Amalfi 101: Everything you need to know about Italy's famous coast

The September-October issue of Virtuoso Life

Sunlight shimmers on rows of pastel houses as we sip coffee on a terrace overlooking a turquoise sea. Will it be a hike to a mountain village, or a boat ride to a hidden cove for a lunch of grilled fish and white wine with peaches. There's a day trip to the island of Capri to fit in, and shopping, of course, for hand-tooled leather sandals, colorful ceramics and linen dresses.

Six of us have made a decision. We're following Gennaro Russo, sous chef at La Sponda restaurant in Positano's Le Sirenuse hotel, on a morning trip to the fish market. Garlic sizzles and tomato sauce bubbles as we detour though the hotel kitchen, then out along a series of walkways and stone steps to the waterfront where Russo begins a quick tutorial on the local catch: The squid will appear in a risotto dish on the dinner menu. He'll use the wild sea bass with a sauce of eggplant and tomatoes. The red prawns will be served with a ricotta ravioli.

The clear waters of the Mediterranean beckon, but Southern Italy's Amalfi Coast  - a Unesco World Heritage site of lush mountain scenery and villages chiseled into vertical cliffs - has much to offer visitors whose interests go beyond a beach chair and good book. 

Linked by footpaths trampled by mules until the 1800s, the towns along the coast are connected by the scenic Amalfi Drive (SS163), a two-lane roller coaster of a road carved into the side of coastal cliffs. Distances are short, but going anywhere takes time as buses and cars alternate navigating hairpin turns. Best advice: Plan on spending at least four days, using one of the three major towns - Positano, Amalfi or  Ravello - as a base.

"Picking the right town is the best place to start," says Beth Jenkins of McCabe World Travel. "The one thing I always tell people is no matter where you stay, you'll probably be going to all the other towns, so it's not like you're going to miss out on anything by staying in one versus another."

Wherever you land, you won't be alone. Long ago discovered by artists, writers, musicians and film stars, the Amalfi Coast draws an international see-and-be-seen crowd, yet somehow manages to leave visitors feeling as if they have stumbled into small-town Italy. Second and third-generation family members run most of the shops and restaurants, even the luxury hotels.

Antipasti on the Amalfi
For a complete how-to guide to the Amalfi, go to my story in the September-October issue of Virtuoso Life Magazine, and see my blog posts for pictures and stories behind the story.

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