When life gives you lemons, make limoncello. That’s the prevailing mantra of southern Italy’s Amalfi Coast, where the fresh smell of citrus mingles with the ocean breeze. Lemons are everywhere in the bustling seaside towns along the roughly 25 miles of scenic coastline—gracing the region’s famed ceramics, hanging from roadside stands in ripe bunches (some grown to the size of a small child’s head, to the endless wonder of tourists) and, of course, winding up in limoncello, the Italian digestif that many restaurants make in-house and present to patrons at the end of the meal as a matter of course.
The Amalfi Coast is best toured by water, but first, one must fly into Naples and set up a home base such as Sorrento, a popular tourist destination that nonetheless retains its old-world authenticity. Fight jet-lag and enjoy the scenery for the hour or so’s drive there, the first half of which lies in the shadow of the dormant but still simmering Mount Vesuvius; the second half takes you for a rather dizzying ride along winding mountain roads, each turn revealing a breathtaking new vista just beyond a rickety guard rail. In Sorrento, book a room at the Grand Hotel De La Ville or the slightly tonier Grand Hotel Ambasciatori, both of which boast sweeping sea views. De La Ville’s premier rooms also offer front-row seats to the boisterous soccer games hosted in the stadium below, while the Ambasciatori has balconies with private hot tubs where guests can sip prosecco while watching the last embers of a molten sun dip below the island of Capri.
Travelers with deeper pockets might procure accommodations on Li Galli, a small archipelago owned by famed Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev in the early ’90s that can be rented out for a cool $200,000 per week. Recent guests are rumored to include Lady Gaga, and it’s said Sting once performed at a wedding held in the island chapel. Of course, if your disposable income doesn’t stretch quite that far, you can still catch a glimpse of the islands. Charter a private boat—complete with a dashing Italian captain (ask for Agostino) and a below-deck kitchenette stocked with Peroni, wine and panini—through Capitano Ago, an extremely obliging local company. Once aboard, a seasoned captain will guide your group on a relaxing route through deep-blue Mediterranean waters that includes spectacular views of the craggy mountain coastline, replete with stucco structures in sun-beaten whites, pinks, yellows and blues.
The boat stops in the popular destinations of Amalfi and Positano, where sun-and-salt-splashed passengers disembark to shake out their sea legs and explore the towns for a couple of hours. Such explorations don’t include much past browsing the local wares, snacking on caprese salads and crusty bread and sipping wine while enjoying yet another impossibly lovely view—but who’s complaining? While in Amalfi, one might forgo the sun for a spell to soak up some culture at the Cathedral of St. Andrew, centrally located atop a steep flight of stairs where tired tourists sit to rest and survey their purchases. Built in the early 1200s, the cathedral is small but worth seeing—a tour takes no more than 20 minutes, leaving plenty of time for another glass of wine before you hop back aboard.
Make sure to reserve an entire day for a tour of Capri, Amalfi’s most-touted island, and for good reason. Some of the best views and shopping (if you can afford it) are found there, but try to resist the lure of the designer shops and instead seek out Antonio Viva, the island’s master shoemaker since 1958, who will craft you a custom pair of leather shoes while you wait (most for less than €100) and counts Richard Gere and Kobe Bryant as customers.
If you prefer to tour by land, book a trip through Italy Limousine, whose charming proprietor, Rino, keeps up a lively narration of the sights—including a stop at a grotto so picture-perfect it resembles a Disney attraction—and might just treat you to an espresso at his favorite cafe. Speaking of road trips, save a day for an excursion to Pompeii, the city famously razed by Mount Vesuvius, where you can wander surviving structures (including an ancient brothel complete with racy depictions of the acts once offered within) and view bodies preserved by the volcano’s ash. While it’s still light, make the half-hour drive to Vesuvius and work off all the hearty Italian dining with a brisk trek to its peak, where you can peer into the cavernous abyss—and enjoy yet more grand vistas.
When it comes to dining, here’s a tip: Keep it simple. Ask for the house wine (red is best) wherever you go. Unlike in the States, it tends to be locally made, delicious and priced well below €10. Order the fish in any of the seaside eateries, where waitstaff proudly present the day’s catch—head and tail still intact—tableside for your consideration. Elsewhere, stick to housemade pastas (cooked extremely, but pleasantly, al dente) and caprese salads with buffalo mozzarella. End your meal with a shot of limoncello—a bracing jolt of tartly sweet liqueur as restorative as a sun-soaked trip down the Italian coast.
While in Capri, consider a trip to Mount Solaro, the island’s highest point, aboard a one-seater chairlift that offers some of the region’s best views.
Grand Hotel Ambasciatori Via Califano, 18, 80067 Sorrento NA, Italy (+39-081-878-2025) ambasciatorisorrento.com
Grand Hotel De La Ville Via Bernardino Rota, 15, 80067 Sorrento NA, Italy (+39-081-878-2144) delavillesorrento.com
Capitano Ago Via del Mare, 92, Sorrento NA, Italy (+39-392-272-8910) capitanoago.com
Italy Limousine (+39-081-808-0457) italylimousine.com