The Love Boat
Photography: william meppem
I think there is a little bit of Italian in us all, a love of
food and wine, of sun, sea and romance...all essential ingredients
of the Italian soul and psyche. And sailing the dramatic Amalfi
coast - stopping at the beautiful towns of Corsica, Ponza, Amalfi,
Positano, Capri, Sorrento and more - has to be one of the finer
ways to channel one's inner Mediterranean.
We board SeaDream I, a luxury cruise boat operated by SeaDream Yacht Club, one of the world's most awarded shipping companies, at the port of Civitavecchia, an hour's drive north-west of Rome. SeaDream is to be our home for the next seven days at sea.
"She's bigger than I thought," says fellow passenger Jack. He's tall, American - and gets my vote for the best-dressed bloke aboard. Passports are handed over to the friendly dockside reception crew who greet us with Champagne and iced towels on the top deck at the 'Top of the Yacht' bar, opposite the pool.
The crew, in crisp white, are an international lot. There are 90 of them to look after just 55 couples. Many, such as our film star-like captain Valter Berg, are Norwegian. "I have one of the best jobs in the world," he admits to us. Others are Filipino, including many of the sweet cabin stewardesses, while the jolly female purser is from Croatia and the chef is Indian.
The passengers are a bit of a mixed bunch, too. The ages are varied, as are their occupations - there are young corporate couples, some retired high flyers, a few CEOs and a board chairman who goes into the office "to read the papers", a young family with a very well-behaved two year old and a delightful Norwegian gentleman who was in shipping but is slowly retiring: "I only have one tanker now," he tells us, as my partner and I mingle over canapés.
Later, we explore our cabin and find it to be very spacious with a queen-size bed, a lounge area, self-controlled airconditioning, all the mod cons and internet access. We find a pair of pyjamas, with our names embroidered on them, folded on the bed.
After getting to know our super-luxe new 'home', we're off and our first stop is Bonifacio, Corsica, a fortified town with stunning white limestone cliffs. It was built by Genoese rulers hundreds of years ago in an effort to thwart invasion by pirates from the Barbary Coast and, from 1963 to 1983, it was the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion.
It's off-season when we arrive, so the waterfront is peacefully quiet. A few fishing boats are hunkered down along the sea wall, one or two local fishermen have brought in a small catch, and kids play with a bucket of tiny crabs a fisherman is taking home.
The air is cool so we climb the steps uphill to the town, perched 250 feet above the sea. After braving the wind at the lookout points, which offer views across to the nearby islands of Lavezzi, Cavallo and Sardinia, we shelter in the twisting alleys that weave throughout the town. While the locals take a demitasse in the sun and chat, we look down and marvel at nature's perfectly designed harbour, cleaved between the peninsula and the mainland, that has sheltered Mediterranean fishing boats for centuries.
While some of our fellow passengers return to SeaDream for lunch and others take a guided walk around the town or pay a visit to the grottos at the base of the cliffs, we indulge in a spot of window shopping and end up at the waterside Le Voilier Restaurant, run by a Frenchwoman, for a spectacular meal of foie gras terrine, fresh roasted lobster, rabbit stew and crisp local white wine. Despite the French cuisine on offer, Bonifacio is more Italian than French - the locals' Ligurian dialect is a hangover from the island's time as a Genoese colony.
On the second morning of our voyage, we awake to see the rugged island of Ponza, formed from the rim of an ancient volcano. Pastel-hued homes dot the hillsides while numerous shops and restaurants line the waterfront. We decide to walk to the Chaia di Luna, a fabulous beach only 10 minutes away - according to the captain and the purser who advise us to go "through the Roman tunnel and follow your nose". We end up spending two hours trudging across the island, past vineyards, small scattered farms and clusters of houses until we eventually find our desired destination; a crescent-shaped beach of glassy water and pebbly white sand in an amazing little cove hidden by the high cliffs. The beach is deserted as we peer down at it from the high road. Later, we find out that we missed a set of steps that would have taken us directly from the town to the beach in minutes.
A small trattoria that serves cold beer and a simple meal of local whitebait and roasted potatoes splashed with olive oil and rosemary is the perfect antidote to our weariness at the end of our unexpected hike. While we catch our breath on land, we watch the more hardy of our fellow passengers zipping round the cove on jet skis or taking a leisurely swim out to sea. The more idle relax on deck at the pool bar or take a nap in the sunshine.
We return to the boat in time for pre-dinner drinks with Richard, our social director, who tells us what's on the itinerary tomorrow. Cocktail hour is the most important social gathering of the day and, while it is free seating at dinner, the maître d' discreetly mixes and matches people each evening until small groups find common interests and seek out each other's company. It all works remarkably well.
The next morning we arrive at impossibly pretty Amalfi with its imposing Duomo that towers over the homes clinging to the hillsides. After dropping by the gold and mosaic-encrusted cathedral, browsing the shops (are you sensing a pattern here?) and ogling all the glamorous-looking people on the terraces, we hail a taxi to take us to the village of Ravello, which turns out to be my favourite destination of the trip.
