Inside the Hotel That Launched Amalfi Coast Glamour

Le Sirenuse is an enchanting cliffside hideaway that attracted John Steinbeck and countless others to the area.



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THE DRIVE DOWN the Amalfi Coast may be the most beautiful drive in the world; it is certainly the most beautiful one I have ever taken. The highway has always reminded me of California Highway 1 around Big Sur, but with the added magic of a warm, southern sun, and the madcap, hair-raising charm of Italian driving. You never know what’s coming at you around the next corner. The Amalfi Coast Road itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I can’t even begin to imagine how it was built. It is etched into the upper reaches of the cliffs, and on the far side, drops straight off hundreds of feet into the wild expanse of blue below. They call it Mediterranean blue for a reason — because it really is specific to this place, a bright, clear shade that lets the sky and the sea bleed into a single, open swath of color, leaving only the suggestion of a horizon. Hairpin turn after hairpin turn, the color never ceases to amaze. It is, quite literally, breathtaking.

The first stop on the way down the coast is Positano. The town is entirely vertical, with houses stacked one on top of the other, starting from the sea and reaching straight up to the top of the cliffs, broken only by terraced gardens. I have already set aside speculation as to how these places were built, but here, the question that comes more immediately to mind is, why? But thankfully it was built, because now it’s there, this gem of a place, magically tucked into a deep turn in the twisty road.

In 1953, John Steinbeck visited and wrote an article about his trip for Harper’s Bazaar. The piece opens with his description of the ride down the coast; his driver “was a remarkable man … capable of driving at a hundred kilometers an hour, blowing the horn, screeching the brakes, driving mules up trees, and at the same time turning around in the seat and using both hands to gesture.” The writer and his wife, cowering in the back seat, nevertheless emerged unscathed. “The only casualties were our quivering, bleeding nerves.”



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Arriving in Positano, Steinbeck found what he calls a secret place, one so special he hesitates to write about it for fear it will become touristy — though he consoles himself with the idea that “there isn’t the slightest chance of this in Positano,” due to the lack of space and the locals’ reluctance to sell.

If only he had been right. Aside from the drive (which now has the added element of enormous tour buses snaking down roads that are too small even for cars), just about everything Steinbeck mentions in the article has changed. Except this: He spends his visit at Le Sirenuse, which he notes is owned by the Sersale family, and when I arrive, I do the same. Antonio Sersale, the son of the owner Steinbeck knew, was traveling when I visited, but I was greeted by his wife, Carla, and their younger son, Francesco; the older son, Aldo, also works at the property. After beginning careers in hospitality in New York and Geneva, both sons returned to Positano during the pandemic to join the family business, much to their parents’ obvious joy.


I don’t know what Le Sirenuse was like during Steinbeck’s time, but I can tell you what it is like now: extraordinary. In reading about it before I arrived, I often came across offhanded descriptions calling it things such as “one of the most iconic hotels in the world,” and upon entering the property, I immediately understand why. It has the polish that one would expect of any world-class five-star hotel but with all the intimate charms of a family-run establishment. The halls are lined with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Neapolitan antiques, the walls hung with carpets, photographs, and artworks by unexpected contemporary artists, and the hotel's iconic mermaid logo adorned every single item that it possibly could, from the delicate etching on the bathroom’s drinking glasses to the room’s hand-painted ashtrays. Making a space feel both public and personal is a fine needle to thread, and Le Sirenuse does it perfectly.

Like everything else in town, the hotel is carved into the cliffs. It sprawls over five levels, giving it the twisty charm of something that has been added to bit by bit over time. Eventually, each floor opens, of course, to the sea. Even knowing this in advance, when I step from my room onto the terrace, I gasp a little. Expecting the blue doesn’t make it any less impactful. I could spend a whole day sitting outside and soaking in its beauty through my very pores.

And really, that’s what one should do in Positano. There isn’t much else to do, which is the point. From a door on the lowest level of the hotel, one can access the labyrinth of streets below; like everything else here, the roads all lead eventually to the sea. At the shore, there are a few bars and restaurants, a gelateria (of course), a tiny patch of dark-sand beach that, even in spring, is lined towel-to-towel with bodies, and boats: fishing boats, little dinghies for rent, ferries headed to Capri, and farther offshore, the big, fancy yachts. Every other time I have visited was in the summer, but visiting in April allowed a small respite from the crowds, and Le Sirenuse has a bit of the feel of a hideaway. The combination provided a peek into what the town must have once been for Steinbeck.

Part of the charm of Le Sirenuse for me was being able to move between the quiet of the hotel and the intensity of the town below. Wandering the tangled streets lined with shops, thronged with people, is especially fun when you are able to sneak back up to a private door and pass again into a world of calm. The hotel’s pool, set on the same level as its bar and one of its two restaurants, has a beautiful view out over the town and the sea. It is enough to lie there as the day passes slowly by. Because of the height of the cliffs, the sun drops behind them long before it sets, leaving the town with an extended twilight. In the half-light, from the terrace of Le Sirenuse, you can really see the town for the magic place it has always been.


Fine Hotels + Resorts®

Le Sirenuse is a Fine Hotels + Resorts property. When you book with American Express Travel, you’ll receive an exclusive suite of benefits including daily breakfast for two, a $100 experience credit that varies by property, guaranteed 4pm check-out, and more. Plus, book on and you can earn 5X Membership Rewards® points, or use Pay with Points, on prepaid stays. Terms apply. Learn more here.

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Skye Parrott

Skye Parrott is the editor-in-chief of Departures. A magazine editor, photographer, writer, and creative consultant, she was previously a founder of the arts and culture journal Dossier, and editor-in-chief for the relaunch of Playgirl as a modern, feminist publication.


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