Secret Hotels of the Amalfi Coast
Reid Bramblett scoured Italy's cliffside villages--and the island of Capri, while he was at it--for million-dollar views at hundred-dollar prices
Maria Cinque makes a point of chatting with every one of her guests, if not at check-in (which her son Gianni sometimes handles), then at breakfast the next morning. She's particularly delighted to meet Americans, as she and her husband Antonio lived in the Bronx for nine years, returning to Italy in 1974 to run a family hotel five minutes' walk from the center of Positano--and to teach their children "what it means to be Italian," in Maria's words. Six of the 15 guestrooms are in the original 1777 Palazzo Bruno, including four upstairs rooms with 18th-century ceiling frescoes. Many regulars prefer ground-floor rooms 51 to 55, however, because they open directly onto the magnificent, long entrance terrace and enjoy postcard views of Positano framed by ivy trailing off the shady trellis. Rooms without sea views (they actually look out to a wall) cost $65 less--an option certainly worth considering, since all guests have access to the terrace. Each of the California's rooms is spacious, and seems even more so due to minimal furnishings. At sunset, small groups gather on the terrace to sip wine, plan the next day, and pinch themselves, realizing that they've got the same view as the chichi Le Sirenuse hotel down the street for one-third the price. Via Cristoforo Colombo 141, Positano, 011-39/089-875-382, hotelcaliforniapositano.com, doubles from $180 in low season and $190 in high season, including breakfast, closed mid-November to mid-March.
La Rosa dei Venti
Positano long ago traded its fishing village ambience for the role of chic jet-setter resort. But sleepy old Positano still exists, just around the headland. A five-minute walk on a narrow path carved into the cliff leads to the secluded beach at Fornillo, a quiet neighborhood in a steep valley. Halfway up Fornillo's sole, stair-stepped street lies La Rosa dei Venti. Each of the six rooms comes with a small terrace, decorated with flowers, that offers a view of the beach, mountains, turquoise waters dotted with anchored ships, and a medieval tower built as a lookout against Saracen pirates. Tramontana is the most elegant room, with a gold brocade bedspread, antique writing desk, a nonworking brick fireplace, patterned ceramic floor tiles, and floor-to-ceiling drapes. The two rooms that have kitchenettes, Libeccio and Scirocco, cost $25 more than a regular double. Rather than closing in winter like many area inns, the B&B just drops its prices by $65 from October through May (excluding Easter). Via Fornillo 40, Positano, 011-39/089-875-252, larosadeiventi.net, $130-$190.
Sometimes, a gem hides right in plain sight. The blandly named Hotel Residence is in the middle of town on the main drag. Less than 200 feet away are the beach in one direction and the cathedral, famous for its mosaic facades, in the other. Beyond the reception desk, which is wedged between a souvenir shop and an eyeglass kiosk, guests take an elevator up one floor and step into the foyer of an 18th-century patrician palazzo. The skylit, three-story atrium is centered on an elegant curved staircase. Inside the atrium and surrounding corridors are Victorian-style Italian ornaments: marble busts, gilded mirrors, illuminated manuscripts, antique dioramas, a papier-mache ballerina under a glass dome. The rooms themselves, however, tend to be tiny, with solid, slightly scuffed antique wooden furnishings offset by new upholstery and brocade bedcovers. A few have magnificent frescoed ceilings and balcony views of the beach, just across the road. Street noise is the trade-off for the view. Double sets of double-paned glass on sliding doors don't completely block out the sound, but the commotion outside generally subsides well before midnight. Rooms over the side street leading to the cathedral are quieter, while those on the opposite alley, with balconies on which guests can catch a little sun and glimpse a sliver of sea, are nearly silent. Corso delle Repubbliche Marinare 9, Amalfi, 011-39/089-871-183, residencehotel-amalfi.it, doubles $155-$165, closed late October to late April.
The Astarita sisters, Rita and Annamaria, turned a rambling apartment just a block past Sorrento's cathedral into a welcoming, six-room B&B with a personal touch. "This is our family palazzo," says Rita in her smoky rumble, as she joins her guests for a communal breakfast of croissants, cheese, fresh fruit, yogurt, cakes, and homemade marmalades. Family heirlooms mingle with Ikea-esque furnishings under high archways, and the fireplace is flanked by a courtesy tray of limoncello liqueur on one side and a computer with free Internet access on the other. Three rooms (Mitica, Mediterranea, and Moderna) have little balconies that hang over Sorrento's main drag. The other three (including Romantica, with a high-backed inlaid wooden bed; and Storta, a narrow, wedge-shaped room with stairs leading to the bed) overlook the greenhouse-like roof of the popular restaurant next door (La Favorita) and cliffs that glow golden at sunset. Corso Italia 67, Sorrento, 011-39/081-877-4906, casastarita.com, doubles $110-$120, closed December 1-March 31.