Postcard-perfect paradise

‘My thanks are for you, Ischia, to whom a fair wind has brought me rejoicing with dear friends from soiled productive cities."

THE CHARMING seaside harbor of Ischia Porto (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE CHARMING seaside harbor of Ischia Porto
(photo credit: Courtesy)
These are just some of the memorable lines written by legendary English-American poet W.H. Auden regarding the volcanic island of Ischia, located off the coast of Naples. Unlike Auden, who summered for many years on Ischia, my wife and I were privileged enough to spend only a few days on this majestic island soaking in its beautiful panoramas, Mediterranean architecture and of course mouthwatering food and wine.
After flying directly (approximately three hours) from Ben-Gurion Airport to Naples Airport with El Al’s Sun d’Or, we were whisked by taxi to the Molo Beverello ferry port. Our adventure truly began when we set off on the 50-minute long ferry/hydrofoil (€18.90 for ticket; €2.10 for luggage) to Ischia. Along the way we marveled at the excursion of beautiful beaches, bays, inlets, as well as the distant peaks of Mount Vesuvius.
First settled in the Bronze Age, Ischia is mentioned in both The Iliad and The Odyssey. Only 42 sq.m., the island was colonized in turn by the Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Turks and Aragonese. The first name given to the island was Pithecusae and there are several theories as to why this name was chosen. Folklore suggests that the island was named after the ancient Greek word pithekos, meaning monkey, due to a belief that the island was inhabited by the animals at the time. The Etruscans were the first to discover the wonders of the thermal waters and healing muds of Ischia, and everybody’s been enjoying them since. The water from the natural hot springs, heated by volcanic action, is believed to be the most radioactive in Europe and is good for a variety of health treatments, including rheumatism. Ischia is also known as “The Green Island” due to its numerous pine trees and rich Mediterranean vegetation that in springtime makes the island an explosion of colors and fragrances. The vineyards, cultivated in terraced fields, add a special touch to the general landscape of the island.
As the ferry approached, gliding into the horseshoe- shaped harbor of Ischia Porto, we could tell that this place was special; one instantly hears the distinctive sound of scooters, while old men play card games sipping on espressos, and the world’s best-dressed women emphatically yell “Bongiorno” to each other.
After docking at the port, we set off to the northernmost part of the island to our hotel, L’Albergo della Regina Isabella, located in the northwestern part of Lacco Ameno. Driving along the narrow roads, we marveled in awe at the majestic seaside cliffs overlooking vast beaches and hidden bays. Lacco Ameno is the smallest of the towns on Ischia. The town itself gets its name from the tufa stone: The Greek word lakkos means rock, and is most known for the “Fungo” (mushroom rock) sitting nearby in the harbor that has the become the town’s unofficial emblem.
From the moment we stepped into the lobby of Regina Isabella, we knew we were in for an extraordinary stay. I truly felt as if we were being welcomed into someone’s home, maybe more a mansion, as the staff were so warm and gracious.
The luxurious five-star hotel was opened in 1956 by prolific Italian movie producer and publisher Angelo Rizzolli. Enchanted by the place and traditions of the thermal baths, Rizzolli created the current spa hotel on the still-visible ancient Greek-Roman ruins. Over the years, Ischia has been chosen as a film set for numerous films Hollywood features, like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cleopatra. Thus, since its opening, the hotel has attracted its share of major celebrities – including Sophia Loren, Clark Gable, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Maria Callas, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and many more.
The Regina Isabella oozes old-world charm, decorated in a luxurious and classically Italian, Mediterranean style with plenty of antique furnishings and character- filled grand rooms. It consists of 128 rooms and suites and offers its guests four exquisite pools, a spa with thermal water treatments, meeting rooms and three on-site restaurants. The hotel is located right next to the little square of Santa Restituta, with its famous church of the same name, its archeological museum, antiques markets and clothes boutiques.
When we entered our room, the Sophia Loren Royal Suite, it simply took our breath away. A striking blend of old-world and modern luxury, it felt like stepping back in time while enjoying the most modern amenities. Not only did this 90-sq.m. room offer marvelous panoramic views across the Bay of Naples and the Amalfi Coast, but it was also beautifully decorated with stunning distinctive majolica ceramic tile floors. A definite highlight was the large balcony featuring a private Jacuzzi, fed by the island’s fabled thermal springs, from which one can spend hours gazing at the sea and colorful fishing boats.
