Rome's elite still enjoy a good party, as Jeremy Seal discovers on a gulet cruise along the Neapolitan riviera.
We put ashore, history heads firmly on, to explore the Parco Archeologico at Baia. Our guide, quoting Seneca and Vitruvius, sets about performing the impressive trick of breathing life into the 2000-year-old ruins, palatial villas whose crumbled footings and scraps of mosaic extended across the fig-tangled terraces above the domes of the great bath houses.
In satisfyingly fetid wafts, the past rises from this Roman-era playground and spa on the Bay of Naples, a place of legendary licentiousness where the likes of Pompey and Caligula had staged scandalous entertainments and Nero had his mother murdered.
This is top-drawer history tourism, with no shortage of contemporary parallels: crowding Baia's bay are lavish mega-yachts, all laundered fortunes, thong-style swimwear and bling-laden security details, suggesting that little has changed among Italy's ruling class, even if today's lot appear to prefer their palaces offshore.
On this last point, if on it alone, our little group of history lovers are at one with the oligarchs.
We are on a cruise taking in world-class sites such as Pompeii, along with archaeological attractions on islands including Capri and Ischia and visits to idyllic ports, such as Amalfi and Positano.
But we aren't on a traditional cruise ship; our home during our cultural tour is a timber schooner. And its shapely lines stand out among the gin palaces, trumping every one of them. A high galleon stern, sweeping decks and long bowsprit mark it out as a gulet, a "traditional" Turkish design that has become popular with small-group cruising holidays by virtue of its requiring neither sailing aptitude nor much in the way of sea legs.
The adaptability of the gulet - sometime sailing boat and spacious mobile villa, and a fully staffed one at that - has lately spurred operators to try the same format in places such as Greece and Croatia.
So it had surprised me, a confirmed devotee of these romantic but utterly practical holiday boats, to learn that the first gulet-based holidays were only now appearing in the Bay of Naples, a region with the same essential elements as Greece and Croatia - exceptional archaeological sites, a world-renowned regional food culture, and largely sheltered waters - that have underpinned the original Turkish template.
At a marina south of Naples we are shown to our cabins: compact but elegant, with varnished bulkheads and en suite bathrooms.
With a capacity of just 10 guests, and five staff at our service, guide, captain and cook included, relaxation is assured.
Our convivial British guide, as much an enthusiast and Italophile as an authority on the region's ancient history, is quick to banish any lingering fears that we might have signed up to some high-minded study course.
He is among the guests who plunge with celebratory whoops from the bowsprit into the Tyrrhenian Sea as we anchor off Procida the following morning. Others board the gulet's twin kayaks to poke about along the island's grotto-riddled coast.
Meanwhile, the island's little port of Corricella has caught our eye, as it has caught the eyes of others, to judge by the prominence of its streets, squares and bars in the films Il Postino and The Talented Mr Ripley.
We put ashore to wander the fishermen's quays and the steep scalatinelli, the stone stairways linking the stacked terraces of pastel-painted houses, until we have worked up an appetite.
Which is a good thing, given the lunch that awaits us on the gulet's shaded back deck.
Regional antipasti including alici (marinated anchovies with capers and red peppercorns) and fritella di alghe (seaweed fritters) are followed by plates of pasta with Sorrento clams, accompanied by Ischia's renowned biancolella wine. Our chef has begun as she means to go on.
Frequently putting ashore to procure fresh ingredients, she conjures a succession of exceptional meals from the cramped confines of her galley: enormous gamberoni (prawns) from Capri; Ischian courgettes, eggplant and peppers, which she grills with pancetta; tiny wild strawberries, which top a heavenly flan; and the ricotta and prosciutto, which goes into the filling of a polpettone (meat loaf).
There are adventurous encounters with the likes of ricci di mare (raw sea urchins) and neonato (newborn tuna), while the afternoons bring tea trays heaped with fresh almond biscuits.
Hard to credit, then, that the cuisine, a monument to the fertile volcanic soils and the diverse seafood of Campania felix, or Happy Country, as the Romans knew the region, is merely a side dish.
There remains the tour's main course - a rich, often scandalous and at times catastrophic history to put away. We follow the cruise ships into the harbour at Naples to visit the city's archaeological museum, among the most impressive of all Roman collections, and to marvel at the Romans' splendid frescoes, especially from Pompeii, their monumental statuary and their filthy imaginations (the eye-poppingly erotic contents of the museum's Gabinetto Segreto, or Secret Room, entrance is forbidden to unaccompanied minors). Better by far to be an emperor, to judge by the palatial Villa Jovis, which the reclusive Tiberius had raised for himself on the heights of bijou Capri.
A stairway leads to Tiberius's Leap, where a tumble down a 300-metre sea cliff once awaited those who had fallen from imperial favour.
There are also visits to the excavations beneath the church at Lacco Ameno on Ischia, where kilns, amphorae and early graves have been left in situ, their layered remnants a compelling evocation of passing civilisations, and to the magnificent frescoes at the Roman villa at Oplonti. At Pompeii, we walk the astonishingly complete streets and forum, which Mount Vesuvius, its cone looming over the ancient town, had buried in ash in AD79, and we contemplate the death-throe casts of citizens asphyxiated in that apocalyptic eruption.
At Amalfi, where the fishing boats are cardinal red with island-blue trim, washing hangs above the shrines of neighbourhood saints high in the port's whitewashed vaulted archways.
In Caffe Pansa, Amalfi's antique pasticceria, we drool over sfogliatelle - filo-pastry cornets filled with ricotta, orange peel and cinnamon.
For all this glut of pleasure, however, we are always glad to return to the gulet.
Even a passing oligarch concedes one afternoon, launching himself into an extravagantly respectful bow from the lavish sun deck of his mega-yacht.
Here is true travelling pedigree.
Lufthansa has a fare to Naples from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1890 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr with a partner airline), then to Frankfurt (12hr 35min) and to Naples (1hr 55min); see lufthansa.com. This fare allows you to travel via other Asian cities and back from another European city.
Hotel Duomo is the pick of Naples' cheap hotels; it's clean and central, with en suite bathrooms. On Via Duomo 228, doubles from €50 ($62), excluding breakfast; see hotelduomonapoli.it.
Casa Rubinacci has five elegant apartments with kitchens, a garden terrace and solarium. On Viale Maria Cristina di Savoia 2, from €135; see casarubinacci.it.
Archaeological tours specialist Peter Sommer Travels has a tour that cruises the Amalfi Coast from Naples for £3595 ($5598) a person, twin share. The cost includes seven nights' full board aboard a gulet, transfers, entrance fees and guiding; see petersommer.com.
The atmosphere of Naples is best enjoyed on foot. Start by walking the Spaccanapoli, which is the long, straight road that divides the Centro Storico.
The best-value option for visitors exploring ancient sites is a €20 ticket available at Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplonti, Stabia and Boscoreale, which allows access to all five sites during a three-day period (pompeiisites.org).
The restored Teatro di San Carlo in Naples is Italy's biggest and oldest opera house. Its season is from November to July. Tours cost €15; see www.teatrosancarlo.it.
- Telegraph, London