Prior to our summer in the Amalfi Coast, I had already hailed this stretch of Italian coastline to be “my favorite place in the world.” While there is still much of the world left to see, I am relatively well-traveled for my age, and so to confidently proclaim the Amalfi Coast as my absolute favorite was not something I did lightly. There is something about the coast that is pure magic, so opulent and wonderful, I feel like I do it a disservice every time I try to reduce my observations to words. But for the sake of my blog, I will try to relay this place as best as I am capable.
Years ago, while living in Rome, I had planned a weekend getaway to the Amalfi Coast, where I had spent my 21st Birthday basking in the sun on black pebble beaches. In those days, I was traveling in a much different manner, so I stayed in a hostel outside of Sorrento where the party raged into the morning. Even then, packed into the most modest accommodations with my friends, this place resonated with me as being incredibly special. Admittedly, during my early travels to the coast I never actually “stayed” on the coast, but was thankful for even the opportunity to be close enough to come by bus for the day from Sorrento to enjoy a few hours of beach and boating.
Most people who visit the Amalfi Coast do it as I had in the past – for a day trip. Buses and private cars drop off crowds of people each day, who descend upon the small hillside towns of the coast for a few hours, and are collected back up and dissipate before sundown. Part of the exclusivity of the area is that there is no commercial business, at all. You will not find a single name brand or even designer store, and this includes hotels. There are no major hotels along the coast, only small villas and celebrity-clad boutique hotels, like La Sirenuse (which runs several thousands of dollars per night.) I remember leaving Positano in my early twenties and thinking “I just pray that by the time I am able to come back to stay here one day, that it still looks just like this.” Well, my dreams were realized on a much quicker timeline than I imagined (not because I made a fortune overnight, but thanks to the introduction of AirBnb to the area.)
We arrived after a long morning of bus ride(s) from Rome. We were abruptly dropped off on the side of a winding road through the center of Positano. The GPS has announced that we had arrived, but as we stood on the side of the road with all of our luggage in the blazing sun, I began to panic that we had become victim to a scam. Just before I began to really worry, an older Italian woman called out to me from a balcony above. Ciao! She yelled, and waved us up a doorway tucked away to the side. We drug our suitcases up a narrow, winding stairwell to meet the woman, who greeted me with an embrace and very broken English and pushed a keyring into my hand as she scurried off. We opened the door of our Positano flat and I literally gasped for a second. The apartment was unbelievable, although it was hard to even notice the contents to the apartment when each room had large windows overlooking the iconic Positano cityscape and the glimmering sea beyond it. Even better than the beautifully renovated white marble apartment interior was the wrap-around deck, sheltered by trellises of vines and flowers shading the table and lounge chairs below. While I was eager to get out and explore the city, I had to stand at the edge of the deck and take it all in. It was too surreal to grasp in that moment. Before my eyes was the very view that you see plastered on every travel magazine – and we had our own little piece of it. Dani came behind me with an Aperol Spritz and gazed out with me, as the gentle sea breeze blew my hair back. We looked at the sea, then at each other, and no words were needed to relay the mutual “is this really happening” bewilderment we were both experiencing in the moment.
After we had taken in the view and a few spritzes, we packed a beach bag and left the comforts of our hillside château for some sunshine. Positano is carved out of the side of a cliff, and thus, it is thus a city of a million steps. Although our apartment was in the middle of the town, the steep climb up and down the stairs to the bottom was still rigorous. We passed colorful shops and bakeries and passed under overhangs of foliage and lemon trees on our way to the bottom. At the bottom of the hill in Positano was a beach adjacent to a small but bustling port. Colorful umbrellas and bronzed sunbathers filled every crevice of the black stone beach. Since we were late to arrive, there was no real estate left on the main beach, which was okay – because we had already plotted out a lesser-known alternative.
Just a short walk past where the port of Positano is a stone walkway that hugs the curves of the cliffside. In addition to being a scenic walk away from the town, it also leads to a more private beach. Just beyond a castle carved into the side of the rock, we peeked over the ledge and saw a tiny rock beach with it’s own display of vibrant umbrellas like polka dots on the shoreline. We climbed down another staircase to the small beach, which was much less populated, and had a more local vibe. We brought inflatable loungers and basked in the sun for a while before wading into the perfectly temperate clear Mediterranean waters. We alternated between floating, splashing and napping on the beach for several hours before we reluctantly began the endeavor back to the apartment, this time up the million steps. We had reservations at one of the top rated restaurant in all of Positano, and I was mindful not to miss it. Part of the mystique of the Amalfi Coast is the spirit of pure leisure. Time is totally immaterial, so it is very easy to lose track of the hour.
