After decades of “some day soon”, I am finally wending my way along Amalfi Drive, the succession of hairpin turns originally carved by the Romans from the side of cliffs rising out of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Now officially known as Starda Statale 163 (National Highway 163), it remains by any name one of the most spectacular coastal roads in Europe.
Each turn reveals more eye-popping scenery. Isolated farmhouses and watchtowers harking back a millennium grip the vertical rock face above, and whitewashed villages rise in precarious stacks from the azure waters below. Then, on a rare stretch of straight road at the outer edge of Amalfi, the sumptuous Stile Liberty (Art Nouveau) Hotel Santa Caterina outlines the edge of the cliff.
A Mansion Dreams Are Made Of
Deservedly recognized for over a century as one of the crown jewels of Italy’s legendary Amalfi Coast, the Santa Caterina has the timeless grace of a stately Mediterranean villa. It is a dream-like domaine of light-filled open spaces, high vaulted ceilings, and arched floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open onto flower-filled patios. Its intoxicating sea view melts into the faint outline of the far side of the Gulf of Salerno. Terraced citrus groves and lush gardens cascade down a 60-meter (200-foot) drop to the water’s edge with its private beach and saltwater swimming pool.
In all the common areas as well as my own suite, pale Vetri Majolica tile floors are sprinkled with hand-painted flowers. White walls and ceilings provide an understated background to better showcase the antique furniture and artworks interspersed throughout. My suite, Number 87, is a 45 square meter (455 square foot) cocoon of luxury with a full-height glass wall that opens onto a verdant terrace. Miles of rich fuchsia Pierre Frey silk taffeta drape the sleeping area and the glass outer wall.
Behind a door covered with a mural of a whimsical flower garden in the French post-impressionism Nabis style, the walk-in dressing room is fitted with two walls of floor-to-ceiling storage closets. Then there is the glorious bathroom! With its vaulted frosted glass ceiling, Majolica seascape fresco above the oversized circular Jacuzzi bathtub, huge walk-in shower and lavish toiletries, it had the allure of a private spa.
A Superb Amalfitana Dining Experience
The Santa Caterina Restaurant is an exquisite antidote to the standard tourist fare dished out in abundance all along the coast. Not only does its scenic dining room offer a sumptuous view of the historic city of Amalfi and the Gulf of Salerno, but it is also arguably the best restaurant in town. Whether for lunch or dinner, Chef Domenico Cuomo and his team showcase the excellent traditional cuisine of the area, prepared to order from the best seasonal ingredients and the latest catch of local fishermen, as well as irresistible home made pasta dishes. And the service is impeccable: attentive, friendly and precisely choreographed to ensure a superb dining experience.
Rooted in Family Tradition
Beyond its breathtaking surroundings, exquisite décor and outstanding cuisine, the inimitable charm of the Santa Caterina comes from its people, management and staff alike, for whom the property has always been, quite literally, a family affair.
When Crescenzo Gambardella built his original villa in 1904, he included six guest rooms, and the Santa Catarina was born. Fast forward through the twentieth century, during which the Gambardella family continuously expands and enhances the property into the glamorous luxury resort with its 66 guest rooms and suites that we enjoy today. Along the way, Crescenzo’s daughters, Giuseppina (Giusi) and Carmella (Ninni) assume the direction. Then their children, and more recently grandchildren, step in to continue the family tradition. And so does the staff. Many have been at the Santa Caterina for decades, in some cases for two or more generations, an extended part of the Gambardella family, upholding the tradition of flawless service for which the hotel is famous. Enter the lobby and you immediately become a valued friend. Your preferences are noted, your wishes anticipated.
Small wonder that over one-third of the guests are return visitors. They come back year after year, and generation after generation. “People who honeymooned here return with their children, and their grandchildren,” Giusi confides. I try to bring the conversation to VIP and celebrity guests. It is after all public knowledge that it was at the Santa Caterina that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began their turbulent relationship in the early 1960’s during the filming of Cleopatra, and that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are rumored to have begun their romance there. And I suspect that yesterday, I espied a musician of international renown in the foyer. But Giusi demurs: “all our guests are VIPs to us, and we strictly respect everyone’s privacy equally.”
Taking in the late afternoon bustle in the lounge, with every member of the staff attentive and friendly but never overly familiar, I understand the unique strength of the Santa Caterina: it is the personal commitment of its devoted management and staff to their grand tradition of superb hospitably; and the blazing autumn sun dipping into the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Good to Know
- Getting in touch – Hotel Santa Caterina, S. Amalfitana 9, 84011 Amalfi (SA), Italy. Contact: e-mail www.hotelsantacaterina.it . Tel. +39 (0) 89 871 012.
- Getting There – The nearest international airports are Rome-Fiumicino and Naples. Both cities have train connections to Sorento. From there, public bus transport (SITA company) is the most efficient (an inexpensive) way to get to Amalfi. My driver even stopped on request in front to the Santa Caterina.
- Getting around – In addition to the stairs, there are elevators linking all the levels of the property, including a glass-fronted one reaching down to the beach, so you don’t miss a single opportunity to enjoy the jaw-dropping view. The Santa Caterina is just one kilometer (just over half a mile) from the center of Amalfi and its harbor with ferry links to Capri, Positano and Sorento (from April 1 to October 31). The hotel offers a regular shuttle service to and from the harbor.
- Getting through – There is excellent mobile phone reception and complimentary high speed WiFi throughout the property. An especially notable feat considering the challenging multi-level rocky topography and thick stone construction of the hotel.
- Pool and beach – Set in a concrete terrace at the base of the cliff, the 18-meter (60 meter) long seawater pool has depths ranging from 1.10 to 2.20 meters (or 3.6 to 7.2 feet). A few steps down, a lower terrace provides easy access to the sea. Both terraces are lined with teak lounge chairs and white canvas umbrellas. Pool assistants and lifeguards are always on hand with fresh bath towels. From May to October, Al Mare, a covered patio overlooking the pool serves a full luncheon menu, and the poolside Beach Club Bar offers a variety of sandwiches and appetizers as well as smoothies and bar drinks.