Tom Alberto Bull travels to Ischia, a perfect little gem in the glittering Gulf of Naples
Affectionately known as the Isola Verde, the ‘Green Island’, Ischia has so much to offer for a short getaway.
The terrain is small enough to explore in just a few days and the rewards are plentiful: natural springs emanating from every corner, beautiful sandy beaches, bustling towns with shops aplenty, and fantastic local produce in every dish.
It doesn’t share the expensive exclusivity of neighbouring Capri and is just as easily accessible with the ferry from the Port of Naples, making it the preferred destination for locals in need of a little R&R.
The volcanic nature of the island makes it one of the largest natural spas in Europe and has attracted visitors since the 8th century BC.
The Greeks, who named the island Pithecusae, used the thermal springs to restore the body and spirit, seeing a supernatural power rising up through the earth’s crust.
The Romans introduced public thermae, transforming Ischia into a place of leisure and relaxation. Using these same waters is not just a pleasurable experience but an historic one, sharing a moment in time with the ancient civilisations that came before.
More recently, the island was a hot spot for European nobility in the 1700s, and became a sanctuary for artists from the beginning of the early 1900s when writers and painters from all around the world made it their home.
Famous residents of times past include Italian film maker Luchino Visconti and British classical composer William Walton, whose wife, Susana, left her own mark by developing the Giardini La Mortella botanical gardens, which formed part of my trip.
From the moment the landscape appeared on the horizon as I made the short trip across the bay I couldn’t wait to disembark. The central peak, Mount Epomeo, towers 788 metres above sea level, covered in luscious green trees which some say give the island its nickname.
We had an ambitious itinerary to squeeze into two days and time was of the essence.
We hopped on one of the local buses and crossed the island to our hotel, the Punta Chiarito Resort. Almost a landmark in itself, this beautiful resort sits atop a cliff overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.
The patron, Nicola, is immensely proud of the ingredients they source from their family-owned farm across the hillside: wine, oil, jams, honey, tomatoes and more.
Baia di Sorgeto
After a quick tour of the hotel we dropped off our suitcase and immediately descended the nearby steps to the Baia di Sorgeto, a picture-perfect bay with clear blue water and a small, rocky beach.
This is one of the busier spots on the island, and for good reason: there are powerful jets of natural spring water to bathe in in the sea. The warm water means you can enjoy this experience all year round, or under the moonlight.
Be warned: in some areas the water is so hot it can scald you! There is a warning sign to make you aware of this and the areas to avoid are easy to spot as the steam rises from the water.
Locals are known to place potatoes or eggs on rocks heated by these boiling temperatures and reap the rewards within just a few minutes.
For a more conventional eating experience there is a restaurant serving simple local dishes at a very reasonable price, so we duly sat down to enjoy a spot of lunch with the wonderful sounds and sights of the natural surroundings.
There is a convenient and reasonably priced taxi boat service from the Baia di Sorgeto to the nearest quaint village, Sant’Angelo. It takes around 15 minutes, circumnavigating the giant rock that you can see from miles around, with the added bonus that it saves you having to walk back up the steep steps that got you down here.
Back on dry land there are plenty of shops, restaurants and cafés to pass some time in. I treated myself to a gelato, and found a nice spot to sit and watch the boats in the small marina and take in the panoramic views across the Tyrrhenian Sea.
The windy roads leading up to the hilltop houses and back down to the waterfront make for a fulfilling afternoon stroll and lead onto the next stop of my journey.
Fun fact: Sant’Angelo is a favourite holiday destination of the former German chancellor Angela Merkel!
Le Fumarole Beach
We made our way on foot to this wonderful beach, but you can also hop onto another boat taxi from Sant’Angelo.
The Fumarole are another set of hot vapours emanating from the volcanic activity underground, but unlike the Baia di Sorgeto the heat rises through the sand rather than the water.
This phenomenon is unique to this spot on the island and offers natural treatments for various ailments, including rheumatism and sciatica, by submerging your entire body into the sand. Again, the scalding temperatures beneath the surface are sufficient to slow-cook food such as chicken or fish in specially designed containers.
There are a number of bars and restaurants along this stretch of coastline – the perfect spot to enjoy an aperitif and watch the sunset.
If you have time to spare, the Aphrodite Thermal Gardens is close by, offering a spa experience in a Roman-inspired setting.
Giardini la Mortella
With a busy day ahead, we decided to hire a moped from one of the many outlets that offer this facility. Tucked away in the northwest corner of the island is the Giardini La Mortella.
The peace and tranquility of these gardens provides a welcome escape from the bustle of the densely populated towns and was our chosen location to kick off the second day.
It has a spectacular collection of subtropical and Mediterranean horticulture split across two sections – the Hill and the Valley – with a recommended exploration time of around two hours.
The standout feature is a small Greek amphitheatre which can hold up to 400 spectators and still plays host to open-air concerts in the summer months.
The backdrop to the stage is an awe-inspiring view of the island below, and it was a shame we weren’t able to attend one ourselves as it would be a truly amazing experience – highly recommended, not least because a concert ticket allows you free entrance to the gardens.
We made our way down the coastline through the town of Forio to the largest and most visited spa on the island.
Featuring more than 20 pools of different shapes and sizes with water temperatures ranging from 15° to 40°, the Poseidon Thermal Gardens is a relaxation playground where you can easily spend a day, but we saved part of the entry fee by arriving after 1pm. I did my utmost to make the most of the facilities, which include a Japanese bath, a natural sauna and an indoor restaurant.
There are plenty of sun loungers to go round, and exclusive access to a private beach. With such expansive grounds and so many pools, you never have to queue for any part of the experience.
You can choose from a wide range of wellness and beauty treatments onsite, although it’s advisable to book ahead as these fill up fast.
And the Poseidon Thermal Gardens is only one of several thermal gardens you can choose from. Another one that was highly recommended by an Italian friend of mine who is a frequent visitor to Ischia is the Negombo spa in Lacco Ameno, in the northwest corner of the island.
It was almost time to set sail back to the mainland, but on our way to the port we found the time to visit the historical site on the northeast coast – and I’m so glad that we did.
The medieval castle was built on a volcanic rocky islet originally fortified by Hiero I of Syracuse in 474 BC and still stands fully intact, connected to the island by a pedestrian bridge.
Today it is recognised as the most-visited monument on the island.
As imposing as it is beautiful, the first sight of it across the water reminded me of a scene from The Lord of the Rings.
Once inside, you cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer dimensions of the citadel, which was once home to 2,000 inhabitants. There are various terraces offering spectacular views, and a number of churches, a cloister and a prison to explore.
You could spend much longer than 48 hours on Ischia without running out of things to see and do, but we found it is possible to get around it in a weekend.
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Featured photo © Xantana via Getty Images
All other photos © Tom Alberto Bull