Groundbreaking NYC ad exec Richard Kirshenbaum can pretty much go anywhere in the world. He just learned at a young age that the legendary Grand Hotel Quisisana in Capri was the one to return to — again and again.
CAPRI, Italy — I believe in past lives.
Which therefore means I also believe in past vacations.
Although I'm clearly not Italian, my connection to Capri spans almost a half century, and is so intertwined with this life that I have been given the compliment by more than one local that I am "almost Caprese."
One could travel to a thousand destinations and meet a million people, but one just knows when something is on a soul level. (Such is the strange pull of people and places.) It usually is attended by a thunderbolt or the knowledge that someone or somewhere holds a profound message or feeling. Such has been my lifelong love affair with Capri and the Grand Hotel Quisisana. It's a strange and wonderful feeling to know that I've been at the hotel at almost every life stage and usually in the same room.
When I was young teenager and stepped off the boat in Marina Piccola, I was so overwhelmed with glorious, Mediterranean deja vu that I vowed to return each summer. And I have ever since.
The peripatetic traveler always wonders why one would choose to go the same pace over and over again, as if a repeat journey or experience is a negative or a flaw. I feel quite the opposite. I view it as investing in a place, becoming more than a familiar stranger, and peeling back the layers.
When I first entered the grand lobby of the Quisisana — in those days, stepping onto the zebra carpets (does anyone else remember those?), overseen by a pair of French Rococo cherubim, I thought I had never seen a more perfect and glamorous expression of La Dolce Vita. The stylish women in the lobby all dressed to emulate Sofia Loren: dark-haired, Neopolitan beauties with small dogs, large glasses, and monumental and deep décolletage set off with emeralds. The lobby was filled with them, and I suddenly felt at home with "my Sophias."
Not to mention the distinct feeling that I'd been there before. Had I been an ancient laborer at Tiberius's clifftop palace, Villa Jovis? A 19th-century consumptive English aristocrat seeking the cure? Or an island fisherman diving for shrimp and octopus? In this life, I must (cough..) reveal that it has been more than 43 years since that first arrival, and I have only missed one summer when my wife Dana was pregnant.
The Quisisana was originally a sanatorium established in 1845 and converted to a hotel 20 or so years later. The name, qui si sana, translates to "here one heals." And I am sure I am not the only one who has done a great deal of healing and laughter here over the years.
The peripatetic traveler always wonders why one would choose to go the same pace over and over again, as if a repeat journey or experience is a negative or a flaw. I feel quite the opposite. I view it as investing in a place, becoming more than a familiar stranger, and peeling back the layers. After all this time, the wonderful staff and the Morgano family that owns and runs the hotel and other premier properties on the island always go out of their way to remember my favorite room.
Once checked in, the first thing I do is to go out on the capacious terrace and marvel at the 180-degree view of the sea, the famed Faraglioni boulders in the water, and the glowing and ancient Carthusian Monastery below. Overhead, peregrine falcons nosedive through the mist, as clouds recline on sun-splashed white villas.
The chirping of birds and afternoon cicadas are the soundtrack of Capri, not the usual din of zipping motorini. Quisisana is located in a pedestrian zone, and this alone makes it an unusually tranquil respite, one of the few places I have ever been where one awakens to the sound of birds and nature and not the screech of tires.
Over the years, I have become friendly with the wonderful concierges and the hotel staff, all of whom seem to know what I want before I do. After the long, strenuous walk up from the Fontelina beach club, suave Eduardo at the pool accommodates my yearly schedule of late afternoon vino bianco, crispy salty potato chips, and large green olives the size of small birds' eggs. Accompanied by pressed linen, sparkling cutlery, and singular cut crystal vase and rose.
One year, when we tried another highly reviewed, supposedly five-star, uber-expensive resort prior to our Capri arrival, the pool service was so lacking, I actually sent the famed owner of said hotel an iPhone photo of the Quisisana pool setup to show them what truly elegant pool service was. (It’s not something thrown in a random dish and served with — horrors! — plastic cups.)
It's true: After Capri and the Quisisana, I have been thoroughly spoiled for what should be done and how to do it.
The abundant early morning buffet is a sight to behold, replete with chocolate and vanilla Caprese cake, the delicate island confection, a sweet to start the day alongside an espresso. The buffet is presided over by stylish staff in pressed jackets and ties, who seem to ignore the morning heat. This is when I see and catch up with old friends and new. The scene is always beautifully done and perfectly set.
The poolside restaurant, La Colombaia, serves one of the best roast chickens on the island. My yearly order is met with a knowing smile.
"Mr. Richard, you like it ben cotto, crispy." they remember, every season without my asking.
When we first had our twins, I convinced my wife that taking two bundled newborns to Capri was a fine and wonderful idea. And it was. I splurged on a room for my mother–in-law, Marcia, who oversaw two nannies and the children's room. My wife and I had a smaller third room for ourselves. I called this extravagance a vacation within a vacation. My children grew up swimming in the indoor pool. Every year, Fabrizio, the town's head paparazzo, has taken their portraits — a priceless snapshot that captures their growth.
I return to Quisisana to feel renewed and healed. And every year, I gain additional perspective by both proximity and distance.
Knowing some of the world's most famous writers and poets have stayed at the hotel (from Oscar Wilde to Sidney Sheldon) inspired me to start writing in the heart of Capri’s surreal, unworldly beauty. I walk and relax in the footsteps of such giants as Alex Munthe, whose Villa San Michele is uphill in Anacapri, and Graham Greene and Shirley Hazzard, whose chance meeting in the piazza at a café is now locale lore.
Last year, I finished the final chapter and the epilogue to my novel Rouge at the Quisisana pool with Eduardo's libations in hand. Perhaps the cinematic quality of the island inspired the scenes in the novel, which was just sold to Sony Pictures, soon to be a movie. I thank not only friends and family but the Quisisana for their immense hospitality.
As I walked down the mountain on the old Roman stones, my hero Pablo Neruda’s enduring poem is enshrined on the ancient pathway to the Faraglioni.
Capri — reina de roca, en tu vestido,
de color amaranto y azucena, vivi desarrollando,
La dicha y el dollop la vina llea
de radiantes racimos que conquiste en la tierra.
Capri, the queen of the rock
in your dress colored lily and amaranth
I lived to play pain and joy
vineyard clusters of dazzling conquered the world
tremble il Tesoro Aroma and hair
lamp overhead, pink expanded, hive of my planet.
As I look back on all these years, I see the young, awkward teen, the single man with girlfriends, the engaged and then married honeymooner, the father with young children, and now the patriarch with college-aged offspring. Can a wedding at the hotel and the famous Capri fireworks be in the distant future? Hopefully and God willing.