A model of relaxation

Where does a thrill-seeking traveller with exotic tastes go to unwind? Laura Bailey chose the sybaritic delights of Capri
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The Independent Travel

I want to climb Kilimanjaro, learn to kite-surf and ride a motorbike around Ireland. Just not this year. Seven months pregnant and almost forbidden to fly, I chose Italy for my last baby-free jaunt with the unadventurous intention of simply relaxing. On this holiday I just wanted to be spoilt.

I want to climb Kilimanjaro, learn to kite-surf and ride a motorbike around Ireland. Just not this year. Seven months pregnant and almost forbidden to fly, I chose Italy for my last baby-free jaunt with the unadventurous intention of simply relaxing. On this holiday I just wanted to be spoilt.

The Amalfi coast already holds happy memories for me. Positano and Ravello had captured my heart over the years, but I'd only visited the islands of Capri and Ischia on fleeting day trips - stopping off for a quick visit to the shops before taking a fast boat back into the blue. This time I was going in October, at the end of the holiday season, so Capri would be calmer than when I'd visited with the August masses, and Ischia would have been reclaimed by the locals as the ferry schedule gradually dwindled away. Perfect - I was looking for space, and hopefully a little late stolen sunshine.

I enlisted my photographer friend Nick as my companion, and he chivalrously endured the warm congratulatory embraces from all those who suspected him of fathering my unborn child. He filled the role heroically, patting my tummy protectively as yet another stranger enquired as to dates and sex. At least we got seats on busy boats and in crowded bars. There is nothing as spoiling as the attentions Italians lavish on a pregnant woman - or a baby. In London I'd been working away, pretending nothing had changed. Here in Italy I took off my big, baggy sweaters and deliciously surrendered to the fact that everything was different, and for the better.

Capri, even when full of tourists seeking their Sophia Loren-style photo ops, is a magical place. It is both innocent yet world-weary, open-armed yet wary. Arriving by boat from Naples, one is instantly lifted by a mixture of nostalgia and hope. Even through the autumn mists the island embraces newcomers - vanilla ice-cream houses are seductively scattered around each curved hill and bay, while every hairpin on the road reveals a view more spectacular than the last.

It is surprisingly easy to lose the crowds. A perfect base is the Capri Palace, 20 minutes from the port in Anacapri, a slightly shyer sister town up the hill. Anacapri's rustic charms (give or take the increasing number of English-style breakfast and burger joints and chain-store limoncello outlets where everything from the front doors to the flower arrangements is a uniform sickly yellow), are a friendly counterpoint to the Capri Palace's cool style. Tonino Cacace, whose family has run the Capri Palace for generations, works tirelessly with the local community to promote local artists and encourage a healthy creative relationship between the hotel and its neighbours in an attempt to keep it in touch with its roots. He has, however, created a stylish international hotel and the work continues. A major makeover project has seen the rooms' earthy pastel shades replaced by a slick white-on-white palette. Mine had floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Bay of Naples and a luxurious cream living area so sleek and minimalist that I wanted to hide all my scruffy bags and belongings out of sight in the cupboards. The "art suites" are highly desirable and twice the size of a regular room, should one be so inclined, while the vast bar has echoes of Miami's Delano Hotel with its sweeping white space and wonderful cocktails (for those of us not trying to be good).

We played Scrabble in vast white armchairs while being plied with delicious drinks and snacks, before setting off to stroll around the village at night. I purposely left all the maps and guidebooks behind, choosing to just drift and see where the night took us. Silent starlit paths led to suddenly illuminated churches, dark piazzas hid bars spilling over with student life. Kids kicked footballs and chased Vespas and an old woman in red stilettos picked up her washing from the launderette. Italy had already put its familiar spell on me. Everyone looked more beautiful, every scene was a movie tableau. Over dinner on the flower-strewn balcony of La Rondinella, I miraculously recovered my schoolgirl Italian, which led to much showing off and unnecessary chat with strangers, and my London exhaustion evaporated to be replaced by an adrenalin-burst of excitement for our dolce vita getaway. Home-made pasta, local wines, sea air and exercise meant I would have slept like a baby on the pavement, but the lullaby of the faraway sea floating through my bedroom window led to even sweeter dreams.

