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Five Enchanting Hotels on Italy's Amalfi Coast

On our approach up the hill from the town of Amalfi, we caught glimpses of the Hotel Santa Caterina, its name spelled out in black letters along the roofline. Finding a hotel on this coast is rarely a problem. Most are right on the road, presenting the issue that overshadows all arrivals: where to pull over long enough to check in, and how to avoid an accident in the process. The Santa Caterina welcomed us with a luxuriously wide apron of macadam.

Stepping from the car, I shook my arms loose to recover from the hamster dance of hand-over-hand on the steering wheel, and got a good look at the place just before it slid into late-afternoon shadow. As with most hotels here, especially those with waterfront access, what you see at lobby level is a lot less than what you get. Lynn and I would confirm this in detail the next day, though we knew it already from having bobbed past the Santa Caterina years ago in a fishing boat. When a seashore is made up more of cliffs than beaches, you have to get out on the water to understand the lay of the land.

Back then, our man at the tiller had pointed out a tiny peaked-roof cottage: "Santa Caterina's hideaway for honeymooners." It clung, barely, to the hillside at the far edge of Babylonian gardens, where tiers of terraces supported rustic pergolas weighed down by lemons. Gargantuan enough to be spied even from a distance, the fruit used in the making of the local liqueur limoncello looked just as outrageous up close— overscaled props for a production of Aïda.

I had forgotten how the hotel's white stucco main building, with its metal-railed balconies, resembles a ship marooned at the top of a cliff. Even the blue-and-white pinwheel umbrellas by the pool and bathing areas had faded from memory. But the cottage had snugged down in my head, and when I called to make reservations, it was what I asked for.

Our cottage fantasy would remain unspoiled by reality; the little building, known incongruously as the Chalet, was undergoing renovation. We were guided instead to a junior suite in one of three other villas also deep in the garden and now deep in the dark. Coveted for their seclusion in high season, they simply seemed remote and lonesome in October, the off-season having arrived sooner than usual because of a rare and lengthy stretch of rain. Could we see something else?

The result of many years' growth, the 70-room Santa Caterina roams haphazardly over its stretch of cliff and through decades of decorative taste. From the lobby, Victorian in its dress of Oriental scatter rugs, carved walnut sofas, and brass-potted palms, we swung through a forties sitting room and a vaguely turn-of-the-century dining room, where silver chargers sported crocheted doilies; the tables, crisp white habits. Maybe our luggage should stay put while we inspected a few more guest rooms?"Per favore," beseeched the bellman. We admired a fine chest of drawers here, a noble-enough mirror there, but rejected the AstroTurf-carpeted balcony in one room, and tile from the design depths of the seventies in another. Finally, we settled on a spacious room with its own peculiarities: loved the vaulted space and the bougainvillea-framed terrace, were perplexed by a headboard consisting of fabric draped over a brass rod. Hand-painted tray-size tiles brought a sea view into the windowless bathroom, where we found an ashtray by the whirlpool tub for two, but no soap dish in the separate shower— a sure sign that we would encounter more Europeans than Americans here.

Dinner delivered its own little surprise— Giovanni. Midway through my insalata caprese, the memory bell rang: he was the young waiter who had served Lynn's wedding lunch. We traded updates and extended our sympathies, for tonight he seemed to have won the server booby prize. Ever the professional, he betrayed no impatience, first with a complaining American couple whose marriage appeared to be unraveling along with their anniversary celebration, and then with an eccentric who, between rapid bites and sips, fidgeted with his Walkman and scribbled obsessively on the backs of photographs taped together. Giovanni merely let escape a knowing smile, which we returned over perfectly moist sea bass.

However capricious the Santa Caterina may be in terms of style, it matters little because the garden and the sea are the draw. By late morning, guests are plunging via portholed elevators to the waterfront, a fifties movie set of rock terraces, turquoise pool, and attendants dressed in (no kidding) boat-neck shirts with marine stripes. As the temperature rose, so did we, up another level to a lunch of pizza and arugula salad at the casual poolside restaurant. Bamboo canes lashed to a wooden framework shaded us, a light breeze cooled us, and we looked out to nothing but blue— the Tyrrhenian sea, a mezzogiorno sky. It was all we needed, this time. Next trip, our chalet will be ready.

Hotel Santa Caterina 9 S.S. Amalfitana, Amalfi; 39-89/871-012, fax 39-89/871-351; doubles $320, including breakfast.

It isn't Saint Peter drawing the crowd of cars around a little chapel devoted to him just east of Positano. Like a respectable door that hides a speakeasy, the chapel is a front for the Hotel San Pietro, to which the faithful make regular pilgrimages motivated by one overwhelming desire— to be sinful. Indulgence is San Pietro's byword. It arrives in the form of vast rooms with sparkling tile floors, bathtubs seemingly suspended over the sea, beds with canopies of real vines, and hideaway terraces with pines framing a postcard view of Positano. Rooms fitting this description, though, fall under the heading of "special," meaning that roughly a quarter of the 60 rooms here have especially high rates. All guests, nonetheless, are treated to asparagus just plucked from the garden, wool lap robes that take the chill out of breakfast alfresco, and balconies with a sea view. (The glass door leading to our balcony cleverly slid out of sight into a pocket in the wall.)

