Simon Doonan's Guide to Capri
T+L searches for the chicest boutiques, the best table for a voyeuristic lunch, and the perfect spot for an evening passeggiata.
Ah, La dolce vita! For most people, this intoxicating phrase is synonymous with Rome. Not for me. Reluctant though I am to irritate the ghost of Federico Fellini, I think the concept finds its fiercest and most fabulous expression on a certain little nugget in the Bay of Naples—Capri.
What makes the island so sweet? Just how dolce is the vita? How dolce are the dolce? How dolce is the Gabbana?
Capri is, first and foremost, a fatally appealing combination of rusticity and glamour. The juxtaposition of simple pleasures—plopping in the Med; hiking deserted cliffs; scarfing down bowls of fresh figs—with a full-throttle commitment to style makes for an extremely dolce vita. It also makes for great creative inspiration. As somebody who spends most of the year whirring like a hamster on the wheel of fashion, I naturally find it necessary to hop off and refuel every so often. Recently, I decided to seek relaxation and inspiration in Capri. My traveling companions are my designer/ceramicist husband, Jonathan Adler, L.A.-based fashion designer Trina Turk, and her photographer husband, Jonathan Skow. (On our trip, we avoid confusion by referring to the latter as Mr. Skow.) We spend a thoroughly dolce week at the legendary La Scalinatella. Eccentric and luxurious, “the Scally,” as we affectionately dub it, looks as if it were decorated by Salvador Dalí after dropping acid. With its improbable collection of borderline-kitsch antiques and its stark white architecture, the Scally is the perfect base from which to sally forth and forage for inspiration.
Lay of the Land (and the Sea)
Jonathan is addicted to blue: baby blue, navy blue, azure blue—he has yet to meet a blue that does not inspire a pot or a pillow for his stores. The blues of the water here—best viewed while swimming in a grotto—are incomparable. Trina is also something of a Med-head. She finds inspiration in every rock and ripple: the coral stripe that runs around the island and pops into view when the water is choppy suggests an entire beige-and-pink resort collection to her.
And then there’s the people-watching. On Fontelina Beach—a great place for a voyeuristic lunch—Trina takes further inspiration from the sighting of a bronzed Monica Vitti look-alike in a white cotton lace kurta with long flared sleeves over a teeny bikini. “White lace and a deep tan—a phenomenal combo,” says Trina, as if writing the Women’s Wear Daily review of her own upcoming show. Mr. Skow photographs the moment and, unsurprisingly, a white lace kurta appears in Trina’s spring 2010 collection.
On every descent to the sea, Mr. Skow plays the role of intrepid paparazzo, hanging off cliffs and boat decks to get the perfect shot. He enjoys taking pictures without the usual ramparts of photo equipment, likening it to “swimming without a swimsuit—very liberating.” One afternoon, Mr. Skow decides he wants an action shot of Jonathan and me diving off the side of our sailboat. Much to the amusement of Giancarlo, our captain, it takes about 15 tries before Mr. Skow finally gives the thumbs-up.
Soaking Up the Design
From the kitschiest Rococo to the coolest mod minimalism, our trip is a nonstop festival of Italian design. Every jaunt yields distracting visual stimuli. Whenever Jonathan walks through the lobby of our hotel, he gazes at the hallucinogenic blue-and-white floor tiles until he bumps into a fellow guest. And the futuristic, mod lounges that we encounter at the Gio Ponti–designed Hotel Parco dei Principi on a day trip to Sorrento are a personal favorite, as is the funky wall mural—made from shards of groovy Midcentury ceramic tchotchkes—at Buonocore, a gelato shop across the street from Ferragamo back on Capri.
We are all inspired by the island’s addictive boutiques. Trina can’t get enough of the gaudy-but-chic handmade sandals. Jonathan feels a warm kinship with the uninhibited Caprese potters. Wandering around a souvenir shop near the docks, he snags a small abstract raku owl to send to his Peruvian workshop. He is determined to emulate the crackled glaze that garnishes the wings of the little creature.
And I find something else in the tiny stores of Capri—window-display inspiration. There is no space for the kind of dioramas that I have been installing at Barneys for the past 25 years. The Italians compensate for the absence of attention-getting props or rows of mannequins with something we fashion insiders call “merchandise handling.” This technique reaches a zenith in the dinky window displays here: Malo cashmere sweaters are lusciously folded; Lacoste shirt collars are erect; D&G belts spill from crocodile shoes; perfectly pressed Hermès scarves ripple like the water that laps the side of Valentino’s yacht down in the Marina Piccola. In the boutique displays, there is an innate finesse—the same finesse that the cook at Da Giorgio uses to arrange the shrimp and linguine on the plate with effortless panache—which inspires me because it points the spotlight back to what really matters: design and quality.
