So the CDV crew has all chosen to write about our personal favorite locations, and me… wow. How do I choose? It kinda depends on what I am looking for at any given moment, or which is my favorite for what reason.
To start off, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I know what everyone’s answer was. It was the same as mine. Favignana, Sicily. In all honesty, Rocky’s answer was: “Whichever one I am at.” How politically correct, Rocky! Well, we can’t all write about the same location, can we? So I gave it some thought and I realized that we can’t all choose Favignana.
But I could have chosen Soriano, since it was the first and it is the location that launched the CDV vision. I could have chosen Norcia, since it is one of my favorite places in Italy. I could have chosen Bologna or Chianti because… well, the food! But I decided that I will choose The Amalfi Coast.
The Amalfi Coast?
For anyone that knows me, you would think this would be my last choice, my least favorite location. Because I am all about getting off the beaten path, far away from tourists. After all, that is what we created CDV for. To help guests discover the real Italy, and a true sense of family abroad.
The Amalfi Coast is one of the most touristy places on the planet. You simply cannot get any more on the beaten path than here! And that is exactly why I chose this as my favorite because making a CDV-Worthy trip on the Amalfi Coast was one of the greatest challenges I have ever faced.
To put this in perspective, imagine I asked you to make a non-touristy day at Disney World in which people left at the end of the day having:
- A new sense of family in the Magic Kingdom.
- An amazing experience that gave them a sense of home while standing in line for The Haunted Mansion ride.
- Incredible food and fantastic wine.
- A once-in-a-lifetime experience.
An impossible challenge, right? But if you know me, well…
The Amalfi Coast is similar. If you take away all of the tourism, you are pretty much left with nothing but poor lemon farmers and fishermen. They literally live and breathe tourism as millions of tourists crowd the area every year. Doing what we do (the way we do it) in a place that is literally manufactured for mass tourism is a daunting task.
It All Starts with Family
I’m not gonna lie. This is an area of Italy in which people are raised from birth to operate the tourism machine, and visitors are seen mostly as cattle that herd in and out. It is really hard to make a connection here, but people do live here, right? Well, yes and no. Take Positano, for example. If you grew up in a house in Positano, the market where you bought your produce has now become a souvenir shop. The dry cleaners has now become a clothing store. The gas station has now become a cafe’ for tourists.
The staples needed to live somewhere have all become part of the tourist factory, so by necessity, your home is now part of a hotel, a B&B, or has been turned into a gift shop as well. You got out of Dodge!
But as you get further south on the Amalfi Coast, towns become more livable. That is how we found Lisa, Claudia, and their family in the little town of Minori. I had met Lisa at a trade show, and she convinced me to visit.
They were, of course, in the “business” as well. But I can remember explaining the CDV vision to them back in 2012. Can we make this work? Yes, they said. But again, everyone would have said yes. It is business, after all. I could not trust it that simply. They then introduced me to their family. I could see that Claudia grasped our concept more, and I met her mom, Filomena, her dad, Antonio, brother Vincenzo, husband, Peppe, and daughter, Camilla. To top it off, Peppe is a chef and Pizza Master that could do cooking classes with us.
They were a family that over the years had lived one foot in England, and the other in the Amalfi Coast for years. So it was quite odd to be speaking with these locals that had such perfect British accents. Still, I could sense a level of hospitality that transcended “business.” They made me feel at home. There was clearly something here!
What To Do on the Amalfi Coast?
You would think that is an easy question to answer but remember: We are CDV. We naturally do the bucket-list highlights wherever we are, but we focus far more on the people, the experiences, and places that you could never have met, had or seen on your own. We need to do a trip that sends people home realizing they experienced an Amalfi Coast none of the other tourists had. And yet, this is one gigantic bucket-list destination!
The best way we can convey who we are and what we are all about is to show you. So Claudia and Peppe made several trips up to our Soriano location, and even one to our Norcia location. A friendship began, and everyone was visiting everyone! Even Filomena and Antonio came up once! They all needed to feel the CDV culture, just as the CDV family needed to build a strong bond with them. A friendship, not just people that manage a location. They saw how we do the cooking classes, how we have the shepherd come and make cheese with our guests, how we take off our masks and reveal our true selves to our guests, and basically how we do with our guests exactly what anyone would do with visiting family. In so doing, we learned how they did it with their own friends and family.
