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Positano is the jewel of the Amalfi coast, says Andrew L. Urban.

The little motor boat with the red fish sign flying on what would have been a mast had it been a yacht, approached the lower side of Positano quay where a dozen of us had gathered in the blazing sun, hoping to get a seat. It was 11 in the morning, and there would be another boat every half an hour or so until 1pm, but we were eager. We’d heard that Da Adolfo beach restaurant, only accessible by boat, was a splendid place for lunch, serving fresh seafood in a relaxed (if seemingly exclusive), beachside atmosphere.

We didn’t come with our own boat from Sydney (‘cause we don’t have one) so we relied on their charming little courtesy 12 seater dinghy. Had we been on board one of the private boats that came to lunch, it would have been greeted at anchor by the restaurant’s dinghy to take patrons ashore. One such motor yacht disgorged a party of bikini clad young ladies and the captain, much to our delight.

It was Sabrina, the sales assistant at one of the frock shops in town, who recommended de Alfredo; she said it wasn’t necessary to book. Well, said Sergio, the tall and charming owner of Da Adolfo, when we clambered ashore, that’s true, but if you don’t make a reservation, you’ll have to wait until everyone who has booked has eaten … but then he added with a big smile: “No one has ever left here without lunch!”

So reassured, we hired a deck chair (Eu 7 each) on the hot volcanic pebble beach and sipped our Aperol spritz (3 parts Aperol, 2 parts Prosecco, dash soda, slice of orange), after our swim. And sure enough, we were soon enjoying their fresh mussels in tomato and garlic sauce. And other fresh fish things.

The short boat trip from the main beach to this hideaway also gave us a strikingly beautiful snapshot of the Amalfi coast, cliffs rising dramatically from the rippling waters of the Mediterranean, interspersed with verdant gorges, splashes of bright purple bougainvillea twisting through the greenery like an artist’s bravado.

We were half way through our week at Positano, having arrived on a rather dull Tuesday evening by Tony ‘Taxi’ from Naples airport. Tony chatted and provided running commentary, immensely proud of the entire region, as were the other locals we met. The history and the geography provide an exceptional backstory for the area, just out of deadly reach of old Vesuvius but close enough to show remnants of its dramatic and deadly eruption close on 2000 years ago.

Built into the rugged cliffs, Positano is the jewel of the Amalfi coast. The view from our balcony encompassed the foot of the Western cliff-face with the hotels and homes clinging to it and the open expanse of the Mediterranean to the South and East. Like most hotels in the area, L’Ancora (The Anchor) has ceramic floors and decorations, ceramics being a local speciality. There are several ceramics factories, large and small, scattered throughout the region, many with their own retail shops displaying hand crafted jugs, bowls, plates, dishes, cups, saucers and giant platters that are used as table tops. They happily ship to any address in the world.

Limoncello and lemons

The place is jammed with shops, ranging from better quality souvenirs to men’s and women’s fashion to objets d’art, with hardly a tacky item to be seen. There are ATMs nearby, too ….

L’Ancora is half way up Positano’s winding, narrow main street (via Cristoforo Colombo) and is unusual in that it has only a breakfast room (but what a view!), while the Covo del Saraceni, its 5-star sister hotel down on the Main Beach, welcomes L’Ancora guests to use its pool, restaurant and bar. L’Ancora, with its giant old anchor at the entrance, is also adjacent to the fabulous Le Sirenuse hotel, with its dining room famous for the 400 candles that light the restaurant on summer nights. It has its own branded boutique across the road.

There is no shortage of hotels here, of course, many are splendid (and expensive) beyond belief, but there are some bargains to be had. Local knowledge is valuable. That’s where Tony ‘Taxi’ came in, giving us pointers to restaurants, wines and excursions during the 90 minute drive from Naples airport. (By the way, try to avoid flying through Rome, it has the airport from hell.)

Our first excursion was to Capri by ferry, where the Blue Grotto tour is de rigueur. The spectacle of the underwater blue light show is caused by the unique way the sunlight is captured through the tiny cave opening.

Inside the Blue Grotto, Capri

Getting there was quite an endurance test, starting with a motor launch ride from Capri harbour, along the coast for about 25 minutes, where we bobbed about waiting our turn among the small flotilla of boats (some private) bringing visitors to the entrance. Here, once it was our boat’s turn (arranged by some secret code we couldn’t figure out) we transferred to a smaller boat for three or four people at most (but we were just two), and the equivalent of a gondolier, who stood and shoved and sang and joked his way through the amazing grotto, working hard for his tip. We noticed he had Australia tattooed on the back of his right calf and gave him 5 Eu.

Our second excursion was less successful: we had been encouraged to visit Ravello, up high on the cliffs, a village with charm and views to die for. We could have hired Tony ‘Taxi’ but decided to take the local bus, what the hell, mingle with the locals, it’s inexpensive and when we change at Amalfi we get to see that famous port …. Our bus stop is a short walk from L’Ancora, at the top of via Cristoforo Colombo.

It was one of the hottest days of the week and the sun was merciless as we waited (along with a growing number of others who had collected into a crowd) for the 10.30 bus to Amalfi, which didn’t turn up until 11.10. Broiled, we jumped in and got a seat, but only just. The view along this stretch of road is spectacular. The much smaller, much less comfortable bus up to Ravello deposited us outside the village, which turned out to be rather empty except for a toffy English wedding party.

Sadly for them, the weather turned bad just as they were emerging from the church – and as we were heading for the bus back to Amalfi – it started to pour. And it poured all the way down to Amalfi, not just outside, but inside the crowded bus, too. One woman opened her umbrella to avoid the leaks soaking her. Everyone laughed – except those who were getting soaked, like us.

Disappointed by the ambiance of the port at Amalfi, we didn’t stay, choosing to head back to gorgeous Positano and the Il Fornillo restaurant we had been recommended. If we had known just how far up the steep, winding hill it was (1.3km from our hotel), we may have taken a taxi on that hot night, but we walked. The views back towards the Main Beach are breathtaking and the linguini con vongole was sensational, so it was worth it. Their Aperol spritz was damn good, too.

The Amalfi coast is usually awash with tourists, yet the sublime location and spectacularly dramatic landscape provide overriding reasons to experience this region at least once – and there are plenty of temptations to return. The extraordinary lemons that grow here and provide the fuel for litres and litres of the locally brewed limoncello are but one.

Published January 15, 2015

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Photos by Louise Keller

The little boat to Da Adolfo

Deck chairs on the hot volcanic beach


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