When we were planning our Amalfi coast trip, we were looking for a place to spend our last couple of nights and thinking of the island of Capri, in keeping with our Crowded/Less Crowded/Remote plan. A friend of ours said, “Go to Ischia.”
Ischia is an island about an hour ferry ride off the coast, past Capri. Everyone knows Capri. They’re famous for those pants. Capri is like Coney Island meets Rodeo Drive and I would personally skip it. But fewer people have heard of Ischia, so we were intrigued. We were further intrigued when we saw pictures of our hotel, Punta Chiarito. It looked like paradise. We were in.
However, the day we were supposed to sail to Ischia, our ferry from Sorrento to the island was canceled due to rough waters, these being the waters that Odysseus was tempted by the Sirens to crash in. Instead, we had to take a ferry to Naples, then get one from Naples to Ischia.
The ferry from Sorrento to Naples was pretty rough, begging the question, “Just how bad was the crossing to Ischia?” I had never been seasick before, but I was plenty seasick that day. We got to Naples and had about an hour and a half until our next ferry, during which time I was able to restore my stomach to its previous condition, aided in part by a panini that we picked up at the very non-descript, ferry station café. In fact, I was sitting there, staring out at Vesuvius, having not spoken for fear the contents of my stomach would spill out if I opened my mouth when I turned to my husband and said, “This sandwich is unbelievable!”
He said back to me with equal enthusiasm, “I was just thinking that!”
Christ, I love Italy. The bread was fresh, the cheese moist and full of tangy flavor, despite the rather no frills, worn looking nature of its place of origin. In America, it was the equivalent of a gas station sandwich and would have tasted like sawdust and worn tires.
But then it was back to rougher waters. The ferry to Ischia was like something out of a horror movie. Women were screaming while men rubbed their backs and fanned them. A man wandered the aisles with a roll of plastic bags in his back pocket that he would rip off and hand to vomiting people. I remember thinking, “We’re going to die!” and then felt so miserably sick I thought with relief, “Oh, good, we’re going to die.”
In the midst of all of this, one man next to me sat there with his briefcase on his lap and just nodded off to sleep.
I looked at my husband who was already studying the map, looking for a landing strip so that perhaps we could helicopter back, and said, “You better enjoy this, because we are never coming back here.”
We returned twice in the next two years.
(Just so you know, the ferry ride back to Naples was without incident, as was every trip we took in subsequent years. And my stomach did return to normal, although I was unable to finish my wine at lunch that day. I’m happy to say I didn’t have that problem at dinner.)
I count that first full day in Ischia as one of the best days I’ve ever had in my life. After breakfast in the hotel, we walked the 3km to the next town over, Sant’Angelo. We passed grape vines and signs that said “Wine for sale” but only in Italian and German and made friends with a cat. Because it wasn’t a straight 3 km – the road meandered up and down and around, and because we were pausing so The Husband could take photos, we arrived in Sant’Angelo just in time for lunch.
We stopped at a restaurant right on the edge a cliff, overlooking the water, and had pasta with fresh fish and a crisp, white Campania wine.
After lunch we walked around the town which was quiet, it being only May, and across the isthmus that connects the town to a lush green island, although it’s not an island because it’s connected by land. (Geography nerds, help me out.) We made friends with another cat.
We walked back to our hotel where we were able to enjoy the thermal baths both there, and at Sorgeto Beach, a couple hundred steps down from there. Ischia is built on volcanic soil, the evidence of which you can see in the steam coming out of fissures in the island from the ferry. The volcanic soil means hot natural thermal springs and great wine and vegetables. At Sorgeto Beach, there’s a café and lounge chairs, which are available to you if you patronize the café, which is not a problem. At the time, eight Euros got us both a glass of wine. Despite it being May, people were in the water, thanks to the thermal activity. I immediately went to check it out. There was a sign right by one small inlet that I really should have read because it would have stopped me from sticking my foot in, right by the fissure in the rocks the thermal water was coming out of, and nearly burning the flesh off my bone. It said, “bollente” or “boiling.” I’m happy to say the further away from that spot the less bollente the water got. But those hot springs are no bullshit.