The taxi driver leaps out of the car to open the door for us and we're stopped dead in our tracks - he looks exactly like Elvis. He has the same wide-open collar, the sideburns, the coiffure, the gold jewellery - but he introduces himself as Salvatore before he takes us up the treacherously steep hillside road, past fig and olive trees that spill out into the ravines.
I comment on the narrowness of the road, which has no railings, but Salvatore brushes my concerns aside: "I drive a yellow cab in New York every summer," he replies. Finally, Salvatore drops us off in Ravello and we arrange for him to collect us in an hour. But it's nowhere near enough time to do justice to this magical and romantic town. At its centre is the Piazza Vescovado and the beautiful cathedral dedicated to St Pantaleone. The stunning Villas Rufolo and Cimbrione have spectacular gardens filled with tropical plants and panoramic views over the dramatic Amalfi coastline but in the off-season, Ravello's quiet, winding streets provide a peaceful setting that has already inspired many musicians, poets and writers.
On one side of the old cathedral in Ravello's town centre is a wonderful jewellery store specialising in cameos and coral pieces. The charming owner has been there 40 years and only uses the deep red coral from the coast. He tells us, "May is the best time of year to come to Ravello as it's not too crowded, the weather near perfect." So we make a note to return. And while the coral has me smitten, Amalfi is famous for its paper, produced in a 13th-century hilltop factory, and I can't resist the notepaper in La Scuderia del Duca, a fascinating shop crowded with curios and gifts.
By the time the sun sets, I'm perched on the balcony of the Villa Maria Hotel with a glass of wine in my hand. Ravello is utterly peaceful, save for the sound of homing birds, a bell ringing, and a child's laughter. SeaDream is a mere speck on the waters below.
The wind picks up as we return to the boat and, at dinner, the captain announces that we will not be going to Capri because the water is too rough but that we will be going to Sorrento instead - having such flexibility is the beauty of being on a 'private yacht'.
After all the small coastal villages we've visited, Sorrento seems like a virtual metropolis. The central square is abuzz. The two streets of boutiques (yes, more shopping!) offer reasonable prices compared to the other places we've visited and we have terrific pizza at Pizzeria Aurora, off Piazza Tasso, before picking up some locally handmade lace at A. Gargiulo and Jannuzzi, on the edge of the square.
Then it's off to Pompeii, a site overwhelming in its size and sadness. Here lived at least 20,000 people, enjoying a relatively sophisticated lifestyle, until Vesuvius erupted and buried the town and all its inhabitants in August 79AD. The reconstructed and excavated buildings give a sense of Roman life on a grand scale but it is the small remnants of daily life that tug at the heart. Casts on display show victims locked in the moment of their entombment - a mother clutching a child, a dog on a chain twisting to bite itself free, the fear on a man's face. "So many surreal and sad sights," remarks one American tourist. Pompeii is discussed over cocktails and limoncello that evening and, later in the night, we sail past the silhouette of Mount Vesuvius looming above the lights of Naples.
It's a rainy morning when we arrive in Positano. We head up the hill to the luxurious hotel, Il San Pietro di Positano. Perched on the side of a steep cliff, its flower-draped and vine-covered terraces wind down the hillside like a staircase. We are told that the hotel was created by the late Carlino Cinque who, apart from seeking engineering advice, did all the building, landscaping, design and décor by himself - with a little help from his family. A 17th-century chapel marks the entrance, and the exquisite rooms open onto private terraces with breathtaking views of the coastline, the perfect spot for us to have lunch.
Returning to the waterfront for a glass of vino at a bustling seafront restaurant, we spot our taxi driver, Salvatore, who rushes over to embrace us: "My friends, we meet again!" he cries. Salvatore tells us he's driven from Amalfi to take his mother shopping in Positano. She kisses us like we're long-lost family.
In the morning, we take a coach to Capri and we are dropped off at the Piazzetta at the top of the town. For the first time we are in a place that is teeming with tourists. We don't bother to queue for the finicula but instead shuffle through the town centre sights, taking it all in and doing some shopping while we're at it (I know, I know) including gawking at the most fabulous, over-the-top, jewellery I think I've ever seen.
On our last night aboard SeaDream, we all talk about returning to Italy or perhaps cruising the Caribbean in future. Some of the passengers share a slow dance together while others exchange email addresses and telephone numbers. When we retire to our cabin, we find our bed turned down and white towels twisted into a pair of kissing swans on the cover, already strewn with rose petals. One swan is coyly wearing my sunnies - a parting touch from Sarah, our Filipino stewardess. It's been a wonderful week. Not having to pack and unpack at each stop, or to plan or organise, and being totally spoiled has left me feeling like a European princess sailing on her own private yacht, and I'm not in a hurry to let this Mediterranean dream end.
THE FINE PRINT
British Airways flies twice-daily from Sydney to London, with regular connections to Rome. 1300 767 177, www.ba.com
SeaDream Yacht Club
1800 217 902 (toll free), www.seadreamyachtclub.com
To book a voyage, contact Mary Rossi Travel, (02) 9957 4511 or 1800 815 067; www.maryrossitravel.com.