I could tell that Peppe and Claudia were hooked (and so were we!). I mean, the very concept that you can just be yourself and do with guests the things you enjoy doing yourself? Counter-intuitive in the tourism business, but that makes it fun and fulfilling!
Designing Unique Amalfi Coast Vacation
This gave them something to work with, and meant I would come back down several times over the next year or two to build relationships and put everything together.
They introduced me to Biagio, a mozzarella cheesemaker in Ravello. At first shy and quiet, Biagio is the nicest guy you will ever meet! He wakes up every morning in the middle of the night to make mozzarella for his little cheese shop. Biagio is willing to make mozzarella with us! Check!
They introduced me to Carletto, who has a tiny little 200 square foot limoncello “lab” in the back alleys of Minori. He will let us come in and make limoncello with him. Check!
They brought me to visit a friend of theirs that has a lovely home in the hills above Minori with a back yard that had views to die for. Oh yeah, and a pizza oven! Check!
They brought me to a family winery in the hills above the Amalfi Coast that makes a local wine and would make a wonderful lunch to share with us one afternoon. Check.
They introduced me to a friend that has a traditional “Gozzo Sorrentino” boat that we could use to get from place to place, without crowding with the masse of tourists. He would even take us over to Capri for a day. Check.
They took me to a private beach only accessible by boat, where we could have a beach BBQ one night with just caught fresh seafood. Check.
They took me through the town of Minori, to the local market, the bakery, the fruit and vegetable stands, the butcher, etc. All friends of the family and we can go shopping here for the ingredients for our cooking classes as we get to know the locals. Double-Check!
The Amalfi Coast Bucket-List
I really hope you appreciate the blunt honesty in my writing. We’ll never get to do any of this stuff unless we can convince you to come in the first place. So we know that with every one of our itineraries, we need to mix in some “Banner” Items. You know, stuff to cross off the Bucket List. Some of it is truly amazing, and some of it, in my opinion, is just overrated. But we know you need to get some things out of your system.
“Oh, he said Positano. I DREAM of Positano.”
Yeah, I know. You and another 300 million Americans. Visit Positano and listen. All you will hear is English. It is practically an American Tourist Colony. That beautiful restaurant overlooking the breathtaking view will serve butter with your bread, ice in your drink… things that Italians just don’t do. Moreover, they can get away with charging 500% more for food that no self-respecting Italian would allow near their mouth. They can get away with it because the crowds of tourists are so large, that they don’t have to actually be good. They just need to offer a good view.
But I wasn’t born yesterday, and I know that if I offer people a week on the Amalfi Coast and we don’t go to Positano, we will lose 95% of the potential guests right there. So how do we do this and still be true to who we are? Quite the challenge!
We visit Positano a little later in the week. After you have spent some time getting the real feel of the Amalfi Coast in some of the less frequented and more authentic towns.
We start by getting there on one of our private boats. I’ll let you in on a little secret. In my opinion (and that of most of our guests), the best thing about Positano is the view of Positano as you approach it and leave it.
We get off the boat and give you a few hours to browse the shops and have the Positano experience. At the same time, we set up some tables at a cafe’ by the beach, and tell all of our guests that they can join us for drinks when they are done. Most of our guests make their way to the cafe’ very quickly, as they realize that Positano is really little more than a made-for-tourists facsimile of what they have already been experiencing all week. Kinda like visiting Japan, then visiting the Japan section of Epcot Center at Disney World.
Once the short visit is over, we hop back into our boat and make our way into the Bay of Positano for sunset. We open bottles of Prosecco, turn up the music, and toast Positano at sunset. We then make our way to the private nearby cove for the BBQ dinner on the beach. Positano is clearly out of your system, and we made it fun, unique, and interesting!
