Into the blue: the Amalfi Coast

Explore the panoramic splendour of the Amalfi Coast and enjoy a very particular style of comfort and hospitality at elegant Hotel Santa Caterina.

The Amalfi Coast… So adored for its awesome natural beauty and immortalised in art, literature (even milk chocolate commercials), this corner of Italy will be forever in the collective conscious: even if you’ve never been, you feel like it’s a place you know well. So how to appreciate a location so ‘familiar? Well, it’s a state of mind and a challenge every curious traveller takes on gladly.

“The only true voyage of discovery would not be to go and see new lands but to have other eyes,” opined Marcel Proust, and with this advice firmly in mind, I was on my way to Amalfi town to stay for a few days at the Hotel Santa Caterina (find out more about the hotel overleaf), just outside the town.

Perched on the edge of the Amalfi Coast road, the hotel is a superb base for exploring the area, a real vantage point for gazing out over the bay. And it’s the blue that hits you between your ‘other’ eyes: the arc of vast open sky sitting on an immense body of water, the colour is ever-changing demanding ever more words to describe its nuances.

The sky takes on the mood of the water and the other way around, transforming from an eye-searing cyan on the clear, sunlit days right through to an stormy green-blue so murky it looks almost brown. Find a quiet spot and turn your eyes to the horizon for a few hours and it’ll calm even the most frantic mindset.

View from the water 

But there’s even more to appreciate if you take a boat trip from Amalfi town and follow the sinuous line of this captivating coastline. As the boat scuds towards Positano just round the edge of the bay, marvel at just how the clusters of houses stay put on the craggy cliffs. Positano itself is a pastel cascade of small buildings tumbling down towards the water’s edge.

It’s an achingly pretty town, almost fairytale in appearance, and so beloved of visitors now it’s hard to imagine that in the early 1800s there were barely 20 families here eking out a living from the sea. During World War II, it opened its doors to Allied officers posted here for rest and recuperation, and one can only imagine what balm it was to their spirits to be in a place as beautiful as this. American writer John Steinbeck was entranced by the town when he visited in 1953, praising it as “a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.”

Back on dry land

Returning to Amalfi by boat, you get the measure of a town that’s clearly got something about it. Not as picturesque as Positano perhaps, but the creamy stone buildings, the wide streets and piazze hint at a powerful past and a vibrant present community. At the heart of the Republic of Amalfi in the Middle Ages, there’s an eclectic mix of stylistic influences running through Amalfi’s architecture: thanks to its location, this area has always been outward facing, trading with Byzantines and Arabs, welcoming strangers to its shores for centuries.

There are fine beaches here, quiet in the early morning light, but very popular in the summer of course, with clear, crystal waters.

At the heart of the town is the Cathedral of St Andrew, often referred to simply as the Duomo. Ascend the broad, steep stairway and look up to meet the gaze of the disciples in the porticoed fresco at the centre of the façade, as so many pilgrims and visitors have done before.

Before you enter, glance up at the round tower built into the steep slopes above the town. This forbidding place is said to have been the inspiration for the tragic tale of The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster. Also behind the Duomo is the Valley of the Mills, where you’ll see relics of the water wheels used in paper making.

Back into the town then, to wander through the medieval alleyways behind the main piazza (once a refuge from pirates), or simply enjoy the bustle of Amalfi from a different vantage point, comfortably ensconced al fresco, with an espresso at your elbow, and your “other eyes” peeled.

A family affair at Hotel Santa Caterina

Pulling up outside the porticoed entrance of Hotel Santa Caterina is like stepping back into an elegant period drama. You are greeted with a smile and your baggage is deftly whisked away while you are welcomed into the cool of the brightly tiled reception room.

No slouch when it comes to creating a good impression, Hotel Santa Caterina is today the cumulative result of the care and attention to detail lavished upon it by four generations of the same family. The original building was built in the 1880s by Giuseppe Gambardella, whose descendants run it today. Giuseppe’s son redesigned the building in 1904 and opened it as a hotel with a mere six rooms; it has, over the intervening years, expanded to 67 bedrooms and suites.

Situated on the edge of Amalfi town (just a few minutes down the road), the crescent of the hotel’s main façade makes a spectacular setting, with its elegant Edwardian-style proportions, set back just far enough from the winding main road.

Walk through the cool tiled interior to the rear of the hotel, where you will be rewarded by an uninterrupted panorama of the coastline that will take your breath away. This is where sunny verandahs and pergolas overlook the stack of terraced gardens and citrus groves which snake right down the side of the steep slope to the hotel’s private Beach Club.

And if you’re in too much of a rush to stroll down to sea level, there is a glass lift to swoop you right down there. Here you will find a salt water swimming pool, sunbathing decks, the hotel’s gym and a café-bar – it’s a real sun trap right on the edge of the waves.

The hotel runs its own shuttle bus down to Amalfi if you want to explore – the practical option, as the road is walkable but busy, and it is extremely difficult to find a parking space even if you do have a car. Ravello (30 minutes by bus), Positano and Capri (both 40 minutes by ferry) are within easy reach too, or you could just stay a while and drink in the old-fashioned courteous hospitality that will envelop you during your stay here. The service is so special: the natural result of the family-run environment where many of the staff are long-standing and devoted to the well-being of each and every guest. Pino, the head waiter, has been looking after tables for thirty years and will take you under his wing. Discretion and hospitality delivered with genuine warmth – nothing’s too much trouble.

Interiors are light and white, furnished with family antiques and art with brighter hues in the painted tiles and soft furnishings. The restful bedrooms have Bvlgari goodies in luxurious bathrooms, high ceilings, and doors opening out onto wide terraces overlooking that deep blue sea. Delicious food is served in the bright and airy dining room – it’s a menu of classics, all freshly prepared with love and served with a smile. What more could you ask for?

Visit their website for for more information and to book.