The tiny volcanic island of Ischia is one of Italy’s best kept secrets. Andrew Sherwood savours the very best of Capri’s sister island – from thermal spas to delicious babas!
When I told people I was heading off to Ischia, I was met with a blank expression and one word: “Where?”
Slipping somewhat under the radar on these shores, Ischia is an island at the northern end of the Gulf of Naples. The largest of the Phlegrean Islands – near Capri – this 43.5km strip of land is home to 70,000 inhabitants and divided into six provinces with six different mayors. Local politics is clearly a touchy point.
While it may not have the reputation of its more famous neighbour, it’s enjoyed its fair share of glamour over the years. Its stunning picturesque landscape and glamorous scenery has attracted royalty and celebrities on the lookout for privacy, and it also lays claim to providing the backdrop for some of the most memorable films to grace the silver screen including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s classic Cleopatra.
This is an island steeped in history. According to Greek mythology Zeus defeated a Titan called Typhon and punished him by burying him under a mountain of rocks under Ischia. That would account for its turbulent history.
It is home to 40 volcanoes, 13 active. However, with the last eruption occurring back in 1301, I felt pretty confident of avoiding any Pompei-style disasters during my four-day stay. With no serving airport, the way to Ischia is by sea. Situated 35km from Naples, a 20-minute taxi drive from the airport will take you to Naples Beverello port, where a 40-minute hydrofoil ride will then see you reach the Island.
Aside from its volcanoes and Clash of the Titans history, Ischia is famed for its natural thermal spas, hot springs and volcanic mud, all of which I was lucky enough to sample at our first hotel, the five-star Relais & Chateaux Terme Manzi Hotel and Spa. Opened in 1863, it’s situated in the hills in Casamicciola, a town whose hot thermal springs are used for its healing properties, which is what attracted the Romans there 2,000 years ago.
And they’re in good company. Giuseppe Garibaldi, the revolutionary “father of Italy”, came to the springs to heal his wounds from the battle of Aspromonte. His bath is on display in the entrance while, according to legend, Ulysees also popped in to see what the spas had to offer.
The Terme Manzi is home to one of the largest spas in Ischia and also has two thermal water pools, sensory showers and Turkish bath. Having enjoyed the most welcoming of welcome lunches at its Bounganville Bar restaurant, which consisted of a mixture of the finest mozzarella, freshest fish, wines and desserts, it was time to be indulged.
Leafing through a booklet detailing their body balance, thermal, facial and body treatments, I plumped for a combination of the draining treatment with resveratrol and detoxifying treatment with clay. Two hours of sheer luxury and pampering later, we were ready to hit Saint Angelo, a fishing village, to take in its designer shops, yachts, and the scene of the second of our five-course gastronomic feasts.
Ischia is big on food – and shows in terms of quality and quantity. Our meal that evening was at Un Attimo Di Vino. To complement the food, each course we enjoyed during our stay was preceded by a different glass (or two) of wine.
And if alcohol is your thing, you’re in for a treat when it comes to dessert as the Neapolitan speciality, the baba, seemed to follow us around the island – a sponge cake which isn’t so much soaked but drenched in rum. If however you don’t like drinking your dessert, another local speciality is the pasteira, a cake made with ricotta cheese with a filling of either cream or candied fruit.
Ischia is also well-known for Rucolino and Limoncello, the former an arugula-flavoured (rocket salad) liqueur, the latter a lemon liqueur originating in southern Italy which has now become the second most popular liqueur in Italy.
Such a heavy consumption of food and drink probably wasn’t the best preparation for our climb up Mount Epomeo the following day. The island`s highest peak, while you don’t need to be a skilled mountaineer to climb to the top of the 789-metre peak, the last stretch is somewhat challenging – though worth it for the jaw-dropping views you take in.
Working up an appetite, we then spent the afternoon at the Negombo pools and spas thermal park. Our lunchtime feeding – wine, baba et al – was taken in at the Casa Colonica 1930, before we hit the spas, pools and beach. Set in the Bay of San Montano, the complex is considered to be one of the richest basins and most productive sources of thermal water. Each of the park’s pools are designed for specific reasons, the thermal ones providing relaxation and the prevention of rheumatism and improving the skin, the hydro-massages stimulate the circulation, while the Hamam (Turkish baths) are for the elimination of toxins.
The day was finished off in style as we were fed a lavish dinner in the evening at the Terme Manzi’s Gli Ulivi restaurant. Having explored the Island’s mountains, spas and town centre, the final full day of the trip took us out on the Tyrrhenian sea, as we boarded the Gioia boat for a six-hour trip around the island. Plied with Rucolino and Limoncello as soon as we boarded at 11am meant this was always going to be the most relaxed and laid-back of days.
Including a quick stop-off at Maronti beach to sample the Roman baths, lunch was spent on deck, accompanied by more wine, baba, and some dancing to the playing of Tu Vuò Fà L’Americano – rather fitting as the jazzy number featured in Jude Law’s The Talented Mr Ripley, which was also filmed on the island.
The final evening was spent at our second hotel of the trip, the Garden & Villas Resort. Set in a three-hectare park with floral footpaths, aromatic plants and palm trees, it also has a 28 degree outdoor pool, along with a range of massages and beauty treatments. While there is no synagogue or Chabad centre on the island, there is one place of Jewish interest. The Chiesea del Soccorso, or the rescued church, was reportedly where five nuns were once killed for hiding Jewish people.
Time didn’t allow us to see everything this idyllic isle offers, so my next visit there will take in the tranquil and picturesque Gardens of La Mortella, the property of English composer William Walton, the Villa Ravino botanical gardens, and a tour, as opposed to a mere sighting, of the medieval Aragones Castle.
And if all that isn’t enough, a stay in Ischia won’t break the bank as its food, accommodation and shops are on average half the price of anything you’ll find on Capri. One final shot of Limoncello, another helping of baba and before I knew it, we were back on the hydrofoil heading towards the bustling port in Naples, leaving behind a true, but no longer unknown, paradise.