It was early August and my 18 year old daughter and I suddenly saw a chance to celebrate her final days of summer vacation by sliding through a small window of found time—right into an astonishingly-open-for-business Italy. Another lock down for this delicious country with such jaw-dropping scenery seemed impossible to rule out, especially since COVID-related rules affecting Italy-New York travel had just become stricter on August 9th.
But for now, for this one brief and beautiful moment in time–we were off! Because, let’s be honest, there is no Zoom meeting or virtual experience that can compare to ACTUALLY BEING IN ITALY. On the Coast. In Summer. Eating Pasta. Savoring Fresh Fish. Drinking Limoncello. And Soaking up those Dazzlingly Incomparable Sights.
Audrey, our youngest of three, was due back at college in North Carolina on August 20th for the start of her sophomore year. So I spent a few days finding flights and spent hours choosing the perfect Positano hotel as our base. To ensure it was the best mother-daughter holiday adventure, I also did a fair amount of research on various excursions, boat tours and restaurants. https://www.capri.com and http://www.Chase.com/card-benefits/sapphire/service were both very helpful.
Tuesday, August 10th
We arrived at JFK and had to show our vaccine cards at check-in, but surprisingly did not need proof of a negative COVID test to depart. Fear evaporated, while relief over after passing through security, realizing how easy it was to leave the country. Our pre-conceptions, based on hype and ignorance, were happily dismantled.
We then boarded our 9pm Swiss Air flight, settling into our seats with a champagne toast. The flight was a short six hours, not enough for much sleep, and then a one hour layover in Zurich which gave just enough time to buy some Bircher muesli and board our next flight to Naples. That is the closest major airport to the exquisite Amalfi coast.
Wednesday, August 11th
Our arrival was an exhausted one, full of jet lag and sleep deprivation. And when we exited the airport a heavy drapery of 97-degree heat collapsed upon us forcing us into slow motion. Seeking shade became the number one priority—from that point on—for the rest of our trip. But in spite of the debilitating heat, I was still determined to show Audrey the ruins of Pompeii, a city buried in volcanic ash on August 24, 79 AD. I had not seen it for at least twenty years myself.
Through the hotel concierge, I had arranged a car to meet us at the airport. So we met our driver, Alberto, and piled our bags and exhausted hot selves into his clean black car. We pulled up to the Pompeii entrance gate about twenty minutes later, at 2:30pm, disoriented by the heat and severe lack of sleep in the past 24 hours. But onward to sightseeing! To enter the grounds, we had to wear masks and show our vaccine cards (“green pass” was their term for it) and my pre-purchased “skip the line” tickets (money well-wasted given the emptiness of the entry area), but after that we were fairly free to wander mask-free around this ancient city.
So, armed with my trusty Rick Steves guidebook “Snapshot: Naples & the Amalfi Coast, Including Pompeii” (6th edition), https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/italy-amalfi-coast we set off into the oppressive heat. We were so disoriented that we entered the wrong gate to take advantage of Rick’s proposed Self-Guided Tour, but we did end up enjoying being lost in that maze of rock and ruin, and it was fun to work together to find our own path out. The Foro (the Forum) was a showstopper and we really loved the “Teatro Piccolo” (small amphitheater.)
Pompeii was not crowded. In fact, it felt like we had it almost entirely to ourselves, which made sense because of the debilitating heat at that tough time of the day. The sun was actually sizzling our scalps and scorching our shoulders. Whenever we saw a drinking fountain I had to resist the urge to crawl into it.
Audrey surprised me with her stamina and willingness to explore and wander the ancient stone streets and pose on the basalt stones. Just like my great grandfather and my mom had done. But we did both reach a breaking point and had to escape the heat by retreating to the air-conditioned car and proceeded on to Positano. I admit to getting carsick from Alberto’s deft driving on those cliff-hugging roads that hung and twisted and turned for just over an hour to get us to Positano.
He deposited us at the Piazza dei Mulini, the closest spot to the beach that vehicles can reach. And since our hotel, the Covo dei Saranceni, was perched right on the main beach, Spiaggia Grande, we began our descent by foot. With four pieces of wheeled luggage and two hand-held bags in tow, we began winding our unruly way down the steep narrow street, clogged with tourists.
It was about 5pm and we were running on fumes, but I did note how we were passing such cute shops selling lemon-themed linens and ceramics. There were so many ice cream opportunities and lemon slushy offerings along the way amid the jewelry stands and art galleries. It was so charming and picturesque and pretty.