We got back to the apartment the way we came, back up the steps, past the shops, through the lemon groves, and I soon found myself right back on the balcony, staring out. We changed for dinner, and popped another bottle of prosecco. I played Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra on the outdoor speakers of the deck, and we playfully slow danced around the balcony, sipping Aperol with the idyllic Amalfi coast scenery as a backdrop. From this moment on, the entire evening felt like a montage of scenes from a romantic movie – almost too stereotypically perfect to be real. After polishing off the bottle, we trekked back down the stairs on or way to dinner, which was situated almost directly across from our apartment, but on the other side of the hill (meaning we had to walk around.) Amazingly, with a nice wine buzz, the steps seemed much less ominous this time and I floated down them effortlessly, stopping to take in the view and snap photos from different perspectives on the way.
We arrived to Caffe Positano, and Dani walked up to the formally dressed host. I knew that my boyfriend had made reservations, but I did not realize the great lengths he had gone. We had a table on it’s own private balcony, hanging out and displaying even more stunning views than our apartment. Our personal waiter sat us and quickly brought a flight of more prosecco and limoncello. The sun had now sunken even lower, and the bright blue sky was melting gracefully into spectacular shades of golden pink as sunset commenced. All of the distinct colors of the coast shone with a different hue as it gradually grew darker. I was glued to the view, for it felt that every time I looked away for a moment, the colors had changed again, and I was afraid to miss it. A string quartet played in the background and I was quite sure that it was the most romantic thing I had ever experienced. Again, I was flooded with the feeling of “is this really happening?” I am not necessarily the most sentimental person, and I almost never cry from happiness, but my views became clouded by my misty eyes. I was experiencing the embodiment of bliss (and a much more developed bubbly-buzz by this point.)
Our dinner was served as the sun finally said “buonanotte” and tucked in for the evening. At this point, all of the tourists had been long gone for the day, and it felt like we were experiencing a rare and intimate time with the now tranquil town of Positano. And with the onset of night, the town and the coast lit up with lights and candles like a constellation of stars from windows and balconies. I had never experienced the Amalfi Coast at night, and it was almost as beautiful as the day. We were served a meal as extravagant and lavish as the service and ambiance of the restaurant itself. As we closed out our private meal, our waiter visited us once more with a tray of after dinner amaretto shots. At this point I probably did not need shots, but in the culture of excess and relaxation, it seemed silly to turn them away.
We gushed out of the restaurant now truly walking on the clouds as we were filled with incredible food and Italian liquors. We decided to walk a few steps down to the docks and main beach. It was dark, but well lit, and we navigated easily to the center of town. We stood at the port looking out over the water. I looked over at my boyfriend in a glow and said, “do you want to do something really memorable?” He looked back at me as if I had just challenged him. “Follow me, don’t think about it, lets just do it.” And he did follow as we ran along the narrow walkway along the edge that we had taken earlier to the small and protected local beach. The winding path was unlit and the steep steps down to the beach were much less inviting in the night, but we made it down in one piece. We were alone on our own beach, with the moon glowing and reflecting so brightly off of the water, it almost illuminated the beach for us like a soft light. He looked at me as if to ask, “what now?” I smiled, “now, we go in!” My boyfriend (who is much less of an exhibitionist and more conservative than I am most of the time) looked back at me like I had three heads as I slipped out of my silk dress and ran toward the sea feeling liberated. I knew he was adequately loosened up with all of the drinks, and I had hoped he would feel just as caught up in the moment and follow me to skinny dip in the Mediterranean under the moonlight….and he did. The water was cool and refreshing, and so salty we hardly had to swim to stay afloat. We laughed and splashed each other and swam out just far enough that we could see the view of Positano from the perspective of the yachts tethered in the sea. It was a spectacular view, with the moon behind us and views of the towns up and down the coast. I thought to myself in the moment, “how many people get to experience the Amalfi Coast at all, let alone like this?” After bobbing around and swimming in the midnight stillness for long enough, we came in. Of course, after not seeing a single soul for ages, we heard people coming in the night along the path. We quickly gathered our clothes and found shelter from view in a cave at the back of the beach where we hid with clothes in hand. As soon as they had passed and we were safe, we dressed in our dampened clothes, laughing heartily at the uncharacteristic risk we had just taken (which was totally worth it, by the way!)
