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by Leslie Gilbert Elman

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If someone begins a conversation with the words, “When Oscar Wilde was here…” you take notice, or at least I do. That was only until I realized that everywhere you turn on the island of Capri someone mentions a gay literary icon. The names fall like drops of Mediterranean seawater from a boatman’s oar: Wilde, Ezra Pound, Tennessee Williams, Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide…. They came to stay at private villas and hotels. (Wilde fled to the Grand Hotel Quisisana ( after his release from jail in England; it’s still the poshest accommodation on the island.) And they came to smell the sweetness of the lemon trees and to bask in the Mediterranean sun, as I did.

Capri also boasts a 1960’s Jackie O. jet set pedigree, when everyone who was anyone had a place in Capri or knew someone who did. Yet the island can be blissfully quiet. It’s always friendly, and locals will tell you it’s one of the few places in Italy where people still sleep peacefully with their doors unlocked.

Arriving from Naples via hydrofoil, about a 40-minute trip, I landed in the town of Capri in the section called Marina Grande. From there it’s a short walk to the Piazza Umberto I, which is centrally located and great for people-watching as well as all the designer shopping in town.

The key to the isle of Capri is to stay there and make it your own, avoiding the mini-bus-loads of cruise tourists who flock in on a day’s outing from Naples. Pay no attention to the crowds gathering at the Blue Grotto. Yes, it’s stunning and the water is a celestial blue you’d have thought was reserved for heaven alone, but the wait to grab a rowboat in, for the four-minute tour can take hours that would be better spent relaxing on a terrace, watching the sea, and sipping Limoncello, the local lemon liqueur.

You must, however, take a boat tour around the island. There are many more grottos to see: the Green Grotto, the White Grotto, Fisherman’s Grotto, and the one called the Miraculous Grotto that houses a stalagmite resembling the Madonna. Boat tour operators are clustered in Marina Grande. Join a group tour or book a private tour for half a day.

You should also get to know a few of the larger than life personalities who made this lush little island a haven for artists and eccentrics, since the time of the Caesars. Take the highly peculiar Emperor Tiberius, who “retired” to Capri in 27 A.D. when the Roman senate didn’t quite know what to do with him. After he became bored playing “screw your neighbor” (literally) he’s said to have tossed his conquests (slaves, soldiers, sheep) off the cliff beside his home at Villa Jovis. The uphill walk to reach the ruins of Villa Jovis meanders through residential neighborhoods unlikely ever to change thanks to the island’s strict building codes. In other words, if you’re thinking about constructing your dream home on Capri, think again. Almost no one receives permission to build here.

One exception was Baron Jacques d’Adelsward-Fersen, who commissioned the neoclassical Villa Lysis in the early 1900’s. After being chased from France on various charges of immorality, he settled with his teenage lover in Capri where he wrote gay satirical novels and threw extravagant parties. The local government now owns the villa. It’s open to tourists sometimes, but the hours vary. Best to check with the Capri Tourist Office ( for specifics.

The town of Anacapri, the “real” Capri if you ask the locals, is up a craggy hill from more heavily touristed Capri. While there are plenty of fine hotels in Capri, you might be happier escaping to Anacapri at the end of the day. Hotel Caesar Augustus ( is not exactly a best-kept secret, but it thrives on word-of-mouth recommendations. Consider this one of them. Its 52 rooms are supremely comfortable, providing all that you need, from a Jacuzzi to a private terrace, with the best views of any hotel on the island—and that’s saying something.

Anacapri has a distinct charm, even around the low-key pottery shops near Villa San Michele, former home of Swedish doctor Axel Munthe and now a museum. Also in Anacapri is the Mount Solaro chairlift, rising 1,932 feet to the highest point on the island. This ride is definitely not for the faint of heart (nor the ‘fraid of heights), but there are spectacular views from the top.

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