I happened to catch a quick story on MSN yesterday, one of those slide show things, listing the eleven worst tourist traps in the world. It was your typical stuff: The Leaning Tower of Pisa (been there, definitely a tourist trap), Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market in Boston (been there and plan to bring my kids there this summer because I still like it), plus a bunch of places I’ve never seen and never will like Wall Drug in South Dakota.  And then there was the Blue Grotto on the Italian island of Capri.

They described fairly accurately the hassle of taking a larger boat off the coast of the isle and then transferring to a smaller boat and being brought into the cave where you can sit in your boat for a few minutes while your eyes struggle to adjust to the light in an attempt to appreciate the stunning blue of the water, backlit from the sun shining down on the sea outside the cave, before being whisked back out to the your larger boat, having lost several hours of your vacation plus a nice chunk of change.

Well, I’ve been to the Blue Grotto and I have to say, it was one of those moments, those completely incredible life moments where you are so stunned by where you are and what you’re seeing and what you’re doing that you just have to laugh and laugh, and when you try to describe its specialness for someone else after the fact, you simply cannot capture it in one-tenth its glory.

I went on a backpacking trip to Italy  and Greece with my college roommate in the summer of 1996. I had already moved to Los Angeles for Teach for America and she was back in New England so we met in New York City before flying to Rome. After a few extremely sticky and humid August days in Rome, we took a train to Naples, thinking we ‘d spend the night and visit Capri the next day. Well, we were so sweaty and disgusting after riding that train all day that we hopped on the last ferry and went straight to the island. We met two young guys on the boat, recent grads from Duke, following much the same course as we were, so we decided to travel together for a few days (which was particularly useful when we were spending nights in train stations and boat depots). We all had our trusty little travel guides, aimed at twenty-somethings without much money but with an appetite for adventure, and we knew the Blue Grotto was on our list.

But we also knew we didn’t want to do it the regular way. Most visitors traveled by boat from the more commercial side of the island to the remote area where the Grotto is located. We decided to reach it by foot instead. We awoke early the next morning and hiked over the top of the island, getting lost numerous times and arguing over the symbols on the obscure Italian map we were following. We finally found the other side and made our way down the ragged rocky coast, still hoping we were early enough to beat the boat traffic of the day. Well, as we finally had the Grotto in our sights, the scene below looked a bit like this (not my photo, stolen from the story about the world’s worst tourist traps):

We were devastated, we had missed our early morning window and the chance to swim freely in the Grotto. But we were not willing to turn back just yet so we headed down the steep and narrow stairs and caught the attention of one of the guys rowing the boats of tourists in and out of the cave. It was still early so he was one of only a few working and had to transport one boatload of people back to the larger boat before bringing in the next load of people. We offered him $20 and he took his sweet old time as we stripped down to our bathing suits and dove into the water.

Within seconds we had swum through that famous arch and found ourselves in such an incredible natural environment that after a few moments of stunned silence, we just burst out laughing. Our hooting and hollering echoed off the walls of the cave and we swam around in absolute amazement at the beauty surrounding us.

One of the guys had his camera in wrapped in plastic bags in the pocket of his swim trunks and took a few pictures of us but we lost all contact with them after the trip was over and I’ve never seen those photos (all those above are copied from the web). But the images of that swim are indelibly marked in my memory. It was a moment I will never ever forget for its complete and stunning beauty and our overwhelming feeling of luck at getting to experience it in such an authentic way.

I am sure it would be next to impossible to recreate that experience; they’ve probably gated the bottom of those old ragged stone steps or make you pay a ridiculous sum of money or sign a waiver first. But we made it in there, just for a few minutes and it was, without question, one of the most spectacular moments of my life.