The next morning, we woke up to daybreak through the large windows in the flat. Normally, I hate mornings under any circumstance, but the view was worth rising early for to soak up every drop. Again, we packed for the day and cascaded down the steps once more to the port docks at the foot of Positano. We were greeted by a sandy-haired skipper who squired us onto the boat we had chartered for the day. In his limited English, he explained that he was a rare native to Positano, and that he would show us all of the less traveled caves and secret beaches of the rocky coast. We pulled away from the busy docks and sunlight had just fully breached the top of the cliff, casting beams of sunlight on the town below like rays from the heavens. It was cool and breezy in the early hours, as we began slowly on our journey up the coast toward Priano. Although it was still early, our captain wasted no time equipping us with prosecco for the journey. As the boat carried us away from Positano, we passed mega yachts of unthinkable proportion moored nearby, leaving me to wonder who might be inside.
We stopped for a late morning swim in a grotto near Priano. I dove from the bow of the boat into the bluest water. I had been trying to deny the fact that I was feeling a bit hungover all morning, but as soon as I was submerged in the crisp and refreshing waters of the Med, I felt fully reborn. After swimming around and unsuccessfully trying to capture the wonder with our GoPro, we climbed back on our vessel and air dried in the sun on the deck as the sun shone down stronger than before.
We continued along the coast. Our captain, while unable to converse well in English, was proficient enough to point out and explain things along the way. He showed us famous villas and natural phenomena. We stopped in several caves, each illuminated with a different color of neon green or blue, depending on the angle the sunlight shined in. He told us that there are hundreds of these caves, each as beautiful as the famed “Blue Grotto” on the nearby isle of Capri (which costs a small fortune to enter for a few minutes, and swimming is forbidden.) Our captain explained that the cost and exclusivity of the Blue Grotto (as compared to the many grottos we entered throughout the day) was due to the fact that the site in Capri was still controlled by mafia stronghold.
Our captain continued to tell us about the long and interesting history of the region as we popped another bottle of Prosecco and floated along. With it’s convenient positioning on the coast, it was not surprising that Amalfi has long been an important port city on the Mediterranean, but what was surprising was the fact that in the seventh century, Amalfi was actually its own independent republic. It’s hard to imagine these tiny serene towns and lush coastline as anything more than an idyllic getaway for aristocrats and celebrities, but he explained many of the castle-like structures along the coast (now occupied as ultra luxury Villas) were once forts and lookout towers for the Republic to defend herself. He told us of the modern histories as well, pointing out the sun decks and nightclubs where JFK used to frequent with Jackie O. We passed under a famed bridge carved into the facade which continues to be the site of the world’s most notable cliff diving competitions, and as I stared up, I could hardly imagine a human being jumping from such heights into the Gulf of Salerno and surviving. He shared with us the old wives tales and mythical stories and superstitions about the caves. I felt lucky to have stumbled upon such a knowledgeable local guide, because his facts about the region were more numerous than the grottos that painted the shoreline.
Our boat skillfully navigated into the mouth of a large cave, which he described as the green cave or “African Cave.” Through his very heavy accent I was able to make out the myth that he told us: that entering the cave leaves you several years older. Willing to take my chances with premature aging, I was eager to jump off of the boat and swim into the cave, which gleamed spectacular green and opened up to a large ballroom of limestone, where we were able to climb up and explore. After a while of exploring the famous site I swam back to our boat and the captain joked that I had evovled into an old woman while inside. While I gave him the benefit of a giggle for the joke, the truth is that every time I immerse myself into the salty depths of the Med, I felt fully rejuvenated.
Our boat dropped us at the Port of the town of Amalfi so that we could have a few hours exploring. Despite the fact that the entire region gets its namesake from this town, it is an incredibly small place. We entered the center of town, which like Positano, was marked by a magnificent Church and busy square. Anxious to see as much as we could before we had to depart, we opted for a quick (but delectable) lunch of Prosciutto paninis and lemon granita in the square. We climbed the steps of the ornate Church, which was embellished with signature tile and had enormous windows overlooking the town below and the stretch of floral cliffside. Our time in Amalfi seemed to slip away quickly, and before we knew it, we were back on the dock climbing back into our awaiting boat.
After Amalfi, we continued on to Ravello, which we admired from the deck, but did not get to explore on foot (which is one of the cliffhangers that ensures a sequel to this trip happens soon.) We stopped at a private beach, accessible only by boat. On the rocky coast, the pebble beaches were a treasured commodity. It was not uncommon to find a private beach with a restaurant or bar kiosk, and the proprietor would transport you by water taxi and permit you use of the beach, so long as you patronized the restaurant. Even after gaining admission to the beach, the loungers and distinctive colored umbrellas were usually a significant upcharge. When we arrived at the private beach (somewhere between Ravello and Atrani), we learned that unsurprisingly, the economics of the coast were much different if you were a local. Our captain wanted dinner at the restaurant of the private beach. He invited us to join, but we were still filled with focaccia and lemon ice from lunch. He went inside alone and signaled to the owners that we were “with him, and to take care of us.” And for no cost at all, were found ourselves on two loungers with the best stop on the beach beneath giant neon orange umbrellas. I drifted in and out of a blissful late afternoon nap, rotating between gentle snoozes, sips of Peroni, and dips into the sea. Once our captain has satisfied his hunger, and I had sufficiently lounged on our free accommodations, we climbed back into the boat for the final time.