Audrey was an absolute dynamo, especially when we reached the large stone staircases of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta when she hauled our two biggest suitcases down the many steps all by herself. It was wild to think that everywhere we had just walked was once a roman villa complex, buried by that same Mount Vesuvius eruption that put Pompeii into pause.
We finally made it all the way down to sea level, to enter the cooling sanctuary of our hotel lobby. We were covered in sweat and delirious. But the views everywhere that we turned were absolutely intoxicating.
And to quote Rick Steves about Positano, because I cannot say it better myself, “the village, a breathtaking sight from a distance, is a pleasant gathering of cafés and expensive stores draped over an almost comically steep hillside. Terraced gardens and historic houses cascade downhill to a stately cathedral and a broad, pebbly beach.” And because it is ”squished into a ravine, with narrow alleys that cascade down to the harbor, Positano requires you to stroll, whether you’re going up or heading down.”
The 5-star hotel www.covodeisaracenit that we chose was, from start to finish, utter perfection and the absolute best location and choice. Our room, number 43 on the 5th floor, was just a few steps away from the exquisite outdoor pool complex which included 3 pools a pool bar and restaurant. We settled into our cool spacious room and took in the unbelievable sea view and large canopy-covered terrace that boasted a Jacuzzi tub, hot shower, two lounge chairs and a dining table and chairs.
Then we spent the remainder of the day poolside, soaking in the crazy impossible views and swimming and reading. We ate a late dinner (the best ravioli of my life) at Covo, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, which overlooks the busy Positano pier. My throat was raw from exhaustion and recycled airplane air, but that ravioli slid down and hit the spot.
Dinner and post-dinner shopping and wandering all start so late here, so our 8:30pm dinner fed into a 10PM stroll around the adorable narrow steep streets. We checked out the Rada restaurant and stumbled upon its adjacent, infamous Music on the Rocks Club, which was not yet even open at that time of the night!
Thursday August 12th
The hotel’s complimentary buffet breakfast got an A+ in our book. And to celebrate our first full day in Italy, we focused on the pool, relaxing beside it with our books and swimming often to combat the heat. We also loved exploring the scenic cliff-hugging paths by our hotel until we found the perfect beach. That first time we stepped across burning hot smooth gray stones to slip into the Mediterranean sea was an absolutely show-stopping one for me.
The cool water was healing and perfect in every way. The scenery of jagged cliffs, colorful umbrellas shading lazing Europeans, deep blue water, and passing boats was riveting and exquisite. Being a part of it made me feel beautiful and perfect just as I am. I lost all sensation of self-consciousness and just floated in that salty freeing sublime.
That night we put on pink sundresses that matched our pink skin and wove our way up toward the hotel that has stuck so vividly in my mind for so many years: Le Sirenuse Hotel www.lesirenuse.com . Because of our poor timing with the Italian holiday, the hotel was full, but in retrospect it all worked out perfectly, as we just loved our hotel so much.
We passed a kaleidoscope of blues and yellows, limoncello liquer, and lemon-themed ceramic ware. We also passed Neil Patrick Harris, and accidentally captured him in a photo with Audrey, as he blended in with all the other strollers. We then stood in line for about ½ hour before being allowed to enter the iconic Franco’s Bar, https://francosbar.com/en just after 7PM.
We sat down just in time to witness the perfect orange glow of a twilight sky spark backdrop to a swath of pastel-colored buildings clinging to the cliffs, anchored by the captivating blue and yellow Duomo di Positano of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta below us.
We drank the fancy drinks and drank in the lemon-tree dolce vita scene. It was breathtakingly gorgeous, and refined. Then we had a few extra minutes before dinner so we ducked into a little boutique, Idillio www.idilliopositano.com across the street to purchase adorable blue and yellow linen get-ups in moda fashion, but of course!
We then dined at 9PM on more delicious seafood and pasta at L’Ancora, the sister hotel to ours. It sat adjacent to Franco’s so it had the same incredible view, but now with the moonlight and all the twinkly lights of the Positano skyline sprawled before us to enjoy during dinner. I couldn’t resist indulging in Black Lava gelato on the walk back down to our hotel. It was the richest chocolate ice cream I’d ever had.
Friday August 13th
We were again content as could be to start our day off with the hotel’s strong coffee and extensive buffet breakfast. Then we set off by 9:15am from the Positano Pier, just a few steps from our lobby (where all ferries and boats pull in) for a tour of the island of Capri.
