If your idea of an Italian vacation means doing as the Romans do, then maybe it’s time to turn your back on Tuscany and head down to the rugged coast of Puglia, Italy’s boot heel. Although it clearly flickers on the Italophile radar, Puglia is, as of yet, an unspoiled Italian vacation destination where you can eat seafood pulled just hours earlier from the crystalline waters below, relax in outdoor bars and drive more than 500 miles of coastline road stretching along two seas. So catch a flight to Bari (Alitalia offers connecting flights through Milan and Rome), rent the Italian ride of your particular fantasy (budget allowing), whether it’s a Lamborghini Aventador Roadster from Luxe of Italy or a Fiat 500 from Europcar, and get ready to experience life under a different Italian sun.
A road trip along the coast of Puglia starts, for all intents and purposes, in Polignano a Mare, an ancient fishing village perched high over the Adriatic Sea about 20 miles south of Bari. Feast on fried triglie (mullet) the size of french fries at Il Bastione restaurant and take a leisurely afternoon swim with the locals at the town’s public beach. Sleep like a caveman at the 25-room Hotel Grotta Palazzese, built into the limestone cliffs above the massive cave the town is famous for. Cars aren’t necessary within Polignano’s walls, so park your wheels outside and let your inner village dweller out.
Enjoy the gently winding roads that twist through groves of Italy’s oldest olive trees to the 14th century city of Alberobello. This UNESCO World Heritage site is known for its whitewashed, conical-roofed, Hobbit-like houses called trulli, constructed using a prehistoric mortarless building technique that was the original drywall. Head south and catch the Litoranea Salentina, or coast road, and make like an Italian film star as you cruise to Santa Maria di Leuca, the very tip of Italy’s boot heel. The Pugliese call it fine terra (“end of the earth”), and they say that on a clear night you can see the lights of Greece across the water.
After stopping for gelato in the ancient port city of Otranto, stretch your legs and your imagination on an hour-long walk deep into the magical Zinzulusa sea cave, one of the largest Italy has to offer. Enjoy a leisurely seafood lunch with the spray of the Adriatic kissing your face at the family-run Lo Scalo. In addition to delicious, simply prepared seafood, a gallery of framed photos on the restaurant’s wall will prove you really are living the life of an Italian movie star. Too much wine? Lo Scalo also has apartments for rent.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Playboy.