21st Aug 2014
It's summertime and the living is easy along the Amalfi Coast, stretching south from Naples along the Sorrentine Peninsula to Salerno. The area is a legendary leisure spot, the home of limoncello, Sofia Loren, and a legendary place to lounge away August, neck deep in Italian tourists and Chinese tour buses jammed along one winding two lane road, Strada Statale 163.
Its just a short hop from most European capitals to Naples, the main gateway of the Salerno region. Renting a car at Naples airport is a major pain in the kazoo, as Italians seem to have never heard of auto insurance and make you pay large upfront deposits when securing your tiny Fiat for an exorbitant price. Unless you plan on driving the winding roads in a Porsche at 2mph, you’ll do just fine with a taxi straight to the good stuff, spending not a moment more in Naples than absolutely necessary.
For about €120 your air-conditioned late model Mercedes with hairy driver will whisk you from the airport steps across numerous potholes and trash heaps to the motorway, where you whiz past Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii along the bay to the steep cliffs ahead. Pop through the mountain tunnel, and Paradise awaits. Later, your hotel or villa will arrange the occasional taxi, and the rest of your stay will be dominated by the Amalfi Workout: core, abs and glutes burn like fire climbing up and down 19,000 stone steps.
Where to Stay
There are about a dozen towns dotted along the coast, with Amalfi and Positano being the most populated and charming among them, filled with restaurants and hand painted pottery and gelato and old Italian ladies staring out of shuttered windows with their cat. However, the magic of the coast is not in these towns, but the surrounding areas where you can park your butt and spend days staring at the sea atop a cliff, then jump off rocks into the refreshing sea and swim to a grotto and pretend talking like a pirate. For this, there is Praiano.
For hotels, we like the charming Torre Saracena in Praiano, located midway between Positano to the north and Amalfi to the south. Its cheap, the beds are firm and the showers adequate, but nothing in the world compares to waking up on a terrace overlooking that magnificent view of lemon trees and gardens cascading down to a sparkling sea. Praiano in particular is on a very steep part of the coast, and your time here is all up/down: 200 steps down to the rocks on the shore, 200 steps up to the nearest market, and 35 steps to Afrikana, the region’s most hilarious nightclub.
If you on a honeymoon or bought Bitcoin in 2009 there will be other places for you, including the Hotel Grand Tritone, which is up the road a bit at the edge of Praiano. Legendary location - with rooms that tumble over the cliff and perch over the waters and great service, this is a once in a life-time place that’s not too expensive at all.
Towards Amalfi, the truly flash stay at the Grand Hotel Convento di Amalfi, with that sleek modern feel that comes from an ancient place redone by a French fashion designer, where the juxtaposition reeks of class and taste. This makes it a bit boring and predictable until you get to the infinity pool down below, where all the interesting people drink Aperol spritzers and count their money on the phone with their Russian broker.
There are villas and apartments dotted up and down the coast, and while fun and often good value, be prepared for the step workout and invariable lack of direction. With kids and strollers the hotels really are the better bet, but a group of adults with a penchant for midnight drinking will find the starlight views unbeatable the higher you go.
Amalfi and Positano both feature collections of swish restaurants and charming cafes, but the relaxing, enjoyable locations are where relatively less tourists tend to flock. Along the coastline are fun little beaches with simple Italian fare at remarkably feasible prices - €10-15 euros will secure a hearty Italian main dish, but one must really secure 2-3 hours and a hearty appetite to enjoy the sharing opportunities - octopus and calamari, melon with proscuitto, buratta and tomatoes, zucchini friti and lemon asparagus, neri — you could eat for days, and will.
Good spots include La Pirata, situated at the base of rocks by the sea, Al Monazeno, situated on a little beach underneath a soaring stone bridge, and views from Ravello, which winds its way high up the mountain from Amalfi and affords the most incredible views of everything - a must see.
Later at night, you’ll descend to Afrikana, that local nightclub-in-cave. The scene here is ridiculous, where the DJ perches on a ledge, the Italian youth jump and scream and preen, and tourists go crazy trying to pick up all the girls that drive down from Naples in the shortest skirts known to man. The club features an overlook of the night time sea, where fish swim toward the lights and noise, and it all ends around sunrise when everyone invariably starts fighting and pimping out their friends to the Italians who haven’t yet scored.
The best stories in Amalfi are made during the day, at the beach clubs. Take a water taxi from Praiano’s town beach or Positano’s tiny port to One Fire, a pulsating platform of orange chairs and umbrellas set against the deep blue sea and vertical soaring stone. Here the music is pumping and the proprietor is dedicated to everyone having fun, no matter how tired you are and wishing to sleep the day away. One minute he’s cutting up watermelon for anyone to take, the next he’s serving up limoncello and some form of frothy frappe to the unsuspecting. He’ll kiss anyone for a smile. Food here is adequate, but its simply a lot of fun and a cool place to waste an afternoon in Europe’s grand beach club tradition.
Overall, the Amalfi coast is surprising - for a place so well known and so popular, it still retains a kind of local, peculiar charm. Away from the glitz of Amalfi and Positano towns it can be surprisingly affordable, and the views are simply the best of anywhere in Europe. July and August will be ram-a-jam-jam, but if you can avoid the crowds or go out in September, you’re sure to find a slice of lemon scented paradise.