I'll forgive you if you have never heard of the island of Ischia before. A relaxing island of volcanic origin where you can find more than 100 thermal springs that have countless healing powers that made it a popular wellness destination. In addition to wellness tourism, people come to the island for its beautiful sandy beaches, its culture, its history and to experience La Dolce Vita in its most authentic form.
A number of scenes from the film 'The Talented Mr Ripley' were shot on the island of Ischia. Director Anthony Minghella had done his best to find suitable locations around Amalfi that could capture the glamour of the 1950s, but on Ischia he found his Hollywood version of Italy: narrow cobbled streets with laundry hanging out to dry, the hum of Ferrari red Vespas, bell towers, baroque churches, belvederes and black-clad old ladies selling fruit at the morning market. An idyllic Italy straight out of La Dolce Vita. Yet it seems that foreign tourists have only recently discovered this gem. During our visit in September, we met only a handful of Germans in the island's main town, Ischia Porto, where there are many shops with well-known fashion brands, but the island still retains a lovely old-fashioned Italian feel. On the piazza of Lacco Ameno, elderly men lean on their canes and discuss the weather, politics or the latest football match, while their wives go to church to say a quick prayer or light a candle, and youngsters hover over their scooters, complimenting pretty girls on their way to work.
Compared to Capri, Ischia is a welcoming and affordable island full of tropical gardens, romantic castles, white and black sand beaches, hot springs and volcanic mountains. For 2,500 years people have come to Ischia for therapeutic spa treatments. Fangotherapy is particularly popular with the island's visitors. Bathing in volcanic mud to treat rheumatism and muscular ailments has never gone out of fashion, even the ancient Romans used to come here. Hot springs bubble out of the mountains everywhere, with water temperatures ranging from 20°C to 100°C. The steamy, sulphurous water even makes some parts of the beach too hot to walk on - making a stretch of the long Maronti beach ideal for frying freshly caught fish.
Ischia is a 17km-long island of tufa and bougainvillea, and according to my friend Suzan, who recently inherited a hotel here, has changed little since the first summer she came here some 40 years ago. Back then, however, the visitors were mostly residents of the bustling city of Naples, escaping the heat of the city. Today, it is still mostly Italians who visit the island, from Naples, returning each year to the same guesthouses and rental flats, each summer a chance to renew old friendships.
The Aragonese Castle
The Castle of the Aragonese is a beautiful medieval castle situated next to the town of Ischia on the Gulf of Naples. The castle is built on a hill of volcanic tuff and it is connected to the island of Ischia by a long road. The castle was built in 474 BC by Hiero I of Siracusa.
Legend has it that the castle became the property of the winner of a card game.
Mules may no longer be allowed to carry suitcases up the steep hills of Sant'Angelo, but it is still a characteristic Mediterranean village with colourful houses built on a tufa back of the mountain and has sweeping views of the crystal-clear sea around Ischia. The village's Piazzetta faces the marina, it is a pedestrianised area and at the same time the place where everyone meets everyone else. There are many shops selling ceramics and restaurants with tables outside. It is a great place to enjoy the conviviality of this otherwise quiet village. The mules of yesteryear have been replaced by a rather odd-looking mini trolley. This is the only means of transport allowed to carry suitcases through the narrow streets to the hotels and apartments.
Following a path up the hill, a few minutes' walk between swarms of lizards that are quick to take cover, the Aphrodite Apollon thermal bath complex appears before me, part of the Miramare Sea Resort, a vast complex of pools, each named after a Greek or Roman god or goddess, hidden between the cliffs that rise up from the sea: an unimaginably beautiful complex, not just for wellness tourists.
If you are in search of an original organic spa experience and are prepared to walk 40 minutes through a volcanic canyon to Cavascura, you will find a small spa with thermal springs used since Roman times. You can ask for a fango massage with therapeutic mud or enjoy a sauna in the caves; the water for the showers comes directly from hot springs and is not additionally heated.
But the greatest magic of Ischia is not found in the villages or even in the glittering sea - but in the hills, where very few tourists visit. Around the 789 metre high Monte Epomeo, the landscape of Ischia changes dramatically. Brambles, white lava and dark green vineyards give way to dusty cliffs and flowers.
The true magic of Ischia
It's an hour's drive from the village of Fontana, but the reward isn't just the breathtaking sea views, but lunch at La Grotta da Fiore, a restaurant carved entirely from soft volcanic rock. If you can stay longer than an afternoon, I recommend a visit to the hamlets between Sant'Angelo and Epomeo - Serrara and Fontana - with their brightly painted houses, a 19th-century church with statues of the Virgin Mary and one or two bars where you can get an espresso or fresh spremuta d'arancia (orange juice) for little more than 1 euro. The food is also very different from that at the foot of the mountain: no seafood or fish here, but mainly the local mountain rabbit, prepared all'ischitana, with fresh herbs and even fresher tomatoes. The small restaurants nestled among the vineyards look a little deserted at the end of the season and you may find the door closed if you haven't called ahead to let them know you're coming.
