Forget Capri. We'll Take Volcanic Ischia Instead
A frequent visitor to the Amalfi Coast, Fathom's Pavia Rosati takes a detour to Ischia, the other island in the Bay of Naples.
ISCHIA, Italy – Capri is the grandstanding attention hog of the Bay of Naples. Starring in all the best movies, attracting all the biggest yachts, claiming all the Prada and Pucci shops within thirty nautical miles.
And that's too bad for the other islands in the area. Or too good, depending how you feel about cruise ships and hordes of day-tripping tourists. Last season, my husband Ben and I spent a few days exploring Ischia, Capri's lesser-known island cousin to the north.
What a lovely place. Let me sing to you the siren song of its many, many charms.
Here's what I knew about Ischia before I got here: It had mud, and it had movies. The mud was the healing, take-the-cure-like-my-grandfather-used-to-do kind from Mount Epomeo, the volcano at the center of the island. The movies are the highlight of the Ischia Film Festival, held annually at the end of June. When I got to Ischia, I found all that and more. The geography is similar to Capri — hills and craters, cliffs and coves, and beautiful clear blue seas. Because Ischia isn't nearly as touristy and has a more permanent population (roughly 55,000), everything about this island has a more genuine, lived-in feel.
LAY OF THE LAND
Ischia is a rectangular shaped island no more than 47 square kilometers, wider from east to west than it is from north to south. Most ferries (from Naples, primarily, as well as Capri and other islands like Procida) arrive at the port in Ischia town on the northeastern corner of the island, though some dock at Casamicciola on the northern coast.
The island's life, attractions, and population cling close to the coastline. The interior of the island is given over to mountains and parks, with the exception of a ribbon of towns towards the south. We spent the majority of our time on the east, north, and western coasts, roaming by foot, bus, and taxi among Forio, Casamicciola, and Ischia Porto. We didn't get to the center of the island, because I made the mistake of spending a day in Procida instead. The mountainous terrain make distances surprisingly longer than you'd expect. The night I hoped to go from Ischia Porto to dinner in Sant'Angelo on the southern coast, a distance that couldn't have been more than 10 kilometers, the taxi driver discouraged me. "Too far," he said. "Don't do it."
WHAT TO DO
Get to Know the Water and the Mud
You'll see and hear a lot about local water and mud on this island — as attractions and as products for sale. The Etruscans were the first to discover the wonders of the thermal waters and healing muds of Ischia, and everybody's been enjoying them since. The doctor who examined me before my mud treatment in the gorgeous spa at Terme Manzi Hotel and Spa reassured my skepticism with a thorough explanation of why Ischia's mud is so beneficial — it's the electromagnetic charge, apparently. (You need a doctor to approve you any time you go to a good spa in Italy.) Rheumatism, stress, and skin disorders are just some of the battery of ills that can be alleviated by these therapies. Yes, they're the very same treatments that my Italian grandfather used to do for ten days every summer in Italy, the ones I used to laugh at when I was nine years old. But I was surprised, really surprised, by how much I loved being slathered in healing mud.
The thermal park is vast complex of beach, gardens, and hydrothermal experiences — hot tubs, Kneipp baths, waterfalls, saunas, and steam rooms. You pay the entrance fee (€52 for two), and spend the day splashing about as you want to. The water park (that's what they call it) is built onto a hillside, and Ben and I spent many happy hours roaming the maze of pools, caves, grottoes, hydro-massages, and other creative aquatic creations and art installations, pausing for breaks in the hammocks and on sun beds, reviving ourselves with fresh juices at the café. The beach is a private cove lined with lounge chairs and umbrellas. It can get crowded, but it's big enough that it's never obnoxious. A spa on site offers all kinds of treatments.
But the absolute highlight was the Turkish hamman, a co-ed chamber whose main feature is a giant marble slab in the middle of a steamy room. You take a perch — beams of light streaming in from pinpoint skylights overhead — and you sit. And sweat. And sweat. When the mood strikes or the temperatues get too hot, you douse yourself with buckets of cool water filled from running faucets in the corners. The procedure is healthy and detoxifying, yes, but also sexy as hell. There are all these hot, nearly naked bodies lying in the dramatically shadowed room — limbs akimbo, steam rising everywhere. Mercy. You'll need a cold limonata after this.
