“Which way to the beach?” I’ve stopped into a Positano tabaccheria to ask for directions, and the heavily made-up woman behind the counter raises an eyebrow. She pauses her furious gesticulating and puts down her cell phone, looking at me flatly as though I’m part of an infinite loop of tourists who’ve come in asking the same question, and frankly I probably am. “Down,” she says, before picking up her phone and resuming her impassioned Italian. Rude, I think to myself, until I step outside into the dazzling sunshine and realize that’s the only way to describe it.
Positano is a town of cobblestone streets and staircases that wend down to the water. I pick a set of whitewashed steps flanked by rose gardens. Down by the sea, the afternoon sun is hot, and the rows and rows of lounge chairs are filled with hundreds of sunbathers from all over the world. Just off the boardwalk is a small rental stand, and behind it, a bronzed local named Alberto, the man I’ve come to see.
In nearly every town along the coast, there’s someone like him renting kayaks to travelers who’ve come to Amalfi looking for something beyond its dolce vita. Alberto walks me down to a neat line of kayaks in the sand. “You’ve kayaked before, yes?” he asks, and I begin to hedge. “A little,” I say, remembering a float I took once around the lake at a family cottage. Alberto looks concerned. “I’m much more familiar with canoes. I’m Canadian!” And he looks slightly less concerned. “Well, canoes are harder than kayaks, so you’ll be fine,” he says.
“Is there anywhere I can’t go?” I ask. “Just don’t crash into any boats,” he says before pushing me off with a cheerful “Ciao!” On a coastline that hosts millions of visitors every year, making it near-impossible to navigate by road or by foot, his words sound like freedom.
The world’s wealthy have summered on the Amalfi coast since about 27 A.D., when Roman Emperor Tiberius moved to Capri, where he reportedly threw raucous parties and chucked people he didn’t like into the sea. Centuries later, Gore Vidal lived here, and so did Richard Wagner and D.H. Lawrence. John Steinbeck wrote about it; Sophia Loren, Humphrey Bogart, and Federico Fellini made films here. And as the artists came and went, the travelers did, too. Kayaks started studding Europe’s waterways in the early 19th century, but over the past ten years, sea kayaking has surged in popularity in Italy. With it comes a new way to explore the coast, far from the yachts and cruise ships and occasional limoncello cork that fill the bays. An unlikely network of kayakers has sprung up in Amalfi’s villages, intent on more deeply appreciating the nature that’s been here for millennia, on escaping the crowds, on seeing the coast with new eyes.
If you’re an experienced and fast paddler, you can kayak the entire 43 miles of the southern coast in a day. I am neither. Fresh from a breakup, I was looking for peace in the most beautiful (but crowded) place on earth, and the water was where I hoped to find it.
Sunbathers have already assembled on the Spiaggia Grande in Positano the next morning when I drag my kayak down the sand. The Tyrrhenian Sea is bluer than cerulean blue. Spires of limestone rise from its depths like chipped teeth, and prickly pear cacti wave from the shore. Every corner and crevice is electric with life; in so many passing centuries, even the moss has grown moss. The echoes of Parrocchia San Luca’s bells ring out over the water.
I plan to paddle for as long as the sea and my arms will let me. The day before, I’d been smooshed up against a bus by a tourist mob overcome with the hysteria of making it onto the ride. I’m eager for escape. My little boat offers another type of peace I wasn’t expecting: In a kayak I can sneak inside water-carved caves that feel like sensory deprivation tanks made just for me. Inside, I can admire the walls glowing a phosphorescent purple and pink and listen to the water trickling down them and my own heavy breathing. I reach a meditative zen and then burst back out into the light, the breeze against my face.
I hear about a cave farther down the coast where the water glows green, and rather than wait in a snake line of traffic to get there, I glide serenely in its direction. In the distance, I see a cluster of boats by a dock and head toward them, arriving at the Grotta dello Smeraldo. When I paddle up, three men appear from nowhere, rushing down the stone steps to pull my kayak out of the water. “Where did you come from?” one asks, looking curiously at my salt-streaked face. A British family approaches me to ask where they can rent kayaks.
