What’s the Italian expression for love nest, darling?’ I murmur into Signora Smith’s ear as we stand arm in arm on the beach, watching the sun slowly descend into the Bay of Naples. ‘Because this is one, veramente.’
Behind us is the object of my newfound infatuation, the Capo la Gala, five miles outside Sorrento. The five-star hotel’s 22 rooms and one private suite are beguilingly tucked down a cliff – in and around terraces and rocky outcrops, among lemon trees and soaring pines. We’ve only just arrived but, having seen that the sunset promises to be splendid, we put off check-in and scamper down through the grounds to take in the finale on the strand.
Mrs Smith turns towards me with a look that begs a lingering kiss; I’m seconds from touchdown when an elderly fisherman, who’s gathering his nets just down the beach, calls out: ‘Do you know the legend of Caterina and Antonio?’ Ahem. ‘Where’s the language barrier when you need it?’ I huff, but Mrs Smith pulls back reprovingly and says: ‘Darling, don’t be rude.’ With that, she engages the man, whose name is Gennaro. ‘No, but please do tell us.’ Pointing to a pair of stone stacks, he says, ‘You see those two seagulls that never stop flying from one stack to another? Those are the postmen.’
I stifle a dig at the Italian mail system because Mrs Smith is already rapt. Gennaro continues in his Neapolitan lilt. ‘Caterina was a young noblewoman who fell in love with a fisherman, but her parents forbade this love and locked her in the castle tower. The two lovers wrote messages that were delivered by seagulls, and in the end, decided to choose the most beautiful place they knew of and live there forever in the form of stone.’ He waits a beat and then concludes, ‘They hoped to spread their feelings to travellers…’ A light flush has come over Mrs Smith, who thanks Gennaro profusely, takes my hand, and sets off back towards the hotel. By now it is well into dusk, so I can’t be sure about this, but when I last glimpse Gennaro, I am pretty sure he is giving me the thumbs-up sign.
Capo la Gala has been here since 1962. In 2006, Enzo and Marite Acampora took over the property and renovated it in a style that you might venture to call ‘preppie Italian yachtsman’. The interiors are crisp and clean, a coastal dream of blues and whites, interspersed with daring design touches such as the rectangular navy and burnt orange floor tiles in the Marite Suite, laid down in a rick-rack pattern.
Giant, straight-from-a-cartoon cacti split up the terraces of each bedroom, while palms and pines give you the feeling that you can see out, but the world can’t see in. Capo la Gala feels like an exclusive seafarers’ club; here, it’s easy to pretend that you own a yacht and are on shore leave.
The hotel lies just outside the tiny village of Vico Equense, which is laced with narrow streets that smell of clean laundry, orange blossom, lemon and the geraniums that overflow the balconies. Behind the hotel rise the Lattari mountains, named for the gallons of goat’s milk produced by the herders living up there. If you could drive over the Lattari from the hotel, as the crow flies, you would come down in Positano, on the Amalfi Coast.
We are impressed that such a small hotel has a well-equipped wellness centre. The next day, I ask for an appointment, and even though it is the staff’s day off, Signor Acampora opens the Aquarium spa and persuades his masseuse to come in specially. Afterwards, Mrs Smith and I loll about in the sauna and Turkish bath, and then go down to the seawater swimming pool, which is right on the bay. The feeling of being spoiled continues with our visit that evening to the hotel restaurant, Maxi. It has one Michelin star and the young chef has cooked up a menu of rich Mediterranean flavours, with a tangy twist: seven different olive oils, all from the region, are accompanied by just-baked bread.
It’s too bad that we are here in April because from June onwards, the hotel organises daily trips on its own private boats to the nearby islands of Capri and Ischia and down the Amalfi Coast – but it’s a good reason to come back. The following morning is spent in Sorrento, where we sample some of the 100 or more flavours of ice-cream at Gelateria David. Then we drive to Forcella, outside Naples, to lunch on the best pizza in the world (in our humble opinion). It’s served at La Antica Pizzeria da Michele, and it’s a wondrously large creation: thin, crispy, fragrant, and stringy with mozzarella. Although we pass it on the return, we give ancient Pompeii a miss, drawn by the gravitational pull of the Capo la Gala.
After a good interval by the pool, we head back to our terrace, where we kick back, glasses of Campari and soda in hand. As the sea swallows the sun, gradually turning the two stone stacks red, I turn to Mrs Smith and say, ‘Do you know the legend of Caterina and Antonio?’ And with that, she takes up where she had left off the first evening. Thumbs up to you, Gennaro.