Ischia isn’t Capri and doesn’t want to be. Nor is it Positano or Portofino. You’ve no doubt heard more about Sicily and Sardinia. But that is until now. The secret has been spread in hushed tones for years, passed from person to person the old fashioned way. But the secret is definitely out now.
The tiny Tyrrhenian island in the Gulf of Naples is home to more than 77,000 inhabitants and has been drawing in-the-know tourists since the 1950s, who travel far and wide to soak and swim in the mineral-rich thermal water, where the mythical elixir has healing properties that the locals swear by.
But now, in late 2021, as the world continues to paddle cautiously out of a pandemic that has forced everyone to spend the best part of the past two years trapped inside peering outside via Instagram and the internet, dreaming of a time when we will be able to freely travel back to exotic Mediterranean islands, it is time to start swimming towards the deep end again.
If you haven’t heard of Ischia, you have definitely seen her in all her glory. The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Cate Blanchett was filmed here. As was the 1963 blockbuster Cleopatra starring Hollywood icons Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. And more recently, Guy Ritchie’s film The Man From U.N.C.L.E shot scenes on the island, along with many others.
But unlike other destinations in Italy, it isn’t about being seen here or being in the scene here. Ischia is the place people go to disconnect from the real world. It was once the place where Brigitte Bardot, Marlon Brando, Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock escaped to. It is now the place where Justin Bieber, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Collins, Alicia Vikander and Dame Helen Mirren have all fled in recent years.
After spending more than a week on the island, one thing that strikes Man of Style more than anything else is a pulsating sense of pride. A lot of people are proud of where they come from, whether it is St Louis or St Moritz, but in Ischia, the sense of pride is far deeper than anything I’ve ever experienced. They believe it is heaven on earth. And they aren’t wrong.
For a long time, it was all about wine in Ischia, even despite the difficulty of developing large vineyards on mountainous terrain. Now tourism is the major player on the island with luxury hotels providing well-heeled travellers with a variety of options, many who have flown to Naples and caught the ferry across – there isn’t an airport on the island and there is no plan in place for a runway due to the terrain – to experience the healing power of the thermal water, both in the ocean and the hills, as well as inside the comfort of hotels.
I’m assuming you’ve heard of thermal water and know that it is good for you. But if you’re like me and know a smidge and not much else about it, then this is what you need to know to be in the know. Ischia’s water is rich in minerals and stacked full of benefits derived from volcanic activity across the region.
The water emanates from underground reservoirs fed by rainwater which is heated by sources in the depths of the soil. The water is alkaline and contains magnesium, calcium, sodium, sulphur, iodine, iron, potassium and radon and provides an array of benefits from arthritis and osteoporosis to respiratory issues and skin diseases. The locals swear by it.
When you picture an Italian island, you could be forgiven for presuming it’s only worth visiting in June, July or August – maybe even early September at a stretch. But unlike other spots dotted around this boot-shaped country, the season starts in April and runs all the way until the end of October, with many thermal water veterans arriving before or after the summer rush to enjoy a quieter experience on the island. Some even visit in winter when the rest of Europe is dusted in snow and shivering.
Ischia may no longer be a hidden secret, but that doesn’t mean recommendations are flowing in abundance. Hence why we dedicated eight days on the island and plenty of time putting together the most comprehensive guide to Ischia you will ever need, perfect for those travelling for a weekend, a week or even a month, as I’m sure many will want to do once they step foot off the ferry.
WHAT TO DO:
Fonte Delle Ninfe Nitrodi
As you now know, it is all about the thermal water in Ischia. No place is more famous for this elixir than the Ninfe di Nitrodi Park up in the hills in the south of the island, which lays claim to being the oldest spa in the world. But unlike some more relaxing options around the hotels, this is the pure pursuit of minerals derived from thermal rich water. This is where to go if you want to go straight to the source. Showers connected directly to the springs in the hillside provide the thermal water at a natural temperature of 28°C, which can be chilly if the sun isn’t shining. Do yourself a favour and fill up a water bottle with the thermal water to take back to your hotel. You won’t find water like this anywhere in the world.
