Having sworn off Italy’s Amalfi Coast for being overcrowded, Emily Wright is won over by the glorious old-world charm of the Excelsior Vittoria and the classical education she gets as she walks the Path of the Gods

Towns like Positano look much as they did when writers like John Steinbeck came to hang out in small bars with local fisherman

Italy's gorgeous Bay of Naples is no stranger to great hotels, but the Excelsior Vittoria has the pedigree of being the first in Sorrento, and Italy's oldest family-owned hotel (it's been run by the Fiorentino family since it opened in 1834). It is also, in some ways, the most central and most low-key. You'll miss it if you don't look. It's tucked away down a long drive lined with heavy- fruited citrus trees, just off Sorrento's main square, Piazza Torquato Tasso, where everyone gathers for aperitifs and people-watching.

Inside, the hotel's interiors are a gift to any period costume-drama. There are large, elegant salons with silk wall hangings, damask- covered furniture and vast windows with stained panels overlooking a balustraded terrace and, beyond, a glistening sea and Vesuvius. Plaster cherubs smile down from the ceilings, and heavy gilt frames surround the ageing, foxed- glass mirrors, where 19th-century princesses would have once admired themselves by candelight. Look up, and you'll see original ceiling frescoes, especially in the magnificent ballroom, where breakfast is served every morning. The reception is packed with sepia photographs of luminaries rolling up in vintage classic cars, and Sofia Loren in her voluptuous prime, pouting on the balcony.

Description: Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria

Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria

Of course, The Excelsior has had to keep up with the times. During its 172-year history, the hotel has built two extra wings, including a bizarre chalet-like building created to please Austrian royalty, who holidayed here in the 19th century. The hotel's biggest selling point is its location, perched overlooking the perfectly curved inlet of the Bay of Naples, one of the world's most famous stretches of coastline, and justly so. Thanks to rigid planning laws, the area has kept developers at bay, so the coast hasn't been ruined by identikit villa buildings. Towns like Positano look much as they did 70 years ago, when writers like John Steinbeck came here to hang out in small bars with local fishermen. Even so, things have changed. In summer, ten thousand tourists can descend on a town that was built to accommodate four thousand. In high season, the charms of the area, with its slow-moving, traffic-choked coastal road, can start to fade fast.

Description: the Bay of Naples

the Bay of Naples

Which is why you need to get your walking boots on and head for the hills? The Germans and Swiss discovered the delights of walking the mountains that loom over this coastline years ago; the Brits have recently started to realise what they've been missing.

One of the best-known walks is the Path of the Gods, which you can do at a brisk pace in about two hours, or three with a picnic break built in. The walk starts in the hilltop town of Agerola, and follows a mountain path - scarily narrow in places with an unfenced sheer drop. On the way, you'll enjoy magnificent panoramic views of the sea and the villages below, and can see sights immortalised by Homer in The Odyssey (the Bay of Naples is where Odysseus heard the sirens singing to him). That myth gives you some idea of the area's sensually beautiful landscapes.

Description: the Path of the Gods

the Path of the Gods

The path finishes at a village called Nocelle. From here, you can jump on a bus down to Positano, or brave the old 1,700-step stairway that takes you all the way down. Unbelievably, the nimble-footed locals still climb this stairway and some still use donkeys to carry shopping and goods with them - it's quicker than taking the long, circuitous route by road.

Positano is as lovely as you've been told. Small, white and labyrinthine, with a fine Baroque church and a sandy beach, it recalls island villages in Greece.

Description: Positano island villages in Greece

Positano island villages in Greece

Back at the hotel, Vincenzo Galano, head chef at the Excelsior Vittoria, a born and bred Sorrento man, had rustled up plenty of sophisticated dishes involving special cuts of beef and fish.

The last time I came to this part of Italy, I swore would never go back - it was too crowded. But I've changed my mind; it's too lovely to ignore - just go early or late in the season.

Classic Collection Holidays (0800 294 9318) offers 7 nights at Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, Sorrento from $2,491.5 per person this July, including return flights from Gatwick and private transfers.

For information on walking The Path of the Gods visit or call +39 334 23 54 122

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