When Your Kids Are Obsessed With Pompeii… Add In Sorrento and Amalfi, Too

A family vacation may not be the first thing that springs to mind when picturing the ruins of Pompeii, the romance of Sorrento, or the glamour of the Amalfi Coast. But for Flora Stubbs, bringing the kids along made the trip 10 times more fun.

Amalfi, Italy: The pool at Amalfi’s Hotel Santa Caterina

The pool at Amalfi’s Hotel Santa Caterina, as seen from its terrace restaurant. Photo by Simon Watson

By Flora Stubbs

Nov 7, 2022

IT ALL BEGAN, as things often do when you’re a child, with a story. Last spring, a book called Pompeii…Buried Alive! became the subject of intense fascination for my daughter, Stella, and her little brother, Leo. One minute the Amazon delivery guy was at the door; the next, all the two of them could talk about was the demise of this southern Italian town—the cataclysmic 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the 10-mile mushroom cloud, the population of 16,000 mummified under five meters of ash.

Taken on its own, the apocalyptic history of Pompeii would not have convinced my husband, David, and me to book a family vacation to Italy—far from it, in fact. But then it dawned on us. We could take the kids to get their morbid kicks in Pompeii, then spend the rest of our trip enjoying the more life-affirming attractions of Sorrento and Amalfi, both just an hour or so away by car. 

Amalfi, Italy: The town of Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast
The town of Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Photo by Juliette Charvet

And so it was, one golden afternoon last June, that we found ourselves on the remarkably clean and efficient TrenItalia service from Rome to Naples. About half an hour before we pulled into Napoli Centrale, we saw Vesuvius, or “Azuvius,” as Leo still calls it—a sleeping giant rising some 1,280 meters feet behind the city’s suburbs. The kids pressed their faces against the window as we sped past rows of orange houses with green shutters, umbrella pines, and grapevines. But the volcano, as if in another dimension, didn’t seem to move at all. 

From Naples, we took a taxi an hour or so south along the ravishing Sorrentine coast, winding our way past stalls selling lemon granita and doorways heavy with hot-pink bougainvillea. Our base for the next four nights was the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria (doubles from US$795), a property we had chosen with great care. Friends had made faces when we said we were considering a family trip to this romantic, upscale part of the world. (“I mean, I went there on my honeymoon,” one said with an apologetic shrug.) Many hotels in Amalfi, Ravello and Positano don’t accept children at all; those that do tend to be tight on space and high on style, with plenty of vertiginous cliff drops to ensure parental stress is kept at a maximum.

Amalfi, Italy: Guest rooms at Sorrento’s Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria
Guest rooms at Sorrento’s Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria overlook the Bay of Naples. Courtesy of Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria

But the minute we drove through the wrought-iron gates of the Excelsior Vittoria, which open off Sorrento’s main square like those of some fairy-tale castle, I could tell we were in safe hands. This 1834 property, which towers over the cliffs and the marina (an Art Deco–era elevator ferries guests from the lobby right down to the water), is surrounded by a large garden shaded by lemon trees, and has the assured, center-of-gravity feel of a hotel that knows it’s doing something right. 

“We have a lot of space, so there is soccer and a playground and a large swimming pool,” explained fifth-generation owner and CEO Guido Fiorentino over a Spritz made with limoncello. A member of Leading Hotels of the World, the Excelsior Vittoria is filled with elegant touches, from the monogrammed linen hand towels in the marble bathrooms to the parlor palms in the piano bar. Yet when the kids spread Nutella on the tablecloth with a butter knife at breakfast, or decided to make lemonade from fruit they found in the garden, it somehow never felt like a big deal. 

The following day was the main event: our visit to Pompeii. Though it was still early summer, by the time we met our guide, Patrizia Coco, at the entrance to the UNESCO World Heritage site around mid-morning, the sun was beating down on the almost entirely shade-free, 15-hectare site. “Today is very hot!” Coco proclaimed, fanning herself with a clipboard. 