Giardini La Mortella
Unlike some of Italy’s summer destinations, where Instagram content and day clubs are king, Ischia provides easy access to nature with plenty of hiking options through the centre of the island. If that’s not your thing, you’re not alone, but this subtropical and Mediterranean garden might tick a few boxes for you. Created in 1958 by an Argentinian, Giardini La Mortella not only provides you up close and personal with plants from almost every continent on the planet, but also provides you with stunning views of the east coast of Ischia. The perfect way to start or end a day.
Sorgeto Hot Springs
The natural hot springs at Sorgeto are undoubtedly one of the biggest drawcards on the island. The underground volcanic activity bubbles up from beneath and naturally heats the rock pools in Sorgeto, providing bathers with what feels like a natural jacuzzi while staring out across the ocean into the distance. It is worth getting down here in the first half of the day if you want to secure a spot, as the crowd comes late and you might miss out on securing a spot. We recommend arriving via boat if you plan on hiring a boat one day.
Castello Aragonese d’Ischia
No place on the island is more well-known in Ischia than the island on the island. Castello Aragonese d’Ischia connects the island to 2500 years of history and remains a great source of pride to those who call Ischia home. A lawyer, Nicola Ernesto Mattera, bought the fortress in the middle of the ocean from the state in 1912 and the island has remained in the care of the Mattera family for three generations, providing the public with access 365 days of the year, which helps not just visitors, but locals understand the past and the future. With exhibitions of ancient and contemporary art and even movie scenes shot at Aragonese, it has become a must-visit destination.
If you were a devoted fan of Suits, then you will remember a certain character enjoying regular mud treatments in Manhattan. It wasn’t Harvey Spector, who looked like he knew his way around a day spa; it was Louis Litt who relished covering himself in mud. Hard to remove that visual from your mind. Many avoid mud at all costs in other walks of life, but many seek it out in Ischia. Much like the thermal water in Ischia, the mud – which uses thermal water to create the clay – provides a variety of health benefits ranging from skincare to arthritis and even respiratory problems. Every hotel offers a mud treatment. You won’t regret it.
When you think of Italian wines, you aren’t instantly drawn to the islands or the coast, for that matter. You think of Tuscany. You think of Piedmont. You think of Emilia-Romagna. You don’t think of Ischia. But you would be making a mistake if you didn’t think about wineries from this island. Up until the middle of last century, wine was the main industry on the island. With a combination of the Mediterranean climate and the fertile volcanic soil – it works wonders with everything – the island is perfect for vineyards. Although don’t expect symmetrical vineyards like in Provence or Chianti. It is difficult to find the perfect amount of space on the island, so the locals have made the most of clever patches of land. Three wineries that you should visit during your stay on the island should include Tommasone, Cenatiempo and Pietratorcia. White is king in this part of the world, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of local red wines to enjoy during your stay.
WHERE TO STAY:
If like us, you’re a fan of luxury hotels, then you’ve almost certainly heard of the Mezzatorre. If you haven’t heard of it, then you’ve almost certainly seen it on your Instagram feed. Peach-coloured watchtower building and peach-coloured umbrellas above a picturesque bay sound familiar? Thought so. Mezzatore is Ischia’s best-known secret; the place where the in-crowd have been flocking, even during the pandemic. On an island that can feel very private, it doesn’t get any more private than the latest hotel by Pellicano Hotels, which also have Il Pellicano in Tuscany and La Posta Vecchia just outside of Rome – three of the most glamorous hotels in Italy. And while the hotel will make you want to stay outside and gaze at the beauty of the architecture, you must eventually enter and make use of a spacious spa inside a 16th-century watchtower where the best rooms are perched above. Most guests who stay at the Mezzatorre don’t depart. Why would you? Especially given the meticulous level of service from staff who ensure your every need is met. When the sun is shining – which it was even in the middle of October – there aren’t many more relaxing places in the world than poolside or bayside, with a book in hand and a Negroni rested on the table. Believe the hype around this place.
San Montano Resort & Spa
In the top left-hand corner of Ischia sits a big hill. At the top of the hill sits a towering hotel that gleams down at a small town, seducing visitors from above, especially at night when it glows in the distance. This is San Montano Resort & Spa, a five-star luxury hotel that provides stunning views of the entire north end of the island, overlooking the Bay of San Montano and the Gulf of Naples. Much like the Mezzatore, there is almost no reason to leave San Montano once you enter the front gates up the top of a steep – very steep – hill. The hotel boasts panoramic views from a thermal pool that is 38°C and provides private thermal pools for those lucky enough to retreat to one of the suites that face out to the Bay of Montano. And while privacy and luxury go hand-in-hand with the suites, so does the late afternoon sun, which hits this part of the hotel to perfection. There is luxury, and then there is luxury on an island, at the top of a hill.
