It started as a strange Instagram obsession: a hotel account, Le Sirenuse in Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, that parachuted pastel shots into my feed of an unnatural beauty.
Take this view of Le Sirenuse Positano’s hotel pool in the afternoon: it’s not so much the slim, turquoise rectangle, as all the rest. The terracotta, white trimmed tiers of the hotel rise on three sides, but don’t conceal the straight shot of blue sea beyond. It’s an image of absolute luxury, but somehow, has a simplicity which draws me in.
Or there’s the view from Franco’s bar, two clinking glasses crystal sharp against the buttermilk hues of Positano’s iconic church, the hazy bon-bon terraces of the seaside town climbing at 45 degrees. Or better still, the soft afternoon light on the glazed tiles of Aldo’s restaurant, fusing terrace floor and sky. Am I looking at the magic of Photoshop, or could anywhere really be that beautiful?
Sooner or later, I knew I would have to find out. At one point, I even started researching the place. Reading through accounts of the early days of Le Sirenuse didn’t disappoint. Later, I would write in my notes:
‘Le Sirenuse hugs the hillside above the church of Positano, on the Amalfi Coast, leaning out like a girl watching for her lover from her balcony above the blue sea. Today an icon of international hospitality, it opened in more modest circumstances in 1951, when four Neapolitan siblings, the Marchesi Aldo, Paolo, Anna and Franco Sersale decided to turn their Positano summer house into a bijoux, eight room hotel.
‘in 1953, John Steinbeck praised how each room had a private terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, with views of the Siren islands, from which the hotel takes its name. In 1990, a major refurbishment began which would eventually expand the hotel to 59, five star rooms and suites, as it stands today.’
Le Sirenuse Positano: a not-so-distant dream
Lockdown can do strange things to a girl. Travel was always a part of my life, until it wasn’t. The way things usually went, I would flit round Europe’s cities from September through to May; a work engagement in Paris or Munich, Barcelona or Brussels. But I always saved leisurely jaunts round Italy for the summer: its unrivalled resorts, the refreshing, blue waters of the Mediterranean and the rainbow plates of seasonal, local food.
Suddenly 2020 was a threat to all that. In reality, Italy’s residents were amongst the most fortunate in Europe with a full lockdown that lasted around eight weeks; we were the earliest to emerge on May 4 with hope that freedom would persist.
But I didn’t know this back in March and April, and so my dream of Le Sirenuse groaned as it grew. I would flip between its Facebook page and Instagram; browse the website and even the restaurant menus. The cocktail list thrilled: I’m always a sucker for drinks at sundown and I couldn’t imagine a better place to be sipping something cool.
In the meantime, Le Sirenuse was still shuttered; that long, blue pool, vacant. I imagined its signature glasses, dry in the cupboards and sheets drawn tight over the beds. Gilded by sunsets, its empty windows watched the last storms of winter and silhouetted rare guests; a caretaker changing light bulbs; troops armed with the instruments of deep cleaning, and decorators applying fresh licks of paint.
In Rome, the waxing sun warmed the streets; virus numbers dwindled; it became clear that inter-regional travel would happen again, perhaps from June. I waited and watched. Would this strange summer give me the chance to fulfil my dream?
The Capri connection
There were a few near misses on the road to the Amalfi Coast. A half-plan, hatched with my sister, stymied by lockdown. Another try, with a friend; but our diaries never matched. Then, one day, when I was lounging in Puglia of all places, I received a call from a friend, inviting me on a press trip to Capri to visit Hotel Villa Blu and try its new restaurant, Capriccio.
We would stay two nights on the island, Monday-Wednesday, during the last week in July. Was I free? I could make myself free. Then I began to join the dots, sketching an extended route to Capri that could largely be travelled by sea: Rome to Salerno, by train; but then Salerno-Amalfi, Amalfi-Positano, Positano-Capri: all foam-flecked boat rides, hoisted on the shoulders of the white unicorns of sea spray.
The road to Positano
Staying a night in Amalfi, I got lost on the road to Ravello: straying onto the pathway of the Gods in the dark green ravine of the Valle delle Ferriere. A one hour walk, became two, three hours: beetroot red and salty with sweat, I threw myself into the sea at Castiglione beach at sundown and swore I would relax in Positano.
