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If your main interest were to shop, dance and dine, then you'd stay on the Amalfi Coast. But serious swimmers and divers know that one of the most spectacular and pristine coasts in the entire Mediterranean lies just 90 minutes south of Positano. The Cilento Peninsula is a fairy-tale series of quiet coves and thrilling grottos, where you can swim in the phosphorescent glow and practice your skills at making echoes. Points of unusual interest include the Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto), Grotta d'Argento (Silver Grotto), Cala della Lanterna (Lantern Cove), and Grotta del Sangue (Blood Grotto), so-named for the streaks of red minerals on its walls. Above each of these mysterious worlds are rocky cliffs that soar as high as 600 feet above. Although there is plenty of Italian tourism here (Americans are basically an unknown quantity), most of the shores are still relatively deserted, and you can park at any town dock and find a young local willing to take you out for a day in his boat (which is the best way to see the grottos and finest snorkeling areas). To organize diving expeditions, contact Centro Subaqueo, Via Marina, Castellabate, tel. 0974/961-060, or Centro Santacroce, Via Verde 1, Sapri, tel. 0973/392-650.
For lodgings, Agropoli Villa Hotel is in the hills about 3 km from the beach with some of the most beautiful views in Italy. It is a delightful historic villa with only 14 rooms, all of which have private bathroom, direct dial telephone, TV, radio, air conditioning and heating. There is a panoramic swimming pool and a restaurant.
Capo Vaticano is a diver's dream come true. It offers a wide variety of spectacular cliffs, transparent water, abundant fish, and deserted coves reached only from the sea. Your hosts will help you arrange boat trips to the best diving spots. Choose accommodations in Tropea, a lovely hilltop fishing town that is charming all year except in July and August, when it becomes a holiday madhouse; or in Pizzo Calabro, a small town with a very infamous historical past, having been the spot where Napoleon's brother-in-law, Joachim Murat King of Naples, was assassinated.
Gaeta consistently wins awards for its crystal clear waters, which are actually part of a protected marine park. Because it is not a world-famed resort like the nearby Amalfi Coast, it is not overly crowded and motorboats are not allowed in the coves, where rocky cliffs plunge straight down into the warm, calm sea. People have been diving here since the days when it was a popular getaway for Roman Emperors and their retinues, and it is not uncommon to find shards and other relics from antiquity (which of course you are supposed to turn in to the local authorities!). Gaeta is relatively easy to get to because it doesn't require travel by boat. It's about 90 minutes south of Rome or Fiumicino Airport, and equally far north of Sorrento. While you're here, take a side trip to Sperlonga, a favorite retreat of modern intellectual Romans - it's an adorable whitewashed village that will make you swear you're in the Cyclades. There's a marvelous little archeological museum there, and you can visit the ruins of a vast Imperial palace in Terracina. Click here for lodgings in the area.
All the Aeolian Islands are favorite haunts for skin-divers. They have pristine, fish-laden waters, and since most of their shorelines are accessible only by boat, there are relatively few tourists. Each island has its own character.
Lipari is the largest and "most civilized," and has the most hotels and restaurants. It is also the oldest, which means that its volcanic lava surface has had time to be refined into the whitest sands, giving most of its hillsides the look of snowy alpine slopes. The sand drifts down to the shore, creating sparkling beaches
and seabeds the color of Seven-Up. When you visit this part of the world, we recommend you stay on Lipari, because it has a broader selection of hotels, restaurants and things to do, as well as a world-class ancient history and art museum. Click here for our favorite lodgings on Lipari.
is "the green island". On the "wilderness" side, it has barren salt flats, an extensive wildlife reserve, and beaches that are accessible almost exclusively by sea. On the "cultivated" side, there are acres of beautifully tended low-to-the-ground vineyards yielding a prestigious vintage called Malvasia, and veritable plantations of the best capers on earth (by the way, if you do not care for capers, we wager it's because you've never tasted these. They bear absolutely NO resemblance to those little grayish things on the supermarket shelf!). And then there is the lovely little village, as authentically Italian as it gets. There are some very nice hotels on Salina.
is the starkest, being basically little more than a volcano whose smoldering crater separates two minuscule villages with no more than 800 inhabitants all told. The volcano is not really dangerous, partly because it erupts almost every evening, sending out a harmless but spectacular shower of sparks that you can view if you take the dinner cruise that leaves every day from Lipari (in season). There is time to get in some snorkeling off the boat, all along the cruise.
Panarea is the most spectacular: it features dark volcanic cliffs studded with whitewashed fishing villages, dramatic scenery, great food and the remains of a prehistoric village. It is also the best for scuba diving, especially around the satellite island of Basiluzzo, where the sea floor is a warren of shoals and islets. Ferries and hydrofoils depart often daily from Via dei Mille in Milazzo, slightly less frequently from Naples, Messina, Palermo, and Cefalù, and and daily among the islands themselves. Panarea is a jet set destination, with a small cluster of upscale resort hotels.
Sardinia's Costa Smeralda is unparalelled for clear waters stocked with fish, if you know where to find them. Click here for more information.
Capri is not high on our snorkeling A-list, but if you are there anyway, we suggest the waters around the Grotta Verde in Anacapri. Take the bus from Capri. By the way, because getting to an island is never quick, we don't recommend staying on Capri for less than three days. If you have less time than that, it's better to stay in Naples or
Sorrento and take a day trip by hydrofoil. Click here for our favorite places to stay in Sorrento.
Maratea, in Basilicata. The coastline around this picturesque fishing village is densely wooded, and studded with deserted coves accessible only by sea.
Boat trips can be easily arranged in town. Click here for lodgings.
Monte Conero, in Le Marche. The offshore waters here are so pristine they have been designated as a marine park. To organize diving expeditions, contact Centro Attività Subaquee, Ruggeri 26, tel. 071/232-0065 or Komaros Club, Mole Vanvitelliana, tel. 071/204-558, both in Ancona.
Manfredonia, in Apulia. This lively resort, with its picture-perfect castle, makes a good base for exploring the southern coast of the Gargano Peninsula. If you're looking for secluded coves, stay away from Vieste and the northern sector. Click here for a selection of places to stay.