Please don’t tell everyone about Ischia. While it is fast losing its hidden gem status – if there’s even such a thing anymore – there’s still something special about this little island off the coast of Naples that makes me feel like only a few of us are in on the secret.
Ischia is easily reached by taking the Alilaura ferry from Bevarello port in Naples to Forio or Ischia Porto, at a cost of around 20-25 Euro each way, taking less than an hour. It’s really safe and the local buses take you all over the island for Eur 1.50 per journey; you could also rent a car for more hair-raising journeys up the mountains, if you dare. Taxis are a bit pricey but some locals operate a collectivo service (a shared taxi) which can work out well.
What’s so special about Ischia?
When I first went there ten years ago, I constantly had to explain its whereabouts to people at home. This time around, it seems to enjoy a ‘heard-of-but-not-sure-why’ status. If you’ve heard of it recently, it may be because it’s the setting of Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend‘, with its bestselling sequels, and subsequent HBO series (which we saw being filmed!). Or maybe you’ve seen it on The Talented Mr Ripley. Anyway, I love this idyllic little island with its breathtaking views of the ocean on every bend, its restaurants and trattorie with local, organic produce, its thermal springs and baths, its lush green landscape, sunsets – everything that’s great about Mediterranean living is here.
Highlights of Ischia
Ischia can be a lovely, laidback holiday in the sun but there is also plenty to see and do, with many of the best sights revolving around nature.
Poseidon Gardens (Giardini Poseidon Terme) with its thermal pools, private beach, restaurant, wine grotto, and spa treatments, is one of those rarities in life – an indulgence that’s actually good for you. At 35 Euro entrance fee for one day, it’s not cheap but it’s worth it. The restaurant is really a self-service canteen that serves healthy food and (very) over-priced wine but this didn’t take from the experience. Incidentally, Ischia’s prices have gone up a lot over the years so it’s not the remarkably good value that it was when I first visited. Negombo thermal spa is another option on the island and was also recommended by locals.
Mortella Gardens (Giardini La Mortella) are a must-see if you have even the slightest appreciation of nature and landscape. Owned by the British composer, William Walton and his Argentine wife, Susanna, a talented gardener, the gardens are a stunning blend of exotic and local fauna, fountains, waterfalls, lily ponds, sculpture, a Thai pavilion, greenhouses and dazzling panoramas. If you have mobility issues, you won’t make it to the top of the gardens – although there is a lift which should bring you some of the way – but you will still enjoy some of the Waltons’ own Eden on the first level.
There are seats and bathrooms everywhere you turn while the fountains are blissfully cooling in the summer heat. The 10 Euro entrance fee was an absolute steal. They have a very pleasant tea room and they host concerts throughout the year there as well. Check their schedule as they are NOT open every day.
Castello Aragonese was enjoyed equally by me (a grown-up) and my teenage nieces. A short bus journey from Ischia Porto, this medieval castle and fortress is worth visiting for its history, churches, ruins and views which just get more stunning at every turn. It also hosts art exhibitions, concerts, film festivals, a shop, a cafe, and a restaurant. The terrace restaurant is ridiculously over-priced but you’re paying for the views which take in Procida and Capri. We also stumbled upon filming of My Brilliant Friend before the entrance to the castle and I got to speak to a local peasant from the 1950s!
Il Sorgeto and Sant’Angelo
Ischia is, of course, famous for its thermal springs or sorgente, and one of these is Il Sorgeto near the harbour village of Sant’Angelo. Il Sorgeto can be reached by taxi boat, six Euro each way from Sant’Angelo, in about fifteen minutes. The little boat journey is glorious and you’ll see the Elefante cliffs along the way. Another option is to take the bus to Panza, stopping at Il Ritrovo restaurant, and descending about a million steps (O.K., I exaggerate) which I really wouldn’t recommend as a way back.
The cove of Il Sorgeto is tiny, with no beach and just a little pier. You will be sitting on steps or rocks so it’s not a place for people with mobility problems. There’s also a restaurant with outdoor seating which looked fab but it was too early for us to eat.
The spring pools are steaming hot – one is even 90 degrees but others are just hot and cool underneath, bizarrely. For one Euro you can have Ischian mud painted on your face and for five you can have mud applied to your whole body. Il Sorgeto was my favourite, cheapest and most natural outdoor experience in Ischia. It was so much better than visiting a landscaped, manicured thermal spa (although this is also lovely).
Sant’Angelo in itself is a must-see as it’s a stunningly picturesque harbour with – yep, you’ve guessed it – fabulous ocean views. Its restaurants are very touristy and over-priced but it still has to be seen. In addition to the usual souvenir sellers and limoncello shops, it has some beautiful boutiques so it’s not a bad place to treat yourself to a nice dress or buy some quality gifts.
Eating out in Ischia
As far as I’m concerned, you don’t come to Ischia to lose weight. Dining out in Ischia is a joy and, while we ate in several restaurants around Forio, we just kept returning to our favourite family restaurant, Da Peppina di Renato. While prices have gone up in Ischia, Da Peppina combines excellent quality with very affordable pricing. Pizzas are around four Euro and the antipasti are meals in themselves. We had different antipasti each night but the best selections were the ones chosen by our waiter, Jamie. Rabbit is an Ischian speciality which has to be ordered for two. The house wine which comes in jugs is good value but there’s also a decent wine list to choose from. In terms of decor and setting, it’s got oodles of rustic charm with remarkable views.
Il Montecorvo, Da Peppina’s mountaintop neighbour, is more of a fine dining restaurant but it’s also a great choice near Forio, albeit a little pricier than Da Peppina.
While restaurants around Sant’Angelo are pricey, I’m told that Celestino‘s is excellent. (Dal Pescatore was a bad experience with an obnoxious waiter – avoid!) For an affordable option, Dolce e la Vita offers some simple pasta dishes and panini, while specializing in divine desserts. It looks like a small cafe to the front, but they have outdoor seating overlooking the bay if you walk through to the back. We had a cake lunch there; a cake lunch is what we have when we skip lunch to leave room for desserts. We probably shouldn’t do that.
We stayed at 4-star hotel, Hotel Sorriso, beside Citara beach and just outside Forio. The rooms are comfortable and spotlessly clean, many of which have large verandahs and views of Citara Bay. Others have smaller balconies overlooking the pool area and beyond. The owners, Nello and his brothers, are a welcoming presence who take a very personal interest and pride in their work. Their guests are mainly older Italians and Germans. We did B&B but had some good meals in their restaurant, Oasis.
That was my second trip to Ischia. I may well return some day but the next time I’m in the Campania region, I think I’ll be seeing Procida or perhaps Positano and Sorrento on the mainland. If you’ve been to Ischia, would love to know what you thought of it.