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Southern Italian Foodie Diary

When cruising in Italy, one sails into a foodie history lesson. Yacht guests may learn about lobsters in a teeming fish market. Or literally dive for their dinner in the company of an undersea foraging guide. From the culinary cauldron of Naples to Italy’s most isolated island of Ustica, one can be assured a buon appetito aboard any Camper & Nicholsons yacht.


1. Saturday, Capri

In Italy it’s not what you know, but who you know. Fortunately the Maître d' of Ristorante Il Riccio on Capri greeted our Italian chief steward with a sunset embrace. Our group score the best dinner spot in the house. It literally drips into the Bay of Naples like the legs on a glass of Lacryma Christi wine. This far south the cuisine is all about substance over style, even in a Michelin-starred restaurant like this. Thus sharing platters of sea urchins are thrown down with the ceremony of a fisherman offloading his catch. Some diners sport Havaianas. Another is shielded from the Sorrento breeze by an Hermès poncho. We’re not in Paris now.

Our lunchtime food tour in Naples was even more full-on. The city is separated from Capri by 30 minutes of sea, yet it seems an ocean apart. Imagine La Dolce Vita - on fast forward. One Naples street was an open-air frutti di mare emporium. Our group Instagrammed aquariums of octopus, human-sized swordfish and murals of footballing demigod Diego Maradona. When the buzzing Vespas and shoeshine touts became too much, our guide whisked us into a humble pizzeria. We peer inside a wood-fired oven as mozzarella di bufala and San Marzano tomatoes bubble atop a rising dough. Lunch in Naples cost €3.50 per person, around 50 times less than our Capri

2. Sunday, Positano

We wake up for dawn swims. Above the waves a searing sun blazes on Capri’s Jurassic cliffs. Below the waterline sunlight beams a kaleidoscope onto the seabed. A good job we’ve swum off some calories, because our Italian chef prepares us a calorific breakfast that would be banned in London or New York. There’s granita al caffe' con panna, an espresso milkshake with oh-so-sweet almond milk. Plus brioche con gelato, a pistachio ice cream packed inside a freshly baked croissant. Our steward assures us it’s OK to be goloso, or gluttonous, on a Sunday. I suspect it’s like this every day on board.

On the voyage around the Amafli Coast we stop for a dive at Punta Campanella. Our chief officer explored these same waters as a child, and kindly accompanies us on a snorkel safari to sea caves and marine mounts. We log starfish, rockfish and John Dory before anchoring off Positano at cocktail o’clock. Keith Richards once strummed a guitar on the languorous beach of Spiaggia Grande. For creative energy he sipped his pioneering vodka cocktail named Nuclear Waste. We settle for Aperol Spritz under parasols on a Positano piazza. It’s a long sail south towards Sicily tomorrow.

3. Monday, Ustica

We’re making lunch today. Chef starts us on a crash course on Italian pasta types. Butterfly-shaped farfalle are for fussy northerners. Penne and ziti are preferred in Napoli and the no-nonsense south. We recreate culurgiones, unctuous Sardinian pasta pillows stuffed with pecorino, saffron, spinach and lamb. Off the prow bottlenose dolphins chase fresh tuna, a feast even tastier than ours. Through the midday mirage we spy Ustica. This emerald green mountain marooned at sea is Italy’s most isolated island. Like the Azores or the Canaries, it’s a lonely volcano where endemic species prosper in sundrenched seclusion. Sounds like heaven to me.

But heaven help you if you don’t possess a private yacht. Mainland Italy is quite literally a 24-hour journey away. So westerly is Ustica that warm Atlantic currents sweep in large ocean denizens including greater amberjacks and golden grouper. We snorkel inside two of the island grottos to spot cuttlefish and slipper crabs. Hardier divers may remove their masks inside subterranean caverns to breathe pockets of pure Ustica air. Indeed the scuba allure is so renowned that the island boasts its own tiny decompression chamber. That’s in case you don’t have one on board.



