One Last Time: The Amalfi Coast
Oct 24, 2019
After four cruise stops and two lengthier stays along the Amalfi coast, you would think I had seen enough of southern Italy. But how can one grow tired of the most beautiful place on earth?
I jumped at the opportunity to plan a once-in-a-lifetime trip with friends. Recently retired, they wanted to travel; and I knew that I had at least one more trip on my bucket list. Planning—and the anticipation that accompanied planning—was part of the joy. As C.S. Lewis wrote—and as I noted in my memoir of grief, Reclaiming Joy—joy encompasses not just the experience itself but also the anticipation beforehand and the memories afterwards.
Lev and I explored the ruins of Pompeii, drove the Amalfi coast in a big tour bus (the only time I saw my fearless husband white-knuckled) and visited Salerno and Paestum to the south on day trips from cruise ships.
After his death in 2009, I took the family on a small-ship cruise from Venice to Rome. One of the stops was Sorrento, a beautiful small city at the western edge of the Amalfi coast. My son and I were the only two who had been in the area before. My daughter and her family headed for Pompeii, and the two grandsons wanted to hang out in Sorrento all day. I wanted to hire a driver to “do” the Amalfi Drive. My son and daughter-in-law agreed to accompany me.
Stumbling upon the Positano Car Service
If there is one thing I have learned in my years of travel, it’s that access to a top concierge is one of the biggest benefits of four- and five-star hotels. I emailed the concierge at Le Sirenuse, the famous hotel in Positano, to make lunch reservations and request a recommendation for a driver. He sent me the website for Positano Car Service. Visit the website to see for yourself. It’s a thoroughly professional company with 42 drivers and 50 recent-model luxury cars and vans.
Our excursion was a completely different experience than that drive on a tour bus in 1992. We wound down the Amalfi Drive with stops at Positano, Amalfi, a few shops along the way and then up the mountain to Ravello. I’ll never forget Cheri’s reaction when we crossed the lobby at the Belmond Caruso to gaze out the open French doors on the other side.
“Oh, my god! Compared to this, California sucks and that’s the best we have.”
Since then, I have contacted Positano Car Service early in the planning process for three longer visits.
Making Every Minute Count
Trip Number 1:
In 2013 I returned with my son and daughter-in-law for a weeklong stay at Il San Pietro, an elegant small hotel that hugs the cliff on the bay opposite Positano. Using the hotel as a base, we took day trips with Gaetano, our favorite driver, to Amalfi, Ravello, Salerno and Paestum and to Sorrento and Capri. I needed two more trips—to stay in Ravello and Capri. Both took an hour or more to reach, and both offered more than I could experience on a day trip.
Trip Number 2:
It’s not easy to get to Naples, the nearest airport, from Texas; but there are flights from nearly every major European city, making the Amalfi coast an easy detour. A year later, I met Cheri in Naples after an Adriatic cruise, and Gaetano drove us across the mountains to the Palazzo Avino in Ravello, where we stayed three nights, soaking in the beauty and buying pottery. We took the Amalfi Drive to spend one night in Sorrento on our way back to the Naples airport. Two trips down, one to go.
Trip Number 3, Once in a Lifetime:
Though I had envisioned another detour to stay a few days on Capri, my friends’ request for a once-in-a-lifetime trip—and Jo’s boundless “shop-until-you-drop” energy—led me in a slightly different direction. I needed to put the best of all my trips into one package. Meanwhile, we could now fly nonstop from Dallas–Fort Worth to Rome, with a three-hour drive to the Amalfi coast.
Days 1–3: Palazzo Avino, Ravello. While not as grand as the Belmond Caruso, the Palazzo Avino next door has the same spectacular views, along with excellent service and food. Ravello is a village with beautiful historic gardens at Villa Cimbrone and Villa Rufolo; classical music events throughout the season; Ceramiche Cosmolena, a large, high-quality ceramic shop; and steep hiking trails down to Amalfi and Minori. (We did not hike.)
The slow pace was ideal for recovering from jet lag. Richard went to cooking school one afternoon, we taxied down to Amalfi another day and on our final evening we had an extraordinary dining experience at the new Monastero Santa Rosa, in the mountains west of Amalfi. We went from Ravello further into the mountains to a winery in Tramonti, where the family showed us their 500-year-old grape vines and served a four-course farm meal paired with their award-winning wines. Then we descended to the coast to take the Amalfi Drive from Maiori to Positano.
Days 4–7: Le Sirenuse Hotel, Positano. Positano is the most famous town on the coast, its topsy-turvy shops, homes and hotels clinging to the cliffs from the Mediterranean to far above the highway; and Le Sirenuse, its most famous hotel, halfway down the narrow, winding, shop-lined street that leads from the highway to the harbor.
Halfway between Sorrento and Amalfi, Positano is a great location for exploring the area. Ferries shuttle back and forth all day from the marina to Capri, Sorrento, Amalfi and further. While Le Sirenuse and San Pietro across the bay have grand restaurants, most restaurants—all good—are casual, featuring pasta, pizza and local wines. Richard took another cooking class, Jo hit all the shops and we took a day trip to Pompeii, where an English-speaking guide gave us a one-hour tour. After lunch on the coast near Sorrento, we checked out the shops and famous gelato shop before heading back to Positano at the end of the day.
Days 8–10: Hotel Quisisana, Capri. The car service arranged a 5-hour cruise along the Amalfi coast, from Maiori to the southeast, around the Il Galli islands to dock at Nerano at the western end of the Bay of Salerno for lunch at a restaurant reached only by boat. Afterwards, we continued on to Capri, with a stop to see the Blue Grotto (been there, done that).
