Palinuro is a popular beach resort. The original fishing village, in a secluded bay at the edge of the headland, has remained quite unspoiled. The town takes its name from Virgil's Aeneid, in which the spirit of the drowned Palinurus appears in a dream. A boat ride around the headland takes you to the ancient remains of Molfa, with a stop along the way to view the beautiful Blue Grotto. For information, go to the Pro Loco office across from the church (tel. 0974/931-121). Click here to visit a beautiful villa hotel in this area.
Cefalù is a treasure trove of Sicilian history. Huddled at seaside below a huge megalithic cliff, it presents visible signs of virtually every foreign power that ever marched through Sicily, all the way back to the Phoenicians, with its crowning glory being the Norman cathedral and its beautiful Byzantine mosaics. Only about 90 minutes drive from Palermo, Cefalù sits next to some of the nicest water on the island, and the sandy beaches that stretch for a few miles on both sides are crowded only on summer weekends and in August.
Sperlonga was a favorite seaside retreat of Tiberius, who ruled the Roman Empire during the lifetime of Christ. In 1957, during the construction of a new seaside highway, workers started to uncover one marble statue after another. This is a fairly common occurrence in Italy, but it's not so normal to find the "rubble" is actually a series of authentic Hellenic masterpieces. It seems their former home was actually inside a grotto, which you can visit today. Such was the life of a Roman Emperor -- conquer entire populations by day, then cavort with your pals in a seaside cave embellished with priceless art by night. Outside the grotto, which is literally in the sea, you can see the large tanks where the imperial chefs kept fresh fish. And the statues are all on view in the lovely modern museum just up the hill. After you're done exploring this ancient site that will fascinate even the smallest child, walk or drive down the shore to Sperlonga's gorgeous broad sandy beach.
Here are a few more places where you can combine a swim with historical sightseeing:
Priano and Conca dei Marini, in Campania. Located right at the center of the spectacular Amalfi Coast Drive, these two little towns have somehow managed to remain authentic, even though they are only minutes from the world-famed resorts of Positano, Amalfi and Ravello. At Conca dei Marini, you can take an elevator down to the Grotta dello Smeraldo, a large emerald-colored cave..
Grado, in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Resembling a miniature Venice, this pristine town has some of the oldest churches in Christendom, along with an exceedingly rich medieval quarter, right next door to an ultra-modern beach resort and health spa.
Eraclea Minoa, in Sicily. Founded in the fifth century BC, this town was destroyed by the Carthaginians in 409 BC. Its ruins are located in a dramatic setting, high on white cliffs overlooking a first-rate sandy beach. Visit the museum, the large residential quarter, and the theatre. Sit in one of the "deluxe" armchair seats for a knock-out view of the Mediterranean, then take the unpaved road, following the zona balneare signs, down the hill for a refreshing swim. To reach the ruins, take SS115 from Sciacca or Agrigento (about 12 miles either way), then follow the signs to Eraclea Minoa zona archeologica. And while you're here, do not miss the exceptional temples at Selinunte. There is a secret little beach within 15 minutes' walk of the temple, where you'll find a ramshackle little hut serving lunch to bathing suit-clad patrons seated at tables right on the sand. The fish you get here for pennies would cost a week's salary in New York! We're not going to ruin the magic by telling you how to get there - adventurous travelers will have the added thrill of finding it on their own.