Guests at Ravello’s Belmond Hotel Caruso could be forgiven for remaining entirely horizontal in a state of quasi-comatosed bliss. Surrounded by sprawling mountain ranges and with the lapis-blue bay of Salerno in the distance, the hotel offers spectacular vistas from what’s generally regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful infinity pools; this is where bourgenvilla bristles in the breeze and swallows swoop down from the Monti Lattari to whistle past swimmers. As you take the recliner down another notch and order that second Aperol Spritz, the urge to stay in situ and drink in the atmosphere is a strong one.
The Caruso is one of the Amalfi Coast’s most enchanting hotels, attracting guests through the ages from Jackie Kennedy to Humphrey Bogart. Located in the romantic, medieval hilltop town of Ravello, which since the 18th century has acted as haven and source of inspiration for Romantic literati such as Byron and Shelley, Virginia Woolf and Gore Vidal (who lived out his days in the town’s sprawling cliff-side eyrie La Rondinaia) and is famed for its classical music festivals, the hotel began life in the 11th century. Once the palazzo of a local noble family, it retains a sense of Italianate grandeur and romanticism with mosaic tiled floors, vaulted frescoed ceilings and manicured tiered gardens that seem to taper down to the sea. The comfort on offer conspires to make life beyond the hotel a far-away thought, but how should a guest who longs to have a quintessentially Amalfi experience explore local culture?
It’s this query that sees us, after some discreet arrangements by the hotel’s impeccable concierge, zipping and rattling through the cobbles of Amalfi early on a summer’s morning in the back of a modest open-air van, past gelaterias and baskets brimming with lemons. The monastic calm of the Caruso poolside is a distant memory as we veer in between stall holders and tourists heading inland towards the mountains, away from the central hub of Amalfi – the area around the Duomo di Sant’Andrea Apolstolo. We are being led by the charismatic Salvatore Aceto, who comes to a stop at a steep incline that leads the way to his verdant lemon farm for what’s termed a “Lemon Experience”.
In a bid to educate visitors and protect the local culture around the Amalfi coast region, the Lemon Experience was set up by the hotel to support the communities that grow the famous Amalfi lemons. Plump, bulbous affairs, they are deliciously sweet – as Aceto shows us when he whips out his knife and slices a melon-sized one – to the extent that the skin itself can be eaten (we gingerly try it; he’s right, it’s buttery and wholly devoid of acrid tang). Aceto’s family has farmed here for generations, continuing to maintain centuries-old, traditional agricultural methods in spite of the damaging effect of a changing climate and broader mass production. We’re invited to explore his farm: tier upon tier of lush lemon tree groves which scale two mountainsides and spiral up to the blue sky. Take note: leave the Alvaro sandals by the pool and take some walking shoes, because at times the climb is almost horizontal.
That said, it’s entirely worth it when we’re led out to a fragrant open-air restaurant and viewing platform offering breathtaking vistas of the mountainside, from which Aceto runs cooking classes using the Amalfi lemons (and offers around glottal-stopping slabs of delicious lemon cake). It’s a fascinating insight into an industry that’s helped put the Amalfi coast on the map, and one that needs support to persevere. Happily the chance to do so is on hand at the factory and archive where – alongside ancient machinery and collections of tender family photos dating back centuries – there’s a shop in which to stock up on the Amalfi lemon’s most tempting by-product: limoncello.
The hotel can also arrange other experiences, be it a private boat tour of the peaks, crevices and hidden coves along the coast, a helicopter trip, or walking excursions to explore the unique, Jurassic-era flora and fauna of the mountainsides. But somehow delving into the local food culture seems the most authentic in a region where the cuisine is one of the most potent draws (as proved from dinner on the sumptuous terrace of the Hotel Caruso to the tiny Ravello trattoria Cumpa Cosimo). And when the whir of Amalfi town and the dust of the lemon grove get too much? There’s always the glass-still surface of that infinity pool to retreat to.