I pay five euros to enter the grotta in a rowboat helmed by Marco. He tells us that the grotta, dripping with stalactites, was discovered by a fisherman on his own expedition in 1932. Sunlight from a hole in the rock below the water makes it splash emerald green, and I laugh, which Marco takes as an opportunity to — in front of 15 other tourists — assert his desire to give me a private rowboat ride, to share a bottle of wine, to ride me around the coast on his scooter. On another trip, I might be tempted. But today, careening in and out of traffic isn’t my idea of a good time. Instead, I enlist him to help me get my boat back in the water. Together, we lift my Vulcano down, and I push off, leaving Marco and his ride in my wake.
I’d spent the winter feeling weighed down, when all I’d wanted to do was float. Now that I’d finally found a slice of quiet, my innards were a knot I couldn’t untie. The thing with solitude is that you have to sit with yourself once you get there, and often that doesn’t feel very peaceful at all. For hours I wind my way along the rocky shore, and as the sun brightens up, so do I, finding a rhythm in the dips of my paddle, the peaks of the waves. There is a pleasure in self-propelled motion, in relying solely on yourself, in occupying a boat spare and simple, made only for one.
Past Amalfi’s crowded pier, past the greenery that cascades off Ravello’s towering cliffs high in the mountains, past Maiori’s long stretch of beach, is a town called Vietri sul Mare, an Amalfitan bohemia known best for its pottery artists and ceramic studios. A graffitied paddleboat marks the start of the shoreline, and blue, white, and yellow umbrellas line the beach with Wes Anderson–like symmetry. Stacks of surfboards are piled near a California-themed bar. I’ve come to Vietri to meet Gianni De Luca, the accidental ringleader of one of the largest kayaking clubs in the country. Not the most important one, he points out vehemently as we walk down to the beach, but certainly very big, he says, and he flings open the door to a seaside warehouse to reveal more than 150 kayaks.
De Luca grew up hating the water, eating cheap calzones at Il Golfo and shaking his head over the kids who swam. He’s older now, 59, with a family of his own, still eating at Il Golfo. He didn’t find kayaking, he tells me. It found him. Years before, a friend of his owed him some money but couldn’t pay. To make good on the debt, the friend gave him his kayak, and De Luca decided to give it a try. “I fell in love,” he says, with the parts of the coast that others couldn’t touch: a sheltered cove lined with lemon trees, a pebbled beach just big enough for two, a rock rising from the water that’s home to a bird’s nest and its babies, year after year.
Two decades later, he runs the Marcina Kayak Club. It has grown so popular that for the past three years, a parade of kayaks, not sailboats, have accompanied La Madonna across the water in the town’s annual beachside procession. His favorite expeditions are the ones that have him out on the water at sunrise. In the distance, he can see the Due Fratelli rocks, named for two brothers who were supposedly separated at birth and then fought each other on opposite sides of a battlefield centuries ago. Then he passes Dead Horse Beach, where, legend has it, old horses fell into an eternal sleep after being pushed off the cliff just behind. On his way home, he dips in and out of the coastline’s caves like a seal, calling out to test the echo with the sheer joy of being alive and out on the water.
Emboldened by De Luca’s passion, I set out again from Positano the next day. I’d hoped to make it past Amalfi to the coast’s wilder shores, but the sea has other plans. Everything started out so well, I think dismally as two men in pressed suits scream Italian at me across the water, clearly concerned about my abilities and the approaching storm. I cling to a rope cordoning off a posh beach club where, this afternoon, no one is swimming. The sea is opalescent and tossing, and below the waves there are stinging jellyfish that I’d rather not meet. I watch my sun-stained kayak fill with sloshing water and start to get nervous. Nearby, there’s a tunnel in the rocks that locals call Cadaver’s Cave because, I’m told, a spring of water inside it runs so cold it’ll kill you. I know no one has actually died there. Still, I don’t intend to be the first.
