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Capri still croons a siren song

I was lying flat on my back in a rowboat, staring up at the sky and thinking this had to be the most unusual way of entering any tourist attraction. Then the oarsman called out in English, heavily accented with Italian: "Stay down _ we're going in."

Suddenly the bright sunlight was shut out and we plunged into a blackness penetrated only by an eerie blue light. "It's okay to sit up now," the oarsman said. I did, and saw that we had glided through a hole in a cliff just large enough for the boat.

We had entered the famous Blue Grotto, a wind-cut cave on the Isle of Capri, in the Bay of Naples.

The opening in the wall of the cliff extended well below the surface of the clear water, permitting sunlight to enter. The sunbeam picked up the intense blue of the water as it filtered to the surface, providing a sharp contrast to the dull gray stone walls. This small shaft of light was the sole source of illumination.

The blue light created a beautiful but eerie atmosphere. When my eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, I could see the grotto was elliptical, 175 feet long and 100 feet wide. The ceiling was about 50 feet above the water.

The opening in the cliff extends about 3 feet above the sea, making the grotto accessible only by a rowboat during calm weather and lower tides. The unusual means of entry has done little to deter visitors, however, for about 1.5-million tourists visit it each year _ more than any other attraction in the Naples area with the exception of the ruins of Pompeii. Some visitors reach it by tender from a cruise ship as we did, while others get to Capri by ferry or hydrofoil from Sorento or Naples.

Although the Blue Grotto is by far the best known of the numerous caves along the island's coast, there are a number of others: the Green Grotto; the Grotto of the Cannon (so named because of the booming noise made as the sea crashes into it); the Red Grotto (its walls give off a blood-red glow).

In Greek mythology, the sirens who lured sailors to their destruction on the rocky shore with their music lived on the Isle of Capri. In reality, it was occupied by the Phoenicians and Greeks when they colonized Southern Italy. Statues dating back to the time of Roman rule found on the floor of the Blue Grotto indicate it had been discovered at least as early as that era.

The Roman Emperor Augustus was so infatuated with the island that he built a vacation retreat and constructed roads and buildings. Tiberius, who succeeded Augustus as emperor, spent the final 11 years of his life (26-37 A.D.) on Capri.

Our guide rowed us around the Blue Grotto once, and then it was back to the cruise ship's tender _ a disappointingly short visit but long enough to see why the cave is a popular attraction. The tender deposited us at the dock below Capri, and we rode the funicular to the town, perched on a cliff almost 500 feet above the sea.

Wildflowers peeked from crevices in precipices, scattering brilliant patches of color along the village's imposing walls. Colorful flowers hung from baskets on the terraces and balconies along the narrow, winding streets. Occasionally we spotted Roman ruins partially concealed by flourishing bougainvilleas.

Shops offering famous designer clothes, expensive jewelry, bars and nightclubs were interspersed among stalls where locally grown citrus, fresh fish and wine from Capri's vineyards are sold.

We decided to follow one of the roads radiating from the town, and were rewarded by a sight of the mansion built by the German industrialist Friedrich Krupp in the early 19th century. Krupp founded the company that supplied arms and munitions to the German army in World Wars I and II.

The town of Anacapri, on the western side of the island about 250 feet higher than Capri, lies on the slopes of Mount Solaro, which rises nearly 2,000 feet above sea level.

Anacapri is accessible in three ways: by taxi, by climbing 784 steps or by a chairlift. The taxi ride is for stout hearts only _ the road is cut into the sheer face of the cliff and twists and winds a tortuous route. For those not in excellent physical condition, the climb up the stairs is out of the question.

The chairlift is the best choice. It skims over olive groves, farm houses and vineyards, and once at the summit there's a 360-degree view that includes Naples, Vesuvius, Sorento and the Southern Apeninnes.

Two attractions in the "don't miss" category are the church of San Michele and the early 20th-century villa built by Swedish physician-author Axel Munthe.

The church is noted chiefly for its tile floor, depicting the Story of Eden and crafted by Francesco Solimena. Made with hundreds of 18th-century tiles, it is considered one of the most beautiful tiled floors in the world. The villa is now a museum housing a fine collection of antiques.

Before getting on the funicular for the return trip to our ship, we paused for a last look at the vistas of rocky islets and rugged terraces and precipices _ another real beauty to lure travelers to Capri.

Alvin Morland is a freelance writer in Pompano Beach.

If You Go

Ferries and hydrofoils take passengers from Naples and Sorento to the Isle of Capri, and some cruise ships provide tenders to take their passengers to the island.

International flights land at the airport in Rome, and there are connecting flights to Naples.

For shoppers, local products include handwoven silks, woolens woven on wooden looms, cord shoes, perfumes and locally tailored trousers.