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POSITANO : A breathtaking trip along the Amalfi Drive, which threads its way from Naples to Salerno, brings motorists to this gem of a resort where hotels dripping with bougainvillea cling tenaciously to the jagged faces of cliffs that dive headlong to secluded beaches along this beautiful stretch of the Sorrentine Peninsula.

June 08, 1986|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

POSITANO, Italy — The sea is mirror-smooth and the sky is the shade of pale blue lace.

It is not quite sunrise and the scene beyond my window resembles an Impressionist's painting, with blankets of bougainvillea tumbling from the balcony and little boats tugging at their moorings while an old fisherman strolls slowly along the beach far below this window that frames Positano.

Steinbeck was right. Positano bites deep. I am unabashedly in love with the place. There is the joy of awakening to the bells of the Church of Saint Maria Assunta and seeing little islands come slowly into focus.

I have been to Positano before and this love affair grows deeper with each visit. It is almost too perfect. The bougainvillea hangs in clumps over rocky paths that lead to the beach; the cliff tumbles hundreds of feet, homes and villas clinging tenaciously to the jagged face.

Whenever I am asked to name my favorite places, Positano is high on that list. In Positano one has the impression that life could remain eternally springtime sweet. Impossible of course, but a pleasant thought.

I motored to Positano along the Amalfi Drive, which threads its way from Naples to Salerno, 40 miles of thrills along a narrow highway carved into treacherous cliffs that aren't forgiving.

The twisting highway clings precariously to mountains that dive straight to the sea along the breathtaking Sorrentine Peninsula, and so it is not a drive for the fainthearted. In such cases it might be wise to come by bus.

In any event, the trip should be made slowly in order not to miss the beauty of the little villages and resorts that spread themselves along this lovely drive.

Without argument, Positano is the gem of the bunch. Since my last visit Carlo Cinque created his celebrated Hotel San Pietro, which occupies a cliffside perch a couple of kilometers south of Positano. It is considered the architectural wonder of the Sorrentine Peninsula, what with rooms that are cleverly hidden among ledges in the cliff.

Indeed, so well-camouflaged is Hotel San Pietro that it is practically impossible to recognize it from the road. The single clue is the chapel overhead that the hotel was named for.

Bored into the cliff is a shaft down which guests travel by elevator for well over a minute to reach a sun deck and a small beach. For the traveler who cherishes privacy, it is the perfect escape. Sunbathers in bikinis repose on lounges while waiters deliver Campari and other refreshments.

Since Carlo Cinque's death some months ago, a niece and nephew, Salvatore and Virginia Attanasio, operate the hotel. Virginia Attanasio insists that "There is absolutely nothing to do here. Just sleep, relax, sunbathe and swim."

Well, that's not altogether true. A tennis court is available, and one may charter a boat to visit one of the islands. And those with the stamina may climb the narrow stairway (as Sally Field did each day) to the top of the cliff.

While San Pietro wasn't developed with the jet set in mind, it gets its share of celebrities. Richard Burton favored it and Anthony Quinn brought his family for an entire month. San Pietro has attracted the likes of Liza Minnelli, Peter O'Toole, Brooke Shields, Gregory Peck, Claudette Colbert, Laurence Olivier, Britain's Princess Margaret and other royal figures. There is even the Canadian general who landed at Salerno during the war and who returns now twice a year. Others check in for two and three months at a time.

In the beginning, Carlo Cinque built himself a private apartment. More rooms were added and soon San Pietro evolved into a hotel. Not a hotel, really, but a resort of impeccable styling that features 60 guest rooms (no two alike) on nearly a dozen levels. There are those that face the sea while others provide views of Positano and the little village of Praiano several kilometers south of here.

Virginia Attanasio tells how the late Carlos Cinque was "like a volcano." He told skeptics, "Don't worry, we will fill this hotel."

As it turned out, this was an understatement. The San Pietro was booked ahead solidly and constantly until this year when the Americans decided to stay home. Besides its lavish guest rooms with their hand-painted doors, the hotel wins high praise for the lounge with its marble floors, statues, antiques and floor-to-ceiling windows that frame both sea and shoreline. Grape arbors spread their shade across terraces and floral tiles shine throughout the hotel.

The San Pietro attracts dozens of honeymooners. Indeed, it has been labeled one of the world's most romantic hotels. Still, a New Yorker complained about employees she said openly solicited tips during her visit, and so the lady said she wouldn't be back.

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