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Getting the timing right for Capri, Italy

Europe's favorite island getaway is swarmed in July and August. But May and September are great months to enjoy its winding cobblestone streets and rocky beaches.

February 19, 2012|By Rosemary McClure, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • A ship sails toward Capri, Italy, far below this viewpoint at the Villa San Michele, one of Capri's most popular tourist destinations.
A ship sails toward Capri, Italy, far below this viewpoint at the Villa San… (Rosemary McClure )

reporting from Capri, Italy — "Don't go there," a well-traveled friend said when I mentioned my plans to visit Capri, a sunny island off southern Italy. Why? "You're not going to want to come home," he said.

I laughed. My friend, a know-it-all author, loves to give advice. I didn't need it; I already knew I would fall in love with Capri. It's been one of Europe's favorite island getaway for more than 2,000 years, enthralling a cast of characters ranging from Roman emperors to 21st century luminaries and A-listers.

It was a honeymoon destination for Greek shipowner Aristotle Onassis and his bride, Jacqueline Kennedy; a playground and movie set for screen goddesses Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren; a magnet for artists and writers such as Graham Greene and W. Somerset Maugham. Today's see-and-be-seen crowd includes Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts and supermodel Naomi Campbell.

Every year, nearly a quarter-million vacationers join the glitterati, squeezing onto the 2-by-4-mile island, mostly in July and August. So many people pack Capri's winding cobblestone streets and rocky beaches each summer that some travel guides, such as Fodor's and Rick Steves, dismiss it.

But there is a way to avoid the madness: See it in May or September.

My trip in May qualified as a celebration of sorts: A friend was making merry at the end of lengthy divorce proceedings. She invited four friends to accompany her, all of whom left husbands or boyfriends and kids at home for a two-week getaway. My time (and budget) were limited, so I dropped in and out of the trip, joining them for the Capri segment.

My trip to get here was so convoluted I sometimes wondered whether I would make it. My itinerary took me from Los Angeles to Rome by air, to Naples by train, to the Amalfi Coast village of Positano by hired car and finally to Capri by hydrofoil. As I sped across the water I decided that, on my next trip, I would skip all the sightseeing, fly directly to Naples and jump on the ferry for the 40-minute ride.

The island appeared on the horizon as a stark mass of limestone rising out of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Villas perched precariously on hillsides and fishing boats bobbed on the waves. I couldn't see the island's iconic towering rocks, called faraglioni, from the direction we approached, although later that day I would see them from the land.

The ferry docked at the scruffy port city of Marina Grande, which most tourists exit quickly to ascend to the hilltop village of Capri Town, where the über-chic can be found lolling by pools at private villas or expensive hotels, flashing their platinum cards at chichi shops or sipping limoncello, southern Italy's signature beverage, at outdoor cafes.

As I left the ferry I faced a moment of indecision: Should I spend $40 to ride one of Capri's famous open-top cabs and arrive in style? Or should I take the funicular railway, which costs about $2? No contest. Within minutes I was chugging up the hillside aboard the funicular in a car similar to those at Angels Flight in downtown Los Angeles.

Day-trippers swarm Capri and I'd expected to be surrounded by crowds when I stepped off the funicular at the Piazzetta, Capri Town's small, beautiful plaza.

I was, indeed, surrounded, but not by a crowd of tourists.

I suddenly had become part of a wedding party. Someone handed me rice as a bride and groom emerged from the Baroque church Santo Stefano and skipped hand-in-hand down a flight of steps toward me.

What a welcome. I had expected a teeming mass of tourists but felt instead as though I'd parachuted into a gracious Italian village.

At its heart, that's what Capri is during much of the year. The season runs from May 1 through Sept. 30; many hotels and restaurants are closed the rest of the year. Off-season, the island belongs to the Caprisians.

The off-season may not appeal to some because of rain and wind. But in May, June and September, beautiful weather prevails, and travelers who arrive during those months miss the hordes.

Avoiding crowds doesn't mean you'll avoid high prices, though. As Caprisian Giovanni Aprea told me, "Everything's expensive in Capri. Even pizza is expensive here." And indeed, I paid $25 for two pieces of unremarkable cheese pizza.

The hotels rank as some of the best in the world, but they're priced as such. Rates of $500 to $1,000 night are commonplace at such resorts as the Hotel Punta Tragara, a luxury cliff-top hotel overlooking the famed faraglioni spires; the Grand Hotel Quisisana, an iconic 19th century resort steeped in old-world glamour; and the Hotel Caesar Augustus, above it all in Anacapri, the uphill rival of Capri Town.

I tried the Tragara and the Quisisana (my friends and I divided the bills) and would be happy to stay a month at either if I win the lottery. Actually, I'd be happy to move in permanently.

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