So you come all the way here, and Pompeii is in our back yard. I mean, Pompeii. THE POMPEII! I had been here dozens of times, and to be honest, I am very jaded. It is always brutally hot, as though the lava is still working on cooling off. It is surrounded by tourist trap stores, there is zero shade, and I mean like, find someone really big and stay in their shadow if you can… You really need to use your imagination to see what used to be here, and it is exhausting. Have I sold you yet? But it is freaking Pompeii, right?
Every time I had been there after the first time was pure hell. But then Lisa and Claudia introduced me to Lello. They promised it would be different. That he would make the place come alive. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of Pompeii guides…. and then there is Lello. Did I believe them? Of course not! But I kid you not, he made me see Pompeii for the first time. Moreover, he made me feel it. He brought me back in time and made me live it. Enchanted by his tour, the heat and the crowds disappeared. Check.
If The Amalfi Coast is on your bucket list, Capri is right next to Positano on it. First things first, a little language lesson: It is Pronounced Capri with the emphasis on the a, not the i. cApri, not caprI. OK, lesson over, but don’t you feel special now?
So Capri is basically a big rock off the coast. In town, there are a bunch of stores for the tourists, and around the island, there are a bunch of coves and beautiful views. I’m from Southern California. It is basically Catalina Island with fewer waves and more tourists. But again, this is Capri! THE ONE AND ONLY CAPRI! I mean, they named somewhat shorter than full-length pants after this place, right?
So how do we do Capri CDV style? Well, remember that private boat of ours? While everyone else is on a crowded hydrofoil going to Capri, our boat picks us up in the marina of Amalfi. We boat up the coast, taking in the views, stop for a little swim, and cross over to the island. We stop to take some time to visit the island itself, then hop back on our boat for a day boating in and out of the grottoes of the island, taking in the sun, swimming, having a picnic lunch on our boat, and just pure relaxation. I have to admit that doing it like this is pure bliss.
At one point, we approach the Blue Grotto. Sadly, the Blue Grotto has become an industry run by their own version of a local mob. You can’t just go in. You need to boat up to the “Gatekeeper” and take your place in line.
You wait in your boat until it is your turn, and hopefully you tipped the Gatekeeper enough, otherwise, you will have an endless wait (we pay the juice, don’t worry). At one point tiny little boats approach our boat and takes a couple at a time into the grotto for about 5 minutes.
It is really beautiful and worth it, so we do it. I have to say that back in 1983, I had an opportunity to go into the Blue Grotto when there were no other tourists in there, jump off the boat and take a swim inside. It was magic. If I could make that happen for our guests, I would. But the Capri Grotto Mob is just too powerful, even for CDV.
We then take a leisurely boat ride back to Amalfi where a wonderful dinner awaits us. Somehow, Claudia and family have found a way to make even the most touristy and stressful experiences on the coast into something that makes you want to pinch yourself to see if you have died and gone to heaven.
Where to Stay on The Amalfi Coast?
OK, so we have off the beaten path experiences, a wonderful and hospitable family, and unique ways to experience the bucket-list banner destinations. So where are we gonna stay?
Well, there is always Sorrento, with its big hotels and extra-large tour bus parking space. Nope. There are hotels along the Amalfi Coast that are, well.. just hotels with nothing special, and there are lots of shabby places that rest on the fact that they will fully book out simply for being on the Amalfi Coast. These are not our ways. If we are going to a hotel, it has to be a small, family-run boutique hotel. Otherwise we need something “special” about the accommodations that really reflects who we are and our culture.
And then came the villa.
Lisa and Claudia showed me a villa. Not “a” villa, but “the” villa. If you are in Amalfi, and you look up on the hill between Amalfi and Atrani, you ask yourself “Who does that place belong to?” It turns out that it was part of an ancient Franciscan convent that has been converted into a 12-room private villa. One that we can rent out. We saw it. Rooms, perfect. Views, Spectacular. Common Areas, all ours. Kitchen, Big and full-featured. Yard, grassy, overlooking the most beautiful view on the Amalfi Coast, full of lemon trees… oh, and a pool. Don’t even ask what the villa costs us per week. It is so breathtaking, it matters not! Do we even need to go anywhere during the week? Can we just stay here sequestered and never move? That would be fine for me! Check.