After much thought on the options of ferry, private boats, shared boats, full and half day options, we chose the “Shared Gozzo Boat Capri Full Day Tour” offered by https://www.grassiboatpositano.com/en/boats . The boat was a 10,2 Meter wooden Milano Aprea Gozzo boat named “Mary.” The captain was kind and spoke English and there were eight other lovely passengers aboard. And bow was cushioned, allowing for us to lie up there which was key. This was a far less expensive way to go at a cost of 200 Euros than securing a private boat would have been (2000 Euros). And it was a bit over twice as much as the cost of a round trip ferry ride (80 Euros.)
We stopped to swim twice, once in a green grotto and once in a white grotto and we slipped through the shadowy hole of the iconic Faraglioni Rocks and circled the whole island to admire its stunning limestone ruggedness and impossibility from the sea. We pulled up to Marina Grande at noon and had until 4pm to explore Capri on our own.
We could have attempted to battle the crowds to take a bus across the island and go get in line to see the Blue Grotto on our own, but I really wanted Audrey to see Anacapri, the only other main town on the island, so that became our mission instead. My sore throat had turned itself into more of a cough, which I had to keep stifled for fear of COVID-shaming looks from Audrey and others (and that darn cough left me uneasy up until my COVID test came back negative.)
Of course it was broiling hot, so the first thing we did was find a crowded beach and wedged our way into the water. Then we stood in a long hot line waiting for a bus to go to Anacapri. But some entrepreneurial souls sought us out, along with another female tourist from Mexico and for an extra few Euros, we agreed to walk across the street with them, hand over our just-purchased bus tickets and pile into an air-conditioned Mercedes sprinter van to reach Anacapri. After I got over my abduction anxieties, I decided it was a very good move.
Upon arriving in Anacapri, we immediately found the solo-seated chairlift that I’d remembered enjoying so much back in 2000, bought tickets and jumped right on. The view and experience were just as astonishing as it was all those years ago. The gently unwinding view of Capri and the sea during the 15-minute ascent was just captivating and joyful. It was only topped by the glorious view at the 1,900 foot summit of Monte Solaro. We took it all in, and then ate pizza and lemon torte in the shade, surveying Mount Vesuvius and Naples to our left and the Faraglioni Rocks to our right.
We reluctantly left and took the precious and dramatic chairlift back down to the base, to do a little bit of souvenir shopping in the small, quaint Piazza Vittoria in Anacapri. Audrey bought a beautiful sunhat with“Capri” in black script on the brim. The hat proved to be Instagram-worthy for the rest of our trip.
Then we stood in the bus line, but the heat and wait again were just unbearable. I gave in to my inner princess and grabbed us an open air taxi with a canopy top. It felt like a 1950’s movie and we relished our decision to splurge on this much more preferred mode of transportation to whisk us, with breezes blowing and cooling our shaded happy selves, back down the mountain for the 15-minute ride to Marina Grande. Carpe Diem indeed.
Again it was Just. Too. Hot. So we jostled our way back into the sea at the crowded beach beside the marina. Then we had just enough time to reach the dock to get back onto our boat. We enjoyed the boat ride back to Positano, especially the green grotto swim and the scenic return to port in Positano.
We reveled in our hotel’s pool and our own room’s jacuzzi with a view of all the boats and action. Then we ate dinner at the buzzing beachside Chez Black www.chezblack.it It was another ridiculous meal and lively colorful scene. At dinner we realized how critical it is in Positano to hold a dinner reservation in order to be seated in a good part of the restaurant.
Saturday, August 14th
Finding our new rhythm here by day four, we embraced Positano today, from pool to beach to art galleries to quaint shops. Audrey wanted extra chill time at the pool after we explored the shops and galleries so she stayed there, while I hiked up an insane staircase, embracing my inner mountain goat, and let myself get a bit lost. It was wonderful. I ended up going all the way up to the main road, then back down another long winding staircase to reach Fornillo Beach. Of course I also fit in a lot of fun shopping for sandals, ceramics, shirts and limoncello and linens along the way.
At night, Audrey and I wore blue and yellow outfits, blending in more and more with our surroundings, and dined at Pupetto Beach at 8:30pm on lemon pizza and lobster ravioli with truffles. The octopus salad with olives and potatoes made me cry—it was that good. And a limoncello spritz was the perfect compliment, cooling, sharp and strong.
Sunday August 15th, Ferragosto (a public holiday in Italy, marking the Feast of the Assumption)
We began the day with yet another lovely breakfast at our hotel, where the staff were starting to feel like friends, followed by a private half-day tour along the Gulf of Salerno on a small wooden Gozzo, the Aprea 7,5 meter via Grassi Junior Boats again. Salvatore was our captain and he kept us snug along the coast at a nice leisurely pace, stopping in various caves for Audrey and I to swim, explore, float and get cool.