The best part of any Caprese day is the magical passeggiata, the nocturnal stroll. Trina digs her nails into my arm as we watch this fashion spectacle one night: “For the last couple of years, women in the States have been wearing gray anti-fashion thrift-shop grunge,” says Trina, as Mr. Skow snaps shots of long-legged beauties teetering down the cobblestones of the Via Camerelle in their Pucci party frocks and strappy gold Dolce & Gabbana sandals, “and this full-on commitment to adornment and glamour is what fashion is all about.” “Transformation!” says Jonathan. “Exhibitionism!” I say.
Campy revelations aside, we all come away with something else, something pretty major, from our trip—a distinct feeling of optimism. Despite the lousy economy, the Capresi manage to keep an upbeat worldview. This is a reminder that la dolce vita is not a luxury destination, but a state of mind. Whether you are on a vacation, a stay-cation, or an inspira-cation, this dolce state of mind is yours for the taking. So put down your BlackBerry. What are you waiting for?
Grand Hotel Quisisana 2 Via Camerelle; 39-081/837-0788; quisisana.com; doubles from $480.
Great Value Hotel Gatto Bianco 32 Via Vittorio Emanuele; 39-081/837-0446; gattobianco-capri.com; doubles from $255.
J.K. Place Capri 225 Via Provinciale Marina Grande; 39-081/838-4001; jkcapri.com; doubles from $734.
Punta Tragara 57 Via Tragara; 39-081/837-0844; hoteltragara.com; doubles from $490.
Da Giorgio 34 Via Roma; 39-081/837-5777; dinner for two $100.
Da Luigi ai Faraglioni 5 Via Faraglioni; 39-081/837-0591; lunch for two $98.
Faraglioni 75 Via Camerelle; 39-081/837-0320; dinner for two $132.
Gelateria Buonocore 35 Via Vittorio Emanuele; 39-081/837-7826; gelato for two $10.
Ristorante Aurora Via Fuorlovado; 39-081/837-0181; dinner for two $122.
Trattoria il Solitario 96 Giuseppe Orlandi; 39-081/837-1382; dinner for two $60.
Dsquared 81 Via Camerelle; 39-081/838-8235.
Kiton 19 Piazzetta Umberto I; 39-081/838-8229.
Malo 11 Via Vittorio Emanuele; 39-081/837-0479.
100% Capri 29 Via Fuorlovado; 39-081/837-7561.
Russo Uomo 8 Federico Serena; 39-081/838-8208.
J.K. Place, Capri
Intimate property—just 30 rooms—on one of the most peaceful stretches of the Italian island.
Grand Hotel Quisisana
Iconic 19th-century building steeped in old-world glamour, just off the lively Piazza Umberto Primo and near the island's famous Faraglioni stacks.
Hotel Gatto Bianco
Named after a white cat giving birth to three kittens in a lemon grove just south of Capri’s central piazzetta in the mid 19th-century, this small boutique hotel was built on those grounds by the Esposito family. Since then, it’s hosted such luminaries as Clark Gable, Brigitte Bardot, and Jackie Kennedy in its individually decorated 40 rooms and suites. Each has hand-painted majolica floor tiles, a private balcony or terrace, soft, pastel fabrics, and indigenous flowers. Artistic tributes to the cat can be found through the building including the elegant blue-and-white lounge, bar, and breakfast room downstairs.
Built as a private villa in 1920 and later used as headquarters for American command in World War II, this boutique hotel was carved into the rock face at the southeastern tip of the island. It maintains 44 individually decorated luxury rooms and suites, complete with marble bathrooms, antique furniture, walk-in wardrobes, large terraces, and a collection of watercolor landscapes. Downstairs, the common areas include two pools, a spa, and restaurant serving Neapolitan dishes. The concierge can also arrange everything from private boat tours, shopping trips, and visits to ancient Roman sites.
Just west of Capri’s central “piazzetta,” Da Giorgio restaurant operates out of the hotel of the same name, serving traditional island fare like linguine with redfish sauce, scialatielli with prawns, and beef fillet in a red wine sauce. Seating is available in either the sunny, pink-and-white dining room among nautical themed painting or outside on the covered terrace overlooking the town and Bay of Naples. Weekends are particularly busy and boisterous, making reservations necessary up to a day in advance.
