After experiencing the happy haunting ground of Capri's Blue Grotto, Shaney Hudson rises above the crowds with a hike on the high roads.
FOR hundreds of years, fishermen used to shy away from this place, believing it was haunted. Statues of pagan gods have been found on the seabed. It was the dedicated nymphaeum of Emperor Tiberius a little less than 2000 years ago. And the kicker is that if I want to see it, with no boatmen around to row me in, I have to swim for it.
The swell is picking up as I take long strokes towards the cave. I'm shivering. It's summer but I hadn't expected the Mediterranean to be this cold. Unbroken waves clap against the limestone cliffs. I reach for a chain bolted to the cliffside and use it to pull myself up and into the darkness.
Inside, Capri's famous Blue Grotto is as high and wide as the sanctuary of a church and illuminated with soft light. However, swimming a good 25 metres in, I don't really understand the fuss. It's a cave and, yes, it's cool to swim in but it's not very ... blue. Then I turn around and understand. It's as though there is something alive in here. The water glows a milky, fluorescent indigo, as though someone is holding a giant sapphire up to the sun. The light refracts and shimmers on the high cavern walls. The optical illusion is so overwhelming, it's easy to understand why this place has been feared and revered for thousands of years.
Capri, an hour plus ferry ride off the coast of Naples, is one of Italy's most exclusive destinations - drenched in sun, draped with luxury villas and surrounded by a flotilla of mega-yachts. For 2000 years, it has been arcadia for emperors and conquerors, a retreat for poets, artists and writers and the target of pirates. Nowadays, it has caught the eye of the travelling public, who seem to have an insatiable appetite for its charms. There is no way to put this delicately: in summer, Capri is besieged by day-trippers who arrive from as far away as Rome (a four-hour journey in each direction) to take pictures of its famous pinnacles and grotto, swim in its turquoise waters and wolf down an alfresco seafood lunch before racing to catch the afternoon ferry.
It's a worthwhile excursion and, if pushed, you can see Capri in a day. But if you stay on the island, there are opportunities to appreciate Capri in ways day-trippers never will. Visitors pay €10 ($14) to glimpse the Blue Grotto for one or two minutes from a rowboat. But after 4pm, when the day trippers depart and Capri's boatmen head home, the grotto becomes a favourite local swimming spot.
We've chosen to stay in Anacapri, a quieter village than the island's main settlement, Capri town. In the late afternoon, Anacapri empties and the atmosphere changes. Guidebooks are replaced with grocery lists as locals filter into town. Neighbours catch up on gossip, children play soccer in the piazzas and old people grumble, thumping their canes emphatically and en masse.
It's hard not to fall in love with the romance of the place. Capri's signature is its hand-painted tiles; every piazza, public bench and garden is decorated with tiles depicting lemon groves, the seaside and the island's other well-known feature, its flowers. Flowers grow everywhere - in window boxes, in cracks in the pavement and up the walls.
Because of the island's botanic environment, walks criss-cross the landscape. On our second day, we visit the local bakery, buy rockmelon from the greengrocer and get marinated eggplant and tomato, prosciutto, knobs of mozzarella and bottles of water from the deli. With provisions in our backpacks, we walk a long stretch down the Via Migliera, passing lemon groves and vegetable gardens. We crush ripe figs underfoot and are occasionally shaded by canopies of grapevines. Each villa we pass is graced with its own hand-painted tile. My favourite is a globe with an arrow pointing to Capri and the declaration, "Our place in the world" written in Italian. I'm beginning to feel that way about the island.
We reach a picnic spot, a small amphitheatre atop a sheer cliff. The swell smashes the rocks below. Later, we're told the Blue Grotto was closed due to high seas and that we were lucky we could see it.
After feasting, we head to the Garden of Philosophy, a parcel of overgrown land gifted to the community. The garden is graced with benches, intersecting trails and hand-painted tiles containing quotes from Voltaire, Machiavelli and Aristotle in Italian, English and Swedish. It's tourist season yet there's not another soul to be seen.
That night, we dine under white umbrellas at an island restaurant. It's humid and the waiters wade into the kitchen with our orders and out again with steaming seafood dishes. We sit for hours, a light sea breeze occasionally drifting through.
Skin flushed pink from wine and bellies full of tiramisu, it's past midnight when we make our way back to the hotel. The streets are empty and the moonlight so bright, it creates daytime shadows as bougainvillea glows against the whitewashed walls. The smell of flowers hovers in the night air as we rush through alleys like secret lovers. As with those down the centuries who came before us, Capri can capture you.
The writer travelled with the assistance of Topdeck Travel and the Italian Government Tourist Office.
Emirates flies from Sydney to Rome via Dubai, priced from $1864; 1300 303 777, emirates.com. There are hourly rail connections from Rome to Naples, priced from €10 ($14); trenitalia.com.
Ferries and hydrofoils travel frequently to Capri from Naples, Sorrento, Positano and Amalfi in summer. From Naples, the ferry takes 80 minutes, the hydrofoil 40 minutes. From Sorrento, the ferry takes 40 minutes, hydrofoil 20 minutes.
Private transfers are also available.
The Hotel Bussola, Trav. La Vigna 14, Anacapri, has double rooms from €60 ($85). +39 081 838 2010, www.bussolahermes.com.
Most hotels open at Easter for the summer season and wind down in September.
See + do
Anacapri's International Folklore Festival takes place in August; its harvest festival (Settembrata Anacaprese) is in September.