Italy's Undiscovered Islands
Published: May 2009
By Michael Gross
Tired of crowded beaches and overpacked restaurants, <b>Michael Gross</b> goes in search of the country's hidden archipelagos— rustic hideaways where English is a rarity and unfettered authenticity is a way of life.
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.
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.
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.
Since hotels and restaurants close in the off-season, the Pelagi, Pontine, and Tuscan islands are best visited during the summer. The islands are easy to reach from mainland Italy. Alitalia, Lufthansa, and Air Sicily offer direct flights to Lampedusa from major Italian cities. For Ponza, hydrofoils and ferries (www.vetor.it) leave from Anzio. Giglio's ferries depart from Porto Santo Stefano. Although cars are allowed on the island, it's easier to park on the mainland. Two ferry lines operate from Porto Santo Stefano: Maregiglio (39-05/6481-2920) and Toremar (39-05/6481-0803). Purchase tickets at the dock.
WHERE TO STAY
Club Cala Madonna
Doubles from $468, per night, all-inclusive. 31 Via Roma; 39-09/2297-5401; www.calamadonnaclub.it
El Mosaico del Sol
Doubles from $2,510, 7-night stay, all-inclusive. Cala Palme; 39-09/2297-3074; www.elmosaicodelsol.it
Doubles from $3,990, 7-night stay, all-inclusive. Cala Creta; 39-011/818-5270; www.equinoxe.it
Doubles from $3,334, 7-night stay, all-inclusive. Contrada Cala Creta; 39-09/2297-1098; www.lacalandralampedusa.it
WHERE TO EAT
NiçoiseNorth African fusion. Dinner for two $102. 2 Via Cala Pisana; 39-09/2297-0699
Seafood, straight from the docks. Dinner for two $110. 6 Via Bonfiglio; 39-09/2297-1691
WHERE TO STAY
Grand Hotel Santa Domitilla
Doubles from $230. Via Panoramica; 39-07/7180-9951; www.santadomitilla.com
La Limonaia a Mare
Doubles from $320. Via Dragonara; 39-07/7180-9886; www.ponza.com/limonaia
WHERE TO EAT
Dinner for two $128. Piazza Carlo Pisacane; 39-07/718-0643
Island specialties and homemade wine. Dinner for two $38. Via Frontone; 39-07/7180-009
Dine outside under the bamboo awning. Dinner for two $88. 5 Via Salita Cristo; 39-07/7180-8683
Gennarino a Mare
One of the oldest restaurants. Dinner for two $128. 64 Via Dante; 39-07/718-0071
Gennaro e Aniello
Lunch for two $100. Cala Feola; 39-07/7180-8614
Dinner for two $100. Piazza Carlo Pisacane; 39-07/718-0102
A local favorite. Dinner for two $77. Corso Carlo Pisacane; 39-338/363-9910
Dinner for two $115. 4 Via Dietro la Chiesa; 39-07/718-0338
The best espresso-and-pastry bar in town. Pastry and coffee for two $10. 13 Corso Carlo Pisacane; 39-07/7180-647
WHERE TO STAY
If you decide to base yourself on the mainland, this hotel near the Porto Santo Stefano ferry dock is worth a visit. Doubles from $970. Cala dei Santi; 39-05/6485-8111; www.pellicanohotel.com
Doubles from $384. Cala Degli Alberi; 39-05/6480-9034; www.isoladelgiglio.it/hermitage
WHERE TO EAT
A family-run terrace restaurant with freshly caught seafood. Dinner for two $77. Via T. de Revel; 39-05/6480-9237