Old habits die hard. Even though my plan was to pretend to be a lazy pampered princess for four days, my bracing swim before breakfast made the baby do what felt like a can-can, and I followed this up with a childish knock on Nick's door. "Are you up? Can we go now?" Successful nagging led to a speedy jaunt down to Capri in one of the island's famous convertible cabs. I had a vague picture in my head of some beach from long-ago and a text message from a friend on how to get there, but that was our only plan. We would get there eventually... but the Prada and Gucci stores proved a little distracting en route. Why does the same pair of shoes you've seen at home last week seem so much more desirable and tempting in a shop on holiday? Judging from the bag-laden army around us, I was not the only one suddenly feeling very deserving. A huge belly and tomboy walking gear didn't stop me trying on Loro Piano cashmere and Boucheron diamonds. (Poor Nick - first they think he's the father of my child and then they think we're getting married...). Capri's main promenade is like a mini Rodeo Drive, though perfume and presents were all I took home in the end. If you were in the mood to shop, and believe me, under normal (skinnier) circumstances I would have been, then Capri is a great destination - although it's best to go early or late to beat the crowds.

It's easy to get happily lost and escape the shopping throngs. Two of my favourite walks took us along paths so quiet and picturesque that it was as though we'd been let into a museum after hours. Although most of the beach bars are closed in October, it's still worth a stroll to the Punto Tragara hotel and then a climb down the hundreds of steps to the seafront, home of the summer hotspot La Fontelina, which overlooks the spectacular Faraglioni rocks. Deserted bar a few brave swimmers and picnickers, it was still a breathtaking spot. In high season it's a catwalk for the beautiful people who come ashore from nearby boats to eat and be stared at. A tough walk back uphill in the midday heat (with me feeling suddenly and breathlessly very pregnant) fortunately ended in a magnificent lunch on the terrace of Hotel Villa Brunella, where we feasted on homemade tagliatelle with aubergine and mozzarella and rosé wine before drifting gently home to rest and check out the hotel's "beauty farm".

I have friends who come to Capri specifically for their speciality water- and mud-based treatments that are designed to aid circulation and lymphatic drainage. So, after a relaxing massage, my legs were smothered in medicated mud for half an hour and then bandaged until they felt ice-cold and tingly - not the most glamorous position to find yourself in - but I did feel invigorated and as if I could run a marathon afterwards. The team apparently work wonders on legs and feet swollen from flying, stress... and pregnancy, so I did as I was told. Italian spas are fairly no-nonsense, and concentrate on the practical rather than the emotional. There's none of the tea and small talk of London or New York salons. It's quite a relief to simply show up, be scrubbed and polished, and leave without having to discuss possible names for your baby or what Posh Spice eats for breakfast. For those on a health mission, the Capri Palace organises total spa breaks. At the hotel restaurant there's an alternative fat- and calorie-counted menu. I certainly don't want to know the number of calories in my meal, least of all in Italy, but I appreciate that for those coming here to slim their thighs it might be useful to be steered away from the penne and pannacotta and towards more healthy options.

The next day, with a boat to catch later, we took our last hike through Capri to Le Grotelle - a jewel of a restaurant for lunch. Literally jutting out of a cave on a hillside, the garden boasts one of the most spectacular views on the island. To find it simply follow the signs towards Arco Naturale, keep going after you think you've got lost, then ask anyone you find. Eventually you'll stumble upon this friendly oasis hanging out over the sea.

Capri's fashionable façade hides a warm heart and many secrets. On this, my third visit, I felt I was just starting to explore the real island. Beyond the big shades and designer jeans lies a natural beauty not for sale - at least not after September. After only two nights I'd already sunk happily into the kind of slow-motion holiday reverie that arises when all day-to-day pressures are suddenly lifted and plans simply revolve around the next meal, or the next massage. My attempts to check emails, talk to my agents (or my boyfriend for that matter) felt half-hearted and unreal. A part of me was on strike, and I felt a thousand times better.

And so to Ischia, a mere 40 minutes away by hydrofoil, for another 48 hours of decadence. Ischia doesn't have Capri's jet-set reputation and is probably all the better for it - it's less commercial, less glitzy, and has been a magnet for artists and bohemians over the years.The port is postcard-pretty, a pastel sweep of ramshackle bars, restaurants and souvenir shops, and our journey to Il Mezzatorre on the opposite coast was swift as dusk fell.

