The refreshing lack of pretension that marks Ponza always triumphs. The owner of the restaurant L'Aragosta, next door to Acqua Pazza, once famously turned away the late Fiat mogul Gianni Agnelli when he arrived from his yacht with a party of 12 people but no reservation.
"Don't you know who that is?" the proprietor was asked.
"I don't care about sheep," he replied, confusing Agnelli's last name with agnello, Italian for "lamb." "I have no tables." Who needs celebrities when your island is the star of the show?
Here, as on Lampedusa, our own focus is on the sea. There are two beaches right near town: Chiaia di Luna, which can be reached via a 656-foot Roman tunnel running through a mountain, and Frontone, with a bar and restaurant, minutes away by water or land taxi. But there are myriad beaches around the island, and visitors from across Italy zip in and out of them in all kinds of conveyances: grand sailboats, catamarans, cabin cruisers, wooden gozzos, large excursion craft, rubber dinghies, kayaks.
We head out on the water in a motorboat. Circling the island, we marvel as the coast unreels like a movie, each cove a fresh revelation, another invitation to anchor and dive in. Just out of the port are grottoes, and the slightly creepy caves where legend has it Pontius Pilate farmed moray eels. Beyond, the sea is pierced by faraglioni, rocks as sharp as sharks' teeth. As we swing around Faro della Guardia, the island's southernmost point, Monte Guardia, its highest peak, looms above, then gives way to terraced slopes, where grapes for the local wine, vino del Fieno, are grown.
Next stop is the beach at Chiaia di Luna, dominated by cliffs that glow like the moon. Just beyond, at Capo Bianco, the light plays more tricks, sun and wind changing the color of the cliffs from gray to yellow to green. A bit farther on are the Faraglioni di Lucia Rosa, named for a legendary beauty who sometime in the misty past flung herself to her death there after she was forbidden to marry. We stop in the busy bay of Cala Feola, where children play in shallow natural pools, and have lunch at a restaurant with two names: Gennaro e Aniello, according to some people, and Rifugio di Cala Feola, if you believe what's written on the menus. With tables on a terrace over the water, a bar carved into the rocks, cracked-tile-shard décor, and a menu that changes daily, it is, says Silverio, who serves us, "the real Italy."
After lunch, we still have time for a swim at Cala Fèlice, where a yellow wall of sulfur climbs up from the beach. We scrub ourselves with this natural exfoliant, then wash off in tidal pools swarming with baby shrimp. With an islet called Gavi, shaped like a baked alaska, the wonders continue, then culminate in the Grotta del Bue Marino, where your body takes on the azure shade of the water.
The following day, we head over to Palmarola, six miles away, the nearest and second-largest of the Pontines and considered by many the most glittering jewel of the Mediterranean, studded with palms and surrounded by jagged outcroppings of volcanic rock—and by tuna and dolphin and swordfish. We circle the island for hours, dropping anchor to swim among the faraglioni, snorkel through underwater tunnels, or laze on deck beneath La Cattedrale, a rock cliff eroded over the centuries into spires that resemble Milan's Gothic duomo. Palmarola is a day trip: the only accommodations are on the bay of Il Porto, which has a beach with a couple of rudimentary restaurants and a sort of Hotel Flintstone, troglodyte caves for rent. Palmarola appeals to backpackers who want to rough it and Italians rich enough to fly in with their own helicopters.
Since visiting Giglio (and its little sister, Giannutri) on a day trip, we've been curious about what it would be like to stay there. Ironically, the island that inspired our present journey is the one we end up liking the least. There are three settlements on Giglio—a fishing village, a hill town, and the port, all of them connected by a single road. Most of the hotels look as inviting as airport motels—except Pardini's Hermitage, a haute-bohemian establishment near the island's southern tip, reachable by a short boat ride or, when the seas are rough, a slow trek over a mule track. We don't realize how remote it is until we arrive.
When the hotel skiff meets us at the ferry dock in Giglio Porto, the captain's expression makes it clear that he doesn't approve of people who travel with more than one suitcase. A wordless 20 minutes later, we realize why, when we disembark in the cove below the hotel. Sitting high above, in splendid isolation, is the Hermitage. Our bags are loaded onto a motorized luggage railway, and we ascend the stairways and paths that crisscross the hillside grounds to the entrance.
We quickly discover that the hotel's name is an accurate description: its insularity is its attraction. Going anywhere entails summoning a launch from the port. "You are a prisoner here, but why would you leave?" a fellow guest says to me shortly after we arrive. "It is refined, simple, and insane." Looking around, I begin to understand what she means.
The insanity reveals itself in the chaos of the main house, where books, musical instruments, games, and telescopes are scattered everywhere. Other buildings house studios for pottery and painting. Strewn about the grounds are eccentric sculptures, archery equipment, Ping-Pong and foosball tables, a boccie court, a whirlpool inside a plastic tepee (go figure), and a gym. There are several large terraces: one for sunbathing, another for outdoor buffet lunches and barbecues, and a third with an outdoor oven where Ghigo Pardini—who grew up here—sometimes makes pizza. The Hermitage also has a working farm, with sheep, pigs, donkeys for riding, and goats that produce cheese for the restaurant. Aside from an easy way out, the hotel seems to have everything.
Unfortunately, the Hermitage has some drawbacks. Our room is full of mosquitoes and lacks screens or nets. And after eating exquisite seafood on Lampedusa and Ponza, we find the fare here disappointing. Meals are announced by the ringing of a bell and served communally and without choices in a stuffy, nondescript dining room. Though it is possible to dine in the port, leaving to do so would be difficult and expensive, and lunching out would eat up a large chunk of time.
By the end of the first afternoon, we decide that those three coves will be our world on Giglio. By the end of our second, we've concluded that we much prefer this island as a day-trip destination from the mainland. Even if you can't afford chartering your own boat to get here, there is regular ferry service from nearby Porto Santo Stefano to Giglio and Giannutri. And Giglio is so small, a rented dinghy can circle it in half a day, with plenty of time to stop and snorkle or dive.
Giannutri, which has no hotels—only rental apartments—attracts even fewer suitors. But on the bright side: both islands serve up the sights, sounds, and smells of Tuscany by the sea. Their coasts are dotted with sandy beaches, their waters are filled with coral, sponges, and schools of fish, and their steep slopes are covered with wildflowers and maritime pines and are alive with wild rabbits, goats, buzzards, and falcons. There is nothing sophisticated about any of it. Which should ensure that its secrets stay safe for a long time to come.