The Blue Island: Capri, Italy

Gotham (01/02/2006)

The Isle of Capri is a magical place, boasting gorgeous scenery, thrilling history, and divine cuisine. BY JENNIFER CEASER Since ancient times, Capri has been a destination for the rich and famous. In 29 BC, Caesar Augustus visited the island and was so taken with its natural beauty that he traded the neighboring island of Ischia to the city of Naples for it. Caesar's successor, Emperor Tiberius, ruled Rome from one of his 12 homes scattered across the island. Today you can spot Giorgio Armani's yacht in the harbor, and Catherine ZetaJones, Michael Douglas, Sophia Loren, and Nicolas Cage are regulars. Located 10 miles from the port of Naples, Capri can only be reached by boat, by crossing the Gulf of Naples. Capri has two small cities: The largest is Capri Town, on the eastern half of the island, where most of the hotels, restaurants, and shops are located. We were headed to Anacapri, a smaller, less touristy spot about a quarter of a mile away at the top of the island. When we reached the Marina Grande, Capri's main harbor, we were greeted by a private taxi furnished by our hotel, and after a somewhat harrowing ridethe road is narrow, winding, and on the extreme edge of a cliffwe came around a curve and spotted a statue of Caesar Augustus. We had arrived, intact. The Hotel Caesar Augustus, perched on a site a thousand feet above the Bay of Naples, was originally built in the 1850s as the private residence of a wealthy German businessman. In the early 1900s, a Russian prince purchased the property and transformed it into a still more majestic residence, even commissioning a lifesize statue of Emperor Augustus Caesar (a replica of the original, found at Rome's Villa Livia); it still stands on the same spot today. The Signorini family took over ownership in the mid20th century, turning the property into a sumptuous hotel. It was a favorite of King Farouk of Egypt, who reserved a large suite yearround. Today, the 5star property retains its historic charm, but has been newly renovated to include 21stcentury conveniences such as Jacuzzi tubs, satellite television, and WiFi access. The Hotel Caesar Augustus has 56 guest rooms, including 14 suites, four of which are designated "special" suites. We stayed in one of these four, the aptly named Caesar Suite, which is situated in the main building. The enormous suite is stunning, built on an open plan, with columns and arches separating the bedroom from the sitting area; exposed brick; a terra cotta floor; and antique furniture. There are two bathrooms (the smaller has a toilet and sink, the larger has a Jacuzzi) and a comfortable seating and dining area with huge windows opening onto an expansive terrace. The views are stunning, looking out over the Bay of Naples to Mount Vesuvius, Sorrento, Ischia, and Capri Town below. An iron gate leads to a small private garden boasting native floraa lovely spot to enjoy our morning coffee. From the garden, we walked down a set of stone steps to a stunning infinity pool that seemed to disappear over the side of the cliff. Here we relaxed on generously sized lounge chairs and soaked up the Mediterranean sun while inhaling the fragrant scents of lavender, jasmine, and roses. When it came time for lunch, we walked down another set of steps to dine al-fresco beneath an arbor, and enjoy classic local cuisine against the backdrop of the Italian coast. Fresh herbs from the hotel's own garden made for one of the most refreshing Caprese salads we've tasted, and the white wine, made from native Falanghina grapes, was the perfect accompaniment. We could have stayed and soaked up the view all day, but there were sights to be seen. Just a fiveminute walk from the hotel and we were in the town of Anacapri. Most of the shops cater strictly to tourists, and, with lemons being the island's main product, they are sold in every conceivable mannerfrom soaps to perfumes to the ubiquitous limoncello, a lemon liqueur. We bypassed the stalls filled with lemon tchotchkes and wandered over to the Piazza Vittoria, the town's charming main square. From there we headed up to Villa San Michele, the home of one of Capri's most famous residents, Axel Munthe, a Swedish physician who settled in Anacapri in 1887. Though he was a doctor by profession, he nurtured his love of art, culture, and historic preservation by creating this extraordinary villa and garden and filling it with antiquities, sculpture, and paintings. He became famous when he wrote The Story of San Michele, a memoir that attracted the interest of writers like Henry James and Somerset Maugham, and has been translated into 45 languages. The villa, now a museum belonging to a Swedish cultural institute, is Munthe's valentine to Italy. He preserved Roman ruins found on the site, including one room with the customary décor from that erared plaster walls on a black backgroundas well as tombs. The gardens, filled with relics that include Roman columns, busts of emperors, and a statue of a sphinx, are breathtakingly gorgeousrich, verdant, and filled with the sound of chirping birds. That evening in the Hotel Caesar Augustus's restaurant, La Terrazza di Lucullo, we enjoyed a candlelit dinner that featured an excellent octopus salad, a filling potato gâteau (made with smoked mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil), and a simple pasta dish, scialatielli all'isola felice ("happy island pasta"), with capers, tomatoes, and marjoram, and washed it down with a lovely Tuscan Chianti. Early the next morning we set out for an allday boat excursion around the island. Seeing Capri by boat is a must for any visitor; the beautiful terrain, stunning private villas perched atop cliffs, natural stone arches, and Roman and medieval ruins are best appreciated from this perspective. Of course, a dip in the Mediterranean Sea isn't too shabby, either. Our captain maneuvered the small motorboat into several grottos, including the Red and Green Grottos (so named because the water is colored by seaweed and inflorescence), the Sailor's Hotel (a large grotto that sheltered fishermen during storms), and the White Grotto (with reflections on the water created by white stalactites). Though the queue to get into the famous Grotto Azzura (Blue Grotto) is longyou must climb from your boat into a tiny rowboat and be ferried insideit's worth the wait. The intense blue of the water and the reflections on the walls of the cavern are created by the natural refraction of daylight through an underwater aperture. We weren't quite sure how it worked, but the effect was amazing. We spent our final day exploring the town of Capri. No cars are allowed, so we were dropped off at the Centro Congressi, where we began our walk from the Piazza Umberto, the main square. Capri is a maze of winding streets crowded with restaurants, bars, hotels, and, of course, since it's Italy, great shopping. All the big names are therePrada, Dolce & Gabbana, Guccibut we discovered a few lesserknown boutiques, like Capri à Porter (51 Via Le Botteghe, 39 081 838 9447;, which makes precious embossed purses. We grabbed dinner at Aurora Restaurant and Pizzeria (1822 Via Fuorlovado, 39 081 837 0181), one of the island's oldest restaurants, with the same family, the D'Alessios, running it for more than 100 years. The pizzas were all outstandingespecially the pizza bianca with mozzarella and arugulaas was the wine selection (the cellar contains about 300 labels). Afterward, we headed back to the Hotel Caesar Augustus for the last time. We had drinks in the main salon in front of a roaring fireplace (Capri evenings can get chilly) before going for one final walk along the terrace and taking in the twinkling lights of the Italian coastline below. Hotel Caesar Augustus, 4 Via G Orlandi, Anacapri, Italy, 39 081 837 3395;; rooms about $384; suites from about $744; Caesar Suite, about $1,081. Open April to October 31.