If you look up the term <<tourist trap>> in Urban Dictionary, the top definition is “a place specifically designed to attract stupid tourists and take their money.” The connotation is decidedly negative. But when I attach the label to Capri’s famous Blue Grotto, I’m by no means saying that the cavern carved into the island’s rocky coastline isn’t worth a visit. The way the water glows neon blue is otherworldly, and photos simply cannot replicate the experience of gliding across it in a rowboat with the melodies of singing Italian oarsmen echoing off the walls. Still, it’s very much so a business operation, and it’s better to know what you’re getting into beforehand to temper your expectations.
If you decide to visit the Blue Grotto, you have a few options to get there from Capri: You can hire a private boat, you can take a tour of the island on one of the public boats from the port, you can hop onto one of the smaller public boats that shuttles you directly to the grotto, or you can take some sort of road transportation to the cliff above the cave and descend the stairwell to wait for one of the rowboats that takes you inside. Hiring a private boat is obviously the most expensive option — we were quoted at 200 Euros for the two of us — but our hotel was heavily promoting it as the best experience (they also seemed to be linked to some of the private tours, so not really so surprising). The day we went for our visit followed a day when the grotto had been closed due to rough seas, so the hotel-arranged private tours were sold out by the time we showed up at the front desk. The concierge recommended we go down to the port to catch a public tour or shuttle, or to find another private guide, so we took the hotel van downtown and then took the funicular down to the port.
We stumbled upon the kiosk for the public tours and shuttles immediately and settled on paying 16 Euros a person to hop aboard one of the small shuttle boats that takes you directly to the Blue Grotto. I gulped down my sea sickness pill and the boat filled up quickly and set off, turning left out of the port for a roughly 15-minute ride to the grotto. Our soundtrack was a loop of pop radio tunes, including Drake’s “Hotline Bling” aka “you used to call me on my cell phone…” A mass of eight or 10 boats of varying sizes bobbing next to one of the cliffs let us know we had reached our destination. Our shuttle boat joined the mass and I had the next 30 or 45 minutes (I didn’t check my phone for the exact timing) to observe the machine that is the Blue Grotto as we bobbed in the choppy Mediterranean water waiting our turn.
So this is how it works: A uniformed fleet of oarsmen in rowboats — I can say oarsMEN because they were all male — seem to be the only means of accessing the grotto during the day (I heard you can swim in during the evening). Each rowboat pulls up alongside the larger boats, picks up two to four passengers and takes them to a drive-thru-style ticket counter on another boat where everyone has to pay another 13 Euros to actually enter the grotto. Then the rowboats queue up to the left of the cave’s tiny entrance and wait for the exiting groups to make their way out so they can shuttle the new customers inside.
Some of the oarsmen seemed… err… selective about who they took aboard. One guy rowed up to our shuttle boat and asked a tour guide how many people were in her group. She said two and pointed to two average-sized guys next to her. The oarsman, clearly not interested, kept making his way around our boat until he spotted two tiny Japanese girls. He shouted “Konnichiwa” and then welcomed them aboard. Gui pointed out that it could have been a weight thing because his boat appeared smaller than others, but I am pretty sure his previous passengers were two large women from the boat beside us, so yeah, I’m dubious.
We were in a rowboat with two older women from our shuttle, trying to arrange ourselves in the narrower space in front of the oarsman so we could sit together rather than having me sit in the wider rear space with the other women. After paying our fee and joining the queue outside the entrance, we were instructed to lie down to fit through the grotto’s tiny opening. Seconds later, we were staring up at the jagged rocks inches away, praying that a big wave wouldn’t come through and smash our faces. Our guide grabbed onto the chain that lines the entrance, ducked down through the opening and pulled us safely inside. If you look at the first photo below, you can see the tip of one of the rowboats exiting through the tiny alcove.
Informed that we could sit up again, we found ourselves in a darkened cavern with the only light radiating from the bright blue water beneath us. Our guide rattled off a few facts, but there was too much going on for me to pick up anything except that the glowing blue water was caused by the reflection of the sun through the entrance (which made sense because the glow was brighter closer to the opening). Gui also said he heard him say something about Tiberius coming there to bathe. Then the guide joined the rest of the oarsmen in belting out verses of Italian songs — Gui made out “O Sole Mio” — while navigating the boat in a circle around the cavern à la a Disney ride.
Within a few minutes, we were in the queue to exit the cave. We accepted our guide’s offer to take a photo of us as we waited — one without flash where you can’t see our faces and one with flash when you can’t see how cool the water looks — and then we were once again lying on our backs staring up at the rocks as he pulled our boat into the sunlight. For the second time since we had come aboard, our guide reminded us we should give him a tip and we obliged as we climbed back onto the larger boat. A few minutes later, once all of our fellow passengers had returned from the grotto, the motor of the shuttle was back on and we were portside 15-minutes after that, ready for lunch.
A few final notes: First, sea sickness medicine is a must for anyone who gets a little motion queasy. That water was choppy and we bobbed in it for more than 30 minutes as we waited our turn, which would have killed me had it not been for my MerCalm pill. Second, I’m not sure a private tour would have been worth it. Boat after boat was continually arriving at the grotto’s entrance and the private boats appeared to have to wait just like anyone else. And finally, if you inquire and are told the grotto is open for the day, head down to the port immediately! We found out it was open a little after 9am, boarded the shuttle boat at 10am — mercifully before the ferries full of extra tourists arrived — and returned to the port around 11:30am. By 1pm, the Blue Grotto had been closed for the rest of the day due to rough seas, as it had been the entire previous day. So act quickly! This is a tourist trap not every tourist will have the opportunity to visit.