In the 10th century, trade in the Mediterranean was dominated by the merchants of an unlikely maritime empire, the Duchy of Amalfi, located among the folds of colossal sea cliffs south of Naples, Italy. When the fabled Arab traveler Ibn Hawqai visited the port of Amalfi in 977, he lauded it as the most prosperous, illustrious and opulent city in the region, easily surpassing Naples in wealth and nobility. After a century of supremacy, the Amalfitani princes surrendered their prime position to the Venetians and other mercantile rivals, but today the opulence of its shoreline remains unrivaled, even as the centers of power have shifted from doges and seafarers to sightseers and holiday-makers.

The Amalfi Coast’s allure to visitors is even greater today than it was a thousand years ago. A series of sparkling villages, fastened to nearly vertical slopes and bathed in lemon groves, spills into the Tyrrhenian Sea. These picturesque towns with their upscale boutiques, seafood cafés and pedestrian lanes are linked by a ferry system below and a winding coastal road above, the Blue Highway, among the world’s most spectacular and harrowing.

For a full perspective, we decide to take in the Amalfi Coast first by land, then by sea. Heading south from Naples and skirting Mount Vesuvius by rail, we make Sorrento our base. Sorrento is minutes from the Amalfi Coast by bus or ferry and a bit out of the tourism frenzy. From our hotel balcony we have a splendid close-up view of the legendary volcano that flash-fired nearby Pompeii into an archaeological time capsule in the year 79. Pompeii is worth visiting, of course, but our hearts are set on taking the road to Amalfi.

Roads cling to the cliff face along the Amalfi Coast © Freesurf69 | Dreamstime.com

Roads cling to the cliff face along the Amalfi Coast © Freesurf69 | Dreamstime.com

And what a road it is, winding from Sorrento astride the sheer peaks that hem the Amalfi shoreline. Officially designated Strada Statale 163, this highway stitches together 13 municipalities, from Positano near Sorrento on the west end to Vietri sui Mare near Salerno on the east end, a distance of a mere 25 miles. But this 25 miles of cliffside road is not for the faint of heart. We’re perfectly happy undertaking it aboard the bus from Sorrento. The Amalfi Coast has been a UNESCO World Heritage site as a cultural landscape since 1997. To say the roadway is narrow and twisted and that its views straight down to the azure seas are unsurpassed is not an exaggeration. Known as “the road with 1,001 turns,” Amalfi’s Blue Highway is said to be the most precipitous highway in Europe. During summer high season, it is sometimes open only to buses, and even in late spring our bus has to nose its way haltingly through the worst of the serpentine turns and pinched town centers before we reach Amalfi. This port was home to princes, merchants and a prosperous population of 70,000 people at its height, but 10 centuries later the population has shrunk to 5,000. Since the 1920s, however, when the British upper class made this their vacation getaway, Amalfi has been a siren for Mediterranean wanderers, and tourists today seem to double and triple its population daily.

Façade of St. Andrew’s Cathedral © Picturemakersllc | Dreamstime.com

Façade of St. Andrew’s Cathedral © Picturemakersllc | Dreamstime.com

From the Amalfi harbor, where several mega-yachts are anchored, we begin our ascent of the small town squares, each linked by pretty pedestrian-only shopping paths. The main attraction is St. Andrew’s Cathedral, an 11th-century shrine to the town’s patron saint festooned with Byzantine frescos and a storehouse of ancient relics carried here in the 13th century during the Fourth Crusade.

Near the summit of Amalfi Town’s main lane is the Museum of Paper (Museo della Carta), the remains of a paper mill once owned by the Milano family. Amalfi was an early center of papermaking in Europe, and it inherited the methods of producing parchments from Arab sources. The vats and other machinery are well preserved, and the gift shop sells items that include Amalfi’s renowned bambagina, a thick, elegant roll of paper favored by artists and still used for invitations and visiting cards.

Descending the squares of Amalfi, we lunch alfresco on the beach, grab a pistachio gelato from a take-away and locate the bus to Ravello, a fabled town nested atop the ridge line. Founded in the fifth century, Ravello reached its economic zenith along with mighty Amalfi beginning in the 10th century, but its current attractions are a bit more recent, starting with Villa Rufolo, the gorgeous public garden that crowns the Amalfi Coast. Built in 1270, Rufolo’s landmark tower, nearly a hundred feet high, served as the watchtower for pirate ships that routinely raided Amalfi’s riches during the Middle Ages. Villa Rufolo reached its zenith in the 13th century when it fused Sicilian, Norman and Arabic styles and contained “more rooms than there are days in the year.” In 1880, Richard Wagner was inspired by Rufolo’s romantic gardens while composing the second act of Parsifal, his last opera, and since 1952 Rufolo has been the splendid location of the open-air Ravello Music Festival. From its Gothic gateway through its Moorish courtyards, halls and terra-cotta columns to the sea-view gardens and panoramic belvedere, Villa Rufolo contains the most magnificent views of any lookout along the Amalfi Coast.

Café and store, Ravello © Adeliepenguin | Dreamstime.com

Café and store, Ravello © Adeliepenguin | Dreamstime.com

Ravello’s other garden villa, Villa Cimbrone, was purchased and renovated by Ernest William Beckett, a British baron, in 1904. Beckett added the temples, gazebos, bronzes and stone statues that make the “Terrace of Infinity” another peerless overlook.

