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Five Enchanting Hotels on Italy's Amalfi Coast

Trouble ahead (cars passing on curves), trouble behind (cars snorting your bumper); ditching the car just crossed your mind?Much is made of driving the Amalfi Coast, most of it true. You have to be willing to charm this snake of a route, where everything is around the bend, the bend, the bend. But motoring the corniche is only the means. And the end: one tiny port more sea-breezy, one hotel more removed and enchanting, one garden stepping closer to the sky than the last in this province of romance. Not long ago, I returned there with an old friend. Lynn and I came down from Rome, after a sip of la dolce vita, for a long drink of dolce far niente— literally, sweet doing nothing. Aided by lapis seas, soft skies, people as sunny and voluptuous as the lemons on the branches, and five winning hotels, we proved easily that the Amalfi Coast is for lovers and others.

Both Lynn and I were eager to get back to the Hotel Palumbo. I had honeymooned there in 1984. Lynn had trumped that the very next year by staging her wedding— well, everything preceding and following the ceremony— at the 11th-century palazzo. The nuptials themselves had taken place just opposite, at the town hall, where the mayor's legerdemain with unwieldy documents was topped only by his smashing tricolor sash. The Palumbo, needless to say, loomed large in our romantic scrapbooks.

On this warm autumn day, the glass door engraved with the crest of the Confalone family, the original noble occupants, stood open. Passing through it was like stepping into a Piranesi print from which all the shadows had been lifted. The Palumbo's lobby is an intimate courtyard turned soaring light well. White paint and brilliant sunlight unite its mix of Sicilian and Moorish elements— pointed and rounded arches, marble columns of varying heights and orders, stairs coming and going. Sunglasses went right back on, the better to figure out what was so heavenly about a space that denies guests the Big View. The lobby demonstrates pure Italian "can do," construction as improvisation, where a custom-made part is as standard as a two-by-four is in America.

Architectural eccentricity is the Palumbo's allure. In the main palazzo, each of the 15 guest rooms, tucked away on what seem as many levels, has a configuration that's unforgettable— until you try to reproduce it from memory. Ours was the most elegant railroad flat ever: vaulted bathroom at one end, sitting alcove by an arched window wall at the other, plaster-tented bedroom in between, all white on white. Like a giant glowing eyelid, a deep-orange awning filtered the sun.

Where other hotels along the coast overwhelm with the view— panorama as groaning buffet table— the Palumbo serves it up like a tasting menu: a sliver of sea with the house cocktail (gin, Campari, and lemon juice); a dollop of garden from a stair landing on the way up to the dining room; a wedge of mountain at dinner. As we progressed from crespelle (crêpes filled with spinach and ricotta) to mussels to raspberry soufflé, each course over-peppered with "Is everything to your pleasure?" the coast receded in the evening haze, only to reappear as a night curtain of winking lights.

As we readied for bed, voices of others doing the same skipped across the tile floor from Persiana, the room next door— "my" room, where I had first stayed. For hotel guests, memory, not possession, is nine points of the law. Recalling a light breeze scented by roses and spiced by a lone singer with a mandolin, I took back Persiana. Torre, the tower room at the top of the hotel, was Lynn's to reclaim. On cue the next day, a career chambermaid, still gracious and still sweeping out the room, remembered the bride. Architecture is far from the hotel's only charm.

Hotel Palumbo 16 Via San Giovanni del Toro, Ravello; 39-89/857-244, fax 39-89/858-133; doubles from $350.

Lynn and I had hiked out to the promontory occupied by the Villa Cimbrone before, but never with luggage in tow. We hadn't remembered the path's being so steep; surely the steps had multiplied. As we stopped to switch bags from one hand to the other, tourists with cameras slung over their shoulders breezed by, throwing us "Poor dears" glances. But they were the ones to be pitied. At 6:30 they'd be ushered out of the spectacular Villa Cimbrone gardens through the gateway, a medieval contrivance of battered wood and iron bolts. We'd be locked inside. What luck.

Beyond the gate, we passed stone boars poking out above a small cloister. Before a pair of green doors labeled privato, we paused, then did what we'd been instructed all our lives not to do— barged on in. We had read the clues correctly: at the top of the stairs was a reception desk and Isabella to greet us.

The prize of a stay at the Villa is privacy; privato signs that reroute garden visitors are your bid to please come in. You can't help feeling special— though maybe a notch below the divina status accorded Greta Garbo by the Villa Cimbrone. A newish marble plaque affixed to an exterior wall marks the star's 1938 assignation here with conductor Leopold Stokowski. In a thousand years, when the stone has weathered, the occasion will seem as historic and momentous as Ravello's being named the seat of a diocese by the pope in 1081.

The Villa Cimbrone has no restaurant and only 20 guest rooms, though we spotted only five, so our chances were good of never meeting the rest of the choosy few. Still, there were plenty of signs of life: rich tomatoey aromas; Bunny the boxer, jaw to paws, claiming a patch of sun in the main salon; and a pair of bambinos hard on our heels, hungry for lunch. We had taken up residence in an extraordinary 12th-century building that, to the Vuillemier family, owners of the hotel, is simply home.

Our room was the smallest by far, half the size of the one next door, where Hillary Clinton had stayed in 1994. (Now every establishment in town displays a framed photo of her, next to one of Gore Vidal, devoted citizen and local celebrity.) Petunia, as our hideout was sweetly named, came elegantly furnished but with none of the fancier flourishes of her big sisters— no carved mantelpiece or decorative ceiling painting, no dressing table or fancy headboard.

The room's best asset was a covered terrace so large we could live as much outdoors as in and still keep to ourselves. Bouncing off Petunia's whitewashed walls and the sea's mirror finish, the light of dawn was explosive. We squinted, bees buzzed, and delicate croissants, a rarity in Italy, surprised with a hidden burst of apricot. Clanging bells suggested a high pasture, but with grapevines barely clinging to these steep slopes, cows couldn't hope for a toehold. It was the churches greeting the morning.

The gardens of the Villa Cimbrone offer a horizontal experience along a vertical coast, a grand platform 1,198 feet above sea level from which to stretch your eyes way out, then down, down, down. The view is the point; how you get there divides the anticipators from those for whom gratification comes at one speed— immediate. The former meander through a Moorish teahouse, a temple for Bacchus, a grotto named for Eve, and other distractions added at the turn of the century by the villa's English owner, Lord Grimthorpe. The latter make a beeline down the Alley of Immensity, a tunnel of dangling wisteria blossoms in spring, to the Belvedere of Infinity, where gaping mouths confirm the hyperbole. "Guarda, che bello!" ("Look, how beautiful!") We looked and lingered, and looked some more.

Hotel Palumbo 16 Via San Giovanni del Toro, Ravello; 39-89/857-244, fax 39-89/858-133; doubles from $350.


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