We made it to Amalfi and celebrated how pretty it looked from the water, then headed back to Positano. The Italian holiday meant our hotel’s pool was quite full, so we retreated to our own room’s ridiculous terrace to read and nap away the afternoon heat.
Then we had dinner at Lo Guarracino www.loguarracinopositano.it/en at 7:30PM, perched like a little hidden eagle’s nest overlooking Fornillo Beach. The views were breathtakingly out of control. The fish was so fresh that we were caught off guard. And the red wine paired so perfectly with my octopus salad and gnocchi.
Monday, August 16th
I woke to see the sun rise over the mountains to the east and we took our COVID tests (needed for re-entry to the United States) just across the hall from our room in the hotel. So convenient! We then embraced being by the pool until our departure by ferry at 11:30am to go explore the town of Amalfi.
It was only a 25-minute high speed ferry ride —a mere 9 Euros per person each way—but we did have to wear masks, which we had gotten very happily used to not doing here in Italy. And the ferry was very hot, except for when the ferry was moving full speed.
Once we got to Amalfi, we walked across the street from the ferry dock to walk around Amalfi’s must-see monumental complex of St. Andrew Cathedral. The crypt of St. Andrew and the Cloister of Paradise were especially beautiful and definitely worth seeing.
To cool off–and to give in to the non-stop offerings—we bought giant lemon sorbets in oversized frozen lemons–the ultimate in lemon worshipping. Then we walked up the hill out of the main part of town till we reached the paper museum. We hit our heat exhaustion and sightseeing wall and so we took the ferry back to Positano and settled back into our beloved poolside once again, chilling by 3pm. I went back to our beach to soak one last time in those magical healing waters and I also bought some amazing Positano-made shirts (it was my son’s 22nd birthday that day) from Blue Positano www.bluepositano.it
We then had dinner at Max www.ristorantemax.it –a very cool chic setting where the dinner tables are inside an art gallery. The restaurant had an open air feel because of the outdoor garden, but was perfectly blended with the sophistication from all that beautiful art surrounding us. Audrey chose the pasta with lobster and I chose the catch of the day in a butter lemon caper sauce with potatoes. My bellini went perfectly with it. I highly recommend the chocolate soufflé for dessert.
I came to the conclusion that in Italy it is always quality over quantity. No establishment ever seems feel the need to compensate for poor taste or flavor with oversized portions. After our perfect portions at Max, we had some final strolling and shopping before crawling exhaustedly into bed.
Tuesday August 17th
Saying farewell to Italy is always a sorrow. And to make it worse, we had to leave our hotel by 3:15am in order to get to Naples airport to catch our 6am Air France flight to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport. But we had a 3-hour layover, which gave us just enough time to buy some lipstick www.buy-paris-dutyfree.com , macaroons www.laduree.fr and a small treasure www.fr.louisvuitton.com before boarding our 7 1/2 hour flight back to New York.
What astounds me is that with all that eating and indulging and luxuriating that Italy involves, I came back feeling thin and fabulous. I think it must just be a mindset (or maybe all those steep stone staircases and pedestrian paths!) Well, I’ve decided that I’m going to hold onto that Italian mindset as long as I possibly can. Thank you Italy, for being all that you always are, and for being open to tourism for now. I pray it stays that way.
Three days later when I hugged Audrey goodbye outside her dorm room in North Carolina I did feel that she was armed with some nice memories and photos of a very pretty and peaceful time spent in Positano with her mom. And I hoped it would make a difference and matter to her in the long run that we had shared that adventure. We did say we would make it an annual trip to explore pretty blue water places. And I will do everything in my power to keep that pact.
Things to do next time:
Spend time in the town of Capri.
Enter Capri’s Blue Grotto.
Dine at Rada Rooftop.
Dine at Donna Rosa.
Go to Music on the Rocks for the club scene.
Stay at Le Sirenuse or Il San Pietro https://www.ilsanpietro.com or at Villa Tre Ville. Drive up to Ravello and spend time at Villa Cimbrone and Villa Rufolo.
See Herculaneum (it’s closed on Wednesdays otherwise we would have gone there instead of/in addition to Pompeii).
Eat more of that fantastic pizza at Covo dei Saranceni’s Brasserie.
Have lunch at Hotel Santa Caterina in Amalfi.
Spend even more time in and on that gorgeous Gulf of Salerno.