Botania Relais & Spa
If you find luxury hotels a bit stuffy – particularly on an island – then the Botania is the perfect solution for you. You’ll need a few days at the hotel to explore every nook and cranny of the three-acre block, where a lush garden oasis transports you to something closer to an island resort in south-east Asia. Although the rosemary and citrus trees quickly remind you that you’re on an Italian island. This hotel is comprised of rooms spread all across the property with an amphitheatre at the highest point of the property provides a 360° view from above and hosts events, concerts and performances throughout the summer months. Almost nowhere – besides Giardini La Mortella – on the island will you find a wider variety and a better manicured sprawling garden. They must employ a football team worth of gardeners to maintain this stunning feature of the most serene hotel in Ischia. Also, it is arguably the best spot for a wedding, in case that’s on your radar. You know who you are.
Before the Mezzatore and San Montano arrived in this part of the island, it was all about the Regina Isabella. In fact, the Regina Isabella has been around since tourists first started flocking to Ischia in the 1950s. The hotel was opened in 1956 by prolific Italian movie producer and publisher Angelo Rizzoli, who quickly opened its doors to Hollywood power couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as well as the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock. While other five-star islands on the island feel more modern, the Regina Isabella’s charm lies in the distinctively Italian sophistication that channels a time from yesteryear. Most rooms feature balconies that look out across the Gulf of Naples, with some including private outdoor thermal baths. And then there is the extensive day spa that includes the famous mud treatment, where one is covered in the mineral-rich clap and wrapped in towels like a mummy before soaking in a thermal spa. Pure old school bliss.
Grand Hotel Il Moresco
Situated in the heart of Ischia Porto lies another classic Italian hotel. Surrounded by pine trees and tucked away from the hustle and bustle is Grand Hotel Il Moresco. With Castello Aragonese looming in the background, this five-star hotel transports you back in time, with all the elegance of a more carefree era when QR codes and vaccination status weren’t part of the everyday vernacular. The hotel provides sweeping views across the Gulf of Naples and a plethora of thermal pools and spa options to soak weary limbs as the sun sets on another picture-perfect day in Ischia.
WHERE TO EAT:
Trattoria Il Focolare
If you are willing to travel high up the mountain on a Vespa you will be in for a serious treat at this family-run trattoria. And if you are a Stanley Tucci devotee and devoured his CNN programme Searching for Italy during lockdown, then you will recognise this place. We did, moments after stepping foot inside Il Focolare, after wondering if that was where Google Maps was leading us for much of the journey into the wilderness. So why would Stanley Tucci venture this far off the beaten path? We quickly discover why. And it is the same reason why Tommy Hilfiger was here a month earlier.
Since 1991, the D’Ambra family have run a simple yet eccentric restaurant in the hills that focuses on slow food and is renowned for a wild rabbit dish called Coniglio all’ischitana. While most restaurants on the island focus on seafood, which makes sense given the location, Il Focolare uses ingredients raised, gathered and bought as close to the kitchen as possible. Head chef Agostino d’Ambra is now manning the fort for the family in the kitchen and one thing is clear when it comes to this family, which includes eight siblings: money is not important to them; it is all about defending traditions in this neck of the woods and not bending to tourism demands. It is why the restaurant said no to one high profile British chef a few years ago when he couldn’t guarantee the traditional recipe wouldn’t be altered on his television show.
Integrity is everything to the D’Ambra family. In a part of the world where tourism is the dominant industry, it is remarkable and highly admirable to see a restaurant refuse to change what they have done for 30 years to cater to a wider audience. Agostino has cooked all over the world, from London to New York to Tokyo, but there is a sense of pride here that emanates from him. Family honour is what made him return to Ischia and makes him return to the kitchen every single day. If you are lucky enough to get a spot at this restaurant, it will be well worth the trip up the mountain.
