By William Wolf

WHO'S AFRAID OF THE AMALFI DRIVE?  Send This Review to a Friend

Don't believe everything you hear. Before heading for the Amalfi coast, my wife and I received one dire warning after another from friends. "You're crazy to drive along the Amalfi coast," we were told. "Take a bus instead. The curves are treacherous. You could topple over the sheer drops. Even if you drive carefully, Italians do not. Don't risk it." But some seasoned drivers said there was "no cause to worry. It's one of the most beautiful areas in the world and there's no need to sweat. Just use ordinary caution and good sense."

I don't want to be cavalier about it. Obviously, if you are an inexperienced driver, get dizzy going around curves, get anxious when you are approaching traffic on narrow, winding roads, this isn't for you and I wouldn't recommend it. If you have passengers who are nervous and might rattle you, forget about driving. If motorcycles skirting in and out of traffic are upsetting, you may be better off taking a bus. That's my caveat, so please take note of the warning.

I cite only my personal experience. My wife and I figured that if so many people take the drive along the spectacular coast, it can't be all that bad. We started by flying to Rome, picking up a car in a lease arrangement through Kemwel Holiday Autos, based in Harrison, N.Y. We had used Kemwel before for both rentals and leases and found the agency to be very reliable, which was the case again this time. As ordered, a Peugeot 406 four-door, air-conditioned, automatic shift car awaited us at Fiumicino Airport in Rome.

As our flight arrival was late afternoon, we had decided not to drive too far in the evening hours, so we spent a night en route at Caserta in the very functional Hotel Jolly, part of a chain, and then in the morning visited the renowned La Reggia Palace, construction on which dates to 1752. The Palace came to be known as the Versailles of the Kingdom of Naples, and in addition to the striking building itself, there are beautiful gardens and an enormous park. We then took the highway to Sorrento, where we spent a night at the luxurious Imperial Tramontano, in a room that overlooked the sea. In the evening we strolled through the busy town enjoying the scene.

Late the next morning we began our drive with Positano as the first stop. True to reputation, the roads wound in hairpin turns, but I had no trouble handling them. A honk of the horn warned approaching drivers in cars that could not yet be seen. The scenery was as spectacular as reputed. The problem for the driver is that keeping one's eyes on the road precludes looking at the scenic splendors. However, sometimes when coming out of certain turns one gets a view directly in front of the car. Yes, there are the sheer drops. But in a car you are close to the road, which is bounded by guardrails, and never did I have a sense of special danger. In fact, driving around the curves was fun, at least for me.

When we wound into Positano, we followed directions to a parking garage that had been reserved for us by the hotel into which we had booked, the charming Palazzo Murat. There is no point in using your car in Positano, as one can walk virtually everywhere. Our hotel was ideally situated, with a short stroll to the beach and the popular restaurants, Chez Black and La Cambusa. I'm not one for Italian beaches, which are crowded and no comparison to those one finds on Long Island or on Caribbean islands. The main attraction is the unusual charm of Positano, which is built into the hills and rocks. The renowned luxury hotel there is Le Sirenuse, which we visited for a drink and where we sat in booths around the pool. The outdoor area has a lovely view, and is pretty for dinner, although the atmosphere is on the formal side.

One feature of the Palazzo Murat is a free boat ride for guests nearly every day. The hotel boat takes one along the coast, which is a most pleasant way to spend several hours. One day we took a boat taxi that let us off at the base of the luxurious Hotel San Pietro, where an elevator whisked us to the lobby area, and we had cocktails there in an area that provided yet another spectacular coastal view and fabulous plants and flowers.

Leaving our car garaged in Positano, we took a boat across to Capri, where we stayed three days at a lovely hotel called the Luna. It had great views and a large pool. Capri was crowded--this was August. Still, it was enjoyable to roam the streets during the day, survey the designer shops, get back for a swim and then explore different restaurants during our three days there. A restaurant we found particularly good is the Ristorante Faraglioni. I recommend taking a boat along the coast to add to one's sense of the gorgeous area. One can also take the cable car up to AnaCapri.

We stayed several more days in Positano on our return from Capri, again at the Palazzo Murat. Next we drove along the coast to Ravello, navigating the hairpin curves and ignoring the sheer drops to take in the fabulous views of the coastline. We had been advised to drive during the lunch period because traffic would be less, and this turned out to be true. We drove through Amalfi without stopping until we came to the sharp turn for Ravello, which is situated high and required driving up and up along more curvy roads. Once we had to stop and back up, forcing a few cars behind us also to back up, so that a bus could negotiate a curve as it came from the opposite direction. No big deal. The bus driver was cooperative in allowing us to pass when he had positioned his vehicle in the right spot. The Amalfi coast bus drivers are reputed to be very skillful, which indeed they have to be.

Reaching Ravello, we were able to drive right to a parking space near our hotel (there is a charge for parking), which had been recommended by friends. It is the family-run Albergo Ristorante Garden, which is a real find if you can be satisfied with very simple accommodations. The restaurant is superb, with tables overlooking a sensational coastal vista, a view of the Bay of Salerno. There is no air-conditioning, but the sun never hits the rooms so they remain cool, and they all have a view from the little balconies. The showers are primitive, but the rates are very reasonable and include breakfast and dinner. Signora Patricia, one of the proprietors, treated us most graciously. A short walk through a nearby tunnel leads one to the town square, lined with cafes. One night we saw a performance of the opera "The Marriage of Figaro" in the open air at the Villa Rufolo outdoor theater. Unfortunately the production wasn’t very good, but the setting was the star.

Ravello is charming. And we were happy to spend six days there. We did want to see Almalfi itself, and since parking is notoriously difficult in the town, we decided to leave the car and take the bus there and back. (Bus service between Ravello and Amalfi is quite frequent and convenient.) Finally I understood the source of so much wariness about the coastal road. I think most of the dire warnings come from people who travel by bus. When you are in a bus, you are perched high and as the bus goes around the hairpin bends, you look down at the drop from a viewpoint nothing like the more level view from a car window. The bus seems to be teetering at the edge. Also, the driver has to do a great deal of maneuvering. If another bus is coming from an opposite direction, the situation is tricky.

Our next destination was Naples, and we were told that since we had already seen so much of the coast, we should take a shorter route across country. It was much faster that way, although some of the turn-offs were confusing. In Naples, we enjoyed several days based at the Grande Albergo Vesuvio, where our room overlooked the marina across the street. From Naples it was an easy drive to Pompeii and Ercolano to explore the ancient ruins, a must on any trip to the area. Both sites recall the terrible volcanic eruption that wiped out the respective populations.

The challenge and enjoyment of taking the Amalfi drive doesn't mean that driving is necessarily the best, most economical way. Our car was garaged or parked a good deal of the time. An alternative is to go to Naples and take boats to Positano, Capri and Amalfi. That would be more relaxing. The erstwhile driver can gape at the scenery without worrying about that next hairpin bend. Whatever one's choice, this is a magnificent part of the world to visit.


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