A villa vacation in paradise, there’s a lot more to Sorrento than package tours
Once upon a time, I was sitting with some friends in this room in the Shoreham Hotel on West 55th Street in Mid-town Manhattan. We’d just spent a long weekend in New York and were biding that awful time before the cab arrives to go back to La Guardia. There’s not enough time to do anything else, so you sit and stare at your traveling companions and wait.
Now a day earlier, we were talking about taking a trip. I’d been lobbying for an Italian adventure for quite some time. I had a client who’d spent a couple of weeks in a villa in Positano and he raved about it. I was hoping for a similar experience, and I was lobbying hard to rent a villa somewhere along the Amalfi Coast. So while we were sitting around the hotel room, one of my friends had his laptop out so we started Googling “Bay of Naples” and “Vacation Rental.” We came upon a British site called Summer in Italy and it was brimming with great places for rent all up and down the Italian Peninsula. We made notes to check that site some more after we returned home to Florida later that day.
Summer in Italy has some amazing properties in their listings. And as we researched this potential trip in the weeks that followed, it started to make sense to stay in either Naples or Sorrento rather than Positano this time around. Now Positano is my idea of paradise, don’t get me wrong, but it’s rather isolated. I’d been to the Campania Region before and I knew that I wanted to be closer to the excitement of Naples yet near enough to the wonders farther down the coast so that we could get to them easily.
There’s a light rail system that loops around the Bay of Naples called the Circumvesuviana. Its farthest-south stop is in Sorrento. Points farther down the Amalfi coast are accessible only by bus or cab. I suppose they’re accessible in a private car too, but trying to drive in that part of the world is madness itself. Unless you were born in Italy, do not attempt to drive there. Italians have a strange sixth sense that allows them to drive maniacally and not get killed. It’s fascinating to watch, but for this traveler, it’s strictly a spectator sport. Sorrento’s also close enough to Pompeii, Herculaneum, Naples, Capri, and the rest of the Amalfi Coast to have all of those places as potential day trips.
So, with Sorrento decided, we settled on a place called the Villa La Terrazza. It was really beautiful and historic and though hardly an inexpensive place, it was a bargain compared to some of the better hotels in that part of the world.
Along the way to deciding on the Villa La Terrazza, I learned a whole lot about what’s called a self-catering accommodation. Self-catering is a whole other way to travel, and after having done it once I doubt I’ll ever stay in a hotel again. Especially if it involves travel to Italy. Self-catering means essentially that there’s a kitchen on site and that breakfast and housekeeping are not included in your lodging. This makes the cost drop for obvious reasons, but having access to a kitchen while you’re in Italy means you get to buy and eat the amazing foods that crowd the markets. I love food markets no matter where I go and I say seeing how people eat is the best way to get a feel for a local culture.
Well, fast forward a couple of months and we were on a plane bound for Naples. We spent a long weekend in Naples (the most amazing city on the planet, but that’s a topic for another day). Prior to leaving the US, we made arrangements to hire a driver to take us directly from our hotel to the villa in Sorrento. We could have taken the train, but the idea of lugging two weeks’ worth of luggage across Naples to get to the Circumvesuviana didn’t sound real appealing. The company we hired is called Drive Amalfi, and they made the whole process easy and enjoyable. So five minutes before he was scheduled to arrive, the driver pulled up in a huge Mercedes van, we piled in and I practiced my Italian for the next hour.
Now, I had an idea of what this place looked like from the website, but at the end of the day, we had spent a huge amount of money on something we found on the Internet. When I wasn’t practicing Italian on that drive south, I was adjusting my expectations of what lay ahead.
I shouldn’t have bothered. When we pulled through the gate at the end of the drive to get to the villa I knew we were in for something good. When the villa itself came into view I thought I was hallucinating. There it was. A huge, four-story, yellow-striped embodiment of what people mean when they talk about an Italian villa. We had one floor in this old mansion and as it turned out, we were the only ones there during our stay.
We were met by Andrea Azzariti, an all-around great guy whose family has owned the Villa Terrazza for five generations. As soon as we walked into the apartment, I felt like I’d been transformed into some kind of an Edwardian bon vivant. This is what people who took grand tours a century ago were looking for. Everything was perfect, from the marble floors to the antique furniture. It seemed the only accommodation to the 21st century was an Ikea kitchen.
The living room from the apartment il Golfo, Villa la Terrazza.
That Ikea kitchen had a direct view across the Bay of Naples to Mount Vesuvius. For the first time in my life, I walked into a cheap kitchen and didn’t make a disparaging remark. At that point, I’d have been happy with peach crates tacked to the walls.
Our humble villa sat on a cliff that extended farther out into the Bay than any of the other points along that section of the Sorrentine peninsula. We’d rented the best view in Sorrento and had no idea we were doing so when we sent in our money some months prior to our arrival. The Marina Piccola in Sorrento was 350 feet straight down from our patio. Amazingly enough, when people arrive in Sorrento by water taxi, they look up and all they can see is the Villa La Terrazza. Our stay and our experience with Andrea and Sorrento were just about perfect. The whole thing was a dream. Really. I’d heard nightmare stories about people having lousy experiences from making travel arrangements sight-unseen, but it’s hard to imagine how ours could have been better. A self-catering holiday along the Bay of Naples is the ultimate way to see and know the region.
Here’s me standing in the kitchen of the Villa. The views were so spectacular from those windows we fought for the chance to do the dishes.
Here’s the view from the kitchen window in front of me in the photo above.
If I were to turn to my left and look out those windows, I’d see Mt. Vesuvius. It’s not possible to describe what this kind of history and scenery does to one’s psyche.
The great unwashed on package tours who arrive by ferry see this when they disembark in the Sorrento’s Marina Piccola. Every time I went down into the marina and looked up, I couldn’t believe that that was where I was living. “Whose life is this?!” I kept asking anybody who was standing still.
Here’s the sun setting behind the Isle of Capri as seen from our patio. Again, whose life is this?!
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Paul Anater is a US-based freelance writer and designer who writes the blog Kitchen and Residential Design and whose work appears regularly across the internet and in print. See all of Paul Anater’s Articles on Napoli Unplugged.