It all began, as things often do when you’re a child, with a story. Last spring, a book called “Pompeii…Buried Alive!” became the subject of intense fascination for my daughter, Stella, and her little brother, Leo. One minute the Amazon delivery guy was at the door; the next, all the two of them could talk about was the demise of this southern Italian town — the cataclysmic 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the 10-mile (16 km) mushroom cloud, the population of 16,000 mummified under 16 feet of ash.
Taken on its own, this apocalyptic history would not have convinced my husband, David, and me to book a trip to Italy — far from it, in fact. But then it dawned on us. We could take the kids to get their morbid kicks in Pompeii, then spend the rest of our vacation enjoying the more life-affirming attractions of Sorrento and Amalfi, both just an hour or so away by car.
Planning a luxury vacation to Amalfi Coast with kids
And so it was, one golden afternoon last June, that we found ourselves on the remarkably clean and efficient TrenItalia service from Rome to Naples. About half an hour before we pulled into Napoli Centrale, we saw Vesuvius, or “Azuvius,” as Leo still calls it — a sleeping giant rising some 4,200 feet behind the city’s suburbs. The kids pressed their faces against the window as we sped past rows of orange houses with green shutters, umbrella pines, and grapevines. But the volcano, as if in another dimension, didn’t seem to move at all.
From Naples, we took a taxi an hour or so south along the ravishing Sorrentine coast, winding our way past stalls selling lemon granita and doorways heavy with hot-pink bougainvillaea. Our base for the next four nights was the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria (doubles from USD 795), a property we had chosen with great care. Friends had made faces when we said we were considering a family trip to this romantic, upscale part of the world. (“I mean, I went there on my honeymoon,” one said with an apologetic shrug.) Many hotels in Amalfi, Ravello, and Positano don’t accept children at all; those that do tend to be tight on space and high on style, with plenty of vertiginous cliff drops to ensure parental stress is kept at a maximum.
But the minute we drove through the wrought-iron gates of the Excelsior Vittoria, which open off Sorrento’s main square like those of some fairy-tale castle, I could tell we were in safe hands. This 1834 property, which towers over the cliffs and the marina (an art deco–era elevator ferries guests from the lobby right down to the water), is surrounded by a large garden shaded by lemon trees and has the assured, centre-of-gravity feel of a hotel that knows it’s doing something right.
“We have a lot of space, so there is soccer and a playground and a large swimming pool,” explained fifth-generation owner and CEO Guido Fiorentino over a Spritz made with limoncello. A member of Leading Hotels of the World, the Excelsior Vittoria is filled with elegant touches, from the monogrammed linen hand towels in the marble bathrooms to the parlour palms in the piano bar. Yet when the kids spread Nutella on the tablecloth with a butter knife at breakfast or decided to make lemonade from the fruit they found in the garden, it somehow never felt like a big deal.
The following day was the main event: our visit to Pompeii. Though it was still early summer, by the time we met our guide, Patrizia Coco, at the entrance to the UNESCO World Heritage site around mid-morning, the sun was beating down on the almost entirely shade-free, 40-acre site. “Today is very hot!” Coco proclaimed, fanning herself with a clipboard.
A veteran guide for Italian-run tour operator Discover Your Italy, Coco swiftly directed us along the streets of the ancient city to the first of a series of drinking fountains, each of which has a different animal carved into its stone pedestal. Back in the first century AD, she explained, these served as meeting places; today, they were welcome spots for the kids to splash around and cool down in. Coco, herself a mother of two, gave Stella a scavenger hunt-style quiz, and looked on patiently as Leo examined every piece of volcanic rock we passed (there were many), teaching him the difference between basalt and tufa.
We came to the place where plaster casts of Pompeiians who perished under the ashes were on display. There were adult forms and, almost hidden from view in the depths of the shaded enclosure, the shape of a child. Each was frozen in a position of abject terror. I remembered a passage from the book that began it all: “The people in the streets covered their faces with their hands and clothes. But the ashes piled up higher and higher. The people could not move. The people could not breathe.”
It was then that the tragedy of what took place here really hit us; that the destruction of Pompeii ceased to be just a story, and became something that happened to real people, with real lives. “Buried alive,” said Stella, as we turned to leave.
Pompeii behind us, it was time to get into serious relaxation mode. The following morning we took a ferry to Amalfi, an hour or so down the coast. If Sorrento had felt chic and visually iconic, Amalfi took all of that to the next level. Even with two kids in tow, zipping past peach-toned villas stacked high on the cliffs above the turquoise Tyrrhenian Sea felt like one of the most stylish moments of our lives.
We were headed to another essential address for anyone visiting this region with children: the Hotel Santa Caterina (doubles from USD 1,256). Also a part of Leading Hotels of the World, this place has been family-run for four generations and has an aesthetic I couldn’t get enough of Amalfi tile everywhere, Jacuzzis in the bathrooms, a gracious staff clad in white dinner jackets and bow ties. It also has one of those swimming pools cut right into the cliffs, where David and I could luxuriate on sun beds and watch the ocean twinkle away at our toes while Stella and Leo splashed safely behind us.
The next day was my husband’s birthday: time to put the Santa Caterina concierge to the test. First, they booked David a game of tennis on a court in nearby Positano, images of which set new records for engagement on his Instagram page. At lunchtime, we all met on the beach in Positano and hopped into a little boat with a red, fish-shaped sign — the only way to reach Da Adolfo (entrées USD 11 – USD 25), a restaurant on a shingle beach a couple of miles outside of town. There, we ate a spaghetti alle vongole for the ages, and a sea bream cooked in parsley, garlic, and olive oil — simple yet sublime. There was ice cream, and coffee, followed by a dip in the luminous sea, where we bobbed up and down in a row as the glistening bodies on the beach sent wafts of cigarette smoke and suntan lotion out over the water.
That evening, as David and I were about to leave the kids with a babysitter and head out for a birthday dinner at Positano’s fabulous — and most definitely child-free — Le Sirenuse (doubles from USD 2,968), Barbara La Rosa from Discover Your Italy called to check-in. “Amalfi, to me, is a kind of paradise,” she said with a laugh as we exchanged goodbyes. And she was right.
When you’re travelling with kids, there’s always a little bit of pain mixed in with the pleasure, a bit of hell to accompany the heaven. Had Stella and Leo behaved impeccably? Do they ever? Were there moments in glamorous, slightly cramped public spaces where I thought someone was going to get hurt, or some priceless piece of hotel décor was about to get broken? Absolutely. Would I have changed it for the world? Of course not.
This story first appeared on www.travelandleisure.com
(Main and Feature Image Credit: Courtesy of Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria)