Long a luxe playground for the jet set, this southern Italian shore is still within reach, even in high season
I wake in my darkened room ($164) at La Rosa dei Venti (40 Via Fornillo; 39-089/875-252; larosadeiventi.net), in Positano. It feels like midnight until I crack open the wooden doors leading to the terrace and the sun floods in. My room at the small inn is simple and breezy: blue ceramic tiles line the floor; the only decoration, hung above the wide, comfortable bed, is an austere Byzantine-style Madonna and Child. Honeymoon suite, this is not.
The innkeeper arrives bearing a breakfast tray (no extra charge) with a cappuccino, croissants, and a collection of jams, which she serves on my flower-filled terrace. This private perch, high on the quiet Fornillo side of Positano, overlooks the town's rugged cliffs and harbor. I nibble at a croissant and consider my good luck.
Related: Best of the Italian Lakes
You can't get anywhere in Positano without taking a few stairs. The route down to the Fornillo beach involves some 400 steps, past white stucco houses covered in honeysuckle and bougainvillea. The black sand is covered with colorful umbrellas and brown bikinied bodies reading Oggi, an Italian gossip magazine. I could have my own chair for $9.50, but the water at this public beach seems rather oily and uninviting. Instead, I stroll toward the end of the strip, slip through a passage carved into the rock, and wind up in a small cove. Here, the water is clear. I shed my cover-up and dive in.
The stores lining the narrow stone streets of Positano are chockablock with ceramics, sundresses, and custom-made leather sandals. At La Botteguccia da Giovanni (Via T. Genoino; 39-089/ 811-824), a cobbler pieces together a pair of white thongs from buttery-soft leather. Around the corner there's yet another enticement at the stylish gelateria Il Vicoletto (41-43 Via del Saracino; 39-089/811-915), where I get two scoops of creamy hazelnut gelato ($3.40).
Related: How To Travel To the Amalfi Coast
The town of Amalfi is just a 25-minute hydrofoil ride from Positano, but the water is choppy, so the boats are not running this afternoon. I pick up a SITA bus ticket ($1.80) at the tabaccheria (Piazza dei Mulini). The cliff-hugging, 40-minute drive has magnificent views of the private coves and terraced gardens that pepper the coast. Our bus driver handles the hairpin twists of the narrow mountain roads with Formula 1 aplomb. His only concession to blind turns: a disconcertingly light touch on the horn.
Safely in Amalfi, I grab lunch ($13.60)—a pancetta-and-mushroom pizza and a glass of house white wine—at Trattoria e Pizzeria da Memé (8 Salita Marino Sebaste; 39-089/830-4549). Afterward, I follow the town's whitewashed alleyways higher and higher, until I reach the ancient Via Annunziatella, where the panorama of the Valley of Mills (Amalfi is famous for its paper industry) is breathtaking.
The hydrofoils are running again, so I hop on the TravelMar ferry ($7.50). When we reach Positano, I drop by Bar la Zagara (8/10 Via Mulini; 39-089/ 875-964) for a pick-me-up caffè freddo ($2), a shot of sweet iced espresso.
Showered and changed, I'm off to the Champagne Bar at Le Sirenuse (30 Via C. Colombo; 39-089/875-066; sirenuse.it), a private villa turned ultrafashionable cliffside hotel. The sound track on the terrace bar is Edith Piaf; the clientele are glamorously tanned, white linen-wearing couples. I order a glass of Prosecco ($15) and watch the sun set.
It's a general rule in many seaside resort towns that the quality of a meal is inversely proportional to the restaurant's location. La Cambusa (5 Piazza A. Vespucci; 39-089/875-432), enviably set in the town center on a terrace with water views, proves the glorious exception. I start my dinner ($45) with a glass of Ravello Rosso and a salad of arugula, tomatoes, and mozzarella, followed by the spaghetti alle cozze (mussels). I know the tiramisu will push me over budget, but after climbing nearly 1,000 stairs, I deserve the treat.
Total spent: $252.30
High season runs from June through September.