Deep inside the Regina Isabella, overlooking the water, sits one of the most opulent restaurants on the island. Indaco was awarded a Michelin Star under celebrated chef Pasquale Palamaro in 2013 and has maintained it ever since. There aren’t too many more romantic dining spots in Ischia than inside this room, where every move is choreographed and the wait staff are as attentive as they are inside Eleven Madison Park. The cuisine is predominantly seafood-based, with three different set menus to choose from, as well as one chosen for you by the chef, which we highly recommend. When the menu arrives inside an envelope which has been sealed with a wax stamp and you are handed a vintage letter opener, you know you are in for one hell of a meal. You won’t be disappointed.
Just like everything to do with the Mezzatorre, this restaurant is sublime. Start outside at the bar overlooking the bay of San Montano and gradually work your way inside. It is all about seafood in this part of the island, with scallops, lobster salad, spaghetti with clams, baby octopus and smoked red snapper all on offer when we dined at the end of another long day of doing next to nothing. As we instantly become accustomed to at the Mezzatorre, staff appear just as you need them, helping you make a decision from a never-ending wine list, often arriving just when you’ve decided to pull the trigger on a dessert. There is an element of laidback fine dining to Le Torre, ensuring you won’t need to stay at the table for three or four hours, if that’s not your vibe on the night.
Farm to table dining is a major feature of the island, and not many places do it as well as Il Mirto. With the grounds of Botania stacked full of pristinely maintained plants and vegetables, there is no surprise what ends up on your plate inside this carefully considered, lowkey restaurant. Il Mirto is focused on sustainability and seasonality of dishes, offering vegetarian options that are full of surprising twists and turns, such as smoked beetle tartare, barbecued celeriac and spaghetti with Sarconi beans.
You will find plenty of casual, beachside, seafood-focused restaurants across Ischia, but you won’t find another dining experience like Dani Maison. Under the guidance of Nino Di Costanzo, Dani Maison has earned two Michelin Stars, executing a cuisine that has been ingrained in him since his mother and grandmother taught him how to cook traditional dishes in the Campania region. While all the other formal restaurants on the island are located inside luxury hotels, Dani Maison isn’t. Instead, diners arrive at the home of di Costanzo and enter stunning gardens and enjoy dinner by candlelight.
Ischia Is More
There haven’t been too many positives to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, but one silver lining that has materialised in Ischia during the past 18 months has been a new campaign – Ischia Is More – which is focused on raising the profile of the island to boost tourism to ‘Isola Verde’, following the devasting impact of COVID-19 on the tourism industry.
Ischia Is More is exactly that. It is a campaign designed to draw attention to the wider options on the island. While Ischia is well known for its thermal water and wine, there is much more to the destination, which has been detailed above. From luxury hotels to world-class dining, stunning beaches and breathtaking hikes, Ischia isn’t only a place to rest weary limbs and soak in thermal water.
And unlike other parts of Italy – or the Mediterranean – the season spreads far longer than other destinations. The warm months start in early April and end in late October. But given the water temperature and the nature of spas, it remains one of Europe’s best places to visit in winter when you need a respite from the freezing cold weather.
“Ischia Is More’s strategy leverages the Island’s strong points to make it a well-recognizable brand, in Italy and in the rest of the world, with a precise and multifaceted identity, able to meet the tastes, needs and passions of contemporary travellers. The ultimate goal is to be able to transition away from the summer’s over-tourism into quality tourism that extends throughout the year. ‘we want to help Ischia establish itself abroad as an alternative destination to the more famous and popular Amalfi Coast, Sorrento Peninsula or Capri,” Ischia Is More President, Michele Sambaldi, told Man of Style this week.
“Ischia is so special, because of the variety of the offer: it has been a wellness destination for millennia, famed for the beneficial and curative thermal water – hot gold – that flows naturally from its volcanic soil. At the same time the island also boasts the sea of the Gulf of Naples, scenic mountain trails, archaeological sites, charming villages and stellar cuisine.
“The community focus is part of the nature of the Ischia Is More consortium: all the partners approached and chose to become part of the network because of common values and vision about the economic and tourist development of the island. Our unique approach is inclusive and focused on a collaborative model that welcomes new members and investors passionate about the consortium’s mission and the island’s sustainability.”
Ischia Is More is far more than just a catchy slogan. It is a way of life. With the work of many devoted partners who are determined to grow the island and spread the message, it is not hard to see why the secret is now out.