On Sunday morning, I took the early boat to Positano. As we pulled into the port, I spied Le Sirenuse, its facade a deeper, russet shade than I had realised from looking at photographs. It looked small but fierce from the sea; an extrovert and welcoming host, which had absorbed the gleam of a thousand titillating sunsets to turn Campari red.
I had forgotten that Positano was all steps, and that my own hotel here (not Le Sirenuse, for budgetary reasons!) was high up the rocks: Sunday morning, I hoisted my case up 1,000 stone-hewn blocks and swore I would rest in Capri. I needed a nap in the afternoon. But when the breeze came in after 5, I was happy I had chosen a bed & breakfast in Positano’s green hills. The fire in my legs and my face was worth the soft, light air and the falling mist dressing the tiers of the town.
The night I was due to dine at Le Sirenuse. I had booked a table in the days before at Aldo’s, the hotel’s cocktail and seafood bar, rather than the principal restaurant. I had an idea that the food would be less formal and the views, better. I had asked for a seafront table. Would it be granted?
I dressed at 7 with fumbling fingers, cheeks rosy, the fluttering anticipation of a first date. Or perhaps a promising second date: because I was already excited, ready for a second glimpse, a desire for greater intimacy.
I slipped my heels in a canvas bag and wore flat sandals for the steep walk down into Positano and the gentle walk up to Le Sirenuse. I hid behind a car parked on the hotel’s forecourt to change my shoes; stooping, I glanced in its wing-mirror at my pink face. I was glistening again from the walk. No matter. The heat was leaving the day. What was left was the flush of desire.
Solo travel isn’t for everyone, and wasn’t how I had envisaged my Positano trip, back in the depths of winter. But perhaps for this strange and intense pilgrimage, it was for the best. Anyway, I wasn’t alone: I was with Le Sirenuse, and the expansive, cerulean sea that rose to meet me I strolled into the lobby.
Dinner at Aldo’s, Le Sirenuse
The terrace of Aldo’s Restaurant, enveloped in a buttermilk and turquoise light, was full of couples. My waiter led me to my table for one and I caught my breath: seafront, as I’d asked, and also a corner view, with just the terrace rails ahead sustaining the shimmering sea and the spaghetti-gold buildings below. As the cameriere left to fetch menus, I stood and peered over the left side of the roof. It was that shot! The pool, and the sunset, and the russet red building rising in tiers.
But now it was alive with the waltz of evening service in the poolside restaurant. The waiters spun lightly-laden trolleys between tables like ballroom dancers, and the hotel’s house musicians, Franco & Andrea, sang a love song that drifted up the rooms above.
The menu of Aldo’s, Le Sirenuse, is dominated, as you would expect, by fish and cocktails. I ordered a chilled glass of sparkling Fiano (€16) to start, which came accompanied with good bar snacks. I also requested the largest sparkling water they serve, which is a generous 1.5 litres (€7).
My antipasti of choice was a delicate plate of raw amberjack (€30), with fresh orange segments and pinenuts. The fish’s character came through well, not overwhelmed by the fruit; rather, enhanced by the nutty dressing.
For my main course, I stuck with simplicity, to really taste the freshness of the fish and the quality of the ingredients. Seared seabass on grilled lettuce (€36) was a well-balanced dish in which the fish was the star, and the lettuce added texture with a delicate, savoury note.
I decided to order a cocktail for dessert, as I couldn’t leave Aldo’s without trying one of its classic mixed drinks.
Essenza di Negroni (€25), essence of negroni, is one of Le Sirenuse’s signature cocktails. It combines three different kinds of negroni – so three different gins, vermouths and bitters – to achieve an exceptional blend. It’s slightly sweeter and less aggressive than many negronis I’ve tried, but with plenty of body.
By this point, the sun was long gone; swallowed by the black sea; but a crescent moon was rising above the town, now studded with lights. I toasted the moon and me, the dark and lovely sea beyond the terrace of Aldo’s restaurant, and contemplated my lucky stars.
Back in my hotel room, up in the silent hills, I lay down to sleep with the French doors open and the shutters thrown wide. It was dark enough, and the breeze over the plunging valley was delectable. Bats flitted and soared above the dark balcony, and I thought about the beauty of fleeting moments, firefly moments of light in a long darkness, and thanked the powers that had made all this possible.
Le Sirenuse Hotel |Via C. Colombo 30 | Positano | Italy | Tel 089 875066