4. Tuesday, Palermo 

Last night I changed our itinerary on a whim. Our obliging captain then sailed two hours through the inky Sicilian night. The result is that at 6.14am I’m riding the RIB into Palermo’s Vucciria market with our chef. Since daybreak fishermen have been unloading their catch directly from quay to display. Imagine a photogenic miasma of red prawns, yellowfin tuna and iridescent squid. Alongside Italy’s most agile cats prowl for scraps. There’s a Sicilian saying: “Quannu s’asciucanu i balati dà Vucciria,” which means, ‘when the streets of the Vucciria run dry’. And pigs might fly.

The resulting street food is a geo-political blend of each of Sicily’s occupiers. By 9.00am we’ve gobbled black olives planted by the ancient Greeks, unctuous aubergine Pasta alla Norma, and pistachio gelato imported by 10th-century Arabs. It makes me glad I’m with an Italian speaker. Although I’m a guest, I’m obliged to lug a sack of snails, five kilos of green almonds and a bottle of limoncello back to the tender. As long as I get to eat it all, I really don’t mind.

5. Wednesday, Vulcano 

Part of our group demands a day on the beach. But on the islands of Sicily such a request comes with a twist. On the island of Vulcano, the beaches steam with seismic activity, while the waters fizz with volcanic bubbles like fine Champagne. On Spiaggia di Sabbia Nera, a black sand beach, we crack bottles of Bisol’s Cartizze, the Rolls-Royce of Prosesccos. Back on board our chef has turned the contents of Palermo’s Vuccuria market into sashimi and maki rolls. We’ll need the energy this afternoon.

It’s a 400m hike uphill to Vulcano’s steamy peak. From this hissing moonscape we spin 360° degrees to spy Sicily’s seven other Aeolian Islands. Each one glitters like an upturned cupcake on a sun-frosted sea. Little wonder the chain was inducted as as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our post-hike reward is a soak in the fanghi sulphur baths. After rejuvenating our skin to the consistency of creamy ricotta we dive into the sea. Tomorrow we’ll make a passeggiata on Italy’s most elegant island.

6. Thursday, Panarea

It’s a 60-minute sail from Vulcano to Panarea. Our party uses the time to taunt friends on Facebook, while the crew reel in an albacore tuna o the stern. Panarea is the second smallest Aeolian Island but it’s simplicity renders it Italy’s aristocratic escape. But the Viscontis and Bulgaris don’t stride around in Balenciagas. Instead they shoot backgammon barefoot while sipping macchiatos at Ristorante Raya. The island maintains no double-tracked roads, streetlights or 21st-century stress. Indeed the preferred lifestyle here is what islanders call dolce far niente - ‘sweet nothing’.

Only one beach on Panarea is solely accessible by boat. us we avoid the ‘crowds’ - a laughable term on an island of 280 souls - and ride the RIB to Calla Bianca cove. Here our stewards and chef prepare a Capri-style beach club with umbrellas, a WiFi hotspot and San Pellegrino on ice. We feel like Robinson Crusoe, if he also ate calamari marinara with caper berries, plus skewered gamberoni with pomodorini tomatoes.

7. Friday, Etna 

Climbing Mount Etna on foot is fun. But it’s even more impressive by helicopter. Fortunately our captain knows an Italian colleague with a Eurocopter AS350. We skim vineyards before circling the spiral of smoke that plumes skyward from Europe’s highest active volcano. The peak where we land is a Star Wars semi-desert. Slowly, judiciously, we creep around the crater trail. Here red rock ground belches and steams with sulphurous gasps. As our pilot makes clear, the mountain could blow at any minute. We are braced to race back to the chopper at the slightest tremor. Brave - or should that be foolhardy - Sicilians ski here in winter and spring. Lucky them, as they can knock back blood orange vodka screwdrivers for après-ski, while lazing by the sea.

We choose to hike downhill for a later helicopter pick-up. The slopes blend from Alpine to tropical. At 1,000m in altitude the topography mellows into a fertile crescent of over 100 wine estates. We’ve earned our wine tasting tour at Vini Graci. The family-run vineyard eschews sulphates and pesticides in favour of wild yeasts and hand-picked fruit, resulting in markedly different vintages.We finish on the Etna Rosso DOC, which Decanter Magazine scored an 89. Sadly we can’t satisfy our every whim this week: our helicopter pilot can only carry a case each back to the yacht.