High Drama

Seaside Hotels of the Amalfi Coast

Italy’s Amalfi Coast is storybook Europe. Here, historic hotels crawl down cliffs and meet cute with romantic coves and secret grottos in the sea below. It’s pure theater, and you’re welcome to play a part.

When you talk about the Amalfi Coast and its closest neighbors, you’re in benchmark territory — in the world of picturesque, cliff-hugging village jewels, this stretch of Italian waterfront is legendary, and for good reason. The hospitality dials itself up accordingly: classically proportioned villas and palatial summer retreats stake their stunning claims in lush tiers, peacocking in that good-natured Italian way with an infinity pool here, a candlelit terrace there, and everywhere the Tyrrhenian waters’ painterly backdrop.

Iconic travel destinations acquire their reputations by offering visitors the chance to live as dramatically as possible, if only for a night. They present, to those willing to make the trip, a suspenseful, riveting, rousing performance — a view of life upgraded from the everyday. The hotels and resorts of the Amalfi Coast are the storybook version of Europe. And they, as much as anything else on the continent, define the drama we all desire from our most ambitious escapes.

 

Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria

Sorrento, Italy

Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria

The Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria benefits from a phenomenal location, right in the heart of Sorrento, high on a cliff overlooking the harbor and separated from the bustling Piazza Tasso by orange groves and acres of parkland. The hotel itself comprises three separate villas, all built between 1834 and 1880. This is a true Grand Hotel in the old style, its past guests including Wagner and Goethe, and the opera singer Enrico Caruso was a resident for a time in the twenties, his suite today remaining more or less as he left it. As if that weren’t enough, Emperor Augustus himself kept a villa here.

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Casa Angelina

Praiano, Italy

Casa Angelina

Praiano isn’t the most famous town on the Amalfi Coast, but its appeal is undeniable: it’s just beyond Positano, which not only places it outside the most crowded stretch of the coast, but gives it an astonishing view of Positano itself, along with the dramatic seascapes to the west. This is where you’ll find Casa Angelina, a rare hotel that makes a virtue of modern architecture and design even in these most traditional environs — and, in the process, establishes a tone of understated luxury that few hotels anywhere can match.

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Hotel Villa Franca Positano

Positano, Italy

Hotel Villa Franca Positano

Ideally we’d all have well-to-do Italian friends with a vacation house on the Amalfi Coast. Because while we love a good hotel, there’s something about Positano — the dramatic scenery, the cinematic atmosphere, the possibility of a three-hour lunch that starts with aperitifs and ends with limoncello and cappuccino — that makes you feel like being someone’s glamorous houseguest. Until that invitation arrives, there’s Hotel Villa Franca Positano.

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Hotel Santa Caterina

Amalfi, Italy

Hotel Santa Caterina

It’s the rare traditional-style hotel that really gets us going, but the Santa Caterina is an absolute classic. Family-owned for the better part of a century, it sits high on a hillside facing the sea and the town of Amalfi — guests ride an elevator down to the hotel’s private beach, for the ultimate storybook Italian-coast experience. Santa Caterina is the real deal: the grounds are all terraces, olive groves and lemon orchards, with the kind of jaw-dropping views that make the Amalfi one of the world’s most special places.

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La Minervetta

Sorrento, Italy

La Minervetta

Contemporary design on the Amalfi coast — that alone makes La Minervetta worth noting. And we’re not using “contemporary” as a euphemism, either. Rather than monochrome and minimal, La Minervetta’s twelve guest rooms are bright and sunny — literally, as they’re open to the light, with views through full-length windows over Sorrento, the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius, and figuratively as well, clean-lined and decked out in vivid tones, anywhere from lime green and turquoise to simple, almost Nordic primary colors.

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Hotel Punta Tragara

Capri, Italy

Hotel Punta Tragara

Here, on the edge of the town of Capri, barely fifteen minutes’ walk from the city center, is a villa clinging to the side of the cliff, a villa which just happens to have been subject to some design work by a man named Le Corbusier. The forty-four rooms are decorated in a classic twentieth-century style, to match the building’s early modernism — bright colors play off monochrome backgrounds, and the Mediterranean sun seeps into every corner.

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Grand Hotel Convento di Amalfi

Amalfi, Italy

Grand Hotel Convento di Amalfi

More and more often, as boutique hotels are made from ancient convents and monasteries in Europe’s most photogenic places, it becomes apparent that the monks and the nuns had it pretty good. If the Grand Hotel Convento di Amalfi is any indication, it very well might have been worth taking holy orders just for the views — the way this old convent hangs on the cliffside, you’d think some extremely twelfth-century property developers had planned this place with the 21st-century hotel market in mind.

