Traveling? Hit the ground for adventure

“Boots on the ground,” Katie prodded as we made our way by train from Rome to Naples to Sorrento, on our way to the Amalfi Coast.

Her mantra was meant to encourage me and two other friends to talk to the locals, to rely on our own wits and our own two feet, so to speak, to discover restaurants, bars and other adventures off the beaten path.

Many a travel guru has recommended the same, of course, and it’s something I’ve practiced while traveling solo. But Katie’s constant urging took “boots on the ground” to new heights, even for me.

Three themes emerged as we explored Rome and then headed a couple hours south along the Mediterranean coast:

Talk: Don’t be afraid to strike up conversation, even if you don’t speak the language. A chat with late-night swimmers led to dinner the following evening at La Capannina, a small restaurant high in a mountain village above Amalfi, with one of the beach goers, Danny, and his girlfriend Simona. Chef Carlo created a memorable feast of ham, salami, mozzarella and other cheeses with honey, salads and a variety of grilled meats. Our dessert — a regional confection known as baba, small rum-soaked pear-shaped cakes, was unforgettable.

Dance, run or pursue an activity: Katie dancing to American 80s pop in the tiny Vivaro Wine Bar in nearby Praiano attracted the attention of traveling British couples. Dancing led to a barbecue the following evening at one of their vacation apartments in Ravello, where we picked up bread, cheese and wine at shops along its narrows streets. While traveling in Dublin the summer before, I joined a morning running group sponsored by the hotel. The jog through the empty streets of the Irish capital was delightful, and from the mix of locals and tourists in my group, I got tips on restaurants, bars and shopping.

Caffeinate: I crave Italian coffee even at the beach and made a regular run to the concession stand at Silver Moon in Amalfi.

Chatting up the woman behind the concession stand, I learned the colors of the roofs (blue) and beach umbrellas (red and white) were inspired by the American flag; her grandfather worked at a swimming pool on the East Coast. He opened the beach stand in Amalfi around 1920. Today, Mata and her sister — and their husbands and sons – run the business, which includes a seaside restaurant, known for its homemade pasta and seafood specialties. Mata loved sharing pictures and stories about her family. On our final day at Silver Moon, she gave me a booklet, a long ago traveler’s guide to Amalfi and the area, “so you’ll remember us,” she said.

Greg Tasker
Greg Tasker is Detroit News Arts and Entertainment Editor and has been writing about travel for more than a decade. His travel stories have appeared in AAA Living, Frommer's Budget Travel, Scouting, AMC Outdoors, Vermont Life and Island Life.