Instead, we return to town for a stroll and a dip at a neighboring beach, then happily retire to our room to nap. We wake just in time for the cocktail party that owner Righi gives every night. Over local wines and bottarga (mullet roe) on crackers, we meet our fellow guests—all Italian—and try to coax a few words from the shy African waiter. We dine in a nearby restaurant, where our use of English makes us so conspicuous that a wide-eyed child spends her own dinnertime watching us intently from behind a pillar next to our table.
Lampedusa's magic and austere glamour are best appreciated on the water. So, the next day, we take a trip aboard the Balú, Il Gattopardo's 50-year-old vessel, as it plies the waters off the southern coast. We first take a swim at Cala Madonna, where a tiny white chapel clings to the rocks, then La Tabaccara, a turquoise bay where striated cliffs funnel down into caves. Around the island's western point is Scoglio Sacramento, a Dover-like white cliff. Some guests stay aboard for nonstop sunning; others are in and out of their snorkeling gear, diving at every opportunity.
After a lunch of eggplant, fish, octopus salad, and fried bread, cooked by the Balú's captain and accompanied by Sicilian wine, we stop at Spiaggia dei Conigli. Rabbit Island, a little sugarloaf, is connected to the shore by a sandbar; the shallow iridescent water between them is a natural swimming pool. Just off Rabbit Island, we make our last stop, at the Madonna sott'acqua, a statue set in a stone arch 49 feet below the surface. We dive down to the ghostly yet benevolent Virgin, who is gazing up from her silent blue sanctuary.
The statue was placed there by Roberto Merlo, the former underwater photographer who founded Il Gattopardo with his wife, Silvana. After 24 years, Silvana can still count her American clients on the fingers of one hand. She says she's never even had a German. That, of course, is what attracted us. "This is not Portofino or Capri," Silvana tells us as we motor back to the port. "It's for people who love the true sea. Everything is stronger here—love, jealousy, the sun, the salt. You find a flower, and even its perfume is stronger. It's all excessive. And when bad weather arrives, it's dangerous. So you must love this place. If not, don't come." She smiles meaningfully and adds, "It's nice that not everyone can love it."
After a quick flight back to Rome, we drive an hour south to Anzio, one of four towns where ferries leave for Ponza, eponym of the Pontines and the archipelago's main destination. Compared to the bustling ferry docks in Naples that service Capri, Anzio's is tiny and refined, attended to by valets in orange shirts. The seven Pontine Islands were a regular stomping ground for Roman emperors beginning with Augustus. These days, they are a haven for sailors, like our Italian friend Marsillio, who calls the area the most beautiful place he has ever visited. En route to Ponza on the 70-minute ferry ride, we spot Zannone, once a private hunting forest and now a plant and wildlife refuge; Ventotene, with its old Roman port, Neapolitan-style town, and ruined imperial villa; and Santo Stefano, dominated by the crumbling remains of an 18th-century prison designed like the circles of Dante's Inferno.
Finally, we reach Ponza, a volcanic island shaped like a lizard and made up of sheer cliffs, craggy coastal nooks, grottoes, and ancient ruins. We disembark in the 18th-century Bourbon port, where a sun-bleached amphitheater of colorful houses looks down on the busy stage of the harbor, which is connected by stairs and passages to the cobblestoned pedestrian high street. As we make our way slowly through the friendly chaos of people, scooters, and cars, I can't help but wonder how Ponza has remained unknown to foreigners.
One of the first ladies of Italian fashion, Anna Fendi, who has been coming to Ponza for three decades, explains: "The people here don't want outsiders unless they live the island style of life. They hate rich people with yachts. They don't want to change for them. What they offer is enough. It's the only place in the last thirty years that has stayed the same."
Indeed, this low-key weekend retreat has a delicious simplicity that's been honed over centuries. And fortunately, the advantages of its resistance to change outweigh the drawbacks—some of which were on immediate display when we checked into the Grand Hotel Santa Domitilla, supposedly the best hotel on the island. Our room might be charitably described as adequate, and no one behind the front desk speaks English, even though the property has an elaborate English-language Web site.
In fact, English is so rare on Ponza that two local taxi drivers are famous for speaking it. One, Dominick, actually speaks it well; he grew up in the Bronx. The other, Joe the American, is apparently so called because, as his business cards boast, he "speaks perficty English." Part of the island's allure is how near it is to the familiar, and yet how perficty remote.
Yet some change is in the air even here. Fendi and partner recently opened La Limonaia a Mare, a luscious B&B set in an old yellow house perched on the rocks. With its broad terrace, roof garden overlooking the port, and five simply decorated rooms, it is restrained enough to seem as if it belongs here, yet stylish enough to appeal to the international jet set.
The restaurants above the port are the only part of Ponza that feel generic: they could be on any island. Acqua Pazza, with tables on a tree-lined piazza, is the best spot in town, with a world-class wine list that has made it beloved by notable visitors like Princess Caroline of Monaco. Oréstorante, tucked into a hillside behind the town's church, has extraordinary views and is a local favorite.