Sorrento Palace- After taking the train from Rome to Naples, we hired a driver to escort us to the town of Sorrento. An impressive mid-century cocktail lounge featuring a fire pit and eclectic art was alive with hotel guests’ chatter. Our newly renovated executive suite overlooking the outdoor pool had grayish oak floors, Lucite chairs and fresh white orchids. From our balcony we enjoyed the gorgeous view of the mountains. The indoor pool was enclosed by Italian frescos painted on the walls under a ceiling of skylights. In the evening the hotel set up tables poolside for dinner service. Not far from Pompeii, the Sorrento Palace was the perfect home base for us.
Le Sirenuse- Synonymous with luxury, this Positano property was once the summer-refuge for the Marchese Sersale family (who now run and own the hotel) for over 250 years. Pastel colored walls, emerald green and terra cotta tile floors, antique pottery and oil paintings define this opulent 5-star hotel. Our room faced the sea and in the mornings we’d have coffee on the balcony. In the afternoon we swam in the small but heated pool enveloped by potted lemon trees against the red and white-trimmed exterior of the building. The very definition of boutique, this hotel is seeping with old-world charm and elegance. Even if you decide not to stay there, go have a glass of champagne and some oysters at the hotel bar.
Capri Tiberio Palace- This is by far one of the finest hotels I have ever stayed at. Chic doesn’t even begin to describe the atmosphere. It is exquisitely decorated with the finest artifacts in every nook and cranny. Superb lounge areas with fresh cut flowers where you can take or add a book to the library during your stay. A magnificent spa with an indoor/outdoor pool so impressive in design it belongs in some high-budget Bond movie. Adorned in traditional decorative tiles, our room was comfortable with a large balcony that boasted staggering views of the sea. At night we’d leave the glass doors open and let the breeze come through the doorway—making the sheer curtains billow in the moonlight. Every morning there was a complimentary feast prepared for hotel guests. The epitome of style, the Tiberio Palace from the food, to the service, to the building itself, was a cut above the rest.
I love Italian food. From pizza to pasta I can’t seem to consume enough. As soon as we arrived, I made it my mission to find “the best” pizza and pasta the cities we were visiting this time around had to offer. Let me just say this: I believe a prerequisite for traveling to Italy is coming to terms with the possible expansion of your waistline. You’re going to eat bread and pasta, you’re going to drink wine, and you’re going to have gelato everyday (twice if you’re like me) and it’s FINE! Live! Enjoy yourself! It’s Italy for God sakes and you’re worth it! Truthfully, the European standards for agricultural production are very strict and far exceed the United States’ regulatory guidelines. What you eat in Italy your body can actually breakdown and digest. For example, the Italians prepare their pasta al dente (to the tooth) not only because it’s the perfect way to enjoy pasta before it’s overcooked, but also because it helps the body control blood sugar spikes. Your stomach has to work a little harder, which is a good thing. Having traveled to Italy a couple of times now, I always go with the intent on eating everything in sight and not feeling guilty about it. I suggest adopting that same attitude.
Along the narrow road that snakes through the sea cliffs toward Sorrento, our driver recommended we try this pizzeria called Al Sofito Posto Pizzeria Rosticceria Gastronomia. At first I was skeptical about this non-descript we-sell-a-bit-of-everything pizza joint literally on the side of the road. To my utter delight, biting into that chewy, not-too-thick, not-too-thin dough covered in flavorful marinara and gooey mozzarella, loaded with peppers and an assortment of Italian meats, was like witnessing the second coming. Having had many slices of pizza across the region, allow me to officially proselytize this pizza as “the best” pizza I have ever tasted. Period. Only heavenly favor could explain its delectability. We devoured it in silence.
Although it’s hard to imagine that any food after you’ve had the best pizza of your life could ever be as satisfying—we pressed on (a boy’s gotta eat) with great confidence and enthusiasm to our driver’s second recommendation for dinner at La Tavola di Lucullo. Upstairs in the open-air garden, ivy crawled up the exposed-brick walls of the restaurant while diners stole glimpses of the moon and stars above. Fresh langoustines and white fish caught earlier that day where simply prepared allowing for the natural flavor of the seafood to come through. A complimentary aperitivo of Limóncello was served while local musicians played instruments and sang as dancers danced the Tarantella. It was a fun lively night—one where we felt like Squaresville yokels clapping our hands to the music and smiling until our faces hurt.