The room itself wasn’t fancy but the sliding glass door that was our entrance looked right over the bay and the beach below and it was private from guests or other traffic walking by. I had the feeling of being on the edge of the Earth where no one could find me, which was nice. Both nights we had dinner at the hotel. It was simple, yet delicious, much of it being “fatto a casa” homemade. They made their own olive oil, their own wine and grew their own produce. At one point a man came in with handfuls of greens he had just picked, so fresh I could smell them across the dining room. “Biologico!” he boomed proudly. Organic.
We finished the night watching old black and white American movies dubbed in Italian on the small television, with the doors open, letting in the night air.
Our day was simple but there are plenty of other things to do on the Island. There’s great hiking, including Mt. Epomeo, which is in the center of the island. I have to say I had less than a super attitude about this the year we did it; I was still jetlagged and think I had bit off more than I could chew. When we reached what I thought was the top I saw this Matterhorn-like peak behind me and realized there was still more to go. It was worth it, providing 360-degree views of the island. And it wasn’t as difficult as my whining may make it seem. There were dozens of octogenarian Europeans kicking my ass on the trail, aided only by a walking stick or two.
If you’re a history buff or just a Game of Thrones fan, you probably want to check out Castello Aragonese which I’m told is just like King’s Landing. You can spend a few hours touring the 2500-year-old fortress which also has a restaurant and café with a beautiful view of the other islands.
Many hotels have thermal baths and spas. We’ve stayed at Mezzatorre, which has a gorgeous facility. It’s more expensive, but not as far as Punta Chiarito from the next town over, which in this case is Lacco Ameno.
All of that volcanic soil means there’s great wine on the island if you want to go wine tasting. Our hotel set it up for us but you could contact them directly, too. We spent a lovely afternoon at Casa D’Ambra , the terroir of Ischia being shown off in their earthy reds and Aglianicos.
We also had a lovely afternoon that became about six hours at Pietratorcia. We arrived for our wine tasting and were greeted with a plate of cheese, salumi and bruschetta, all of which was local and one of which was actually made by the owner.
In between the generous tastes of 4 wines we wandered among the vines and started to think of dinner. The man who was pouring our tasting has mentioned that they had reservations for a dinner service later that evening, and when we saw women in the garden cutting fresh herbs we knew we wanted to stay. To this day, it is one of the best meals I have ever had.
Speaking of restaurants…
Il Giardino Eden, is worth it for the boat ride you take to get there. You get in a small boat and if you go after dark, you go past Castello Aragonese all lit up, and you feel like you’re in Harry Potter. I remember we liked our food, our waiter not so much. But these things happen.
Peppina di Renato is a wonderful authentic place that specializes in Flintstone size portions of grilled meats if you’re tired of eating fish. The antipasti, which included a speck that the owner made himself, is almost enough for a meal itself, so you might want to split an entrée. I recommend the chicken under a brick (Pollo Sopra Mattone) which might be some of the best I’ve ever had. We made a reservation early enough for sunset, which is early for dinner in Italy, but gave us a spectacular view.
Neptunus is a great lunch place in Sant’Angelo. I’m sure it’s great for dinner, too, but the view is gorgeous for lunch. There was a man wandering around with a guitar playing traditional songs, which seems like it would be annoying but was really very charming. And after lunch they brought us 4 bottles of local made liquors like limoncello and told us to help ourselves.
One last word about transportation…
Ischia being an island, you can’t really take your car there so your transportation options are limited when you do get there. There are buses that I am totally unfamiliar with. I know you can also rent a car once you’re on the island, but if you’re not an adventurous driver, keep in mind that you’ll be on narrow roads that someone sometimes has to back up on to let another car pass. We either walk someplace or we take taxis. It’s an added expense that you may want to factor in before you go, but I find it’s nice to not have to find someplace on an island in the dark, especially after you’ve been drinking.