Siren song of the Amalfi Coast

Terrace of the oyster bar at Le Sirenuse hotel in Positano.
Terrace of the oyster bar at Le Sirenuse hotel in Positano.

From Naples the road slinks improbably around the coastline, skirting past Sorrento and heaving over a headland before corkscrewing above a blue sea. Positano is jammed into a fold in the cliffs, and looks as if it could easily slide down with a clatter onto its beach far below. There is only space for a one-way road, and it plunges halfway down the town before surging up again, scraping by cafe chairs, postcard racks and wayside statues of the Virgin Mary.

Positano on Italy's Amalfi Coast is for visitors with a head for heights and who are confident behind the steering wheel. With relief I leave my car with Le Sirenuse's bellboy. Where it goes is anyone's guess; flat land for car parks is as rare as reindeer here. Mostly, in this cliff-clinging town, I tumble down steps and huff-puff back up again on foot, alternatively enclosed in canyon-like streets or propelled onto pocket-sized terraces with views over vertiginous rooftops to shockingly blue-green water.

Le Sirenuse opened in 1951 in a converted aristocratic house, and is still owned by the same family. Somehow it has found room to expand, oozing like calcium deposits down the cliff and taking over neighbouring buildings. The result is a warren-like hotel over eight floors, crammed with art works and antiques. Every cranny is mopped and polished. Prints and family oil portraits line the walls, pillows are plump, restaurant tablecloths starched as a pope's robes. The candlelit, Michelin-starred La Sponda restaurant features fish sprinkled with zucchini flowers and Mediterranean lamb encrusted with rosemary. The pool terrace, shaded by lemon trees, is surely one of the world's best.

Guestrooms have swallow's nest balconies entwined in vines and bougainvillea, and Positano's finest outlooks. The peacock sea far below gets more beautiful as the day progresses. At sunset, after the day-tripper boats have departed, the silvery water is scribbled over by the wakes of the odd speedboat. I feel like leaping off my balcony, like the cliff-divers of Acapulco, and into its limpid loveliness.

The views are everything in Positano, and Le Sirenuse knows it. The hotel does everything superlatively but always accepts that its service and luxuries are second fiddle to the landscape. It's rather lovely that staff gardeners take you on a tour of the rare flowering plants that grace the hotel terraces, but my attention constantly drifts away to the Mediterranean. And though the breakfast spread isp first-class, its terrace location is so fabulous you'd hardly notice if you were served sawdust.

Actually, you're served a banquet to delight Nero that, in the Italian style, features a temptation of cakes. I assuage my guilt by walking off my indulgences with a 2000-step haul up to Nocelle, a cloud-enveloped village surrounded by terraces of tomato vines and lemon trees.

Later I explore Positano itself. It's an old town, once part of the medieval Amalfi maritime republic that rivalled Venice for trade, now jammed with shops selling ceramics and art works. I climb past an old watchtower on a track lined with cactus and bougainvillea to Spiaggia del Fornillo, a quiet cove where striped parasols lean in the sand.

There's a lot you can do on the Amalfi Coast. I spend a day driving hairpin bends along the coast to Amalfi town. A hydrofoil will whisk you from Positano to Capri for the day, and Pompeii is a drive away. Le Sirenuse offers complimentary activities that change daily: a visit to a limoncello producer, olive-oil tasting, a trip to the seafood market with its chef.

The best is a trip along the coast in the hotel's gleaming vintage wooden boat Sant'Antonio. The perspective of the Amalfi Coast from the water is quite different from on land, and you can go swimming. The boat stops in a cove and its passengers leap overboard into the big blue. Afterwards the captain hands out bellini cocktails and we sail back to Positano, sleepy with sun, salt and the good life.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai (14.5 hours) with connections to Rome (six hours). Phone 1300 303 777, see emirates.com/au

DRIVE

Leading Australian self-drive specialist DriveAway Holidays offers car hire in Italy from about $30 a day for a mid-sized vehicle. Phone 1300 723 972, see driveaway.com.au

STAY

Le Sirenuse is a member of the prestigious Leading Hotels of the World brand. Rooms from $858, including boat excursion and other activities. Phone 02 9377 8444, see lhw.com

Brian Johnston was a guest of Leading Hotels of the World and DriveAway Holidays, but paid for his own flights.

This story Siren song of the Amalfi Coast first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.