Ristorante Max. Tables dressed in white linen surrounded by paintings from local artists graced every wall. With a pianist softly underscoring our dinner conversation, Ristorante Max was traditional Italian fine dining at its best. The restaurant felt like you were eating in some Italian art collector’s private villa. But the amenable atmosphere was surprisingly eclipsed by the mouth-watering food. Lightly fried zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta, shrimp scampi, and a marbled steak cooked to perfection, were a few of the highlights from our dinner. But the gem of the meal was the lemon cake—a light and airy mousse that finished on the tongue with a zesty citrus tang.
Da Paolino- Set in the middle of a fragrant citrus grove, an abundance of vibrant yellow lemons dangled over tables for two lit by soft candlelight. Out of all the restaurants we tried in Capri, Da Paolino’s ambience was unparalleled. The food was scrumptious, especially the lemon gnocchi. Although I’d probably skip the dessert buffet on my next visit (memorable but not in a favorable regard and unfortunately overpriced), dining in this magically romantic environment is a must.
Like in Bali, I couldn’t believe the amount of Italian treasures we found and returned home with. No doubt the leather jackets, bags, shoes, linen tunics, pants and decorative ceramics were going to be a TSA-baggage-weight-overage-debacle… but worth it in the end. The crown jewels in my acquired booty were the 18-karat gold-leaf handmade cocktail glasses I purchased from Industria Vetraria Valdarnese (IVV). Just as prestigious as Murano glass, these texturized glasses subtly sparkle and are one-of-a-kind. I couldn’t leave Positano without them.
At the top of an observation deck near the edge of Capri the mighty Faraglioni protrudes from the Mediterranean Sea. Descending the stone steps that lead to a curvy pathway lined with tall trees, it took us about 20 minutes to reach the seaboard. As we got closer and closer, Faraglioni grew taller and more imposing. To the left was Da Luigi Beach Club and to the right was the road leading to La Fontelina Beach Club. I don’t know if it was the rough water that crashed against the craggy rocks, or the sun that seemed to illume every ripple in the water, or the restrained elegance of the beach club itself, which seemed to be determined to preserve the scenic beauty of the raw environment. I was awe-struck! After a lovely lunch and getting set up with two chairs and an umbrella in our reserved spot on the smooth rocks, I felt so small next to the gigantic Faraglioni. I felt alive and adventurous when approaching the steps that lead to the rough waters: one could swim in if they dared. Exhilarated and a little frightened, I got braver (although short-lived) and surrendered to the elements as I jumped into the water and let the force of it push me further out to sea. We drank a bottle of rose and spent the day alternating between swimming and sunbathing on the rocks. Sometimes luxurious amenities designed to elevate or enhance an experience pale in comparison to what nature has already perfected. In the case of La Fontelina despite its sublimity, nature stole the show.
If you’re planning on doing a substantial amount of shopping you might want to keep in mind the VAT refund you could be eligible for upon your return. The Value-Added Tax can be worth a cash return of up to 25% on European merchandise purchased. The qualifying amount varies from country to country, but it can be as little as $20 and up. It does not include taxes that you paid on food or lodgings but all other goods are fair game. When you shop you’ll need to carry your passport with you, fill out the necessary forms the retailers will provide upon your request. Make sure you resist the impulse to wear or use the things you’re planning on claiming while enjoying the rest of your trip. You’ll run the risk of being denied depending on your particular Customs agent’s affability. It’s completely free and takes the sting out of buying all those more expensive keepsakes. My advice: get organized and get that cash!
One of the more famous attractions in Capri is the Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto). Inside a sea cave there is a small opening where a rowboat takes a maximum of 4 spectators inside to see the glowing blue waters. Apparently it is a sight not to be missed, however, when the tide is high, the water completely swallows the small entry way making it impossible for rowboats to get inside. It is extremely dangerous to swim there due to the rough waters powerful enough to knock people against the jagged rocks. As luck would have it, we came at a time when the sea was too high and we were unable to go. It’s definitely on my list for my return.