The Regina Isabella has an enormous free-standing spa with a wide selection of treatments ranging from fango mud baths to natural mineral springs, body wraps, massage therapy and hydrotherapy, many of which incorporate the mud of Le Terme della Regina Isabella, collected from nearby caves and soaked in the thermal water for about six months. Here, as elsewhere in Italy, the spa is also staffed with its own in-house physician, who is there to sort out any medical issues that one may have and advise various treatments.
After a relaxing afternoon lounging by the pool, we set off for dinner at the hotel’s Michelin star restaurant Indaco. The word “Indaco” means indigo and the name is derived from the colored hue that surrounds the restaurant. Indaco was opened in 2009 by chef Pasquale Palamaro, who was awarded a Michelin star in 2013. The menu is a heavenly delight for lovers of seafood and fish. We opted for the six-course “in the dark” tasting menu, whereby the chef chooses for you, which is paired with the finest white wines the island has to offer. Not only is Palamaro an excellent and innovative chef, but he is also an artist. Every plate that came out of the kitchen was a work of art – from a reproduction of a sea urchin with an amberjack-fish cream and mozzarella sauce, right through to the desserts.
The following morning, we were treated to a tour of the island (part of the package with the hotel) by the wonderful Emanuele from Platypus Tours. A native of Ischia, Emanuele was extremely knowledgeable about the history, current affairs and ecological aspects of the island. Our first stop was Ischia Ponte, a charming seaside settlement dominated by the picturesque Aragonese Castle. The hilltop castle was built in 474 BCE and over many centuries protected residents from Mount Epomeo’s eruptions and Tyrrhenian Sea pirates. The structure has also served as a convent and an infamous political prison run by the king of Naples from 1823 to 1862. The views from every side of the castle are breathtaking. A highlight (for the ghoulish) is the little room lined with stone seats, where the bodies of dead nuns were propped up for the living sisters to visit and contemplate the nature of death.
We were then driven to the picturesque village of Sant’Angelo. It is one of the most romantic places of Ischia, populated mostly by fishermen.
Simply put, if there is a more beautiful place on earth, I don’t know where it is. Bounded on one side by soaring cliffs that meld beautifully into crystal-clear Mediterranean waters and on the other by a wide expanse of sandy beach, the village itself is an idyllic treasure unlike any you’ve seen before but may have dreamed about. There are plenty of small shops ranging from tourist trinket stores to designer outlets and a selection of cafes and restaurants.
As a perfect culmination of the tour, we visited Poseidon Thermal Gardens, the island’s biggest thermal park, which features Ischia’s natural hot springs and lots of natural-looking thermal pools of varying temperatures, all of which are set into the idyllic hillside. It is a fantastic place to spend the whole day. The beautiful gardens and attached private beach alone are worth the entrance money. There are 22 different swimming and bathing pools. It should be noted that one should bring a swim cap or hat; otherwise you (men and women alike) will be forced to buy one for €2.50. They are required for entry to any of the pools.
At Poseidon, visitors can dip at will into any of the numerous pools and sauna as they please, or can follow the highly recommended “routine.” The routine, which is marked on the map visitors receive upon arrival, starts with a seawater swim to relax your muscles, then the sauna for no more than 10 minutes, followed quickly by a three-minute cold immersion, after which you move from the warm 28º pool up to a hot 38º pool and to pools even a bit warmer. We opted for the routine, which was quite an experience. The end of the day found us on top of the hillside, relaxing in a natural sauna grotto where you can see the steam rising from the tufa stone.
After three days, it was hard to say arrivederci to this oasis of calm and beauty and head back to the frenetic activity of city life. I will not only miss the golden beaches, breathtaking natural wonders and stunning landscapes but also the warmth and hospitality of the island’s inhabitants. Ischia faded from view from the back of our ferry, but its memories remain vivid in our minds.
For a taste of the divine, the cost of a vacation here can be surprisingly moderate; for a honeymoon or romantic getaway, this should be on your short list of desirable destinations.