As I am travelling by bus, my first stop is the village of Forio, the centre of the island's wine production. I am high above the pretty fishing port of La Mortella, where the late British composer Sir William Walton lived and where his widow Susanna has created a fairy garden - a wonderland of tropical flowers, buzzing birds, pergolas and pagodas, with the gentle sounds of oriental music in the background. When you visit the garden, take time to enjoy a real English tea in the small tearoom. Lady Walton came to Ischia with Sir William, the man who wrote the heartbreakingly beautiful score for Laurence Olivier's Henry V and whose music was played at the coronations of George VI and Elizabeth II.
The couple bought a piece of land in a lush valley below Mount Epomeo with spectacular sea views. Their friends Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh begged them not to. Larry said at the time, "It's just a bunch of rocks. You'll never get anything to grow here". Nothing could be further from the truth and today it is one of the most famous tropical gardens in the world, visited by up to 60,000 tourists a year.
There are three concert seasons in the Gardens each year: in spring and autumn, chamber music concerts are held on Saturdays and Sundays in the indoor Recital Hall; in summer, the Festival of Youth Orchestras with symphonic concerts is held every Thursday evening in the Greek Amphitheatre (outdoor). These concerts are performed by young musicians (up to 32 years old).https://www.lamortella.org/en - entrance 12 Euro p.p.
It's easy to overlook Ischia. Its sister island, Capri, just across the water, is the magnet for the permatanned super-rich, but it's on Ischia that you feel you've found a slice of undiscovered paradise. It's a destination for those who want to take their time when they go on holiday; getting there isn't very fast, you need to take the ferry from Naples. Thanks to Elena Ferrante's bestseller "My Brilliant Friend" and the TV series filmed on the island, Ischia has become better known.
What else is there to do on the island of Ischia?
First, of course, are the thermal baths and spas, which cater for almost every ailment and budget, but Ischia offers so much more it would be a shame to stop there. Boat trips take in the spectacular rocky coastline, quiet beaches, fishing villages and pine forests which cover 46km2 of the island. An easy and cheap way to get around the island and see Ischia's natural beauty is by minibus, which follows the coastal road either way, left and right. If you want a nice beach, go to the Maronti beach, where the sea water is a bright turquoise. The beach is 3 km long, making it one of the longest on the island, and it overlooks Sant'Angelo and the castle. To the right of the beach are the thermal baths of Cavascura, the oldest on Ischia, on a cliff about 300 meters up. There is a path through the gorge to the sound of the water. The entrance fee is €15 and includes a hot shower and sauna in the caves - which is great even when it's hot - followed by 20 minutes in a Roman bath carved into the cave. Access to the cave itself is free of charge.
Fully refreshed by the bath, take a water taxi to the small port of Sant'Angelo and mingle with tourists in the cafes and terraces, visit one of the art galleries, water taxis take and pick up bathers to small coves elsewhere on the island. The 14th century Castello Aragonese stands 600 feet above sea level. It is connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. It has a long history. It was besieged by Nelson and was once a convent where creepy mummified nuns sat upright on stone benches. It is now used to house a colony of feral cats. The castle served as a backdrop when Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) murdered Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) after luring him out to sea in a rowboat.
In the town of Lacco Ameno, I'd visit Villa Arbusto, an impressive exhibition of archaeological finds from the Greek settlement of Pithecusae, a private collection of African art and a photographic exhibition from Ischia's 1960s heyday, featuring celebrities from Sophia Loren to the Pope. If you've had enough of the beach and hot springs, climb the mountain to visit the botanical gardens of Giardini Mortella . Moreover, if you like classical music, you might want to attend one of the open-air concerts held here during the summer months. If you want to go further, get up early and hike to Monte Eponeo, the highest point on the island. The hike takes about an hour, but as a reward you can treat yourself to lunch at La Grotta da Fiore. From this point, you have great views of the sister islands of Capri and Procida.
Where to stay on Ischia?
