ITALY

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

By Reid Bramblett, Tuesday, Jun 20, 2006, 12:00 AM

POSITANO

Albergo California
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.

AMALFI

Hotel Residence
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.

SORRENTO

Casa Astarita
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.

PRAIANO

Locanda Costa Diva
Many Amalfi Coast visitors spend their time in the three most famous resort towns--Amalfi, Positano, and Ravello--with little thought of the less-heralded villages in between. Halfway from Positano to Amalfi, Praiano is a nondescript old fishing village with a small beach; it's secluded enough that few tourists hop off at its bus stop. Spilling down the hillside in a series of lush garden terraces and rural structures converted into secluded rooms, the Costa Diva was opened four years ago by the Milo brothers, Pino and Filippo. They named the rooms after film divas of the mid-20th century who vacationed or shot movies here, such as the Sophia (Loren) and the Marilyn (Monroe). The two non-movie-star rooms are Ester, in honor of the brothers' 96-year-old grandmother, and Rafaella, a little stone house with a balcony on the sea, at the end of a long path lined by oleander and daisies. Rafaella is named for their mother: "A bigger diva, you won't find," says Filippo with a grin. Pino, who tends the gardens, leads the way through the tangle of flagstone pathways and tiled terraces cutting though the foliage; he points out grape vines, prickly pears, red hibiscus, palms, rosemary, and pink roses, as well as the lemon, lime, orange, and fig trees. "I could have had a place in Amalfi--for much less money, too," he says. "But there's no tranquility there. I could only get guests who are passing through, not ones who will stay." He smiles. "Stay and then come back again." Via Roma 12, Praiano, 011-39/089-813-076, locandacostadiva.it, doubles $100-$140, open year-round.

CAPRI

Villa Krupp
The island of Capri, in the Tyrrhenian Sea, is a ritzy--and occasionally trashy--slice of la dolce vita. On the south side of Capri town, amid the hills and winding paths of Giardini di Augusto park, is Villa Krupp, clinging to the subdued grandeur of an era when Russian intellectuals such as Lenin and Gorky were lodgers (before the villa became a hotel). Owner Valentina Coppola hasn't raised prices much to keep up with the island's popularity, though she continues to fuss over the details, carefully selecting the local reproduction antiques and Florentine artisanal furnishings, positioning the breakfast terrace for optimal views, and counseling her guests on which are the best trattorias. Her 12 rooms are often booked by repeat guests who stay for a week or longer every summer. While the rooms have air-conditioning and telephones, you won't find TVs. "Our clients come for quiet," sniffs Signora Coppola, though she has relented and installed a TV in the lounge, just in case. It's rarely switched on. Most guests prefer to sit on their room balconies, gaze over umbrella pines to the famous faraglioni sea stacks, and listen to the chirping cicadas and the water splashing against rocks far below. Standard rooms are on the ground floor, with views of more trees than sea, and rent for $180. For $200, the primo piano rooms upstairs offer better views from colorfully tiled terraces and slightly fancier digs: elaborately painted furnishings, wooden bed frames sculpted with birds, and mirror frames finished with gold leaf. Viale Giacomo Matteotti 12, Capri, 011-39/081-837-0362, doubles $180-$200, closed November 1 to early April.

ANACAPRI

Il Girasole
A teensy public bus departs from the Marina Grande docks--just outside Capri town--for a 20-minute drive to Anacapri, the island's other village, on the slopes of Monte Solaro. Ask the driver what lies beyond the village and he'll say, "Nothing." That's not entirely true. There's a cement pathway, with scurrying lizards and high walls that spill over with bougainvillea, as well as fig, olive, and oak branches. Follow the path for 10 minutes, past the wrought-iron gates of houses scattered across this back side of the island, and you arrive at the Girasole, a set of four buildings with killer views across brick terraces to the Bay of Naples far below. Rooms 16, 18, 19, 22, 23, and 24 have the best panoramas; the views from rooms 8 to 11 (under the pool deck) are partially blocked by flowering vines. Unless you're desperate to save the extra $15 to $20 per night, avoid rooms 3 to 5, which are under the reception hall and offer views only of the linen closet. All the numbered rooms are decorated with tasteful modular furnishings and padded headboards. The two named rooms (Aurum and Raggio di Luna) are larger, pricier suites that have been gussied up with reproduction antiques, stuccowork or painted motifs on the walls, and picture windows. Via Linciano 47, Anacapri, 011-39/081-837-2351, ilgirasole.com, doubles $90-$190, closed November 1 to early April.

