A few hundred tourists can turn the steep cliffs, coves and narrow roads of Positano and Amalfi into human cattle runs. For a taste of the Italian good life and how the peninsula used to be, head west
With its legendary mix of rugged scenery and dolce vita lifestyle, its wild gorges and sheltered coves backed by lemon trees and bougainvillea-clad villas, the Amalfi Coast comes pretty close to heaven on a gradient. Yet it is no longer the undiscovered place it was when John Steinbeck and his wife came here in 1953 – though parts of the winding Amalfi Drive road are still as he described them back then: “carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side”.
The joy of this spectacular stretch of Italian coastline is also its potential high-season ruin: space is so tight, parking so tricky, restaurants so petite and beaches so hemmed in by the surrounding cliffs, it takes only a few hundred tourists to make the place feel crowded – and a few dozen more to turn Positano or Amalfi into human cattle runs.
And yet, if you take time out to explore the relatively undiscovered western fringe of the Amalfi Coast, you will be rewarded by an uncrowded, laidback alternative to the Positano pile-up – even in July and August.
Point of entry is the town of Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi, which stands just below the watershed where the main Amalfi access road from Sorrento begins to dip down towards Positano. Instead of following it, turn off to the west on the road marked “Termini”. This sinuous route is frustratingly devoid of views at first, but take the next turn-off – signposted “Nerano” – and it soon opens out into a bucolic landscape of olive groves and kitchen gardens, beyond which the islands of Li Galli (which once belonged to Rudolf Nureyev) rise from a cobalt blue sea.
A pretty, untouristed village, Nerano has two persuasive attractions. First, it is the hopping off point for the 45-minute walk down to the Baia di Ieranto, a lovely secluded bay kept in its pristine state by the FAI, Italy’s equivalent of Britain’s National Trust. Second, it is the location of the family-oriented Relais Villarena (which also goes under the name of “Casale Villarena”; apartments from €130 per night in mid-season). Centred on an 18th-century Marchese’s residence, this lovely bolthole is not so much a hotel as a cluster of six comfortable rooms and apartments (with a shared pool) in the old stepped lanes of the village and one charming villa just outside, with its own pool, garden and panoramic terrace. The décor is cheerful Italian family-style rather than cutting-edge design, but that is very much in keeping with the warm welcome from owners Rosa and Guglielmo (who are also great cooks – they dish up evening meals using produce from Guglielmo’s nearby farm).
Just down the road, Marina di Cantone comes across as a modest family beach resort – but it also happens to host three of the Amalfi Coast’s real destination restaurants. Two of them, the beachfront Taverna del Capitano (closed Monday and Tuesday in low season) and the more rural Quattro Passi (closed Tuesday evening, all day Wednesday), are elegant though unshowy Michelin-starred establishments serving exquisite culinary creations based on fresh local seafood and farm produce (allow about €85 a head for both, without wine). Both also have rooms – perfect if you have overindulged on the limoncello and can’t face those hairpins home.
However, it is the third (and more modest) of Marina di Cantone’s restaurants that the Capri yacht set converge upon – true to the Italian millionaire’s homing instinct for unfussy cooking like mum used to make. Set picturesquely on a jetty above the waves, Lo Scoglio (open daily) is the domain of Mamma Antonietta, who dishes up tasty dishes such as spaghetti con le zucchine (dripping with cheesy courgette sauce) and a delicious peperoncino-spiked seafood sauté to guests ranging from Princess Caroline of Monaco to Roberto the builder. Allow €42 a head without wine for three courses.
For the ultimate in Amalfi Coast seclusion, continue along the road to Termini, where the 11-room Relais Blu (doubles from €310 mid-May to mid-October) offers a classy retreat in surroundings of cool, teak-decked, white-walled nautical minimalism – all the better to focus its guests’ attention on the jaw-dropping view across the sea to Capri. There is no doubt, either, that Christoph Bob – the hotel restaurant’s German chef, trained by Alain Ducasse – knows one end of a swordfish from another.
Of course, Positano has to be visited. With its tumble of pastel-coloured houses scattered across the cliff, its perfect pair of crescent beaches and faintly retro air of hippy-dippy dolce vita languor, it is one of those places that knows what it does – and does it well. Adopt the eye-of-the-storm approach by staying at the heart of the Positano legend: Le Sirenuse (doubles from €500 mid-May to end October), a luxury hotel far enough above the beach to feel gratifyingly aloof, and stylishly spot-on with its balance of antique elegance and seaside casualness. Or head east to Praiano, where Casa Angelina (mid-season doubles from €280) stands in glorious seclusion above a private beach. As at Relais Blu, the look is cool white minimalism, and here, too, the pared-back décor is jazzed up by a seriously creative restaurant. With two pools to choose from, as well as the beach, this is a perfect place to recharge and chill out.
Even Positano has its wild side, though. Perched above the town (and served by regular buses), the mountain hamlet of Montepertuso provides a welcome injection of real village life – and a wonderful restaurant, Donna Rosa (open for dinner daily in high season, and for lunch Wednesday-Sunday) where refined versions of dishes such as tagliatelle ai profumi di mare (made with whatever seafood was good and fresh that day) are complemented by a very fine wine list. Book ahead, as tables are few and this is a real in-the-know address. Allow about €47 a head for three courses without wine – a price that is well worth it.
Taverna del Capitano (+39 081 8081028, www.tavernadelcapitano.it), piazza delle Sirene 10, Marina di Cantone.
Quattro Passi (+39 081 8081271, www.ristorantequattropassi.com), via A Vespucci 13, Marina di Cantone.
Lo Scoglio (+39 081 8081026), piazza delle Sirena 15, Marino di Cantone.
Donna Rosa (+39 089 811806), via Montepertuso 97/99, Positano.