With sublime scenery and exciting coastal drives, the sun-drenched Sorrentine Peninsula is a spectacularly beautiful corner of southern Italy (writes Rebecca Burns). From virtually every patch of land on the peninsula you can see the sea sparkling, dotted with tiny boats and outlying islands such as Ischia, Procida and Capri. Inland, you pass olive groves and fruit orchards, glimpsing branches laden with the biggest lemons you've ever set eyes on.
Pointing out into the southern side of the Bay of Naples, from the city of Naples you first hit the peninsula at the town of Castellammare di Stabia. From here, the picturesque road sticks right to the coastline, winding around the peninsula and offering a drive with views you could never tire of.
On this northern side is the fashionable main town, Sorrento, a stylish place that gets unbearably busy during the summer. Favouring the area's rural charm over Sorrento's retail offerings, we spent little time here except for a couple of evening meals followed by a spot of people-watching over a cappuccino (and a generous tub of gelato). Driving on from Sorrento along the coastal road you reach the delightful town of Massa Lubrense, near the tip of the peninsula. This was to be our base, at a rambling old 'agriturismo' called Torre Cangiani - a farmstay high up above the coast just outside town, with views right out to Capri and the other islands.
Grateful that we'd hired a tiny Mini Cooper, we crawled up a narrow, winding dirt track through olive groves to reach the house, where we were greeted by owner Aldo who grows lemons and olives on his tiny farm. We had our own own enclosed garden with views out to Capri, and enjoyed a different breakfast each day at the main house, out on a terrace leading from their family kitchen – again with far-reaching sea views. Aldo served up plenty of strong but smooth espresso each morning, along with a variety of delicious homemade breakfasts – one morning it was strawberries with panna, another morning we enjoyed lemon cake and tiny pieces of toast with tangy marmalade made using his own lemons.
Having arrived at Torre Cangiani via the northern stretch of coastal road, we decided to to spend some time exploring the southern side, home to the world-famous Amalfi coast. This delivers one of the most exciting coastal drives I've ever experienced, passing through famous towns such as Positano, Praiano, Amalfi, Minori and Maiori.
It's a predominantly rocky coastline, with traditional Italian seaside towns tumbling down the hillsides to meet the sea. The few fashionable beaches dotted about the peninsula are not blessed with great swathes of golden sand, and instead are quite tiny, packing in rows of sunbeds, all of them filling up quickly with bronzed bodies. For us, far more appealing were the charming towns themselves, and the mind-blowing limestone cliffs, crags and chasms, lapped by the gleaming sea.
Positano, which author John Steinbeck described as “a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone”, is perhaps the most famous and picture-perfect town of all along the Amalfi coast, built onto a steep hillside. If you can spot a parking space, this is a wonderfully timeless place to wander around and enjoy some lunch – although accommodation here is notoriously expensive if you're determined to stay overnight.
Slightly inland, another famous town, Ravello, sits majestically overlooking the coastline, drawing hordes of tourists to the justifiably popular gardens at Villa Rufolo. You're hit by the heady scent of flowers in the baking sun as you enter the villa's gardens, and then you're struck by the dazzling views over the sea and along the coastline. This must be one of the most photographed spots on the entire peninsula, spotted on so many postcards and in all of the guide books. There's a café just next door where you can sit and enjoy the famous view over a cappuccino before heading back towards the coast to visit other towns such as Atrani, Minori and Maiori.
If you fancy seeing some of these views on foot, just above Positano, and between Ravello and Amalfi-Atrani, the landscape is etched with goat trails that have over time become popular hiking routes, offering some awesome views - the most popular of which is the 'Path of the Gods' ('Sentieri degli Dei').
Being so close to so many Roman sites in this area, we found ourselves drawn away from the peninsula one day to visit the evocative remains of nearby Herculaneum - rather than the larger and more visited Pompeii. Buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, Herculaneum, like Pompeii, offers an extraordinary insight into life at the height of the Roman Empire. The buildings, frescoes and mosaics have been preserved to an extraordinary degree by the volcanic debris from Vesuvius, and you can wander down the original streets, peeking into people's houses and the public baths, almost as you could have done in Roman times.
After seeing one of these cities that ironically was both destroyed and then preserved by Vesuvius, we went to climb the volcano itself. After a scorching hike, you're eventually rewarded with views down into the gaping cone of the volcano, with Naples as its backdrop - although it's hard to imagine now that this quiet spot was ever the source of such mass destruction.
Having spent the day so close to the smoggy suburbs of Naples, sprawling right across the other side of the bay, it was lovely to retreat once again to the peaceful isolation of Torre Cangiani. The Sorrentine Peninsula is like a microcosm of all the best things Italy has to offer. It has glorious scenery and endless hours of sunshine; the people are sociable, engaging and proud of their region; and the produce grown and used in local cuisine is fresh and delicious. Our souvenirs – a jar of Aldo's tart lemon marmalade and a bottle of his aromatic limoncello – didn't last long, but we fully intend to replenish our stocks on a return trip soon.
About the author
Rebecca Burns is a British freelance journalist who currently lives in Bristol. She spent two years living in Asia and has travelled extensively throughout Europe.