The grandest terrace of all is the one off the reception hall, a space we found impossibly wide given the mass of rock we'd penetrated, via a tiny elevator, to reach the lobby. In the 1960's, Carlo Cinque, born of a Positanese hotel family, had the vision to create this deluxe cliff dwelling with a dozen levels. But who, we wondered, had been the master blaster responsible for such deft engineering?The vast living room is an indoor/outdoor space with sliding glass doors accented by bird decals to ward off crashes, glass-topped coffee tables piled with glossy golfing books, gold jewelry in shiny cases to snare what-the-heck couples, and a portrait of "Carlino" himself, looking jaunty and proud beneath his straw hat. Positano, meet Palm Springs.

There were porters in buttoned jackets darting about with drinks trays, maids in crisp uniforms polishing brass, and chefs in toques, but in spite of all that the San Pietro had a splayed-legged informality. Guests— mostly couples, many of them honeymooners— were dressed down in his-and-her pressed shorts and polo shirts. They played cards on a lobby sofa; lolled by the pool two floors up; and, on the main terrace, rose from benches, tiled and cushioned in sunny yellow, long enough to snap pictures of each other or to hand the camera to us. Would we mind?Of course not. No need to tell them to move closer together.

After lunch on the dining terrace, we trailed behind two pairs of newlyweds sharing newfound wisdom regarding wedding registries. Their freshly stocked china cupboards out of sight, they were setting off in search of, what else, local ceramics. So were an older couple for whom the concierge was mapping a day of bargain hunting at the pottery factories in Vietri sul Mare.

We took the plunge instead, 290 feet down to the private beach and bathing area. It being late October, most of the bright orange chaises sat empty, the majority of the shade umbrellas closed. One of the staff confided that "on that little patch of grass, by the tennis court, a guest landed his helicopter after flying down from England." Leave it to the San Pietro to provide the ultimate parking spot.

Hotel San Pietro 2 Via Laurito, Positano; 39-89/875-455, fax 39-89/811-449; doubles $300­$600, including breakfast.

Opting for the elevator rather than the stairs at the Sirenuse Hotel is like taking the subway instead of a bus in a city packed with sights. It wasn't until my third trip up the stone staircase between the fourth and fifth floors, for example, that I realized the elaborately framed documents on the wall were 15th-century passports. Today's pocket-size passports tuck easily into a grid of wooden cubbyholes behind the front desk. Once part of a church vestry, the compartments now support brass key rings in the shape of sirens, the enchantresses who almost snared Ulysses— and who gave the hotel its name.

The Sirenuse has been welcoming guests since the 1950's, but the palazzo and its treasures— so many that the hotel has recently produced a guide to its collections— take people on a journey through three centuries in the life of a noble Neapolitan family, the Marchesi Sersale. Every one of the 60 guest rooms has at least one noteworthy antique; chances are you'll stow your socks in a magnificent 17th-century Neapolitan chest of drawers. The Sersale family wears its patrician heritage well, which means there is no room at the inn for pretension. Antonio, second-generation general manager, and his wife, Carla, have seen to it that the Sirenuse's colors are brighter, its air fresher than ever.

Four times a year, small cooking classes gather around a broad table adjacent to the kitchen, all eyes on chef Alfonso Mazzacano, all ears tuned to Antonio's translations. A new glass-enclosed kitchen churns out dishes like spaghetti alle vongole that make this one of the best dining rooms on the coast.

My second day there Carla led me on a tour of recent improvements. Across the street in the hotel's shop, which she oversees, the tile floor looked familiar. "Yes," she nodded. "We borrowed the pattern from the lobby of the Hotel Palumbo." The wares, for once, were not predictable. There were brightly colored organza pillows, simple leather handbags by Henri Begueline, and black maillots by French designer Eres— all in sync with the sophisticated taste that characterizes the Sirenuse.

Back in the main building, we peered into a few guest rooms, each maid pausing to nod a buon giorno as we interrupted her work. All the rooms had balconies; the majority had whirlpool tubs; a few even had oil paintings set into the ceiling— "a decorating fancy of one of my husband's uncles," explained Carla. Most astonishing of the new additions— given the amount of climbing that the near-vertical town of Positano demands, and the fact that Italians, as a rule, would sooner eat overcooked pasta than pedal an Exercycle— was a small but handsome gym.

The Sirenuse's narrow pool does entice a few lap swimmers, but who can keep his face in the water given distractions so lovely and abundant?The pool terrace offers the best seats in the amphitheater that is Positano. From chaises lined up beneath pruned lemon trees, we traced the wake of boats returning from Capri; swam in our minds' eyes out to Li Galli, a trio of islands as famous for being home to Nureyev as to the sirens; and remarked how the tiles on Positano's duomo reminded us of the marzipan we had seen in a pastry shop.

At lunch near the pool, even with our backs to the sea, the view was memorable. Vines trace every inch of the hotel's stacked arches and balconies. Astonishingly, only one plant springs from the rocky ground; the rest grow in pots, nurtured by a dedicated gardener and an elaborate but discreet watering system. Through the green peeks the bold red-and-white stucco of the palazzo, a romantic valentine in the heart of Positano.

Le Sirenuse Hotel; 30 Via Christoforo Colombo, Positano; 39-89/875-066, fax 39-89/811-798; doubles from $236.


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