Sorrento, Italy travel guide: Scruffy, sunny and sublime

I'm delighted that I have just squeezed myself out of a long-haul economy flight at Naples Airport. In the old days it would have taken me months to get here on roads beset with brigands, mudslides and filthy beggars. Instead of dealing with impertinent coach drivers, I'm into my rental car and down the autostrada in no time, skirting the bulk of Mount Vesuvius that was such a fascination for 19th-century grand tourists obsessed with men in togas.

The grand tour was the aristocratic precursor to modern tourism, and both an alarming and elegant era of travel. It was devised as an educational experience for the indolent, with Italy its culminating destination. Grand tourists set off with a tutor and servants for a dozen months, and were expected to polish their Latin, get familiar with great cultural sights, and take notes on architecture and gardening that would later be consulted for renovation rescues at the ancestral home.

The intelligence and flamboyance of grand tourists have always fascinated me, and I seldom need much excuse to follow in their wake. True, the drive from Naples is initially an uninspiring series of flyovers and tunnels, but then I round a rocky corner on a clifftop and Sorrento sprawls below, a balcony town squeezed between pine-scented mountains and the Mediterranean. This is a legendary place. Ulysses was seduced by a siren here. Roman poets lauded its beauty and emperors erected seaside villas. Romantic era writers, such as Byron and Shelley, were followed by a century of other famous figures.

The British still come to Sorrento for their holidays, though they're now rather less aristocratic and far more numerous. Some of the town's piazzas are more Ipswich than Italy thanks to cafes filled with English chatter. Still, Sorrento is a handsome town with a fine Renaissance and baroque core: sunny, scruffy and charming. It has far more elbow room and local life than Positano or Amalfi further down the coast, and is better situated for day trips to Naples, Pompeii and Capri.

I like Sorrento. It's a town for strolls and morning coffee, for a lingering fish lunch and a late-afternoon wine in a sun-soaked square. It doesn't have big sights, but not much has changed – bar zipping Vespas – since the days of the grand tour. The gnarly old cathedral is still there, and the old baroque alleys. Down through a fortified gate, the fishing village original Sorrento is still there, low-key and lined with seafood taverns serving sardines and fried fish straight off the boats.

To indulge in the full grand tour experience I settle into Sorrento's most suitable accommodation. Grand Hotel Cocumella opened in 1822 and was the first proper hotel on the entire Amalfi Coast. British dukes and poets and Goethe himself signed the guestbook. "At every moment the senses, lapped in delight, whisper – this is Paradise," scribbled Mary Shelley.

The hotel occupies a former 16th-century Jesuit monastery on a cliff edge, with sun-squinting views across the Bay of Naples towards Mount Vesuvius. The antique floor tiles and frescoed ceilings would be familiar to the grand tourist; also the baroque chapel, laden with marble and madonnas. The corridors are scattered with the sorts of lion's heads and urns the grand tourists hauled home by the cartload. Byron, a notorious swimmer, would have liked the private beach, reached in a lift through the rock. The manicured gardens would make a poet swoon with their shaded paths and kiss-inducing nooks where wisteria blooms.

In the old days, Italy didn't have a reputation for good food. Keats lamented his "odd and bad" dinners and once threw his macaroni out a hotel window. That evening I have no complaints at the hotel's Scintilla restaurant, however, which sits under orange trees by the swimming pool. The waiter's white jacket is as starched as the tablecloth. I eat stuffed squid and candied lemon risotto and a boozy Neapolitan baba dolloped with cream. The grand tourists had a great time, but I can't help thinking that being a modern traveller is rather more pleasant.

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FLY

Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai (14.5 hours) with onward connections to Rome (six hours). Phone 1300 303 777. See emirates.com/au

DRIVE

Leading Australian self-drive specialist DriveAway Holidays offers car hire in Italy from about $30 a day for a mid-sized vehicle. Phone 1300 723 972. See driveaway.com.au

STAY

Grand Hotel Cocumella is on Sorrento's outskirts overlooking the sea, and has three restaurants. Passengers can take trips on the restored 1880s ketch, Vera. Rooms from $417 a night. Phone 1800 219 010. See slh.com/hotels/grand-hotel-cocumella/

Brian Johnston was a guest of Small Luxury Hotels of the World and DriveAway Holidays, but paid for his own flights.

See also: 20 things that will shock first-time visitors to Italy

See also: Europe's 10 most spectacular coasts to drive

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