A Hop Across the Gulf of Naples
Capri’s charm and bewitchery is legendary; the combination of its world-renowned beauty and its sensualism has brought people to its shores from the earliest of times. And no wonder! This little island offers the perfect concoction of all that is desirable for the perfect Mediterranean holiday: posh cafes frequented by the rich and famous, designer boutiques and grand villas, not to mention spectacular vistas.
But Capri has lost its unspoiled charm. The villas are now immaculate, its peeling paint having been whitewashed; blue trim adorns the doorways and windows so that shops and homes, all identical, blend effortlessly into a postcard perfect Mediterranean town. But it’s not perfect.
Along with refined and cultivated tourism, high prices have most certainly followed. While the neat-whitewashed buildings render everything pristine and immaculate, gone are the characteristic features of small island life. The café in the main square allows the espresso-sipping onlooker a full view of both the sparkling Gulf of Naples on one side and windows flaunting shamelessly the latest and best of Tod’s shoes, Fendi bags, Malo wraps, Frette linens—not to mention those legendary pants, the capris. “Designer brands are only part of the worldly enticements on Capri.”1 http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/temptation-island
We decided this past September that we wanted a more unsophisticated and simple island holiday this year. Not too polished and far from posh. No, this year we would return to Ischia, the largest of the islands in the Gulf of Naples, and for us the most charming. This would be our third visit to Ischia, each time having come with a different group of friends to whom we could show off this island paradise.
We boarded the ferry from Naples one hot, September day last year, aboard a vast and broad van named the Vito. Never mind the hilarity that Mercedes Benz actually gave this rental vehicle such a name, but when confusion ensued when one in our group who goes by the same name answered to the call of “Vito, the beast”, we broke out into endless fits of laughter. Vito, the van, would prove to be both a blessing and a curse.
Ischia is but a hop across the Gulf of Naples. The crossing on the ,ferry is an inexpensive way to cruise; for about an hour and a half you sit out on deck under the hot Mediterranean sun (or you can choose to sit under the covered portion of the ferry), taking in the vanishing Naples shoreline, humming O Sole Mio, and relaxing.
A brief stop at the island of Procida, is ample time to snap fascinating pictures of the pastel hued houses and the narrow, sun-bleached streets. Here too is a place blessedly untainted by tourism. I make myself a mental note to visit some other time.
As the ferry approaches Ischia’s port, we are met by an assortment of boats and yachts parked and bobbing rhythmically along the docks. Ensconced once more in our “bus”, we disembark and make our way out of the town and en route to our destination. We are headed towards Forio, one of the 6 comuni or municipalities of Ischia. This is an island which covers almost 47 square kilometers, and with at least 37 kilometers of coastline. The other main towns are Ischia Porto, Barano, Serrara Fontana, Casamicciola and Lacco Ameno. One could easily drive along the coastal road and circumnavigate the island within two hours taking in the staggering sea views. But we decide we will stay for 5 days and explore the island at leisure.
At the centre of the island, looming large and visible from all points is the 2,600ft high Mount Epomeo. Like the rest of Ischia and, for that matter, most of Italy, this volcanic peak was forged in the bowels of the earth. I consider the paradox of all this, and how this sublime but fragile beauty was created in the darkest depths, and which at the whim of nature could return there through devastation and ruin. It’s a sobering thought.
For now, however, the drive skirting the coast of the island pulls me away and back to the sunshine and the feeling of wellbeing. We are headed towards the southern part of the island but are taking the long way around. We pass Casamicciola and its many resorts. The road is a ribbon that at times widens to reveal open coastlines and a sea dotted with sails; sometimes it narrows alarmingly and we sit in silence aboard our “beast” of a bus thankful that my husband, our designated driver, is quite deft at handling the hairpin curves.
Ischia is known for its volcanic mud and therapeutic hot-spring waters. There are a number of places on the island where you can take advantage of these natural phenomena, including the thermal parks and gardens such as Poseidon or Negombo. We see them as we drive by and promise ourselves a day of relaxation and pampering during our stay here.
In the distance, approaching the town of Lacco Ameno, can be seen the 15th century tower built as a lookout on the dramatic, rocky coastline promontory. It is the ,Mezzatorre Resort & Spa an elegant and exclusive 5 Stars Hotel with a private thermal source, an outdoor pool, a spa at the vanguard, and two fabulous restaurants. Unquestionably a treat to stay here, but the rooms are a little small. The restaurant ,The Chandelier is definitely worth trying for its refined expression of Mediterranean taste and for the unforgettable panoramic view from the restaurant’s private terrace.
Mezzatorre Resort and Spa
It is a splendid sunlit day as we leave Lacco Ameno behind us. This island is green and lush. It must be the pronounced Mediterranean sunshine and volcanic soil that make it so fertile. Rows of grape vines and olive trees pop up as we fly by but surprisingly even some almond trees and more tropical plants can be glimpsed at in the abundant vegetation along the coast. As we travel towards the southern side of the island these become more evident along with palms and cactus plants. We continue coasting along past Forio and toward the ,Tenuta Del Poggio Antico.
Barely a 13-minute drive south from Forio, we leave the provinciale and begin a slight climb towards our destination. The Tenuta is a former country estate, newly renovated and returned to its former glory. At least this is what its website tells us. We are excited at the prospect of discovering this place but we are getting a little anxious at the sounds of discomfort and labouring coming, not from Vito (the van), but from its driver, my husband. The road is narrowing alarmingly, and with 2-meter high stone walls on either side, and no easement, this upward passage becomes somewhat demanding. With our breath suspended, we arrive at a 90 degree bend, and, at the point of no return. We are sandwiched neatly between two walls made of tuff stones or tufo a type of rock made of volcanic ash. I suppose my mind focuses on this point to keep me from panicking. I can imagine the local paper headlines of the days to follow: SIX DUMB TOURISTS FOUND NEAR DEATH!! TRYING TO SQUEEZE THROUGH A NARROW ROAD, THEY BECOME TRAPPED IN AN OVERSIZED VAN!!
We are not able to go forward, even after many attempts! Finally my husband’s skillful maneuvering (God, strike me dead if I ever complain about his driving again!) manages to dislodge us in reverse from the gripping vice.
I send a silent prayer of thanks heavenwards and call the hotel to ask how the hell we are supposed to get there, uphill, with 6 bulging suitcases and the damn clodhoppers I decided to wear on my feet this morning!
Tonino arrives on his lambretta within minutes! He tells us this is a usual occurrence with visitors to the hotel. While I want to tell him to post this caution on the hotel’s website, I yield to the amusement all around, and recognize that this too is part of the adventure.
A couple of time-tested maneuvers and we are on our way via an alternate route. Tonino turns out to be the owner and father of this family run hotel. We arrive at the lovely salmon coloured villa that sits proudly on the slopes of Mount Epomeo. The first thing that strikes me are the fantastic panoramic views around us of a verdant island and the Gulf of Naples.
We are shown the outdoor thermal swimming pool surrounded by peaceful gardens. There is only the sound of birdsong that breaks the silence out here. This will be the perfect place to relax and unwind. Looking out from the terrace of our room I see the island below me, its hilly terrain, its lush vegetation, and beyond, the hypnotic murmuring sea. Twilight is descending and an intensely beautiful sun floating in a pink sky bids good evening to Ischia.