If there was one Italian (re-)opening that was worth seeing last summer, this was it. Is it any wonder? Hotelier Marie-Louise Sciò, known for Il Pellicano, has a knack for attracting beautiful people with her chic brand `Il Dolce Far Niente´ (the delightful doing nothing). But Ischia, Capri's somewhat less well-known, less flashy, even somewhat unsightly stepsister, was not the obvious choice for her family's third hotel. In just four months, Sciò transformed the sea-urchin colored building into a 16th-century watchtower with turrets and a pirate lookout, taking over the historic Mezzatorre on the island's wild north-western tip. At sunset, head to Bar La Torre for heavenly Negroni Bagliatos. A deep-green tiled thermal pool of mineral water and nutrient-rich mud bubbles in the basement. Outside, under navy-blue umbrellas, you can hear the soft murmur of guests around the magnificent outdoor saltwater pool and horseshoe-shaped terraces overlooking the bay. This is the Italy of Slim Aarons and The Talented Mr Ripley (partly filmed here). In the age of authenticity, this feels like the real thing.Mezzatore Hotel and Thermal Spa, via Mezzatorre, 23/d, 80075 Forio NA - Rooms & Rates
Hotel Maront in Barano is a cosy family-run hotel close to the island's longest sandy beach. They offer 25 neat rooms and a large outdoor terrace where breakfast (with delicious homemade jams and marmalades) is served in the shade of a pretty magnolia tree. Good value for money, especially if you opt for half-board. Hotel Maronti from €90 per roomHotel Maronti, Via Maronti, 18, 80072 Barano D'ischia NA - Rooms & Rates
The Miramare Sea Resort & Spa is located in a pedestrian area of Sant'Angelo, on the south coast of Ischia. Facing its own private beach, the rooms are Mediterranean-style and have balconies with sea views. Access to the hotel's spa includes the Aphrodite Apollon Thermal Gardens with 8 thermal pools, a fitness centre and a naturally heated sauna.Miramare Sea Resort, Via Comandante Maddalena, 55, 80081 Serrara Fontana NA - Rooms & Rates
My favourite hotel on the island is the Moorish Il Moresco. Most of the cast of Ripley stayed at Il Moresco. It has a beautiful natural spa that Gwyneth Paltrow is said to have used. There are three heated pools and the mineral-rich water comes straight from thermal springs, one of which is in an ancient hidden cave where wine was kept cool for centuries.Grand Hotel Il Moresco, Via Emanuele Gianturco, 16, 80077 Ischia NA - Rooms & Rates
N minutes from Ischia Porto is a good mid-range hotel and a perfect base for exploring the island. With its own private beach, swimming pool, hot tubs and a good restaurant on site. In fact, I would give this hotel just over the 3 stars it has.Pagoda Hotel, Via delle Fornaci, 07, 80077 Ischia NA - Rooms & Rates
A household name and probably the most luxurious hotel on the island. The thermal baths are open from late March to mid-November and the last 2 weeks of December. A string of beautiful people have made the Regina Isabella famous. In the 1950s, when media magnate and film producer Angelo Rizzoli opened the hotel, luminaries like Elizabeth Taylor and Maria Callas were regular guests. The stars' names are discreetly engraved on the door of the suites. Butler service offers and, of course, champagne at breakfast. Every glass of wine you order here is accompanied by a lavish selection of Italian delicacies. Guests at the Regina Isabella won't lack anything during their stay.Albergo della Regina Isabella, Piazza Santa Restituta, 1, 80076 Lacco Ameno NA - Rooms & Rates
Villa Isabella is described as the 'Mediterrenian´s first private residence club', and it is believed to be a sanctuary for the mega-rich. It is part of the hotel Regina Isabella.
On the hillside is the Casa Garibaldi B&B with a large garden, mosaic terraces and thermal baths. Owner Luisa Iacono keeps the same rooms for the same regulars every year, while her mother, Giuseppina, has been baking the same special brioches for Sunday breakfasts since the 1990s.Casa Garibaldi, Via Sant'Angelo, 22, 80070 Sant'Angelo NA - Rooms & Rates
Recommended places to eat in Ischia
Bracconiere , located 480m above sea level in Serrara Fontana, on the menu rabbit and various other local dishes. Getting there is a bit difficult, but there are taxi rides. Reservations recommended.Address : Via Falanga, 42, 80070 Serrara Fontana NA, phone: +39 081 999436
Il Comignolo , Again reserve in advance, rabbit or bucatini served as main course or in a stewAddress : Via Ciglio, 21, 80070 Serrara Fontana NA, phone: +39 081 999422
Ristorante I Ricci: Speciality pasta with squid.Address : Via Porto, 89, 80077 Ischia NA, phone: +39 081 333 0353
Ristorante Pizzeria da Umberto , for the best pizza and several good pasta dishes and friendly service.Address : Via Roma, 79, 80077 Ischia NA, phone : +39 081 991581
Ristorante Emmanuela, Emmanuela is now retired, but her place has been taken over by her children and an enthusiastic in-law. Try the spaghetti all'Emmanuela - with fresh shellfish cooked in a tomato sauce with a hint of spicy peperoncino.Address : Via Petrelle, 80070 Serrara Fontana NA, phone: +39 081 999697
Zi Nannina a Mare, The interior is a bit dated, but the food is still good. Local dishes and lots of fish, sea views.Address : Lungomare Cristoforo Colombo, 18, 80077 Ischia NA, phone: +39 081 991350