LIE down! Lie down now!" the boatman shouted, and we pressed ourselves against the floor of the boat.
The cliff face loomed ahead of us, and I could see the tiny opening we were heading for. It looked impossible to get through.
The boatman gave a final push on the oars and then squatted, covering his head with his arms. Suddenly the bright sunshine was replaced by the dark interior of a cave: we were in.
At first everything was black and I could hear the gentle lapping of waves echoing around the cavern. Then, as I raised myself above the wooden sides of the boat, I saw the water.
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It was glowing a bright turquoise, the most intense blue I have ever seen – a mesmerising sight.
The boatman paddled slowly around the cavern, singing cantinas in a soft, low voice that echoed off the walls, completing the ethereal atmosphere.
The Grotta Azzurra, as it is known in Italian, has been a wonder since Roman times, when Emperor Tiberius used it as his private swimming pool.
A subterranean passage connected it to his villa on the Capri hillside, and anyone who was caught swimming in it was executed.
But its fame declined with the empire. Fishermen avoided it, believing it was inhabited by evil spirits, and it was forgotten until 1826, when it was rediscovered by two German swimmers. Sunlight refracted through the sea into the cavern gives its magical blue colour.
Such a boat trip is also the best way to take in the beautiful rugged coastline of Capri.
The coastline is steeped in myth and legend and Capri competes with Sorrento, on the mainland, in its claim to be home of the sirens – mythical creatures who lured sailors to their deaths with beautiful singing.
Sorrento is built on steep cliffs and looks out across the Bay of Naples to Vesuvius.
Perched high on the edge of town is the beautiful Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria. Built in 1882, it oozes old world charm, and many of the rooms still contain their original furniture, lovingly restored.
The grand public rooms have high ceilings and marble floors, and the walls are decorated with frescos and gilt mirrors, completing the sense of a bygone age.
A major part of any visit to Italy is the food, and Excelsior Vittoria does not disappoint.
Like Italian cooking at its best, it focuses on fresh, seasonal, local ingredients.
No trip to the region would be complete without a visit to Pompeii. The city, preserved in six metres of volcanic ash after Vesuvius erupted in 79AD, is well known, but nothing had prepared me for the scale of the place.
It is thought to have been home to about 20,000 people when the volcano obliterated it, and the site stretches over 66 hectares. Buildings range from public baths to temples and beautiful villas with floor mosaics.
Perhaps most fascinating of all are the 'bodies' of the inhabitants, frozen in the positions they died after being overcome by the poisonous gases that accompanied the eruption.
The city was largely forgotten in the years after the eruption, and was only rediscovered in 1738, with excavations beginning in 1764.
In 1860 an inspirational archaeologist, Giuseppe Fiorelli, noticed that he could identify cavities below the earth, often by tapping his stick on the ground. He then made tiny holes over them and pumped plaster in. Once the plaster had set, he painstakingly excavated it to reveal the shapes left by bodies that had long since rotted away.
A dog can be seen twisting to get away from the chain that restrains it, the rings of the chain clearly visible on its neck. A pregnant woman lies awkwardly on her belly, trying to cover her mouth with her hands. Another plaster cast shows a man in a sitting position, also holding his hands over his mouth and nose.
The people of Pompeii had no sense of their impending doom. They thought Vesuvius was simply a mountain. That night, I sat on the terrace of Excelsior Vittoria watching the sun set behind the volcano's rugged outline.
The sea was deep blue and calm, and it was hard to imagine the destruction Pliny the Younger witnessed from his boat in the same bay all those years ago.