Amalfi, Italy: The ancient city of Pompeii
The author’s daughter on a scavenger hunt in the ancient city of Pompeii. Courtesy of Flora Stubbs

A veteran guide for Italian-run tour operator Discover Your Italy, Coco swiftly directed us along the streets of the ancient city to the first of a series of drinking fountains, each of which has a different animal carved into its stone pedestal. Back in the first century A.D., she explained, these served as meeting places; today, they were welcome spots for the kids to splash around and cool down in. Coco, herself a mother of two, gave Stella a scavenger-hunt-style quiz, and looked on patiently as Leo examined every piece of volcanic rock we passed (there were many), teaching him the difference between basalt and tufa. 

We came to the place where plaster casts of Pompeiians who perished under the ashes were on display. There were adult forms and, almost hidden from view in the depths of the shaded enclosure, the shape of a child. Each was frozen in a position of abject terror. I remembered a passage from the book that began it all: “The people in the streets covered their faces with their hands and clothes. But the ashes piled up higher and higher. The people could not move. The people could not breathe.” 

It was then that the tragedy of what took place here really hit us; that the destruction of Pompeii ceased to be just a story, and became something that happened to real people, with real lives. “Buried alive,” said Stella, as we turned to leave. 

POMPEII BEHIND US, it was time to get our family into serious vacation mode. Read: relaxation. The following morning we took a ferry to Amalfi, an hour or so down the coast. If Sorrento had felt chic and visually iconic, Amalfi took all of that to the next level. Even with two kids in tow, zipping past peach-toned villas stacked high on the cliffs above the turquoise Tyrrhenian Sea felt like one of the most stylish moments of our lives. 

Amalfi, Italy: The Arch of Tiberius in Pompeii
The author’s family passing through the Arch of Tiberius in Pompeii. Courtesy of Flora Stubbs

We were headed to another essential address for anyone visiting this region with children: the Hotel Santa Caterina (doubles from US$1,256). Also a part of Leading Hotels of the World, this place has been family-run for four generations, and has an aesthetic I couldn’t get enough of: Amalfi tile everywhere, Jacuzzis in the bathrooms, a gracious staff clad in white dinner jackets and bow ties. It also has one of those swimming pools cut right into the cliffs, where David and I could luxuriate on sun beds and watch the ocean twinkle away at our toes while Stella and Leo splashed safely behind us. 

The next day was my husband’s birthday: time to put the Santa Caterina concierge to the test. First, they booked David a game of tennis on a court in nearby Positano, images of which set new records for engagement on his Instagram page. At lunchtime, we all met on the beach in Positano and hopped into a little boat with a red, fish-shaped sign—the only way to reach Da Adolfo (mains US$11–$25), a restaurant on a shingle beach a couple of miles outside of town. There, we ate a spaghetti alle vongole for the ages, and a sea bream cooked in parsley, garlic, and olive oil—simple yet sublime. There was ice cream, and coffee, followed by a dip in the luminous sea, where we bobbed up and down in a row as the glistening bodies on the beach sent wafts of cigarette smoke and suntan lotion out over the water.

Amalfi, Italy: Da Adolfo Restaurant
FROM LEFT: A fishing boat ferries diners to Da Adolfo, a restaurant near Positano, photo by Simon Watson; the author’s son at Da Adolfo, courtesy of Flora Stubbs

That evening, as David and I were about to leave the kids with a babysitter and head out for a birthday dinner at Positano’s fabulous—and most definitely child-free—Le Sirenuse (doubles from US$2,968), Barbara La Rosa from Discover Your Italy called to check in. “Amalfi, to me, is a kind of paradise,” she said with a laugh as we exchanged goodbyes. And she was right. 

When you’re traveling with kids, there’s always a little bit of pain mixed in with the pleasure, a bit of hell to accompany the heaven. Had Stella and Leo behaved impeccably? Do they ever? Were there moments in glamorous, slightly cramped public spaces where I thought someone was going to get hurt, or some priceless piece of hotel décor was about to get broken? Absolutely. Would I have changed it for the world? Of course not. 

Amalfi, Italy: Map
Illustration by Donough O’Malley

Plan your ultimate family vacation to Sorrento, Pompeii and Amalfi with Discover Your Italy (discover your italy.com; six-night trips from US$3,150 per person).

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