The Road Ahead : October 2013
31 IMAGES: LEFT, POSITANO, AMALFI COAST (THINKSTOCK), VESUVIUS OVER POMPEII (DAVID MCGONIGAL), MARINA GRANDE, CAPRI (THINKSTOCK). DEPARTURE INTERNATIONAL | TRAVEL OCT/NOV 2013 THE ROAD AHEAD EVERY CRAG AND cranny is crowded so the centuries of history that washed through southern Italy appear to occupy every millimetre of available coastline. South of Naples lies an interlocking mosaic of highlights -- Pompeii and Sorrento, Amalfi and the Isle of Capri. It's no surprise that Sorrento is an essential stop for ships cruising the Italian coast -- a ship stay is easier than finding accommodation ashore. Clever cruises allow for an overnight stay here, with two crowded days for excursions. The prime destination is a town about 30 kilometres to the east that hasn't functioned since August, AD 79 when Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried it under five metres of ash. Today, Pompeii gives a vivid view of life in the Roman Empire and attracts 2.5 million visitors a year. Casts of some of the 2000 entombed victims can be found in the Archaeological Museum of Naples. On a clear day, the cone of Vesuvius looms eight kilometres away from Pompeii as one walks its well-designed cobbled streets. There's a lot to see here among the homes, temples and shops -- and the murals and ovens give a glimpse into how similar life was lived almost 2000 years ago. Sadly, more intimate revelations like the brothel near the forum are in a restricted area that few get to see. On a crowded day in Pompeii, it can be hard to find time alone to transport yourself back to the glory of the Roman Empire. The road south of Sorrento is prosaically titled SS163, yet it's one of the most picturesque coastal drives in the world. This IS the Amalfi Coast, and the narrow road dips and dives into beautiful villages like Positano, Praiano, Ravello and Amalfi before soaring back up to cliff top viewpoints, high above the Tyrrhenian Sea. From a coach, it's largely exhilarating (aim for a right hand window seat) but it can be a nerve-wracking drive and parking is largely impossible. The whole drive from Sorrento to Salerno is only 60km, but expect it to take two hours each way. A highlight is Positano, once a poor fishing village that sent a significant proportion of its population to Australia but now a dazzling tourist destination. Its tiered houses, piled along the shore and into the small valley behind, create a scene of great beauty. It is, as John Steinbeck wrote in 1953, "A dream place that isn't quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone." Ships visiting Sorrento anchor offshore and run tenders to the port at the base of the cliff. Staying offshore provides beautiful views at night and reveals unaffordable seaside villas by day. It seems unlikely that any ship passenger would opt for a 20-45 minute boat ride across 15km of rough waters. However, when the destination is Capri, the inconvenience is discounted and soon enough you're ashore at Marina Grande. This enchanted isle has been a resort since Roman times. Capri is a craggy place -- a limestone rock. Offshore sea stacks shelter the cliffs that rim much of the island and there are towering rock faces at the island's summit. The town of Capri is directly above the marina, but if you wish to visit Anacapri, the charming town filled with flowers at the top of the island, that's at the summit of the Phoenician Steps, 800 in total. Of course, there are taxis and buses, but for anyone with a spirit of adventure there are also motor scooters for hire. With a scooter, it's easy to cross the island to the Blue Grotto, Capri's most famous sight. From a tiny dock, small boats take you under a low arch into the cave where the incoming light really does bathe you in an ethereal blue glow. Later, wandering the shopping lanes of Anacapri, it feels as if you've dropped into the charming relaxed Italian life depicted in films like Roman Holiday. While there can be an earnestness in Northern Italy, the South is Italy on holidays. Centuries of refinement have burnished resorts like Capri and Positano to perfection. Experienced from the comfort of a luxurious cruise ship, it may well be the holiday of a lifetime.