Hotel Santa Caterina, Amalfi coast is the first in our three part series of secret Italian getaways. From hidden restaurants, secluded mountain lodges, to golf in the most tranquil of surroundings, these Italian escapes offer a chance to retreat and enjoy a slower pace of life
See Naples and die!” the saying goes. Not literally, we’d hoped. But within an hour of landing in Naples airport, we found ourselves careering along a narrow bend, perched on precipitous cliffs with just the sea crashing below.
In the other direction, a Fiat doing 50mph. Thud! Our driver slams on the brakes as the Fiat edges past, inches to spare, saving us from a steep plunge to a grisly end.
Fortunately, this hairpin drama was the only stress of our stay at Santa Caterina, on the postcard-perfect Amalfi coast. Cascading down the cliffs in a blur of bougainvillea, lemon groves and jutting balconies, the five-star hotel offers mouth-gapingly scenic environs to unwind.
Lazing by its heated seawater pool, it was easy to dream of the jet-set 1950s, when the Amalfi was a byword for glamour. Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart and Gore Vidal (who lived nearby) all flocked here in search of old-world splendour and relative seclusion.
History may not place Kim Kardashian in that pantheon, but she proved the Santa Caterina is still in vogue, honeymooning here in 2011. And if, like Garbo, you want to be alone, you can. Santa Caterina offers such refuges as the two-storey Romeo and Juliet chalet with infinity pool.
But even though there’s a strong temptation at Santa Caterina to take the glass-fronted elevator down to the beach every morning or spend every evening feasting on caprese salad and fresh grilled pezzogna (a local fish) in the hotel, it would mean missing out on the local area.
The town of Amalfi, with its white labyrinthine alleys, is only a 10-minute ride away in the hotel’s shuttle bus (you soon start looking forward to headland drives, egging on drivers to go faster). Midway through our tour, our guide knocked on a nondescript door, opened by an elderly signora.
It was a restaurant, Taverna Buonvicino, which wasn’t open at the time, but spotting the foreign visitors, the woman invited us in. We were soon supping prosecco in her kitchen. It wasn’t even lunchtime.
And next up was the Carlo Mansi limoncello distillery. The Amalfi region’s lemons are world famous; succulent, zesty and triple the size of any in a supermarket. The hooch made from them is majestic – but beware its potency if you want to last the evening.
The Santa Caterina organises boat charters and we spent a day idling away on a three-cabin cruiser, which took us to the Emerald Grotto, a cavern named for its unearthly green glow.
We also docked in Positano – whose steepled peach, pink and chiffon-coloured houses inspired John Steinbeck to call it “a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone”.
Sadly, having to leave this glorious place was all too real – leaving a taste sourer than any Amalfi limone.
British Airways flies to Naples international airport from Heathrow from £147 per person.
Accommodation at Hotel Santa Caterina
Rooms at Hotel Santa Caterina are available from €324 (£255) including breakfast, but excluding city tax. A private boat for a half-day (for approximately five people) visiting the coastline and Grotta dello Smeraldo costs approximately €400-€700).
Part 2 of Director’s Hidden Italy series: South Tyrol