Luxury Travel Consultant Nicole Porto shares thoughts from her trip to Ischia, the untouched Italian paradise.
At least 15 years ago, I clipped a picture out of a magazine of a boy diving into crystal clear water; the caption said something like “Ischia is virtually untouched by American tourists and is popular with Italians for its beautiful beaches and relative seclusion”. I might have carried that picture around with me for several years until you could barely see the picture anymore, and while I’ve been to Italy several times over the years, I never quite made it to this obscure island paradise until this year.
Ischia, the largest of the Phlegrean Islands and located just off the coast of Naples, truly is untouched by mainstream tourism. With regular ferry and hydrofoils between the mainland and the island (plus ports to dock a private yacht), and some of the best seafood I’ve ever had in my life, it is quite a mystery why the place isn’t crawling with tourists. Granted, day trippers do come over from Naples and the Amalfi Coast, but they rarely venture past the main port towns. Instead, I headed to the small resort town of Lacco Ameno immediately on arrival and checked into the 5* Regina Isabella Hotel. Built in the 1950’s by an Italian film producer, the hotel is rich in cinematic history (it was a favorite of Elizabeth Taylor’s!). The hotel is home to Ischia’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, Indaco, as well as the Regina Isabella Thermal Baths, a spa that takes full advantage of the island’s naturally heated thermal waters. Just outside the hotel property is a small town center with fashionable boutiques, family-run trattorias and gelato shops – perfect for an evening stroll – and down the road is one of the island’s famous “thermal parks”. These parks, in addition to having beach access, offer numerous spa treatments and feature various thermal pools: heated, marine, therapeutic, thermal… Ischia is a spa junkie’s dream come true.
The unique geology and geography of the island also makes it perfect for wine making and agriculture. That said, it is an island with a rich sea-faring history (this is where spaghetti puttanesca was invented!), so you’re pretty much assured a fabulous meal wherever you go – fresh seafood, beautiful produce, interesting wines and my favorite discovery: “rucola”, a digestive made out of arugula. Because the masses haven’t discovered it yet, you can have a truly authentic and private culinary journey through Ischia, visiting vineyards and wineries, taking a cooking class in a local home, or even trying your hand at “volcanic cooking”, using the steaming volcanic sand to cook up some of the Ischian specialties.
While most people do come to Ischia to relax, there are definitely opportunities for a more “active” way to experience the island, like hiking Mount Epomeo – the island’s highest peak – sea kayaking, and archaeo-bio snorkeling (snorkeling through submerged archaeological ruins). I had a private guide take me through Ischia’s iconic Castello Aragonese, dating back nearly 2,500 years! The Castle’s history is fascinating and my guide Alessandro had hundreds of anecdotes of both its past and present. Afterwards, we had a picnic on the beach and then snorkeled around the peninsula that the castle sits on – checking out the volcanic emissions that make the bottom of the sea look like it’s raining diamonds upside down. While we were on the beach, a group of local men set up their own picnic site – grilling meat and vegetables, eating fresh mozzarella out of giant buckets of brine, making sandwiches with huge loaves of fresh-baked bread and handing them out to passersby… their laid back, generous and fun-loving attitude was so inspiring. The picture I took of these guys so obviously loving life – in the shadow of Castello Aragonese and diving into the crystal clear water surrounding it – was the perfect replacement for the picture that brought me to this magical island in the first place.