One of the most gorgeous places on Earth, this corner of the Campania region tantalizes, almost beyond bearing, the visitor who can stay but a day or two. Poets and millionaires have long journeyed here to see and sense its legendary sights: perfect, precariously perched Positano; Amalfi, a shimmering medieval city; romantic mountain-high Ravello; and ancient Paestum, with its three legendary Greek temples. Today, the
coast's scenic sorcery makes this a top destination, drawing visitors from all over the world, who agree with UNESCO's 1997 decision to make this a World Heritage Center. This entire area is also a honeymoon Shangri-la—it is arguably the most divinely sensual stretch of water, land, and habitation on Earth.
Legends abound, but the Greeks were early colonizers at Paestum to the south, and Romans fled their own sacked empire in the 4th century to settle the steep coastal ridge now called the Lattari Mountains because of the milk, or latte, produced there. Despite frequent incursions by covetous Lombards, Saracens, and other hopefuls, the medieval Maritime Republic of Amalfi maintained its domination of the seas and coast until the Normans began their conquest of southern Italy in the 11th century. By 1300, Naples, the capital of the Angevin Kingdom, had become the dominant ruler of the region and remained so until Italy unified in the mid-19th century.
By the late 19th century tourism had blossomed, giving rise to the creation of the two-lane Amalfi Drive, what has come to be called the "Divina Costiera." A thousand or so gorgeous vistas appear along these almost 40 km (25 miles), stretching from just outside Sorrento to Vietri, coursing over deep ravines and bays of turquoise-to-sapphire water, spreading past tunnels and timeless villages.
The justly famed jewels along this coastal necklace are Positano, Amalfi, and Ravello, but today's traveler will find the satellite baguettes—including Conca dei Marini, Furore, Atrani, Scala, and Cetara—just as sparkling. The top towns along the Amalfi Drive may fill up in high season with tour buses, but in the countryside not much seems to have changed since the Middle Ages: mountains are still terraced and farmed for citrus, olives, wine, and dairy; and the sea is dotted with the gentle reds, whites, and blues of fishermen's boats. Vertiginously high villages, dominated by the spires of chiese (churches), are crammed with houses on, into, above, and below hillsides to the bay; crossed by mule paths; and navigated by flights of steps called scalinatelle often leading to outlooks and belvederes that take your breath away—in more ways than one. Songs have been composed about these serpentine stone steps, and they may come to haunt your dreams as well; some costieri (natives of the coast) count them one by one to get to sleep.
Considering the natural splendor of this region, it's no surprise that it flaunts some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Crystal lagoons lapped by emerald green water; cliffs hallowed out with fairy grottoes; white, sunbaked villages dripping with flowers. The larger masterpieces, like Positano, are easily accessible, but the magic often lies in finding treasures hidden among the cliffs, such as Vallone di Furore, a tiny beach below an equally tiny village. Sun beds and umbrellas cost plenty—up to €10. Operators in Positano and Amalfi can ferry you to smaller beaches—prices depend on whether it’s a drop-off (and pick up) or a full-day excursion with a light lunch.
Semitough realities lurk behind the scenic splendor of the Divina Costiera, most notably the extremes of driving (potentially dangerous, although accidents are reassuringly rare), the endless steps, and virtually nonexistent parking. Furthermore, it often rains in spring, parts of the hills burn dry in summer, museums are few, and until you adjust, people seem to talk at maximum decibels. So what? For a precious little time, you are in a land of unmarred beauty.