The Amalfi coast of Italy has always evoked, at least for me, the epitome of old school, la dolce vita-ish, slightly camp Italian glamorama. It seems like the last reserve of capri pants, Majolica, and the loopy rococo-meets-fifties design aesthetic that washes up along the Mediterranean. It’s the venerable Le Sirenuse hotel, where bachelors- that dying word -in linen shirts the palest shade of peach sorbet, share fruity cocktails with crazy grand dames. It’s the steps of Positano and lots of pasta and everyone talking motor-mouthed, Felliniesque Italian you can’t follow but it doesn’t matter because it sounds so poetic. And, until fairly recently, it was the secular pilgrimage to Ravello, where Gore Vidal ran the world’s smartest gay salon out of his sea-hugging house.
That, in any case, was my idea of the place; and, thankfully, that Amalfi still exists. But there is a new Amalfi sprouting up alongside the old one and its best emblem is the Monastero Santa Rosa (photo at top), one of the only seaside resorts to open in the area in decades. Housed in a converted seventeenth-century monastery, the place exudes as much drama as any Amalfi bolthole but with a new age sheen. In fact, pretty much everything about the place felt fresh to me when I landed there last fall, rabid from the usual fucked-up flights and the bumpy ride along the buckling Amalfi roads. The monastery itself was a stately stone silhouette, crowning a high cliff overlooking the sea. The terraced gardens, running in tiers down to an infinity pool, smelled of rosemary and lemon. The hotel’s interior was one very cool haven that felt, by Amalfi standards, minimalist. Having resisted the Italian urge to gild everything the pale hallways, all vaulted ceilings, led to my guest room—a monastic cell dressed up, rustically and simply, with a curving iron bedstead and cherry picked antiques. The understatement was smart. Amalfi’s rocky coast and the very blue sea Gulf of Salerno sitting just outside my window didn’t need much framing.
I could have retreated nun-like, in my fancy cell, and I would have been happy. But the Monastero whips up a lot of options and I ran through them like a marathon. What does a refreshed Amalfi vacation look like? Pretty much the best of the old, just without the clutter. My spa treatments played up the locavore theme; there were iris drizzle body wraps, and massage oils infused with lemon, rosemary, and sweet orange. The in-house restaurant plucked a lot of its accents from the surrounding gardens, and from the sea stretched out just below the al fresco terrace; a king prawn ravioli roused by candied lemon was the kind of dish that stays imprinted on your palate. And then there were guided hikes into the mountains above the town of Amalfi itself, which was a little revelation. Positano seemed too self-conscious to me, all those steps leading past overpriced boutiques stocked with the kind of straw market bags every Walmart now sells. But Amalfi was a little Italian opera set of a town, all gelato stands and mom and pop stores selling marbelized paper. There was also one elegant church fronted by steep stairs, where lots of wedding parties posed for pictures.
Those couples were a clue to the Amalfi’s enduring appeal. A majority of the Monastero’s guests, it turns out, are honeymooning couples. In summer the place gets packed. But the hotel is open from April 14 to November 5 and the prices drop in the spring and fall, when the crowds thin and the heat dies down. That may be the best time to pitch your own gay wedding, and join the last of the fruity bachelors, crazy grand dames, and the spirit of Gore Vidal, feeling all spry and bitchy, as he looks out over his domain.