On the map, but off the beaten path

When a friend told me she was traveling to Denmark for two weeks with her husband and four children and had not made any hotel reservations, I was amazed. "We'll just wing it and see what we find," she said. Unlike her, I am not a spontaneous traveler. I leave home with a folder of hotel reservations, maps, itineraries, and restaurant lists.

Still, I must admit that when I venture off the established tourist routes, I am often rewarded.

Maratea, Italy, located south of Naples, is a perfect example. I found it after a last-minute Internet search for an overnight stop on our trip from Sorrento to Messina.

We traveled south from Sorrento and started our climb up a narrow two-lane road through the Apennine Mountains. After 20 minutes of hairpin turns with dizzying views of the Gulf of Policastro hundreds of feet below, I understood why Maratea's spectacular coast, beaches, and mountain scenery were known mostly to locals and a few adventurous tourists.

"Are you sure it's this way?" my husband, Rich, kept asking as we white-knuckled it through the mountains.

"Give it five more minutes," I reassured him and our son. But I kept remembering the small parade of signs greeting us when we had exited the main highway. They were all pointing in different directions.

But soon the road flattened out, and our first view of Maratea charmed us. The main piazza of this historic medieval village features a town hall and a fountain, an area that provides a convenient meeting spot for the men of the village who were gathered there chatting and playing cards when we stopped and asked for directions. With a courteous bow, one man pointed to the road crossing a narrow bridge and leading up an incline.

We parked the car at the top and breathed in the clear mountain air. The only sounds were birds, church bells ringing out the hour, and the putt-putt of the motociclettes teenagers were riding up and down the hills.

In the distance, high above the town, a 72-foot statue, Christ the Redeemer, stood on top of Monte San Biagio.

As we stepped into the lobby of La Locanda delle Donne Monache, I took another deep breath, almost expecting a whiff of incense. The hotel is in a renovated 18th-century convent. Somehow, despite its transformation, the hotel managed to preserve some of the convent's tranquility. In the lobby, pale yellow stuccoed walls, soft lighting, and an enormous mechanical wooden clock with its whirring and clicking gears were oddly comforting.

As we went to our rooms, our son took one look at the huge bathtub carved out of the quarried rock from the surrounding hillside, and immediately wanted a bath – hardly typical for an 11-year-old. Within minutes, he was watching cartoons on a TV mounted in the corner of the bathroom and soaking in a tub large enough to float in.

Afterward, we walked through the village, a network of cobblestone streets winding up and down the hillsides. Houses painted yellow, blue, or pink lined the narrow streets.

On a whim, we decided to drive back down the mountain and have lunch by the harbor. Porto di Maratea is an arc of stunning coastline dotted with black rocks and covered with white sand.

We stopped at a cafe for some homemade soup and panini. The friendly owner told us that in the summer, this town of 1,000 swells to more than 20,000. Apparently, this is where many Italians escape the heat of the cities in August.

The harbor was populated by a cluster of men talking by the brightly colored boats. One played with his black dog, patiently trying to teach it to lie next to him.

Later, after a rest by the hotel pool, we were ready for supper. The dining room was nearly empty, except for a couple exclaiming over the food. Taking this as a good sign, we ordered pasta with shrimp for the first course and bacalao – a dried, salted codfish – for the second. This traditional cod dish, prepared with regional variations throughout Italy, hardly sounds like a culinary treat, but the waiter reassured me I would not be disappointed.

He was right. The fish – prepared with capers, olives, and tomatoes – was tender and flavorful. We were more than satisfied – with the meal and with our overnight stop.

The memories of Maratea linger. So do the lessons of taking the road less traveled. Recently, when some friends complained that on their trip to Rome in August they saw more tourists than Italians, they asked us, "Where did all the Italians go?"

Now we know the answer.

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