Here's what makes Southern Italy so special

South of Naples lies an interlocking mosaic of highlights – Pompei and Sorrento, Amalfi and the Isle of Capri. Every crag and cranny is crowded so the centuries of history that washed through southern Italy appear to occupy every inch of available coastline.

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The area’s prime destination is a town about 30km to the east that hasn’t functioned since August, AD 79 when Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried it under five metres of ash. Today, Pompeii gives a vivid view of life in the Roman Empire and attracts 2.5 million visitors a year. Casts of some of the 2000 entombed victims can be found in the Archaeological Museum of Naples.

On a clear day, the cone of Vesuvius looms eight kilometres away from Pompeii as one walks its well-designed cobbled streets. There’s a lot to see here among the homes, temples and shops – and the murals and ovens give a glimpse into how similar life was lived almost 2000 years ago.  Sadly, more interesting revelations, such as the brothel near the forum, are in a restricted area that few get to see. On a crowded day in Pompeii, it can be hard to find time alone to transport yourself back to the glory of the Roman Empire.

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The road south of Sorrento is prosaically titled SS163 yet it’s one of the most picturesque coastal drives in the world. This the Amalfi Coast and the narrow road dips and dives into beautiful villages like Positano, Praiano, Ravello and Amalfi before soaring back up to clifftop viewpoints, high above the Tyrrhenian Sea. The view from inside a coach is largely exhilarating (aim for a right hand window seat) but it can be a nerve-wracking drive and parking is largely impossible.

The whole drive from Sorrento to Salerno is only 60km but expect it to be a two-hour drive each way. A highlight is Positano, a dazzling tourist destination that use to be a poor fishing village, many of whom emigrated to Australia many years ago. Its tiered houses piled along the shore and into the small valley behind create a scene of great beauty. It is, as John Steinbeck wrote in 1953, “a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone."

Visitors to Sorrento have markets and shops to explore in a fabulous setting. Yet Sorrento is largely viewed as the port for ferries to the Isle of Capri, an enchanted isle that's been a resort since Roman times. It's only a 20- to 45-minute boat ride away across 15km of rough waters. Soon enough you’re ashore at Marina Grande.

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Capri is a craggy place, a limestone rock. Offshore sea stacks shelter the cliffs that rim much of the island and there are towering rock faces at the island’s summit. The town of Capri is directly above the marina but if you wish to visit Anacapri, the charming town filled with flowers at the top of the island, that’s at the summit of the Phoenician Steps – 800 of them in total.

Of course there are taxis and buses but for anyone with a spirit of adventure there are also motor scooters for hire. With a scooter it’s easy to cross the island to the Blue Grotto, Capri’s most famous sight. From a tiny dock, small boats take you under a low arch into the cave where the incoming light really does bathe you in an ethereal blue glow. Later, wandering the shopping lanes of Anacapri it feels as if you’ve dropped into the charming relaxed Italian life depicted in films such as Roman Holiday.

While there can be an earnestness in Northern Italy, the South is Italy on holidays. Centuries of refinement have burnished resorts like Capri and Positano to perfection. If you allow the time to relax and settle in, it may well be the holiday of a lifetime.

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