I hang on as the wind whips harder. Does crashing a sea kayak count as a shipwreck? I wonder, flashing an embarrassed thumbs-up to the men still gesturing at me from land, hoping they’ll let me meet my fate alone. My hands are rubbed raw before I realize that even in the tumult, there’s calm to be found on the water — forces greater than yourself have better things to do than worry about your search for serenity. I decide to let go and allow the waves to carry me north, pawing at the rocks on the jagged shoreline when my jostling boat bobs too close. It turns out there’s a reward for that kind of submission, and I’m awash with relief as I pass a beach I recognize. I paddle up to Da Adolfo, a seafood beachside restaurant so popular with locals and tourists that even though it’s water-access only, setting off without a reservation is an expedition failed. Men in linen pants and women in caftans crowd the dock, waiting for their water taxis back to Positano, and they look at me like I’m a sea creature risen from the deep in my bikini, life jacket, and Medusa curls. I’ve lost one sandal to the swells, so I run up to the restaurant barefoot to ask for a table. Thankfully, the waiters are barefoot, too, balancing bowls of spaghetti on their arms as they run up stone steps to the kitchen and back down to the hungry crowd on the pebbled beach below.
I’ve earned my pasta today, I think to myself as I sink my face into a plate of seared tuna. An hour later, I walk back to where my kayak is waiting. I settle into the warm sand and drift off to sleep.
The thing about committing to kayaking is that sometimes the weather won’t allow it. But my days on the water have begun to satiate my desire for solitude. I grow curious about the Amalfitans who live their lives on the water and make my way to the eastern end of the coast, where tourism hasn’t encroached entirely on daily life just yet. In Cetara, a small fishing village, the rich blue gives way to turquoise, and yachts are replaced by tuna boats, crusty with barnacles. The morning I arrive is a gray one, and the fishing craft in the harbor are taking a beating. It’s too rough to go on the water, so instead, men in this speck of a town are draining espressos and filling ashtrays at the shoreline cafés. Except for Antonio di Mauro, who is standing beside his white car, trunk open, and looking mournfully at the churning waves.
Normally, he tells me, he’d be shirtless, spearing octopi by hand. At my cocked eyebrow, he just shrugs and brandishes a dagger from a pouch at his hip. In his trunk is a tangle of scuba gear, and he pulls out his flippers. “Come back in the summer and I’ll bring you the whole ocean floor,” di Mauro says with a ruddy-cheeked smile.
He’s spent his whole life in Cetara, in a family of fishermen, raising his kids from the money he made on the tuna boats that still send tons of the Mediterranean’s best tuna to Japan every season. He remembers when the streets would run oily with anchovy syrup, the scent of fermented colatura so thick in the air that no matter where you went you couldn’t not smell it. “I feel lucky,” he says, “to have been able to live that life.” This end of the Costiera Amalfitana is quieter, but the village is changing. It’s one of the last bastions of industry along the coast, di Mauro says, though tourism is taking hold, and a life on the water is a novelty now. More than half of the village doesn’t fish anymore. “People have mixed feelings about it,” he says. “Tourism is easier work, but fishing is what we know.”
My last day on the water, I paddle my way past Amalfi, and the coast seems to grow more rugged the farther I go. There’s the murmuring waterfall of Marmorata, framed by rocks upon which, legend has it, the wealthy Rufolo family tossed their dishes during parties to show off their riches. The yachts and the nightclubs, the cruise ships and the Aperol spritzes are far, far away. But I am not alone. I look up and see two people sitting on a rocky outcrop by the cape and staring out to sea. I wave, and they wave back, the silent kinship of people who appreciate a world growing and swelling and living on without them. As I approach the Capo d’Orso, named for the bear-shaped rock that guards the cliffside, the wind picks up, and I know I’ve come as far as I can go. I turn around in this landscape that has seen more of life than I ever will and make my way toward home.
Chart Your Own Course
There might not be a better way to see the Amalfi Coast than through the eyes of aquatic adventurer and guide Antonio Gambardella, who’s been kayaking in the area since he was five. “With bigger boats you can’t get very close to the coast,” he says. “[In a kayak], you have more of a connection with nature.” During a four-hour tour, Gambardella and his crew show visitors around the region’s famed sea caves and stop at landmarks like the rugged rock formation Lovers’ Arch, the chic cliffside fishing village Conca dei Marini, and a villa that once belonged to Sophia Loren. The trip is doable for kayaking rookies, even those who don’t have any gear. “You just need your arms,” Gambardella says. “We provide all the rest.”