Continuing her column on villa stays, Jessica Baldwin ventures to that mecca of Italian destinations, the Amalfi Coast, and begins with a discovery of a delightful hideaway in the hills…
As our plane began to circle the twinkling cliffs of the Sorrentine Peninsular destined for Naples, I wondered why it had taken me so long make this journey. The Amalfi Coast has been on my holiday wish list for as long as I can remember. With sherbet-hued towns cascading towards the Tyrrhenian Sea and Michelin-starred restaurants poised on panoramic bluffs, it had always felt like somewhere that I was destined to end up.
Yet, with infamously bad traffic, nausea-inducing hairpins and a constant stream of tourist boats invading the main resorts each spring, there was a lot of pressure on getting the itinerary just right – especially with a boyfriend that hates crowds and a travel-sick daughter. Oh, and did I mention a sea-view room in the best hotels kicks off at close to £1000 a night?
Enter, Casa Tuoro. Located half an hour from hectic Sorrento, the two-bedroom property hides in one of the many hillside frazione (hamlets) that combine to make modern day Massa Lubrense. Though this town may sound like an unfamiliar wild card, the mere mention of it to locals commands instant respect for your uncliched itinerary… and a fond smile as they recall their own times spend there. Popular with hikers, the area is laced with countless trails – but beware, you need buns of steel for these hills.
Offering a refreshingly secluded (and affordable) base the villa is ideal for those wanting to dip in and out of the action further along the coast. A recent addition to the Oliver’s Travels portfolio, Casa Tuoro is reached via a terrifyingly tight track (pretty standard in these parts) – which, I hasten to add, our local villa manager whizzed along with Hamilton’s precision – I on the other hand resorted to holding my breath in the hope that it would make the car slimmer. A 50-metre walk along a rocky path followed, romantically engulfed in vibrant wild flowers and untamed rosemary and fennel.
Guarded by the local lizards this idyllic spot is humble by Amalfi standards, but its modern and neutral interior pleases most tastes and is free of the chintzy touches so often found in villas of this ilk. Outside, a sweet balcony stretches the entire length of the property, looking out across dense olive groves, towards the opposing mountain. Clear days reveal nice sea views, with a clifftop castle visible in the distance. I was instantly glad of its peace and seclusion: it was the perfect spot for easing us in to life on the Amalfi Coast.
Dawns were spent sipping coffee on the balcony, letting the new day introduce itself to our senses; while the view remained the same, the sounds and smells changed with the wind. Sometimes, the olive trees were alive with frenzied bird calls and the breeze would have the faintest scent of spring blooms. On other occasions, eager locals were already lighting their bonfires at sun rise, with the smoke-laced air tickling their neighbours one by one and cautious drivers religiously beeping at a distant hairpin.
Our days were spent exploring the area’s quiet towns and bays. Nearby, the picturesque fishing village of Marina della Lobra provided a friendly spot for a paddle and coffee away from the crowds – by the end of our gelatos we were on first name terms with the ice cream man, the waitress and most of the local dogs- and our daughter was happily paddling in the rockpools with the shrimps, crabs… and her new friend, Leonardo. Upon leaving, the village was gaining momentum with the smell of freshly fired pizza wafting along the seafront.
Foodies are spoilt for choice, with some of the region’s best restaurants right on the doorstep. World-famous Don Alfonso 1890, renowned for its impressive coastal kitchen gardens has two stars to its name and is a short drive away, as is Michelin-starred Quattro Passi (you may recognise the name from its more recent opening in London’s Dover Street). Despite the rich restaurant scene, our humble start to this epic road trip began with relaxed sea-view barbeques on Casa Tuoro’s steep daisy-strewn lawn.
Towards the end of our stay we were ready to dip our toe in to the more familiar all singing, all dancing Amalfi Coast and where better than Positano. Okay, venturing to this world-famous coastal town is actually more like diving in head first than dipping a toe in. Its vertiginous cliffs display a cascade of rose-coloured buildings; dusky pink, peach and rusty terracotta houses seem to tumble down the unforgiving cliff face – the mind boggles as you crawl past them, just how do you reach them?
On the eastern edge of Positano’s citrus covered cliffs, maintaining a civilised distance from the resort’s goings on, sits Il San Pietro di Positano: one of the coast’s most luxurious hotels. Created by the late Carlo Cinque, the exclusive family-run hotel opened almost 50 years ago and is now run by its third generation. Yet, despite its accolades and awards it still manages to make each guest feel like a VIP family friend – and you are in good company, it’s a magnet for royalty and Hollywood’s elite.
If you get a funny sense of déjà vu as you stand on the elaborate terrace, trimmed with ornate majolica benches, you may recognise them from Naples’ Santa Chiara, the convent that inspired their design – or maybe it is because it is one of the coast’s most photographed terraces. The boutique hotel is authentically anchored in its spectacular surround, with plants weaving their way through walls, a much talked about lift descending almost 300ft to the seaf and a seafront tennis court which is so precisely positioned between two towering cliffs that it looks as if it was placed there by a nimble-fingered giant. Tennis aside, our visit was in search of the region’s best lunch: Zass. Oh, didn’t I mention it also has a Michelin-starred restaurant? No? Silly me.
Sat on its shady terrace, floating above sloping olive groves and a carpet of fiery nasturtiums we indulged in dish after dish of light, fresh and seasonal Campanian cuisine courtesy of Alois Vanlangenaeker and his 32-strong team from their spectacular new eco kitchen. The presentation of the lobster salad was bang on, and there was no skimping on the lobo here, “I’ve never eaten a salad with less of my five a day”, said my other half as he dug in to the hearty crustacean creation dressed with a precisely positioned leaf or two. Our stand out dish was an Amalfi classic; lemon spaghetti with local clams – we tried variations on this dish at several places on our trip but Zass won hands down. Marrying lemon zest and juice from their own lemons with lemongrass for an additional citrus kick, it cut deep.
Venturing out of peaceful Massa Lubrense on the winding Blue Ribbon coastal road may have given us a scary insight at the traffic and crowds which were to follow on our Amalfi Coast tour but devouring that pasta and sipping an impeccable Bellini from that terrace certainly gave us a taste for the real all singing, all dancing Amalfi Coast. We were sold.
Next stop: Sorrento…
Casa Tuoro is bookable through villa specialists, Oliver’s Travels. A 3-night stay starts from £376 in low-season. For more information or to book, visit www.oliverstravels.com.