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POSITANO : A breathtaking trip...

<i> Times Travel Editor</i>

The sea is mirror-smooth and the sky is the shade of pale blue lace.

It is not quite sunrise and the scene beyond my window resembles an Impressionist’s painting, with blankets of bougainvillea tumbling from the balcony and little boats tugging at their moorings while an old fisherman strolls slowly along the beach far below this window that frames Positano.

Steinbeck was right. Positano bites deep. I am unabashedly in love with the place. There is the joy of awakening to the bells of the Church of Saint Maria Assunta and seeing little islands come slowly into focus.

I have been to Positano before and this love affair grows deeper with each visit. It is almost too perfect. The bougainvillea hangs in clumps over rocky paths that lead to the beach; the cliff tumbles hundreds of feet, homes and villas clinging tenaciously to the jagged face.

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Whenever I am asked to name my favorite places, Positano is high on that list. In Positano one has the impression that life could remain eternally springtime sweet. Impossible of course, but a pleasant thought.

I motored to Positano along the Amalfi Drive, which threads its way from Naples to Salerno, 40 miles of thrills along a narrow highway carved into treacherous cliffs that aren’t forgiving.

The twisting highway clings precariously to mountains that dive straight to the sea along the breathtaking Sorrentine Peninsula, and so it is not a drive for the fainthearted. In such cases it might be wise to come by bus.

In any event, the trip should be made slowly in order not to miss the beauty of the little villages and resorts that spread themselves along this lovely drive.

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Without argument, Positano is the gem of the bunch. Since my last visit Carlo Cinque created his celebrated Hotel San Pietro, which occupies a cliffside perch a couple of kilometers south of Positano. It is considered the architectural wonder of the Sorrentine Peninsula, what with rooms that are cleverly hidden among ledges in the cliff.

Indeed, so well-camouflaged is Hotel San Pietro that it is practically impossible to recognize it from the road. The single clue is the chapel overhead that the hotel was named for.

Bored into the cliff is a shaft down which guests travel by elevator for well over a minute to reach a sun deck and a small beach. For the traveler who cherishes privacy, it is the perfect escape. Sunbathers in bikinis repose on lounges while waiters deliver Campari and other refreshments.

Since Carlo Cinque’s death some months ago, a niece and nephew, Salvatore and Virginia Attanasio, operate the hotel. Virginia Attanasio insists that “There is absolutely nothing to do here. Just sleep, relax, sunbathe and swim.”

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Well, that’s not altogether true. A tennis court is available, and one may charter a boat to visit one of the islands. And those with the stamina may climb the narrow stairway (as Sally Field did each day) to the top of the cliff.

While San Pietro wasn’t developed with the jet set in mind, it gets its share of celebrities. Richard Burton favored it and Anthony Quinn brought his family for an entire month. San Pietro has attracted the likes of Liza Minnelli, Peter O’Toole, Brooke Shields, Gregory Peck, Claudette Colbert, Laurence Olivier, Britain’s Princess Margaret and other royal figures. There is even the Canadian general who landed at Salerno during the war and who returns now twice a year. Others check in for two and three months at a time.

In the beginning, Carlo Cinque built himself a private apartment. More rooms were added and soon San Pietro evolved into a hotel. Not a hotel, really, but a resort of impeccable styling that features 60 guest rooms (no two alike) on nearly a dozen levels. There are those that face the sea while others provide views of Positano and the little village of Praiano several kilometers south of here.

Virginia Attanasio tells how the late Carlos Cinque was “like a volcano.” He told skeptics, “Don’t worry, we will fill this hotel.”

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As it turned out, this was an understatement. The San Pietro was booked ahead solidly and constantly until this year when the Americans decided to stay home. Besides its lavish guest rooms with their hand-painted doors, the hotel wins high praise for the lounge with its marble floors, statues, antiques and floor-to-ceiling windows that frame both sea and shoreline. Grape arbors spread their shade across terraces and floral tiles shine throughout the hotel.

The San Pietro attracts dozens of honeymooners. Indeed, it has been labeled one of the world’s most romantic hotels. Still, a New Yorker complained about employees she said openly solicited tips during her visit, and so the lady said she wouldn’t be back.

The Carlo Cinque family operates Hotel Miramare in the heart of Positano as well. Once the family’s private villa, the Miramare is quiet and peaceful and immaculately clean, its vaulted ceilings arching above ceramic tile floors and wrought-iron lamps. Each guest room has its own private terrace with smashing views of the sea.