La Mortella Gardens
The English couple Susana and William Walton built a splendid and elaborate garden complex near Forio in the last half of the 20th century. This is a great place to get lost amid sculptures, fountains, pergolas, ponds, and more frogs, lily pads, birds, and tropical flowers than you can imagine. (Don't pay the one-euro fee to go into the orchid house. Even at that rate, it's a rip-off.) The museum has Walton memorabilia, a puppet theater, and Cecil Beaton photographs. Pay special attention to the figures in the Temple of the Sun: They may look like innocent little painted figures, but they're frolicking about in X-rated ways. (Then again, you know what they say about Roman orgies...) William was a composer, and there are frequent concerts at the recital spaces within, the prettiest of which is an open-air Greek amphitheater looking out to sea.
The castle complex originally built in 474 B.C. on a tiny islet off the eastern coast near the port is awesome and excellent and historic and creepy. Ischia's many battles throughout the centuries were waged here, and one can only imagine the sieges and feasts that this hilltop fortress has seen in its time. After paying the admission at the entrance, you follow the self-guided tour through the church, the convent, the nun's cemetery (they used to let their bodies decompose on draining seats along the walls — gross, sisters!), the olive groves, the Bourbon prison, and the panoramic balconies and viewpoints. The hotel within the castle walls, Albergo Il Monastero, is only accessible to guests. It must feel wonderfully remote.
What a charming little town. We spent Friday night here, after walking along the coast from La Mortella Gardens. We just wandered around, stopping for gelato, poking our heads into the sacristy after mass to ask the priest why all the churches we had seen in Ischia had a mysterious hand jutting out of every pulpit. (He didn't know, and, now that we mention it, he hadn't really ever noticed.) We wound up in a picturesque piazza of Madonna del Soccorso at the top of the city and ordered sunset negronis and watched the goings-on. The just-married couple getting into a gorgeous vintage Chevy convertible were only eclipsed by the 100 adorable toddler and tween girls swanning about in their sequins and glitter preparing for the night's dance recital al fresco.
Ben stumbled into the atelier of an artist who works in tile, and we walked out with a beautiful, hand-painted octopus who has since been installed in our shower in NYC. (Yeah, that was a heavy carry-on item.)
The Archaeological Museum of Pithecusae traces Ischian history from prehistoric to Roman times. Lots of ceramics, if you're into that sort of thing.
So Much Art and Culture
They just love festivals on this island. And concerts in gardens. You'll find brochures and information at hotels and attractions on the island about the many year-round activities.
WHAT WE MISSED
Poseidon Thermal Gardens
Like Negombo, though even bigger, it's the other fancy thermal, beach, health spa on the island.
The former villa of Italian film director Luchino Visconti has exhibitions about his life and work. In warmer months, it's host to a full schedule of performances. It is currently closed until further notice, but stay tuned.
A public cove of thermal springs on the southern end of the island near the town of Succhivo that's accessible via some 200 steps down to the sea.
IF YOU ONLY DO ONE THING
Spend a day at the baths and having mud treatments. Negombo was just awesome. A year later, I'm still dreaming about that marble slab in the hammam. I only had one mud treatment at the spa at Terme Manzi, and it convinced me that one day I will go back and do the whole ten-day cure.
A more budget-minded option would be Terme di Ischia in Ischia town. In addition to mud therapies, the battery of treatments include massage, facial peels, manicures, lymphatic drainage, and — oh dear god, I don't even want to know why this was invented — vaginal irrigation.
WHERE TO STAY
Terme Manzi Hotel and Spa
We stayed here, a family-owned Relais and Chateaux property in an unlikely location: an unremarkable town square in Bagni, just uphill from Casamicciola. The décor is the Neapolitan look that I love, where old (baroque art and sculpture, heavy textiles, gold-trimmed furniture, a sea of marble) mixes with new (modern paintings, gleaming bathrooms, crisp linens). We began every day with long and elaborate breakfasts on the second-floor terrace overlooking town. There's a pool on the rooftop and an outstanding spa on the ground floor. Yes, you're on an island with a lot of beaches and you're probably here when it's warm and sunny outside, but do make time for mud treatments at the spa. The facilities are outstanding (and really gorgeous), and the mud itself was restorative. If you're coming here from another country, consider the mud your jet lag cure. The hotel staff was warm and attentive. The impressive Michelin-starred restaurant, Il Mosaico, has been closed since the recent departure of local chef and rising culinary star Nino Di Constanzo, who had been doing great things here. But watch this space: The owners will do another great restaurant here soon.
