Twenty-five years ago, on a muggy summer morning in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, I heard the best explanation for Capri’s immortal allure. Just after the church bells rang at 11 a.m., Patricia Highsmith knocked the cap off a heavy brown bottle of beer on the edge of a stone table and took a swig. (This gesture signaled the end of the interview she’d granted me for W magazine.)
Then she cocked her head, looked at me, and declared, “I hope you’re not rushing back to Paris this weekend. It’s a miserable place during the summer.” I explained that I was meeting a friend in Capri. She snickered.
“Well, of course you are!” she snorted. “Capri’s all about sex and danger.” I blushed. “That’s why everyone loves it so much. It’s easy to find sex on Capri, but the real eros of the place comes from the constant danger of Vesuvius blowing up, or the possibility of falling off a cliff after too much wine at lunch. Or being found strangled in your bed after some waiter you picked up has had his way with you!”
Fortunately, I couldn’t speak to any of this from personal experience, but Miss Highsmith wasn’t wrong. Capri is a politely libidinous place that teases almost every visitor with temptation.
It may just be a luscious scoop of rice-pudding ice cream from Gelateria Buonocore or a second pour of limoncello instead of loaf-of-bread biceps. But it can also have a chastening, subliminal edge. The Roman ruins are a constant reminder of one’s mortality. The sweeping blue views over the Mediterranean may be eternal; we, alas, are not.
The stylish set’s love of Capri is nothing new. This island on the edge of the Bay of Naples, visible on a clear day from the Amalfi Coast, has been on the radar for more than 2,000 years. Tiberius, the second Roman emperor, fell so hard for its beauty that he ran a sprawling empire from his villa there between 27 and 37 A.D. Writers, artists, aristocrats, and tycoons from around the world have been following his lead ever since.
Now, after several decades when it was merely madly popular, Capri is stylish again. This could be partly explained by the rise of low-carbon-footprint travel; even the European beau monde now admits it makes little sense to fly to the South Pacific when this magnificence exists in one’s own backyard. But the opening of two five-star hotels, Hotel La Palma and Il Capri Hotel, are mostly responsible for all the chatter.
It’s almost impossible for the tiny island to bear any attempts at new construction, so both so-called new arrivals are actually makeovers of existing properties. The 50-room Hotel La Palma is the island’s oldest hotel; it was originally known as the Locanda Pagano when it opened in 1822. Located around the corner from the Piazzetta, the island’s pulse point, it has always been a canteen for writers, artists, and musicians from Italy and beyond.
The sweeping blue views over the Mediterranean may be eternal; we, alas, are not.
Now Hotel La Palma is the 11th address of Germany’s Oetker Collection, which includes a purring pack of some of the world’s best-known hotels, including Brenners Park, in Baden-Baden; Le Bristol, in Paris; and the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, at the Cap d’Antibes.
The interiors were masterminded by London-based designer Francis Sultana, whose soothing palette of seashell whites, marine blues, and vegetal greens reflects the island’s colors. (There are also some Slim Aarons photographs and subtle nods to ancient Rome.) The overall effect is almost like a candy store that has been ever so slightly de-sweetened with some winning tongue-in-cheek.
Gennaro’s, its main restaurant, is run by Gennaro Esposito, a marvelous seafood chef who has two Michelin stars at Torre del Saracino, near Sorrento. There is also Bianca, a rooftop restaurant and bar that offers operatic views of the Mediterranean and ample opportunity for stargazing. La Palma also has a small spa, but the hotel’s knockout amenity is its by-reservation-only beach club, on the island’s southern coast. With 42 sunbeds, a seaside restaurant, and a private, fully staffed pebbled beach that accommodates eight guests, it will be the ultimate European destination for 1-percenters. (At least for this summer.)
La Palma’s clientele will likely include a Tanya McQuoid type—you know, the needy heiress on The White Lotus—along with couples who live on Park Avenue, in Beverly Hills, and on the toniest streets of Knightsbridge. Expect madame to arrive with two dozen pareus and a shoe wardrobe consisting of everything from handmade Rondini sandals to towering Louboutin stilettos.
Meanwhile, the recently renovated Il Capri Hotel is full of surprises. Originally built as a private home, this 19th-century peppermint-pink villa became a hotel in 1899 and occupies a prime position in the heart of Capri town. Its nonchalant, bohemian attitude is unlike that of any other lodging on the island.
Just in time for the summer season, it’s been reimagined by a husband-and-wife team of taste-makers: Arnaud Lacombe, the founder of Savoir Vivre (a collection of some of the trendiest restaurants in Paris, including Déviant, Vivant 2, and Le Collier de la Reine), and Naples-born restaurateur Graziella Buontempo.
The result is a winningly retro take on Italian pensiones from the 50s and 60s. The reception desk, situated in front of a wooden pigeonhole key rack, is made of red marble. The lobby design includes cream-and-cocoa checkerboard floors, thick coral-colored curtains, wicker and rattan armchairs, Victorian rockers, and overstuffed sofas. Upstairs, its 21 guest rooms come with sisal flooring, potted palms, and prosciutto-colored tiled bathrooms; the best have sea-facing balconies.
Do not miss Il Capri Hotel’s rooftop swimming pool and restaurant, Vesuvio. It stays open late, but that’s not the only reason we like it—it operates in the lobby as well as on the roof, and the people-watching is excellent in both venues. True hedonists will enjoy Rumore, the hotel’s subterranean nightclub.
These are still early days, but Il Capri is already drawing the tattooed wild things—models, aspiring actors and actresses, artists, photographers, fashion designers, digital nomads, and chefs. (Portia, Tanya McQuoid’s assistant, would fit right in—but only if she could use her employer’s Platinum card. Rates are astronomical, even for those with a trust fund.)
So when to visit? We’ll let a friend from one of Milan’s banking dynasties deliver the bad news. “Capri’s lovely in April and May—maybe the first two weeks of June—but it should then be avoided during the hot, crowded summer months,” he declares. “But September and October are delicious … ”
Alexander Lobrano is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. His latest book is the gastronomic coming-of-age story My Place at the Table: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris