The hazy outline of Mount Vesuvius dominates the view from the terraces of the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria. With mosaic floors, marble staircases, dwarf palm trees, hand-painted cherubs, and elaborate Art Nouveau frescoes decorating the hotel’s lofty interiors, guests feel as bathed in luxury here as the ancient Romans who once played in ancient Sorrentum. (Remains of the villa of Caesar Augustus are believed to have been found beneath the hotel.) The Belle Epoque spirit of bygone luxury lives on in this grandest of Sorrento’s 19th-century hotels. Five acres of lemon-scented gardens and white-gloved service create a refuge from the clamor of the day-trippers who descend from cruise ships and buses on their way to Pompeii. Its old-world, aging drama recalls the British travelers for whom the hotel was built atop the dramatic 150-foot cliff when Sorrento was still a small, genteel resort favored for its mild winters. If Luciano Pavarotti never fails to put heart and soul into his signature rendition of “Return to Sorrento,” it’s because he often stays here. Book the Caruso Suite for that same inspiration; opera’s greatest tenor, Enrico Caruso, vacationed here in 1921, just before his death.
In a food-enthralled country where cautious critics sing high praises only with great reluctance, Don Alfonso 1890 has long garnered recognition as possibly the finest restaurant in southern Italy. Its location augments the experience, gorgeously poised between earth and the sparkling gulfs of Naples and Salerno. The loyal clientele think nothing of driving in from Naples or Bari just for lunch. Alfonso Iaccarino and his wife, Livia, who have known each other since childhood, are fanatic in their commitment to quality local ingredients and herbs. Much of the seasonal menu is selected and produced at their nearby 10-acre farm overlooking Capri, and their olive oil has been ranked as some of the best in the world. But the cuisine at Don Alfonso is far from simple country cooking: Mediterranean at heart, it surprises with unusual and delicious, vaguely Asian influences, served in a cool and elegant atmosphere. The restaurant’s noted wine cellar—a three-tiered cavern carved into the volcanic rock in Roman times—contains more than 30,000 bottles.