An afternoon swim followed by grilled fresh fish at Da Adolfo (39-089/875-022; daadolfo.com; lunch for two $40), in a private cove five minutes by boat from Positano. The restaurant–beach pavilion runs a complimentary shuttle to and from the harbor.
Worth the Splurge
Spend a day touring the coast's villages with Lucibello Boats (39-089/875-032; lucibello.it; private charters from $408, for up to six people).
Fly direct to Naples from Rome or Milan. From Naples, Metro del Mare (delmare.com) runs regular hydrofoil service to Positano and other cities on the Amalfi Coast.
For more on the Amalfi Coast, check out T+L's Guide to Visiting The Amalfi Coast.
Each morning, the chefs of La Cambusa purchase fresh fish and seafood from local fishermen and turn them into dishes like octopus salad, spaghetti with sautéed mussels, and linguini with lobster. The peach and orange restaurant also specializes in raw, carpaccio recipes of tuna, salmon, and sea bass. Located on the main beach of Positano, in the shadow of the church dome of St. Maria Assunta, the canopied outdoor patio is the most popular seating option owing to its panoramic views of the bay and harbor.
Champagne Bar at Le Sirenuse
Part of the 18th-century seaside villa that houses Le Sirenuse hotel, this upscale bar is set on an open-air terrace overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea and the surrounding hills. Classic jazz music fills the space, which is decorated with candlelit mosaic tables, cushioned wicker chairs, and white roses planted in heavy stone pots. Famed Venetian glassblower Carlo Moretti supplies the flutes for the bar’s rare vintage champagnes, while his sister Costanza Paravicini creates the ceramic plates for raw oysters and other fresh seafood. On summer evenings, a live DJ spins more upbeat tunes, creating a party-like atmosphere.
Bar Pasticceria la Zagara
Built into a cliff overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, this full-service bar has a bright, simple interior and an outdoor wooden terrace, shaded by a canopy of thick-green vines. Set amid orange and lemon groves, the terrace provides panoramic views of the Gulf of Salerno and the majolica dome of the Chiesa Madre (Mother Church). In addition to classic cocktails like the Bellini, the bar also serves pizzas, fresh salads, homemade gelato, and pastries such as the delizia al limone (sponge cake with lemon Chantilly cream). During summertime, it hosts live music ranging from traditional Neapolitan to upbeat disco.
Trattoria e Pizzeria da Memé
Located up a winding, stepped alleyway, the pizzeria is easy to miss; patrons often get lost looking it or stumble upon it while looking for something else. The four small tables outside the door are often occupied by locals, while about 20 more are available inside under Arabic arches and thick white walls decorated with green swirls. Although the wood-fired classic Italian pizzas like margherita and quattro formaggi get top billing, it’s the seafood pasta dishes made with the catch of the day that win the most praise.
La Botteguccia da Giovanni
On any given day, this renowned cobbler’s shop along a sloping, stone lane in the village of Positano on the Amalfi Coast stands ready to create custom leather sandals for patrons as it has for nearly 100 years. Customers may design them from scratch, choosing color, shape, and style, or select a pair from a variety of ready-made shoes. Although men’s shoes are available, the shop clearly specializes in female footwear, with strappy, bejeweled designs in soft, blond leather that frequently show up on the feet of celebrities.
La Rosa dei Venti
Long a jet-set playground, Italy’s Amalfi Coast is still accessible, thanks to a handful of affordable hotels that includes La Rosa dei Venti. On a cliff in Positano, La Rosa's seven rooms are furnished simply, with a mix of painted wooden beds and chairs, wall-mounted Madonnas and putti, and bright-hued Vietri ceramic floor tiles. Mezzogiorno sunshine floods through French doors—all of which have Mediterranean views. And just a few yards from the inn’s entrance, 400-odd steps lead straight to the see-and-be-seen Fornillo beach.
Room to Book: The Libeccio room, for its large private terrace with a beautiful view of the sea.
Doubles From $182, including breakfast.≤/em>