We headed back the other direction toward home, stopping several times along the way for tranquil twilight swims, now that most all other boaters had turned in for the day. The daylight grew dimmer, I realized we had been on the boat for about 12 hours. I had mentioned that time really gets away from you on the coast, but it works in both directions. Our day included so many sights, cities, swimming holes and history, I had felt that day spanned out across an entire week.
The dazzle of the Positano façade grew closer as we approached the town. It looked almost like an ornate bedazzled broach had been pressed into the crevice of a mountain, with the brightly colored buildings and tiled roofs reflecting like tiny gemstones. The magic hour had settled in as a familiar glow of golden settled over everything as the sun began its final descent. I sat on the bow of the boat gazing out over the nearing town, and I must have made my gaze of adoration quite obvious, because the captain came up behind me and said, “bella, eh?” gesturing at the town in seeming agreement with my awe. Earlier in the day, he had informed me that a building permit for new construction had not been issued in the city of Positano in more than thirty years. While much of Italy had been invaded with modern conveniences and commercialized fixtures to accommodate their booming international tourism economy, the Amalfi Coast made valiant efforts to prevent that from happening, and thus, the coastal towns were perfectly preserved and authentic, like a rare glimpse back in time.
After our 13 hour day at sea (and in various towns along the Amalfi Coast) the million stairs home seemed a bit more arduous than usual. We trudged up, and about halfway up, we decided that we would not have the stamina to go home, wash the sea off of us, and make it to our late night reservation at a local restaurant. I was very agreeable to substitute our prior plans with a homemade dinner on that balcony that I so adored – after all, our apartment had a fully functional kitchen (that appeared never used) and a spectacular view that we could observe while dining in pajamas. On our way up the stairs, we stopped at a pasta shop to pick up fresh tagliatelle. Then a few more steps to the vegetable market to pick up the most plump and radiant tomatoes I’d ever seen, and then to the butcher to pick up chicken. And with groceries in hand, I got to feel like I was living out my fantasy of being a Positano resident for a moment. I made a very simple dinner of chicken parm and pasta, but with the freshest local ingredients, it made even the modest meal taste like a masterpiece. That night, Dean Martin, Dani, and I shared a low-key, but very romantic home cooked meal beneath the sky on the balcony, lit by candlelight. And we slept so very well, I completely lost track of dates and time for the days to come. We enjoyed our next couple of meals from the balcony, not for lack of amazing choices of restaurants nearby, but something felt so casual and authentic about eating at home. We filled our remaining days in Positano with leisure, with Pizza form the famed Chez Black down at the beach (which really does live up to its legend), and by entering little shops for souvenirs of our time spent in my favorite place. [As a side note; I have long admired the colorful tile work from this region, so I finally splurged on buying some ceramics, and have since themed my entire house with lemons and Amalfi tiles, as a daily reminder of the magic and romance of my favorite place.]
We packed up and prepared to leave Positano in true local fashion – on the public bus (which was 2 euro and shockingly convenient and efficient to get to Sorrento.) We exchanged keys with our gracious host, who hugged me on the way out. She was a jolly woman with a sun-kissed complexion that reminded me of my late grandmother (who was also southern Italian.) She glowed when I told her about the wonderful week we’ve had in the flat. Perhaps it is just a reflection of their reliance on the tourism economy, but the warm hospitality we received from her and many other Italians felt genuine – a deep pride in their beautiful homeland. I was genuinely appreciative for their willingness to share it us. As we departed and she waved from the balcony, I felt a profound sadness. We had had such a magical time and it was inevitable that one day this treasure of a villa would be discovered and would be booked solid for eternities. We boarded the bus and winded back around hairpin turns as Positano faded into the distance. I reflected on the week. I had thought that I loved the Amalfi Coast before, but our time had confirmed and amplified that tenfold. I left with absolute assurance that the Amalfi Coast is the closest I will ever come to experiencing a slice of heaven on this earth. La dolce vida.
*Check out some of our photos below. Although I don’t believe anything can quite capture the essence of Amalfi, the pictures tend to depict what my words cannot.