Twisting back down the sea cliffs into Amalfi, we pass olive groves galore, but it’s the flurry of lemons that saturates our senses. The Amalfi brand of lemon, sfusato amalfitano, is of international stature. Twice the size of ordinary lemons, the Amalfi has a thick, wrinkly skin and sweet, juicy flesh without many pips, ideal for the production of the coast’s most celebrated libation, limoncello, a lemon liqueur produced from the zest of Amalfi lemons.

Limoncello’s other main region of production is Sorrento, which has its own variety of lemon rinds as well as scores of lemon grove terraces. The bus back to Sorrento takes nearly two hours, and the Blue Highway is as eye-filling at dusk as at dawn. Home from Amalfi, we celebrate with some sips of limoncello on our balcony, the perfect end to a sweet day among sea-cliff towns.

Next we turn to the sea, boarding a morning ferry from Sorrento for a voyage paralleling the Blue Highway. Our destination is the iconic medieval fishing village of Positano, the town that many regard as the gem of the Amalfi Coast. John Steinbeck characterized the terraced port of Positano “a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there but becomes beckoningly real after you are gone.” Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones bar-hopped through Positano to write their hit “Midnight Ramble,” and the steep lanes and old villas served as settings for the film version of Under the Tuscan Sun. It’s a lively beauty. Just before our arrival, the travel editor of one of America’s largest newspapers declares Positano his “favorite place on Earth.”

Coming into port, we can see why everyone is mesmerized. From the busy main beach, Spiaggia Grande, lined with alfresco restaurants in the sands, Positano shoots up a deep declivity in the cliff face through an upward spiral of clothing boutiques, linen and ceramics shops, small inns, wine shops, delis, pastry shops, gelato take-outs and Saracen-style rooftops sand-filled for insulation. Byzantine churches are sewn into its fabric, too, and altogether Positano exudes a laid-back Mediterranean charm reminiscent of a remote Homeric isle.

We hail the afternoon ferry back to Sorrento, drinking in our last long draught of the Amalfi magic — the high cliffs and deep coves, the beehive of medieval shops and Byzantine church domes, the terraces of lemon groves. Sorrento is now ours to explore. We do some free tastings at wine shops along Via San Cesareo, the pedestrian-only shopping avenue near Piazza Tasso, Sorrento’s main square. The selection of regional goods, from drinks to ceramics, is more extensive here than in Amalfi, Positano and Ravello combined, but the population is larger (at 16,000), the cityscape less medieval, the auto traffic thicker, the pace quicker. Nevertheless, Sorrento is not without its historical charms. The very name of the city derives from the mythical sirens who tried to seduce Ulysses with their songs, and a temple to these vixens once stood on Sorrento’s shore.

We save our last afternoon for a stroll through the Giardini di Cataldo, a lemon garden the size of a city park in uptown Sorrento. Shaded by dark screening, the rows of lemon and orange trees provide a cool refuge from the sun-struck town. In the center of this family orchard there’s a stand where we taste a range of lemon liqueurs at their very freshest. Sorrento lemons are juicier than the Amalfi version, but both lemons are aromatic, sharply flavoring whatever lemonic treat we try, from chilled limoncello to fresh lemon juice, from lemon cream cake (delizia) to lemon gelato (sorbetto alla limone) — all true sirens of Sorrento and Amalfi, pinning us to shore.

Amalfi Coast Info to Go

Sorrento can be reached from Naples International Airport (NAP) by direct Curreri buses ($13), by ferries from Port Beverello (35 minutes, $15) and by the Circumvesuviana railway from Centrale Station (70 minutes, $6). Sorrento is connected to the Amalfi Coast by SITA public buses (50 minutes to Positano, 100 minutes to Amalfi; $10 for a 24-hour pass); by ferries leaving from Sorrento’s Marina Piccola (35 minutes to Positano, 75 minutes to Amalfi; $20–30); and by rental car, although the scenic Blue Highway that skims the coastline is often slow, crowded, narrow and dangerous, suitable for very experienced drivers only.

Where to Stay in the Amalfi Coast

Hilton Sorrento Palace With superb views of town, sea and Mount Vesuvius, this hillside resort features bright, well-appointed, spacious rooms; luxurious amenities; and full services for business and leisure travelers alike. Via S. Antonio 13, Sorrento $$$$

Monastero Santa Rosa Hotel & Spa This former monastery perched along the Blue Highway opened in 2012 with 20 oceanfront guestrooms, an elaborate thermal spa, an infinity pool, gardens and a Michelin-starred chef on hand. Via Roma 2, Conca dei Marini $$$$

Palazzo Avino With 43 luxurious guestrooms and suites, this 12th-century villa retains Old World ambience and splendid sea views. The service is exceptional, as are the outdoor pool and its 2-star Michelin restaurant, Rossellinis. Via San Giovanni del Toro 28, Ravello $$$$

Restaurants in the Amalfi Coast

Next2 Minimalist, modern and all white inside, with terrace seating and sea views uphill from Positano’s port, Next2 excels in seafood and desserts, with fresh catches deboned at your table. Via Pasitea 242, Positano $$$

Ristorante Il Buco Sorrento Sorrento’s sole Michelin-starred eatery offers innovative and expensive repasts in an old vaulted wine cellar that’s chic and modern. The seafood creations of chefs Peppe and Giuseppe Aversa are renowned. 2a Rampa Marina Piccola 5, Piazza S. Antonino, Sorrento $$$$

Ristorante Marina Grande Why trudge uphill when you can dine on the main beach of Amalfi? Sea bass, calamari, antipasto and pizza are expertly prepared, and the bar is stocked with chilled limoncello. Viale della Regione 4, Amalfi $$–$$$

Read about the ruins of Pompeii.