Travel: Italy’s top island escapes
By Lauren Taylor
Dining outside on a balmy summer evening, I watch luxury yachts bob up and down in the marina as a guitar player gently strums away.
Breaking the peace, chef Raymond appears holding a fish the size of a small child.
“You’re going to eat this fish for every course!’ he proudly declares. “It will be delicious.”
Refusing to look directly into its beady eyes, I take a sip of champagne, while Raymond bounds off to prepare the freshly caught dentice fish in three classic Italian ways, all fabulous.
Ran by Raymond and his wife, the Un Attimo di Vino restaurant - meaning ‘a moment of wine’ - feels like a special little find. But then every mouthful of food on this charming island is spectacular; thanks to the perfect alkaline soil and blazing sunshine, the locally grown tomatoes and courgettes taste fantastic.
I soon discover, though, that it’s not just the food that makes Ischia special.
Off the coast of southern Italian city Naples, Ischia has always been somewhat overshadowed by the glitz and glam of sister island Capri, and subsequently remains largely undiscovered by British tourists.
Film-makers have long been aware of Ischia’s beauty though, and the island’s iconic Aragonese castle, perched on volcanic rock, has featured in films such as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s Cleopatra and, more recently, The Talented Mr Ripley.
It soon becomes clear that there’s a real warmth and authenticity here. But what makes it all the more unique is the astonishing number of volcanoes - 40 - on an island that measures only six miles in diameter. Thirteen are active but we’re told not to worry because the last eruption was 700 years ago.
It’s the volcanoes that create Ischia’s most prized assets - 103 thermal springs.
We hop on a sailing boat for a tour of the island with our captain Vincenzo, a jolly Ischian in his 70s.
We’re heading to Fumarole Beach in the north of the island, home to one of Ischia’s hottest thermal springs. It’s a long held belief that the mineral properties of thermal water are good for the skin, joints and other ailments.
“The sand on this beach is so hot you can cook eggs on it!” Vincenzo tells us excitedly. And he’s not joking - there’s a spot where people really do wrap eggs (or anything else) in foil and bury it in the sand to cook.
We step off the boat into bath temperature thermal water, while people lounge in swimsuits, all wearing mud masks.
This special skin-friendly mud - made from a mixture of the clay created by volcanic activity and thermal water - is 40 degrees centigrade, so it’s known to really draw out impurities. Apparently, a man walks down the beach selling ready-made face packs. There’s no-one flogging tacky jewellery and sunglasses here!
The boat’s crew direct us towards the root of the hot spring in an old Roman spa, Terme di Cavascura, built into the rock face.
A woman relaxes in a dug out bath, a man gets a ‘hydro massage’ (essentially being hosed down at close range), and there’s a natural sauna - an opening in the rock face covered by a plastic sheet to keep the heat in - which locals call cave therapy. The Romans built this all-natural spa and it’s still used at 1 euro a pop today.
Stepping into the more modern age, we visit the thermal baths at Negombo Giardini Termali, in the bay of St Montanaro, where the water is 38 degrees. There are 22 pools here, ranging in temperature; you can wade through freezing water then enter a very hot water Japanese bath to help with circulation.
And even when I arrive back at my hotel, the grand Therme Manzi Hotel & Spa, another mud wrap session is awaiting me.
It’s no wonder Italians flock to Ischia for a detoxifying break for both the body and mind. After three days, I’m convinced these natural waters have magical skin-softening powers.
MORE ITALIAN ISLAND GEMS
After Sicily and Sardinia, this is the third largest of the Italian islands, and lies 20km from the coastal town of Piombino in Tuscany. Elba is dominated by Mount Capanne - also called the roof of the Tuscan archipelago - where wild boar and mouflon (wild sheep) roam.
The island was also famously home to Napoleon during his exile in 1814, is great for cycling and has fantastic beaches.
Travel by ferry from Piombino on the mainland. The closest international airport is Pisa, where you can also connect with domestic flights to Elba.
Italy’s southernmost island lies just off the coast of Sicily, and is actually closer to Africa than the mainland. Last year, users of TripAdvisor rated Rabbit Beach as the world’s best beach, and the turquoise, wildlife-rich waters are ideal for swimming and snorkelling. The area around the beach has been declared a nature reserve and fishermen are not allowed to operate in the waters. It’s also one of the last places where the Caretta Caretta sea turtles come to lay their eggs.
A ferry service links the island with Porto Empedocle, near Agrigento, Sicily, and flights operate from the mainland. The closest international airport is Comiso.
Easily reached from Naples, this is the main island of the Pontine archipelago, which consists of eight tiny volcanic islands. Paths wind along the clifftops, often trailing down to natural swimming pools filled with seawater.
During July and August, Ponza is a popular weekend holiday spot for moneyed Romans and has even been dubbed the Italian Hamptons. Archaeological ruins - including Greek, Egyptian and Etruscan - can be found all over.
Fly to Naples then travel by ferry.
A few miles off Trapani, on the west coast of Sicily, the three Egadi Islands offer many unspoilt beaches and coves. Find Paleolithic and Neolithic cave paintings on both Favignana (the largest and most populated of the islands) and Levanzo (the smallest). The most famous is the Grotta del Genovese on Levanzo, which shows pictures of people dancing and fishing.
Fly into Palermo in Sicily, then take a hydrofoil from Trapani or Masala.
:: Lauren Taylor was a guest of the Terme Manzi Hotel & Spa (+39 081 994722; www.termemanzihotel.com) who offer doubles from 220 euros, with breakfast (two sharing).
:: easyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies to Naples from London Gatwick and London Stansted from £29.99pp (one-way).