A decade ago, my wife, Barbara, and I spent a week on Italy's Sorrento Peninsula, mostly driving at a snail's pace behind smoke-belching buses on twisting two-lane coastal roads, with the sea just out of reach. A couple of days before we were due to fly home, a restaurant owner overheard me griping about the mean, crowded pebble beaches of the Amalfi Coast and demanded to know why we had not been on the water. The next day, his uncle Yé Yé took us to Capri on his wooden gozzo (or belly boat, named for its shape).
We thought we were quite the cognoscenti. Staggered by Capri's beauty, we returned year after year, but eventually, we had to admit the island was congested, there was too much English spoken at the spiagge, too many cigar-waving Americans outside the Quisisana Hotel. Then, two years ago, Roman friends invited us to join them on a jaunt to their favorite secret getaway: the Tuscan Archipelago, which lies between the Ligurian coast and Corsica, about 300 miles north of Capri. We visited a comma-shaped speck in the Tyrrhenian Sea called Giannutri, where we snorkeled in crystal waters and swam carefully through a vast colony of sea urchins. Later, we sailed around granite-edged Giglio and lunched on scampi crudi at a family-run restaurant in the tiny port. No one there spoke a word of English. We were the only foreigners in the room.
The waters off Italy are full of islands, but many of these places are overexposed and overrun. The super-yachts that crowd the small harbors obscure what drew their owners into dock in the first place. Charming little restaurants quickly lose their charm when you can't get a reservation. Only a few spots remain undiscovered—and for good reason. They are difficult to reach, unattractive, unfriendly, or lacking in basic amenities. Giglio was something else: an easily accessible aquatic paradise with some trappings of civilization. We vowed to return soon—and started investigating to see if we could find other, similar Italian islands.
It wasn't easy. The people who know of such hideaways aren't entirely convinced that getting the word out is a good thing. These places have no advertising, publicists, or fancy Web sites boasting of their attractions in six languages. Our attempt to contact hotels by e-mail and fax elicited little response. Finally, though, we found out about two other clusters that, hiding in plain sight, are unknown to most non-Italians: the Pontine Islands, an hour south of Rome, and the Pelagi Islands, 160 miles from Sicily and 80 miles from Tunisia.
These island groups are not for everyone. The food is native and unembellished. Forget designer boutiques—there are none. Even where there are hotels, the accommodations are not luxurious. If your idea of a perfect morning is drinking an espresso while reading the International Herald Tribune or watching CNN in your room, you would be well advised to look elsewhere. And if your prerequisites for a happy journey include the regular use of the English language, you may want to turn the page.
But despite their inconveniences, these discoveries satisfied our craving for what has become the greatest novelty of all: authenticity.
"It is Africa!" announces Renato Righi, owner of El Mosaico del Sol hotel, as he greets us at the airport just outside Lampedusa's single, sunbaked town. And indeed, the island—long, flat, scrubby, subtropical, and distinguished by ancient, endless vistas, a desert palette, and Arabic architecture—feels more like Morocco than Italy.
The other Pelagi include tiny, unpopulated Lampione and Linosa, a strikingly black volcanic rock with a small village, one hotel, and a couple of restaurants. Lampedusa is the largest and the most welcoming, but on first glance not easy to love. Deforested in the 19th century, it was later flattened by Allied bombs at the end of World War II. The peanut-colored terrain remains mostly dusty and barren. In 1986, Lampedusa's U.S. Navy base was the target of a mouse-that-roared bombing raid by Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi. He missed. Boatloads of refugees from Libya and Egypt are more accurate, landing here regularly—only to be shipped home.
Tourists get a kinder reception. Most of Lampedusa's better hotels throw in a free rental car, all meals, and daily yacht trips. There's Il Gattopardo, a compound on the bay of Cala Creta with thick stone walls and domed roofs inspired by the naturally cooled local dwellings called dammusi. La Calandra, a cliffside hotel right next door, is almost as attractive, as is Club Cala Madonna, a former private house on the other side of the island. But all of these require a week's stay. We settled on El Mosaico del Sol, which rents rustic-modern rooms with kitchenettes by the night and has a swimming pool, one of the few on the island.
Although it is the southernmost point in Italy, Lampedusa is easier to reach than Capri or even the more popular Aeolian Islands off Sicily: the airport receives direct flights from all over Italy. Outside of town, however, it is mostly undeveloped, with only two roads. One of these runs along the northern coast, with its sheer cliffs, moonscapes, and an abandoned military installation, before meeting the other, which veers to the south. We spend our first afternoon driving around. Here and there, we spot the signposts of Lampedusa's future: new villas, built by Milanese millionaires. We stop briefly atop the cliff that overhangs Spiaggia dei Conigli (Rabbit Beach), a broad, sandy spot popular with both breeding turtles and sunbathers. Still jet-lagged, we decide against parking in the helter-skelter of cars, motorcycles, and scooters and hiking down the long, winding path to the beach.