Perched dramatically on the edge of a cliff along Italy’s Amalfi Coast is one of the most unforgettably opulent hotels I’ve ever been to: Il San Pietro di Positano.
The view is the first thing I noticed. In fact, when the taxi pulled in around noon, I could barely tell there was a hotel on the site at all—that is, until my girlfriend, Lily, and I were greeted by the valet, who directed us along a short winding path with a sweeping vista. At the bottom of the path, we found the elevator to the lobby.
No matter where you are in the 60-room Il San Pietro, you’re highly likely to see the sea and the sky. And that’s really what coming to this place is all about: to lose yourself in the views, and to take in the summertime wonders of the Mediterranean, all with five-star service at the ready. From the balcony of our spacious, well-appointed room—No. 60—we could see southwest toward Praiano and across miles and miles of water, a view that guests to the Michelin-starred Zass restaurant just below can enjoy as well. During a tasting-menu meal there one night, we, by luck, got to watch a full moon slowly rise over the nearby cliffs. Even with Zass’s magnificent dishes—pasta with candied lemon, mussels, and cured fish roe, suckling lamb leg with spring vegetable stew—the nighttime scene unfolding before us was impossible to ignore. More than half of the restaurant’s guests (including the world-renowned designers Jony Ive and Marc Newson, whom we spotted dining together at a corner table) had their smartphones out to capture the moment. It felt and looked fake, or otherworldly even, as if we were on a Hollywood set. Lily and I half-joked to the maître d'hôtel that he must have orchestrated the moon for us all that night.
A fisherman's house transformed into a mythic hotel
Some brief history is necessary to really understand what makes Il San Pietro so special: It all started with Carlo Cinque, known as “Carlino,” who lived in Positano, which was then predominantly a fishing village. In 1962, he bought the modest family home facing the sea and decided to turn it into a hotel—an unusually ambitious thing to do in Positano at the time. Over several years, he acquired all of the neighboring terraced houses and Il San Pietro finally opened in 1970. Very quickly, Carlino built up a base of loyal customers, attracting celebrities such as Federico Fellini, Liza Minelli, and Marcello Mastroiani.
Il San Pietro remains in the Cinque family today. Following the death of Carlino in 1984, his niece and nephew took over the hotel, and today it’s run by their children, who since the 2000s have carried on the legacy, continuing to maintain the property while also recently updating and beautifying it further.
A sunbather’s paradise
I can’t think of another private hotel beach in Italy I’d rather relax on than the one at Il San Pietro. A water-taxi driver said, with a laugh, “Welcome to paradise!” And the hotel truly is. I could have spent our entire two-day stay there on the hotel’s beach, blissfully basking in the sun and swimming in the saltwater. (From the lobby, the beach is reachable by an elevator that’s cut into the cliff; from the sea, there’s an on-site dock.)
By the beach, there’s an adjacent al-fresco restaurant named after Carlino, which serves up a signature lemon spaghetti dish that was not only impeccably done, but unlike anything Lily and I have ever eaten before. Further up on the hill, covering about half of the property, are gardens where vegetables and fruits used in both of the restaurants grow, as well as flowers that decorate the halls and rooms. I didn’t hear any of the staff talking about the “farm-to-table” nature of the hotel, but they easily could have. Perhaps it’s too obvious anyway—the farm is a key, unavoidable aspect of Il San Pietro, and quite literally at the heart of the hotel.
An immaculate getaway ... to even more getaways
Though there is, in truth, little reason (or need) to leave the impeccable property, a friend insisted I visit Capri during our stay. So we booked a water-taxi to Positano and then took a round-trip speed ferry to Capri. Il San Pietro has its own Morgan 44 yacht that can be chartered for half- and full-day trips. For a Capri day trip, hiring a private boat is the most time-efficient option to enjoy admiring all of the famous seaside sites, like the Adalberto Libera–designed Casa Malaparte, and to the many grottos.
For dinner on our second night, we took a five-minute walk from Il San Pietro to La Taverna de Leone, which the hotel’s reception-desk team recommended to us. Lily and I agree: It’s not to be missed when in the Positano area. Not fancy or frilly but still a white-tablecloth kind of place, it serves smart, well-executed interpretations of classic Italian fare (try the “fake” carbonara, so called because it was a twist done without meat, and eggplant lasagne, delicious!).
Upon checkout, coming to terms with the fact that our time there was over, we were handed a parting gift: a bottle of limoncello, produced—of course—by the property. It was difficult to say goodbye, blissed out as we were, but at least we got to take a small part of the place with us.