Da Luigi ai Faraglioni
Just as Odysseus navigated the Faraglioni rocks off the south coast of Capri, so does the free shuttle boat from Marina Piccola run by this renowned, jet-set restaurant and beach club. Offering perhaps the finest swimming location on the island, the smooth volcanic rock is filled with bathers who spread out, often taking advantage of the sun loungers, deck chairs, and parasols. When hungry or needing to get out of the sun, beach-goers then head up to the restaurant’s large, shaded, seaside terrace for traditional island dishes, with a focus on fish and seafood.
Named after the three iconic rock outcrops off Capri’s south coast, this restaurant just south of the central piazzetta holds fast to tradition, not just in the simply decorated, white interior, but in the menu as well. Favorites include Caprese classics like spaghetti with crab and sea urchin sauce, lemon risotto, and green straccetti pasta with shrimp and cherry tomatoes. The real feature of the restaurant, however, is the outdoor seating — individual straw canopies covering the tables on one side of the area and a pergola of wisteria over the other.
Strolling down the Via Vittorio Emanuele extending south from Capri’s central “piazzetta,” the air fills with the sweet smell of baking waffle cones and bowls coming from the open-arch front window of Gelateria Buonocore. In summer, a perpetual line forms outside for classic gelato flavors like stracciatella, toasted almond, and chocolate hazelnut. Inside the small shop, predominantly lemon-flavored tarts, cakes, biscotti, and macaroons fill glass cases among marine-themed tile work. Behind the bar, gift baskets and boxes are available.
The oldest active restaurant on the island, Aurora is popular not just because of its impressive list of celebrity guests (Giorgio Armani, Michael Douglas, Mariah Carey), but also due to chef Franco Aversa’s take on Neapolitan and Caprese specialties like sformatino alla Franco (rice pie in prawn sauce), spaghetti alle vongole (clams), and pizza all’acqua, a thin crust sprinkled with mozzarella and hot peppers. The wine cellar contains with more than 300 labels of rare Italian and French vintages. Although a historic property, the interior design is distinctly modern, with white leather banquettes, wood floors, and dozens of celebrity photos.
Trattoria il Solitario
In an all-but-hidden alleyway in Anacapri, on the quieter, north side of the island, the Trattoria Il Solitario takes up an outdoor garden in front of a 14th-century bell tower of the Church of Santa Sofia. Perennially covered in a pergola of ivy, the shaded restaurant serves sizable portions of regional dishes, especially homemade pasta. Chef Massimiliano’s cheese-stuffed ravioli is the crowd favorite, but his wife and hostess Alessandra happyily recommends the ricotta and spinach–stuffed cannelloni or the baked gnocchi alla sorrentina. The most popular aspect though may be the bill, which is remarkably low for the area.
Located on Via Camerelle, the most fashionable shopping street on the island, this upscale clothing store showcases the work of world-renowned design duo Dean and Dan Caten. Identical twins born in Ontario, the Caten brothers earned international fame designing for celebrities like Madonna, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake. At this Capri store, one of many Dsquared locations across the globe, the inventory represents the brothers’ eclectic style, which blends classic Italian tailoring with Canadian humor and daring punk influences. The results range from Grecian-style silk dresses to metal-studded leather jackets and brightly colored T-shirts printed with witty slogans.
Made entirely in Italy, Malo is all about cashmere. This high-end brand was created in 1972 in Florence, and the original offices are still located there. Designers like Tommaso Aquilano have worked with the label to produce high-quality clothing for men, women, and children, as well as leather items and accessories. The cashmere originates with goats in Mongolia and travels to workshops in Tuscany; once there, spinning and dying take place, and the fibers eventually become pastel-hued garments such as cable-knit sweaters for men and belted dresses for women.
Inspired by the sunny, Mediterranean lifestyle of Capri, Tony Aiello launched this label of handmade, ultra-light, linen wear for men, women, and children predominantly in white, khaki, and cocoa colors. Accessories, footwear, and home furnishings are also available at the two branches that stand opposite each other on Via Fuorlovado, just east of the central “Piazzetta” in the island’s main town. The interior design is anything but rustic and more reminiscent of a high-end art gallery, with gleaming white walls, track lighting, and latticework.
The chic island of Capri is no stranger to high-end fashion shops, and this top-shelf clothier holds its own alongside brands like Ermenegildo Zegna, Prada, and Gucci. This white, corner store has large arched windows that reveal its specialty: menswear from labels like Polo Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton, and Dolce & Gabbana. Pastel shirts, linen pants, and masculine accessories such as watches fill the store, equipping the Capri visitor to dress like a local—with a cashmere sweater draped over the shoulders.