Although the Miramare was Positano’s first hotel, its grace and elegance remain uncompromised. There is but one negative feature: the 130 steps back and forth to the highway. It is another 211 steps to the beach. Still, this is standard for Positano. One must have a strong heart and sturdy legs to be a Positanese. They live like a bunch of cliff dwellers. Life is a series of ups and downs. Instead of streets, there are twisting stairs that lead to the beach and the whitewashed villas that cling to the hillside, their porticoes dripping with bougainvillea.

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All this climbing can be avoided at Paolo Sersale’s hotel, Le Sirenuse, which is beside the highway. Unless of course one wishes to descend to the beach, an unnecessary exercise since Le Sirenuse has both a swimming pool and sun deck.

With the possible exception of the San Pietro, this one-time private villa is Positano’s finest hotel. Antiques and priceless paintings appear in every corner, and from this perch above the sea the views are simply stunning.

Le Sirenuse is operated by an Italian nobleman, Paolo Sersale--he is also mayor of Positano--with his sister Ana and brother Aldo.

Sersale was re-elected on a campaign promise to rid the streets of cars. With all the prosperity, the village is crowded with automobiles. Sersale wants an ordinance forbidding them in the village.

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Once the villagers walked wherever they went. But good times changed all this. Nearly everyone owns a car. Paolo Sersale says this distracts from Positano’s charm and that the cars should be concealed in underground garages.

As it is, many Positanese have converted their garages into boutiques. Anna Mantellini deals in fashionable sweaters at Tre Coralli at Via Pasitea 17B. Her daughter-in-law next door sells designer dresses and lingerie. While a lot of junk is peddled in Positano, there is high fashion, too.

Even with prosperity, Positano’s population has changed little since vacationers began arriving after World War II. The reason for this is that there is so little room left to build. Besides, it’s difficult to hang a villa on a cliff. This steepness is its salvation. Otherwise, greedy developers could have destroyed the charm long ago. On the other hand, the village is a national shrine and as such is protected by law. So the Hilton and Sheraton gangs simply must look elsewhere.

Villas hang so precariously to the cliffs that one gets dizzy merely looking up. It’s hard to imagine how they got there, what with such impossible terrain.

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In Positano old men gather at little cafes that are cut into the ledges of cliffs. They seem quite content, sunning themselves and sipping wine and exchanging bits of gossip, brightening whenever a pretty girl undulates by. Meanwhile, housewives buy produce fresh off trucks on the only street that runs through town.

During World War II, Positano served as a rest camp for the British military. Many returned after the fighting, along with painters and writers. As a result, villas and old Moorish-style homes were converted to hotels and inns. Dozens cling to the hillside, all with a view of the sea.

A few kilometers south of Positano, on the approach to Praiano, the Pensione da Pellegrino is a steal for around $22.50 a day. This is the price for two guests, including breakfast. Or for about $40 a day a couple can live the good life with shelter and all meals. What’s more, Papa Rispoli or his son, Luigi, will meet your train in Sorrento and deliver you to Pensione da Pellegrino. And while this spotless inn isn’t on the beach, Luigi will gladly deliver guests back and forth each day.

Entering Positano, Domenico Milo welcomes guests at Hotel Villa delle Palme and Pensione Maria Luisa for about $18 a day per person. That’s the bite for room, breakfast and dinner. With a bit of coaxing, Mama Milo will even pack a lunch for guests making the pilgrimage to the beach. Others who stay put sip beer and watch the action from the hotel’s postage stamp-size bar.

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Positano remains a joy for Luigi Bozza, the manager of Hotel Le Sirenuse. Earlier he worked at London’s Hyde Park Hotel, the Meurice and Grand hotels in Paris and the Excelsior in Rome. But, as Steinbeck said, Positano bites deep, and so after 10 years Bozza got homesick. When one is born in such a small place it is difficult to adjust to big cities. Bozza’s parents were born here also, as were his grandparents. He has no idea how many other generations.

Bozza recalls rowing to school in a boat. He smiles. “In poverty we were close to each other--poor economically but rich in moral values.”

San Pietro: single $90/$110 with breakfast; $125/$210 double with breakfast. The San Pietro also offers the full American plan.

Hotel Miramare, 84017 Positano: $37.50/$50 single, $75/$90 double with 10% discounts during the low season.

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Le Sirenuse: $135/$180 double with meals.

Pensione da Pellegrino, Via Nazionale 190, 84010 Praiano: $22.50/$40 double.

Hotel Villa delle Palme and Pensione Maria Luisa, 075162 Positano: $17.50 single/$35 double with breakfast/dinner.

Grand Hotel Tritone, Praiano (another cliffhanger that involves three elevator rides to the beach and a stroll through three tunnels): $75 for two with breakfast or $50 single.

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