Just south of the Amalfi Coast is a hidden paradise you may never have heard of: Cilento.
A stretch of coastline in Campania that runs from the town of Paestum to Marina di Camerota, Cilento has sandy, spacious beaches and, in the interior, small villages tucked among lush mountains that are a national park. If you imagine the Amalfi Coast as a quiet, relaxed place where you can swan between villages, poking into shops and enjoying gelato in the piazza at sunset away from the crowds, you are actually picturing Cilento.
More than 1,500 years ago, residents fleeing the Roman city of Paestum colonized the impossible cliffs of the Amalfi Coast. Malaria and pirates plagued the southern Italian coast, and Positano’s rocky cliffs were the perfect place to avoid mosquitoes and evade seafaring raiders. Today, crowd-averse travelers do the reverse, fleeing Positano for Paestum, where they can swim in the serene waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Paestum was an important stop on the 18th-century Grand Tour for artists and writers who visited the 3,000-year-old Greek temples. In the summer, locals and tourists visit the temples at sunset, then enjoy aperitivo hour on Via Tavernelle across from the ancient city walls.
Food-focused travelers know Paestum as the home of Italy’s best mozzarella di bufala, and the area is also a haven for pescatarians and vegetarians. In the 1950s, American physiologist Ancel Keys attended a conference at which an Italian researcher spoke about the extraordinarily low rates of heart disease in Cilento. Keys and his wife decided to vacation in the coastal village of Pioppi, where he observed and later studied the exceptional health and longevity of the locals. He concluded that their diet, which he formally named the Mediterranean Diet, comprised mainly of vegetables, olive oil, and anchovies, was the reason.
There are two ways to experience Cilento:
For a vacation that mixes town and country:
Base yourself in Capaccio-Paestum at Borgo La Pietraia, which offers a panoramic view of the Amalfi Coast, Capri, and the Bay of Trentova. Run by sisters Arianna and Rafaella Scariati, it offers a familial atmosphere with the luxury of a bar, pool, in-room massages, and a restaurant run by chef Mario Stellato, formerly of the Michelin-starred Aria in Naples.
From here, you can visit the temples, spend a day at Beach Club 93, and stop by Tenuta Vannulo or Tenuta Barolotti to taste buffalo mozzarella and have lunch. At Agropoli, explore the castle or take a catamaran ride through the Cilento National Park, where you can swim in the Cove of the Sirens while anchovies pass by you in the shimmering turquoise water.
In the late afternoon, explore the quaint shops and bougainvillea-lined streets in Santa Maria Castellabate.
Don’t miss a visit to the small mountain village of Trentinara, where you can have wine and spuntini (small snacks) at Paolino 848, a wine bar where guests sit outside in the lanes of the village's historic center. Take in the sunset on the Terrace of Infinity, then have an artisanal pizza made with heritage grains at Trenta Denari. Adventure seekers can soar across the valley on a zipline called Cilento in Volo or rent an e-bike to ride up to the TreDaniele vineyard for a wine tasting and picnic lunch with an unforgettable view of mountains and sea.
For an unspoiled nature retreat:
Venture south to Palinuro, where you will find beaches that look more like Thailand than Italy. Wonder Woman was filmed here, with Palinuro’s beaches playing Zeus’ Paradise Island. You’ll need to rent a car to get around as the area has no public transportation, but the beaches are wild and quiet, and the hotels, which mainly service in-the-know European tourists, are lovely and inexpensive. Take a boat ride to the golden beach known as Baia di Buon Dormire to luxuriate in the sun, or use the transport to explore the area’s many sea caves. Inside the Grotta Azzurra, you’ll be tempted to tell all the people fighting the crowds at Capri’s overcrowded Blue Grotto about this hidden lookalike, but more likely, you’ll want to keep this beautiful secret to yourself