Cooking Classes on the Amalfi Coast
To tie it all together, we needed our cooking classes. It all just fell into place. We had Peppe as our chef-instructor. We had a perfect kitchen at the villa, we had a wood-fired oven, and an outdoor area to tie it all together that is a perfect slice of heaven.
Peppe came up with amazing local recipes for the classes, and it was all set into motion. Did I mention that Peppe also plays a mean Mandolin and Guitar? Yeah, that too!
But it isn’t just about the cooking. It is about the experience of cooking with family. I mean, anyone can do an academic cooking class, and the Amalfi Coast has no shortage of cooking vacations and classes that provide that. But again, herd them in, herd them out, and leave a Trip Advisor rating as you walk out the door, thank you. Next. That is just not us. Our cooking classes are more about creating a sense of family than the food, or learning to make that dish. I mean, those things are important, too. But they are secondary to our heart and soul. Family.
So the fact that Peppe is Claudia’s husband. Filomena and Antonio are her parents. Vincenzo is her brother. Antonio is Peppe’s brother. And everyone else are dear friends. It all comes together as a true family experience with a family that simply loves having guests. Oh, and we happen to be on the Amalfi Coast… and we happen to have one of the most breathtaking views on earth while we are cooking.
But the Family…
I’ve rambled, I know. So here’s the thing. I said earlier that it all starts with family. It also all ends with family, and everything in-between is… family! Take the family out of the equation, and we’ve got a really beautiful villa and a really beautiful place. Is it special? Sure. Memorable? Sure. It’s even an awesome vacation. But you were merely a spectator. However, when you add family to it, a sense of belonging, warmth of heart, and all that goes with that… well that simply transcends into something magical.
When the stories shared at the table are not about the places you saw, but someone sharing their own personal life stories that occurred at those places. The good, the bad and the ugly. They share their times of joy and their times of sorrow… and that all connects those places you went with experiences you are having, and you experience it with them, their friends, and their neighbors. It is about being seen as a guest, not a client. All of these things are interwoven, and truly connect you to the place you are, the life there, and the people that suddenly become your extended family. You become a part of it all, rather than a spectator. And as a consequence, all of that makes this a new home away from home. When you leave, part of your heart is left there with you.
And that is CDV.
So why did I choose The Amalfi Coast as my favorite CDV location? Not because of anything we see or do. Because of the absolutely amazing family that became a part of our family, and extends that to our guests, their guests, in the same way. That is something very difficult to find in an area so packed with tourists, and we are absolutely blessed to have found them.
As I said at the start of this post, my preference is always the less touristy places. I think that kinda goes for all of us at CDV, since it is our heart and soul. I also said we all chose Sicily (Favignana) as our favorite. But if I close my eyes and think of how The Amalfi Coast must have been 100 years ago, It would be a no-brainer choice for me. In other words, take the hordes of tourists away from the Amalfi Coast, take the “tourism cattle-call machine” away from the Amalfi Coast, and it becomes my perfect place on earth. And that is obviously why there are so many tourists there, right?
So the fact that Claudia and her entire family have managed to give us (and our guests) an incredibly strong sense of that… as much as possible… well, that was a challenge that was nearly impossible, and they exceeded anything I had ever hoped for or expected.
Quite frankly, when we started considering doing vacations in the area, I was very skeptical and didn’t think it would happen. Not only did it happen, but I will take any excuse I can to go down there. Why? Yeah, it is beautiful and has breathtaking scenery… sure. but it is all about the family. My friends.
If this has you dreaming, I urge you to have a look at this Amalfi Coast Cooking Vacation. But if you are looking for 5-Star, white Glove experiences, this is not for you.
So I would love to read your thoughts. If you have been on one of our Amalfi trips, did you get the feeling I got? If you haven’t been on one, I would love to hear your thoughts just the same!
Co-Founder of Culture Discovery Vacations. I am a native American from Los Angeles that has been living with one foot in Italy and the other in the US for more than 30 years. I usually write about oddities I see in Italian culture from an American perspective, and the humor I find in it. However, after decades of living in both countries, I often see the reverse as well. That is, where the Italians got it right, and we can certainy learn from them!