L'Albergo della Regina Isabella
This is the more famous and historic deluxe hotel on the island, with a primo location on the water in Lacco Ameno. I had originally wanted to stay here, but we couldn't work it out. This turned out to be a good thing, because when we went to the restaurant for lunch, the lobby, the common spaces, and the restaurant left me a little cold. The hotel is bigger and grander than I would have liked, and clearly caters to a very international clientele. This is but a first impression, but I was glad we weren't staying here.
Hotel Tritone Resort and Spa
On the other hand, I liked the look of this hotel on the western coast on first sight, so I walked into have a look around (and catch the soccer game in the lobby). It's very sweet, with friendly staff, big open spaces for lunch and lounging, and a terrific beach with gorgeous orange and blue striped umbrellas. I didn't ask for a site tour, but if I wanted something less expensive than Terme Manzi, I'd stay here.
WHERE TO EAT
I don't have very much to say about this, because we totally bungled our meals throughout our stay. (Yes! Bad meals in Italy! It's rare, but it can happen.) For reasons I can't entirely remember, we didn't eat at Terme Manzi's beautiful restaurant Il Mosaico. (And now that the chef has gone, we'll never get to do it.) That was, in technical terms, a total bonehead move. I toured the restaurant and the kitchens — they're absolutely gorgeous. If bad meals were our punishment for not eating here, well, we had it coming.
In Forio, we didn't make reservations for pizza at La Bella Napoli because we didn't think we needed to. (Seriously, I thought, how crowded is this tiny island gonna get?) But we did need them, and no amount of whining and begging was going to get us a table. So we ate at another pizzeria a few doors down on the stretch of the port lined with restaurants. We had such a forgettable pizza, I'm not even going to say anything else about it.
In Ischia town, we ate at I Ricci, which came more highly recommended than it should have been. Many port towns have this same setup — a stretch of restaurants on the quay lining the harbor. Most of these places are predictably lousy, though you'll always find a good one in the mix. How can you tell the difference? Well, you ask around, not that this is always a fool-proof strategy. But this was the night when I invented a new travel rule: If the menu is also printed in Russian, don't eat there. If it makes me sound like a snob, that's okay. When I'm in Italy, I want to eat where the Italians eat, not the Russians.
As I said, we didn't make it to Sant Angelo for dinner at Casa Celestino. But it's where I'm going when I go back.
WHAT I KNEW ON THE LAST DAY I WISH I HAD KNOWN ON THE FIRST
Procida was a waste of a day. I should have stayed in Ischia instead to hike Mount Epomeo, to visit the cute piazza in Fontana, to see Sorgente Nitrodi in Barano D'Ischia, and for a meal of roasted meats at Focolare restaurant.
Now I know for next time.
HOW TO GET THERE
Fly: Land at Naples (CAP), which will typically involve a connecting flight from the United States.
Ferry: From the airport, take a taxi to the port to catch the ferry. Note which port your ferry or hydrofoil leaves from, because there's more than one port in Naples. There are a few ferry lines (Alilauro and Caremar are the biggest), offering high-speed and regular options. If you've rented a car for your stay in Italy, you can take a car on some ferries, not that you need a car in Ischia. The passenger fare costs about 20 euros. Important note that if the seas are rough, some ferries will be cancelled. I learned this the hard way when I discovered my ferry from Ischia to Capri had been cancelled. Here's a local schedule.
Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive. We relied on the bus because it was cheap, relatively frequent, and easy. But we also walked. A lot.
WHAT TO BRING HOME
The locally made beauty products are lovely. They take skin care and health very seriously here. I picked up a few bottles of creams and potions made by Ischia Beauty. I intended to give them as souvenirs, but I kept them all instead.
WHEN TO GO
Summer is, of course, lovely, especially June, early July, September, and October. Avoid August at all costs when the rest of Italy takes a holiday. If you're interested in a particular festival, plan your visit around that.
This is a really casual island, not nearly as jet set and glamorous as Capri. Casual style rules. And because we're in Naples, bling and flash are always appreciated.