Villa Eva
The Villa Eva isn't just Eva Balestrieri's hotel. It's her childhood home; she was born in room 5. The room, which now welcomes guests, has a huge terrace, cupola ceiling, and walls covered in watercolors and chalk drawings. Eva's husband, Vincenzo, is the artist; he also made furniture throughout the property, and spent decades transforming the grounds into a carefully tended jungle. Stone paths twist past nooks and gazebos, and the outdoor pool and attached bungalow bar (with TV lounge and Internet stations). Cottages scattered about have been turned into guest rooms stuffed with idiosyncratic details: sculpted columns, Moorish windows, painted tile work, stained glass, old fireplaces, and Gaudi-esque chimneys. The main house consists mostly of oversized, multiroom suites designed for families or small groups of backpacking buddies. It's a warren, with many rooms accessible via outdoor staircases over the roofs of the rooms below, and lounge chairs on every available flat space. Villa Eva is halfway along the country road from Anacapri to the Blue Grotto. Take a taxi, or arrange for the hotel's shuttle to pick you up at the main Capri port or in Anacapri. If you really want to get there on your own, ask for specific directions when you make reservations or you'll never find the place. It's a 20-minute walk downhill from Anacapri--and a world away from the hobnobbing crowd in Capri town. Via La Fabbrica 8, Anacapri, 011-39/081-837-1549, villaeva.com, closed November 1 to mid-March, doubles $115-$145.

How to get around the Amalfi Coast and Capri

To go anywhere in this region, you have to pass through Naples--the only city in Italy where even Italians fear to drive. No matter how tempting it may be to rent a cherry-red convertible, tackling the Amalfi Coast by car is a mistake. Traffic is heinous (including jams at tight curves that require all stopped cars to back up in unison to allow the passage of a bus coming from the other direction), and parking is both exorbitantly expensive (upwards of $40 a day) and frustratingly limited.

Good thing there's an extensive public transportation system. At the Napoli Centrale station, catch the twice-hourly Circumvesuviana, a clattering old suburban rail line that'll take you to Sorrento (70 min., $4). From there, it's an easy transfer to a bus or a ferry.

Finding the Circumvesuviana, which runs under Napoli Centrale, is a bit tricky. Head toward the station's main exit, but just before you get there, look to the left for stairs leading down. Follow CIRCUMVESUVIANA signs; but partway along the hall, stop at the ticket windows you'll see on your left. Several commuter lines use the same platform; ask around to be sure the train is bound for Sorrento before stepping on board. Beware of pickpockets every step of the way.

To get to Capri from Sorrento, catch a taxi or a local bus to the docks for one of five daily ferries (20-50 min., $10) or 15 daily hydrofoils (20 min., $15).

To reach Amalfi, Praiano, or Positano, you'll need to head to the south side of the Sorrento Peninsula along the undulating Amalfi Coast Drive. This white-knuckle thrill ride is one of Italy's greatest wonders: just over 30 miles of narrow, S-curve roadway strung halfway up a cliff with the waves crashing below, green slopes all around, medieval pirate watchtowers on the headlands, and colorful villages in the coves. Every 50 minutes, a SITA bus (sitabus.it) runs from the front of the Sorrento train station to Positano (50 min., $2.25) or Amalfi (100 min., $4). For the best views, snag a window seat on the right side of the bus.

The ride back hugs the cliff, cutting out the views, so a fast Metrò del Mare ferry (metrodelmare.com) makes more sense--especially if you find you can't stomach another bus ride. Ferry frequency varies with the season, but there are roughly three daily between Amalfi and Positano (30 min., $8), three daily between Amalfi and Sorrento (1 hr., $9), and two daily between Amalfi and Naples (2-2.5 hrs., $13). For the latest information and schedules, call the tourist boards, below; websites are nonexistent or not very helpful.

 

THE AMALFI COAST