The road between Italy’s Santa Maria di Leuca and Otranto hugs the incredible white stone cliffs of the Southern Italian coastline and offers unparalleled views of the wide-open Mediterranean Sea. The plethora of white sand beaches with friendly, picturesque beach towns make the drive perfect for beach hopping. Part of the Puglia region, the Salento peninsula contains some of the best kept secrets in Italy, and this drive hits several, including the seductive sea caves known as grotte.
I was staying in Lecce, the capital of the region, which is about 40 miles north of Santa Maria di Leuca, My girlfriend and I rented a car and sped the 40 miles south on Highway SS16. It took me around an hour and we were in Santa Maria di Leuca, the last stop before Africa. A town famous for its beach life, the town was packed with Italian tourists in August. To find secluded beaches drive along the coast to the far right of the town where there is a less-known beach with a series of floating, wooden platform that bob in the waves.
The stunning drive to Otranto begins in Santa Maria di Leuca and consists of highways SP358 and SS275. The drive is easy to navigate because it runs along the Adriatic Sea on the eastern shore of Italy; wherever you meet a fork, take a right. Driving non-stop (not that you would want to), the trip takes around an hour.
Though the beaches were packed in Santa Maria di Leuca, the roads were not. Near the famous lighthouse that overlooks the beaches of Santa Maria di Leuca, there is a rotary with a sign for Otranto. Take this road and within 30 seconds dramatic limestone cliffs will come into view. The reminded me of the Amalfi Coast in some respects, only with a more jagged feel , and olive trees instead of lemon trees. Amazingly, Souther Italians have built stone walls and even trulli on the cliffs, the small stone huts that have recently attracted so much attention in the town of Alberobello. The incredible huts date from hundreds of years ago.
We soon reached a spectacular bridge spanning an incredible sea inlet near the town of Gagliano del Capo. We pulled over to look down from the bridge upon the finger of turquoise water and saw many people swimming far below. Then we noticed that there were people high up on the cliffs who were plunging into the water below. The incredible jumps were certainly from points higher than 30 feet, possibly 50 or more, and amazing to witness. They drew quite a crowd and people clapped for those that were particularly fearsome.
Back in the car, we drove until the town of Castro, which is home to the best-known as cave in Salento, the Zinzulusa Grotto. The grotto is filled with stalactites and stalagmites and you can either hike down a ravine to reach it or take a boat tour along the coast, which takes you inside of it.
As we continued on our way to Otranto we realized that the towns, cliffs, ancient coastal towers, hidden beaches, and delicious seafood restaurants along the drive were so numerous that we could drive the coast for days and still not see everything. I suggest exploring the lesser known sea caves and towns because they all offer unique surprises.
We arrived in Otranto just as the sun was going down and aperitivo (happy hour with free snacks and buffets) was starting up. The city is impressive at night, particularly its Aragonese castle. Some of the castle’s turrets and walls are accessible to all and afford incredible views of the city. The bars and restaurants located along the shore and boardwalk were full of diners, and aperitivo runs until 8 o’clock. My girlfriend and I took a table, ordered two glasses of wine, and reminisced about the incredible drive we had just completed.