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Capri: Temptation Island

For some people, the most vivid impressions of Capri concern the color of the Grotta Azzurra or the breathtaking view from the front seats of the famous funicular. Not me. I'm haunted by a 70-carat aquamarine I encountered at Alberto e Lina, the island's preeminent jeweler. I visited the shop my first afternoon in town and received what I'm convinced is the exact same welcome given to celebrities and dignitaries who have walked in over the last five decades.

"Sit down! Sit down! We take care of you!" Lina Federico instructs me, motioning to a sumptuous side chair. "Look out the window! You see, everybody stops to see our things." Indeed, two voluptuous, overripe ladies with hennaed heads and skintight dresses are staring at a cuff bracelet woven of diamond-studded gold and finished off with my new best friend, the 70-carat aquamarine. "Here in Capri, people come for something different," Lina tells me, pulling out a scrapbook with clippings of everyone from "your president" (he was here on a cruise in 2000 with Laura and Barbara) to Naomi Campbell ("she bought beautiful pearl earrings"). Her pièce de résistance is a picture of Mrs. Onassis wearing white trousers, a black T-shirt, and a low-slung bejeweled belt. "She bought that beautiful belt from us," Lina says, her mind wandering for a moment to a distant Capri. "We are fifty-two years here. There used to be a restaurant across the street, where Ferragamo is now. Couples would come out of the restaurant late at night and look in our windows. Next morning, first thing, they would come and buy."

The experience of shopping in Capri—the trafficless streets lined with designer shops against a backdrop of staggering natural beauty; the juxtaposition of Gucci valises and bougainvillea, Hermès scarves and the Bay of Naples—can feel to the visitor a little like eating too much cake. With every luxury, natural and retail, at hand, it's easy and surprisingly delightful to feel, at least briefly, like a bird in a gilded cage.

Given such an embarrassment of riches, I decide it's best to continue from the top. After my encounter with Lina, I saunter down Via Vittorio Emanuele, which runs from one Capri landmark—Piazza Umberto I (which everyone calls the Piazzetta), the island's main square—to another, the glamorous Quisisana hotel. Though the international shopping class that frequents Capri speaks many languages, it's a sure bet the snippets of conversation I overhear in English ("The Tod's were only $135! I bought two pairs!" or "How much did you love the Costume National slacks on me?") are pretty much what's being said by everyone else in their respective tongues.

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