We adored everything about Capri—our hotel, the shops, the views, the restaurants. While it lacks the quaint charm of the villages on the mainland, the crowds were thinner, the shops better, the restaurants outstanding, the weather cooler. On top of that our hotel had the largest, best appointed rooms, with large private balconies overlooking the Mediterranean.
While it’s not the ideal base for first-timers, those returning to the Amalfi coast might prefer this idyllic location with day trips by ferry to all the major towns and cities on the mainland. Not in summer, though. All the Amalfi coast is packed with tourists all summer long, but Capri is apparently completely overloaded with day trippers on top of the thousands staying in the villas and hotels that cover the island.
Day 11: QC Termeroma Hotel and Spa, Fiumicino. After a short ferry ride from Capri, our driver met us at the Sorrento harbor at the end of the trip. Our Rome airport hotel was perhaps the nicest surprise of the trip. Just two miles away from the airport, our very Italian hotel was a collection of villas in a parklike setting, with free access to Roman baths and a sauna. Our rooms had coffee machines, and the hotel set out coffee and pastries at 5 a.m. for those with early departures. From start to finish, our trip went without a hitch. Truly, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Alternatives, Additions and Subtractions
Grander trips—and certainly more modest ones—can easily be arranged. Many tour groups are based in Sorrento, a year-round city with a flat center, wide boulevards with tropical plants and fountains and an array of hotel choices.
On my first stay, we chose San Pietro, on the Amalfi Drive outside Positano, as our base; and I would still recommend it. The hotel is beautiful, with a fabulous location above the sea. A free shuttle operates between the hotel and the top of the main street into Positano. We stayed a week and engaged a driver every other day to explore the region.
The Santa Catarina, a famous traditional hotel outside Amalfi, 25 km. to the east, would be an equally good choice, especially if you want more time to explore Amalfi, Ravello and the Greek ruins at Paestum.
Up in the hills near the Santa Catarina is the exquisite three-year-old Monastero Santa Rosa, which was named third best hotel in the world while we were in Italy. Not so convenient for day trips, the former convent, which clings to the edge of a cliff, is probably the grandest choice for a fairy-tale honeymoon.
When choosing hotels, consider location carefully. Villages are mostly pedestrian, and there’s a lot of walking, much of it on steep paths and stairs, often without handrails. Buses and ferries link most of the towns, but taxis and private cars are the fastest way to get from place to place. Unless you have vast experience driving in mountainous areas of Europe, don’t even think about renting a car. Parking is almost nonexistent.
The opportunities for day trips are endless. I have been to Paestum twice, and I find it very special, with significant temple ruins of a Greek colony that dates to 600 B.C. It’s uncrowded, in the middle of nowhere, and you can wander through the ruins as you choose. Though it may seem “ho-hum” to those expecting the ruins of Athens or Rome, I love the fact that later civilizations do not intrude. You can combine a visit with a stop in Vietri of pottery fame; Salerno, where Allies troops entered Italy in World War II; or even a buffalo mozzarella farm.
If there is a next time, I want to visit Herculaneum, near Pompeii. Buried by the ash of the Mount Vesuvius eruption in A.D. 79, it is much smaller than Pompeii but better preserved, with many of the murals still visible.
Though I have dodged Naples on all my trips because of its less-than-wonderful reputation, I really should visit the very important National Archaeological Museum with its array of antiquities, and I’d like to eat Neopolitan pizza while I’m in the city.
I have never gotten my fill of the town of Amalfi, which in my opinion is underrated in travel guides. A working-class Italian commercial center today, Amalfi was one of the great port cities of medieval times. Its cathedral complex is amazing, and there esplanades with nearby parking along the large harbor.
Finally, on all my tours we have sped past the ancient villages—with their churches, bell towers and watch towers—lying below the Amalfi Drive on the water or high above it in the mountains. Sometime I would like to skip all the more famous sites and take time for detours to these harder-to-reach sites.
Would I come to the Amalfi coast alone? Those who have read earlier blogs know that solo travel doesn’t intimidate me; but for whatever reason, this beautiful region is not a place where I want to come by myself. It’s not about safety. It’s simply a place I want to savor with friends and family.
Plan. Plan. Plan. To be successful, complicated, independent travel needs to be well planned in advance. You can always alter your plans once you get there, but don’t arrive without plans. I recommend specialists who have been there before or have contacts with those on the ground at your destination. Our flights, hotels, all the transfers from place to place, the boat trip, winery and dinner reservations, some of which were fabulous surprises, were all recommendations from the Positano Car Service and Indagare, a membership travel agency that plans every detail of my complicated—usually solo—travel.
Especially if you are changing hotels during your stay, limit your luggage to one suitcase and the smallest carryon you can get by with, preferably a large, soft-sided tote, duffel or backpack. Pack an extra tote bag for all your shopping, along with a copy of your passport, so that you can take advantage of VAT refunds at the airport on your return home.
Take shoes with rubber soles. Steep walks and stone steps, often without handrails, are everywhere, and they are slick when wet. You will want shoes with a tread that grips the pavement, even walking to dinner at night. If you are unsteady, take a cane or hiking pole.
Take sunglasses and sunscreen and consider a brimmed hat or cap. The sun is strong and bright.
Temperatures vary a lot. Evenings can be cool and breezy. Dress in layers.
Men do not need ties anywhere, and even the best restaurants have no dress code. Take a sport coat, blazer or sweater for cool evenings.
The season is generally from Holy Week in spring through October; and except in Sorrento, most hotels, restaurants and shops are closed the rest of the year. Avoid the summer unless you like crowds everywhere.
If you have questions about my trip or you want to share your own experience, please share in the comment section below.
* * *
Ella does not receive any kind of compensation for her recommendations.
Ella is the author of Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows, published by 1845 Books, an imprint of the Baylor University Press, in 2018. Click here to order your copy.