Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Capri

La Dolce Vita is alive and well amid the rocky slopes and azure waters of this enchanting southern Italian island. You just have to know your way in, says Lee Marshall.

July 15 2011
Lee Marshall

Anyone who knows Capri knows there are actually two Capris. One is the mass-tourist draw that risks daily death by suffocation as boatloads of visitors are ferried across the Bay of Naples to this bite-sized island, goggling at the Blue Grotto and browsing the tat at the souvenir stalls down in Marina Grande.

But the other Capri is a private, even retiring, place. It plays out between yachts and villas (Tod’s CEO Diego Della Valle, Wanda Ferragamo, Ferrari chief Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, and Fiona Winter Swarovski all own homes here), but can also be found in modest settings – such as the neat gardens and lemon groves that garland the slopes of Monte Solaro, or the backways of Anacapri, where old ladies sit chatting and kids bounce footballs off church walls.

The two Capris are not separate. As in Venice, there is some overlap in the same cafés, the same crowded lanes. The capresi and those visitors who have been accepted into the fold simply look through the throng at each other. It’s not so much snobbishness that makes the Capri crowd ignore incomers (though there’s a measure of that in the mix) – more an instinct for self-preservation.

In crossing that line, you learn two facts. First, it’s not true that Capri’s time has passed. It’s as much of a fixture on a certain (very exclusive) Italian social scene as it was in the Dolce Vita years. It’s just that the Capri movida is now more discreet and private. Second, it’s not true that nothing changes on the Siren Island.

A pebble was thrown into the placid pool of the Capri hotel world in 2007 when JK Place Capri opened its doors. This is easily the most stylish thing to have happened on the island’s ultra-regulated accommodation scene since the 1980s.

JK Place Capri is the work of two men: its owner – hotel, publishing and art gallery entrepreneur Ori Kafri – and its interior designer, Michele Bonan. Both are Florence-born and based, and it was there that they first worked together on the original JK Place. In Capri, Bonan once told me, he sought to design spaces for a “very stylish, very cultured couple who are passionate about sailing, but like to come home to Capri between trips”. The caprese hotel is lighter, more jaunty than its Florentine sibling – a tad feminine, with a dash of marine.

It lies on the seaward side of the road that climbs up to Capri town from Marina Grande, and the view from the colonnaded bar terrace skims across the Bay of Naples to the misty blue bulk of Vesuvius. The hotel has an infinity edge on its starboard side; you feel like you’re on the world’s most elegant cruise ship.

Up in Capri town – the island’s main social hub – the reborn Capri Tiberio Palace has gone through two changes of management in the past few years (it was briefly a JW Marriott). The hotel’s latest incarnation dates to 2010, when it also opened the refurbished 1,200sq m Spa Tiberio. Though Giampiero Panepinto’s contempo-retro Mediterranean design scheme pleases the eye, the hotel has yet to assert its personality as JK Place Capri has – or to match its levels of service.

Leaving aside the rather tired Quisisana, the default Capri town hotel is the Punta Tragara, whose spectacular position above the Faraglioni rockstacks is, after a total renovation last year, matched by sleek interior design. But the most persuasive luxury option is the Capri Palace Hotel & Spa, across in Anacapri, the island’s lofty second town, which has a more rural feel than its cousin below.

Owned by art collector and cultural impresario Tonino Cacace, the Capri Palace is a cream and old-gold retreat whose comfortable opulence is enlivened by splashes of contemporary art – many pieces created in situ as part of the hotel’s resident-artist programme. Oprah, Gwyneth and Julia have all stayed here, attracted by swanky suites such as the Paltrow-dedicated penthouse (with its own pool) and by the hotel’s reputation for discretion, plus its Capri Beauty Farm spa (famous for its “Leg School” treatments) and Michelin-starred L’Olivo restaurant, where chef Andrea Migliaccio works wonders with local produce.

The Capri Palace is also behind the destination restaurant Il Riccio, which occupies a series of picturesque terraces above the Blue Grotto. In its previous manifestiation as Add’O Riccio, this place was a Dolce Vita legend, to which Aristotle Onassis would bring guests from his yacht Christina. That simple fisherman chic has been retained but updated in Marco De Luca’s white-and-blue design scheme, which exudes retro seaside style. Il Riccio also has an aperitivo bar and beach club, with a large solarium terrace and steps down to the sea. Access to the solarium is free for anyone who books lunch or dinner, though priority is given to guests of the Capri Palace.

For generations, Aurora was just another family trattoria – though one that built up a faithful VIP clientele. (Uma Thurman once arrived without a booking; she had to queue just like anyone else.) A few years ago it reopened after a makeover that gave the place a warm yet minimalist feel, with more focus on presentation and one of the island’s best wine lists. Though a little more refined these days, the menu still centres on local specialities such as spaghetti with garlic, anchovies, olives and breadcrumbs, or the thin and crunchy pizza all’acqua, invented by the father of current front-of-house lynchpin Mia D’Alessio, who it helps to know when trying to secure a table at busy times.

The other generations-old scene is that of the bagni (bathing establishments): places such as La Fontelina, down by the Faraglioni, perhaps the island’s most exclusive sunbathing and seaside lunch spot despite (or perhaps because of) its pared-back Crusoe aesthetic and simple blue-and-white ombrelloni. Or La Canzone del Mare in Marina Piccola, founded by Gracie Fields in the 1950s and today one of Capri’s favourite party venues.

Many bagni habitués arrive by boat – such as Antonio Sersale (owner of Le Sirenuse hotel in Positano) and his wife Carla, who sometimes pop over for lunch at La Fontelina in their vintage Riva Aquarama Special runabout, with or without guests in tow.

The only yacht berths on the island are at the Porto Turistico di Capri in Marina Grande – which, according to a survey carried out last month by website Charterworld.com, is the most expensive leisure port in the world for superyachts, charging €2,585 a day for a 55m yacht in July and August (more than Porto Cervo, St Tropez or Monte Carlo). Short supply determines the price: of the 300 berths, only 10 can accommodate superyachts, and these book up months in advance.

There’s competitive sailing around the Siren Island as well. The Yacht Club Capri’s annual Rolex Capri Sailing Week, in late May, is a fixture on the Italian calendar.

The shopping, like the rest of the island, left the 1960s time warp of shell-encrusted sandals and Capri pants some time ago. Mixing pearls with semiprecious stones such as amethyst, coral and chalcedony, jeweller Grazia Vozza’s sunny, desirable creations are on the elegant side of ethnic. At Le Farella, four caprese sisters make lovely cashmere shawls, dresses and throws on a small machine loom. They also specialise in hand-dyed silk garments, in radiant Mediterranean colours. Meanwhile, white, khaki and cocoa are the dominant hues at 100% Capri, where linen is made into sheets, tablecloths, shirts and gloriously light and fresh summer frocks.

Business is still slack on the island, so don’t hesitate to bargain or ask for a discount, especially if you’re buying several items.

Wherever you stay, eat or swim, there’s one unmissable Capri ritual: an evening aperitivo in the Piazzetta. This lounge-sized square at the high point of Capri town feels like a film set, and those who loll outside bars such as the Tiberio, with its younger scene, or Al Piccolo Bar – the locals’ default choice, especially out of season – are definitely ready for their close-ups.

And so should you be: Capri’s inner circle has no membership card, but elegance, panache and effortless-looking sartorial flair – la bella figura, in short – are compulsory entrance requirements.