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Il San Pietro di Positano

Positano, Italy

Il San Pietro di Positano

Il San Pietro may just be the best hotel on the Amalfi Coast, and is a strong contender for any global list. A small 17th-century chapel devoted to San Pietro marks the hotel entrance, and the rest of the property hangs on the cliffside below, each level descending the face like a staircase, offering unparalleled views of the sea from every room and every terrace. The hotel is built just one room deep, and there are no inferior views; each room hugs the cliff at its back side and opens onto a private terrace at the front.

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Le Sirenuse

Positano, Italy

Le Sirenuse

Le Sirenuse is remarkably un-hotel-like. For two hundred and fifty years it was the summer house of the noble Neapolitan family Marchese Sersale, who still run the hotel. Despite its location, Le Sirenuse is quiet, isolated from the local traffic and apparently from most tourists. Nonetheless, we love the fact that it’s part of Positano, a town that’s constructed like an amphitheater — houses literally cut into the cliff, each one with an unobstructed view over the next one, and stairs instead of streets. Inside, it’s simple and lovely, with an authenticity so unpretentious it’s almost careless.

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Caruso

Ravello, Italy

Caruso

The Caruso has long been one of the Amalfi’s highlights. High on a cliffside in Ravello, the view of the coast from its terrace has been described as the most beautiful in the world by no less an authority than Gore Vidal. Rooms wind and wend through the building, each different, all sumptuously furnished and most with views that range from rather good to jaw-dropping. It’s been renovated, yes, but hardly modernized — it’s still got the classic looks (and old-world service) that made it a favorite in the first place.

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Villa Marina Capri

Capri, Italy

Villa Marina Capri

Not so very long ago the glamorous life on Capri was all about seizing the high ground, whether on the hilltop of Capri village or in the equally lofty Anacapri. But there’s new life down by the marina. Partway up the hill, looking out over the ferry port across the Bay of Naples, is the Villa Marina Capri, a classic 19th-century villa that’s been thoroughly renovated, converted into an intimate little 22-room contemporary-luxury boutique hotel.

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JK Place Capri

Capri, Italy

JK Place Capri

JK Place is one of the only hotels in Capri that’s right on the ocean, and it could hardly be more central — it’s in the Roman old town, on a cliff overlooking the harbor. That right there pretty much sums up the approach: no expense spared, no corners cut, and nothing out of place. Just a phenomenal location — it’s hard to do better than the Amalfi — and a first-class hotel from which to take it all in.

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Relais Blu

Massa Lubrense, Italy

Relais Blu

The icy color palettes and minimalist furniture that were once urban-boutique staples take on a whole new meaning outside the bright-lights, big-city context. Transplant that crisp look to an olive and pine grove at the tip of the Sorrentine Peninsula, for example, and you’ve got a fresh take on Mediterranean style. This kind of modernism really benefits from the warming contrast of a healthy dose of old-world seaside glamour, and the 11-room Relais Blu is running a master class in this particular fusion.

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Capri Tiberio Palace

Capri, Italy

Capri Tiberio Palace

Tiberio Palace embodies the kind of effortless mod-Mediterranean hospitality that takes its cues from the suave cool of sixties cinema. Aided by a palette of soft creams, the environment announces itself with the lightest of touches, like a pair of white linen pants. The 46 guestrooms don’t lay the décor on very thick — you’ll find an art object here, a black-and-white photo there — because the view does all the heavy lifting. The hotel is perched just high enough to provide a good look at the island’s greenery, dotted with villas cascading down to the sea.

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Bellevue Syrene 1820

Sorrento, Italy

Bellevue Syrene 1820

This classic five-star hotel has been an Italian favorite since its opening in 1820, and it’s easy to see why: this cliffside villa looks out over the waterfront and the Bay of Naples from one of Sorrento’s most privileged positions. To this day the Bellevue Syrene drips with 19th-century elegance, scarcely diminished by the recent renovations — while some of the furnishings and décor have been modernized, the atmosphere as a whole is as regal as ever.

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Art Hotel Villa Fiorella

Sorrento, Italy

Art Hotel Villa Fiorella

Massa Lubrense is perhaps best known as a stop on the way to the Amalfi Coast, or a place to catch a boat across the Gulf of Naples to the island of Capri. But it’s a worthy destination in its own right. It’s here, according to Greek legend, that sirens first lured sailors to crash into the rocky shore. Looking down at the coastline from Art Hotel Villa Fiorella, a quiet boutique hotel set in an olive grove high over the water, it’s easy to believe in the myth.

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