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Sorrento, Capri and the Ancient Cities

Diana from Texas

In June 2000, our family of four Texans, including children ages 7 and 9, took off the month of June to explore some of the highlights of Europe - a first trip abroad for the kids, and a repeat journey to most spots for the adults. It was a glorious adventure!

As a side trip from Rome, we spent an all too brief couple of days in Sorrento discovering the entry to the intoxicating Amalfi Coast. We have vowed that next time the Italian Mediterranean will be a destination instead of a diversion. Here are a few of the things we liked.

Sorrento

Our hotel, the Bellevue Syrene, was a lovely and well-timed splurge for us. After taking a hot, dusty ride down from Naples on the efficient Circumvesuviana train and making our way through the hubbub of town, we arrived at the Syrene and immediately felt as though we had been transported to a serene (not to be confused with Syrene; the name of the hotel refers to the sirens from Homer's Odyssey, placed near Sorrento in the Roman interpretation) oasis amidst fragrant lemon and olive groves. The hotel occupies a prime spot on the cliff-top overlooking the Bay of Naples and is a short walk from town (a taxi is advisable for arriving or departing with luggage). We were won over by the friendly staff, understated elegance of the architecture and decor and sparkling, modern bathrooms (we have our priorities!). I can't recall the small glitch we experienced shortly after checking in - a light bulb was out or something equally insignificant - but it was fixed promptly and a complimentary bottle of champagne followed. We popped the cork and toasted our good fortune to be sitting on our private balcony, watching the sun set over the bay.

Sandy beaches are few and far between along the coast. Like many waterfront hotels, the Syrene featured a sun deck, snack & drinks bar (with waiters) and swimming and diving platform. The kids had great fun "going out to sea" on a rental pedal boat.

I'm not a shopper, so I was dreading the obligatory stroll through town. However, I found myself enjoying the evening passeggiata of tourists and locals alike stopping in the surprisingly varied stores lining the narrow streets. Sorrento is downright charming! Around 10pm, things get lively. The strollers yield the streets to stylishly hip young people buzzing by on their scooters, and pop music drowns out the signature O Sole Mio.

Hotel Bellevue Syrene: www.bellevuesyrene.it

Car & Driver Hire

If you'd like to hire a car and driver for a day trip to Positano and points south or, as we did, to take you and your luggage to the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and then on to your departing train in Naples, I can recommend 'O Scialone limo and taxi service (they also handle motor coach and minibus excursions - see resources). We paid $100 USD (in cash, plus a driver's tip) for the use of a Mercedes sedan for about six hours. The car was expertly driven by a polite young man who was eager to practice his English, answer our questions about the area and ask us questions about the US!

Pompeii & Herculaneum

The reason we went south in the first place was this "must see" on the kids' dream Euro itinerary - our daughter had prepared a school report on the ancient cities, and our son had read all about Mt. Vesuvius' devastation in a Magic Treehouse book (a great "historical fiction" series for young readers). They were not disappointed, even though we ran out of time to go to the top of the mountain (giving us another reason, if we needed one, to return). The unanimous favorite was Herculaneum because it is easier to envision life there than at the rubble of Pompeii. We hired guides on the spot and got lucky with our choices. IMHO, a self-guided visit would be frustrating and, ultimately, boring.

Capri

Touring the Island of Capri by motorboat proved to be one of our best larks! When we arrived at Capri's Marina Grande via ferry from Sorrento, we saw a tourist boat getting ready to leave for what was advertised as a relatively inexpensive trip to the Blue Grotto and almost boarded, except one of the kids needed to find a bathroom. To the right of the ferry dock as we stood facing Capri, we saw a sidewalk leading to a public beach with cabanas, snack bars and gear shops. We started walking in that direction and ended up at a boat rental outfit. Being boaters back home, we frequently rent on our travels, so our next thought was, "Hey, let's do the grotto on our own." Within a short time, we were zipping out of the harbor in a late model, well-maintained fiberglass molded boat with an easy-to-operate outboard motor. Life vests and other safety gear were provided, and the English-speaking agent provided us with a map of the island on which the Blue Grotto and other water-related landmarks were noted.

When we arrived at the Blue Grotto, we nosed in to enter, but nothing short of a hostile takeover would have allowed us to bypass the local oarsmen, who aggressively protected their "exclusive right of access" to the natural wonder during prime sightseeing hours. The independent operators jockeyed for position alongside the large excursion boat we had seen at the ferry marina and rowed two or three tourists at a time in and (quickly) out of the grotto-for a fee over and above the price hawked back at the harbor, of course. "How much would you charge to take my wife and two children?" my husband yelled to one of the skiff operators. $75 USD was the answer, and after a couple more tries, it was clear these guys weren't competing on price in front of a captive audience.

Our first reaction was despair. We had blown our opportunity, and - parents' guilt - our children's opportunity, to see the legendary Blue Grotto! However, we assured each other that the Grotta Verde mentioned by the boat rental agent must be just as beautiful as the famous blue one and agreed to relax and enjoy our time on the water. And what a gorgeous day it was! Once we were thinking rationally again, we realized the famed luminescent glow would be present anywhere the sunlight was refracted off the white sand and limestone cliff walls underneath the blue-green waters, and indeed, we saw a spectacular display at the Green Grotto and other nooks and crevices around the island. We enjoyed swimming off the boat in the refreshing Mediterranean waters, and even without snorkeling gear, we could see straight to the bottom, where in one place stood some underwater religious statuary.

Capri Motorboat Rental

Unless you join other adventure travelers in an early morning or sunset swim into the famed Blue Grotto, be prepared to pay a minimum of $25 USD per person (no discount for children) for a 5 or 10-minute glimpse inside via rowboat. Alternatively, rent your own boat and tour Isola di Capri like a native, including the "undiscovered" Grotta Verde featuring the same luminescent glow as the Grotta Azzurra. At Leomar Rent A Boat (see resources), we were issued a new or almost new molded fiberglass 5-6 person capacity boat, with an easy-to-operate outboard motor and all life-saving vests and safety gear, for 50,000 lire ($25 US, 2001 prices) per hour, minimum two hours, plus gas (Visa, AMEX and Diners Club accepted). They also rent single and double canoes (or sea kayaks) ($5 and $7.50 per hour, respectively) and motorboats capable of carrying 7-8 persons ($28 per hour). The agency is located a short walk down the beach north of the ferry dock at Marina Grande.

Resources

http://www.sorrentoinfo.com/facebook_sorrentoinfo_en/: The Sorrento webcam. Many of us in the Slow Travel community are addicted to this fabulous webcam. Watch life in the center of Sorrento at the corner of Via San Cesareo and Via Tasso.

www.sorrentoinfo.com: Sorrento Tourist information and accommodations

www.sorrentomap.com: Map of Sorrento

www.slowtrav.com/italy/notes/southern/pk_amalfi.htm: Pauline's travel notes for Sorrento

www.bellevuesyrene.it: Hotel Bellevue Syrene in Sorrento

Sorrento Car Service: 'O Scialone Limo and Taxi service, Franco Marciano, via P. Reg. Giuliani 10, tel: 081.8781177

Capri Motorboard Rentals: Leomar Rent A Boat, Marina Grande (beach) near Bar Dazio Ciccio, tel: 081.8377181

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