The hotel's main building is an old tower that dates back to the 16th century, and there are more scattered around the surrounding park and woodland. My room was quaint and colourful with a stunning view of the bay. I'd recommend requesting a room with a balcony - this is a place where you want to be outside as much as possible, swimming in the heated pool cradled by the bay, sipping drinks and playing cards on the terrace, or exploring the headland where film director Luigi Visconti used to live. Once settled at the pool with books, lotions and drinks it is extremely hard to move except to rotate one's lounger into more direct sunlight or to order a panini from the bar. I stress that this is not normally how I travel, but as an experiment in how the ladies-who-lunch live, it was both amusing and relaxing. My excuse - this time - was the baby, who I'm sure will be heading off on safari with me before he can walk, so it was better not get used to all this spa- and room-service.

We dragged our spoilt asses from the pool to the spa and back again, trying everything from reflexology to thalassotherapy. The restorative clay and mud used in the spa is harvested from the lower slopes of the nearby Mount Epomeo, which also boasts thousands of hot springs - Ischia is itself a natural spa. More conventional treatments are available in the Schrageresque spa downstairs - the water and mud therapies take place above in what, I have to say, feels a little like an asylum without the straitjackets. I was quite relieved to shower off the clay and retreat downstairs to the white beds and twinkly lights, but then I'm horribly claustrophobic and paranoid about being locked in anywhere, especially a green cubicle with a hard bed and someone telling me what's good for me. You can slowly turn into a prune in one of three indoor pools while being pummelled with jets of healing water. I was quite relieved for pride's sake not to be with my boyfriend, though all around me were couples happily "healing" together. I did have to suppress an urge to giggle throughout, especially when everyone was fished out of the water and wrapped in white sheets like something out of Cocoon, but the spa tradition of Capri and Ischia stretches back to days of Emperor Tiberius so I guess they know what they're doing.

Away from all the skin-softening and sporting pursuits we made a real find, enjoying one of those rare meals you know you'll always remember. La Ventarola has no menus and no decor to speak of - it feels like a church and has a courtyard heavy with the scent of the herbs growing all around. We let go of our big-city tendencies and let the chef make whatever he felt like. It was a good decision. Bruschetta brimming with tomatoes and melting fagioli appeared, followed by the creamiest mozzarella salad I've ever tasted. I then had pasta with pumpkin, while Nick got his favourite, arrabbiata. This was followed by steak for him, before we pleaded to cancel pudding so we could walk out. It wasn't just the food that was special, but the ambience, the smiling waiters, and the magic of a last night anywhere. It felt like our secret place, although it has, of course, been feeding happy travellers and locals for years. This is how I'd like to eat all the time - from the garden, home-made, outside and surrounded by gorgeous Italian men. It's not much to ask.

The following day we travelled home by car and boat and plane, via pizza in Naples as the kamikaze traffic circled the café. It was a wake-up call after our rural idyll on Ischia. We'd had a proper holiday on two islands and only been gone for four nights. We'd swum in the sea, eaten like kings, been massaged to death. All those people who've been lecturing me about working too hard are going to eat their words after this bout of professional relaxation. Maybe I will take a little more time off. Do I really need those shoes in Prada? Oh yes, I'll meet you for lunch at... It's a slippery slope. I think I'll resist, except in short, wonderful doses.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE: HOW TO PAMPER YOURSELF, ITALIAN STYLE

GETTING THERE

Laura Bailey travelled to Italy with Exclusive Italy (0870 901 4020; www.exclusiveitaly.com), which can organise similar trips from £1,195 per person. This includes seven nights' half-board accommodation at the Mezzatorre Resort and Spa in Ischia based on two sharing, flights and transfers. It also offers trips to Capri from £1,465 per person, based on seven nights' half-board at the Capri Palace Hotel, return flights and transfers. Prices are valid for travel until May 2005.

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies to Naples from Gatwick; easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com) from Gatwick and Stansted; BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.co.uk) from Heathrow; Alitalia (08705 448259; www.alitalia.co.uk) from Southampton, Aberdeen and Edinburgh via Paris and from Manchester via Milan. Boats and hydrofoils for Capri and Ischia depart daily from Naples Molo Beverello port and the quickest journeys take around 45 minutes. The principal operators are SNAV (00 39 081 428 5555; www.snav.it) and Caremar (00 39 081 5805111; www.caremar.it). Singles cost €12 (£8.60).

STAYING THERE

The writer stayed at the Mezzatorre Resort and Spa (00 39 081 986 111; www.mezzatore.it), which has doubles from €240 (£171.40), and at the Capri Palace (00 39 081 978 0111; www.capripalace.com), which has doubles from €285 (£203.60), with breakfast. Both are now closed until March/April next year.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Italian State Tourist Office (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).

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