Words by Marina Malthouse
Arriving at the glorious Hotel Santa Caterina on the Amalfi Coast requires a slight adjustment. Leaving the U.K. in mid-October means shifting from autumn in the West Country to southern Italy's take on the season. From muddy walks to hikes along sun-dried footpaths. From cool, damp air to the heart-warming touch of a gentle sun. From sweaters to swimwear. Arriving in this hotel you feel as if you have walked into an opulent dreamscape from yesteryear. It is almost impossible to fully take in all that you see, the sense of discovery lasting until the moment you reluctantly depart.
Standing majestically on a sheer rock-face overlooking the Tyrrenhian Sea, Hotel Santa Caterina is strategically positioned one kilometre from the town of Amalfi. The cream-coloured building is typical of its time and whilst there, I was immediately drawn to the plethora of beautiful objects that filled the space. In accordance with Plato, there was proportion, harmony and unity among their parts.
Built by Giuseppe Gambardella in 1850, the hotel was opened by his son, Crescenzo, in 1904. It is still owned and run by the Gambardella family who continue to offer homely hospitality, much to the delight of visitors and staff. The number of returning guests is high and those who work there (many hailing from the surrounding villages) have done so for years. Chance encounters, whether with groundsmen, receptionists, or waiters, were reminders of what it is to be human – each would greet with a ‘buon giorno’ or ‘buona sera’ as if about to break into song, delighting in the opportunity to connect.
One of the greatest rewards comes from looking out from the hotel across the water, as it is here that you appreciate exactly where you are. The rocky coastline stretches away on either side and the sea tempts many metres below, giving you the impression that you're looking out from the bridge of a ship. The hotel facilities and gardens occupy this vertical landscape between the main building and the sea, and connecting the two is a remarkable feat of engineering - a lift that has been cut into the rock-face. The view as you travel in this glass-fronted structure is sure to rob you of speech.
Descending to sea-level on foot is preferable if you want to explore the grounds. From the hotel entrance, passing the drinks terrace and dining area, a staircase leads down to the hotel spa, which offers massages and treatments, a sauna, steam room and ‘Scottish’ shower complete with essential oil vapours, hot showers and a cold rinse (the invigorating process doing wonders for your health). As lemons grow prolifically in Amalfi (this is the home of Limoncello), lemon oils are an integral part of their signature massage treatment.
Several sets of steps take you past bedrooms and garden suites to one of the hotel's two restaurants and The Beach Club, with its bar and gym. The terraces lining each level brim with citrus trees, flowers, herbs and vegetables and, like all the hotel grounds, are immaculate - I'm rather envious of those who know how to make things flourish in the changeable Mediterranean environment.
Whilst staying at the Hotel Santa Caterina, visitors can venture to the various postcard-perfect towns of the Amalfi Coast; coveted destinations like Positano, Sorrento, Ravello, Amalfi and Atranti, or the island of Capri. Despite the intense blue skies, the kind temperatures of mid-October inspired me to choose the exhilarating one-hour walk from the hotel down to Atranti and up innumerable steps to reach the stunning town of Ravello. Views of the coast, of rooftops, churches and men hand-picking olives were my companions as I walked. All invoked a deep respect for those who work and build upon this remarkable land. Once in Ravello, having wandered its shop-lined streets, I strongly recommend visiting the breathtaking British-designed gardens of Villas Cimbrone and Rufolo - trust me on this.
I cannot imagine that anyone who stays at the Hotel Santa Caterina would be disappointed. While the hotel prices are high, it will certainly give visitors a true sense of the maxim, ‘you get what you pay for’.