Ischia, the largest of the islands in the Gulf of Naples, is often overshadowed by its glamorous neighbor, Capri, to the south. But despite being cast as stepsister, Ischia, with its volcanic peaks, sprawling thermal spas, spectacular scenery, and pretty beaches, has a beauty and charm which rivals that of Capri’s Cinderella.
Though a languid, bucolic calm that pervades modern Ischia, this island has seen its share of cataclysmic disasters, including the eruption of Monte Arso (now extinct) in 1301, an earthquake in 1883 which killed almost 2,000 people and completely razed a number of towns and villages, and almost 1,000 years of invasions, sackings, and conquests by everyone from the Ostrogoths to Ferdinand II, king of Naples.
Luckily, the island’s turmoils–both natural and man-made—are a thing of the past and the most pressing problem for visitors today is choosing between a day at the beach, at the spa, or touring the sights.
Ischia’s northern coast is where most beach-bound visitors head, attracted by a number of sandy coves between the resort towns of Ischia Porto (where the traffic can get heavy in the peak summer months) and smaller and prettier Ischia Ponte. The beaches along this stretch all face the dramatic rocky island topped by the Castello Aragonese (see below) and many are serviced with rental umbrellas and loungers. The colorful fishing village-cum-beach town of Lacco Ameno is also flanked by a number of lovely beaches, including “Il Fungo” beach facing the mushroom-shaped rock formation which lends the spot its name, and the stunning San Montano Bay, one of the most beautiful stretches of coast on the island.
The island’s much quieter southern coast has a number of delightful, sleepy (and traffic-free) towns with beautiful beaches nearby. The Chiaia di Rose beach is a tiny, friendly strip just steps from the center of the picturesque village of Sant’Angelo; a short water taxi ride away, the Maronti beach—one of the biggest in Ischia—spans almost 3 kilometers of coast and offers pristine, soft sand and an uninterrupted vista of the deep blue Mediterranean. A pretty footpath from Sant’Angelo leads to one of Ischia’s most unique beaches: Le Fumarole. Fumaroles are steaming vapors which seep through the terrain in this volcanic basin and heat the sand to various temperatures. Visitors lay covered in the heated sand to cure a range of ailments from rheumatism to sciatica, or, in the hotter spots, bury earthenware pots of chicken and potatoes or seafood to be cooked to perfection by Mother Nature.
Ischia is perhaps best known—especially in northern and eastern Europe—for its thermal baths. The island is home to some of the most sumptuous thermal gardens and parks in Italy, where an entire day can be spent wandering between dozens of pools, showers, and jets of varying temperatures, interspersed with relaxing massages and treatments, fabulous (and healthy) meals, and naps on the often-adjoining beach. Two of the most famous are Negombo Thermal Gardens in San Montano Bay, which offers a exquisite park, one of the best restaurants on the island, a sea-water pool, and a stretch of area along the famed San Montano beach, and the famous Poseidon Thermal Gardens, a sprawling complex which heats its over 20 different pools with the boiling thermal water naturally bubbling up from underneath the island’s surface.
As a volcanic island, Ischia is also dotted with thermal springs which are free for the taking for those who don’t want to dedicate a day to a thermal park. For those who prefer a dry heat (said to be curative for rheumatism and skeletal aches and pains), the sand heated by the fumaroles of Sant’Angelo (see above) can work wonders. Otherwise, the Sorgeto hot springs near the town of Panza in Forio offers visitors a series of bubbling hot rock pools, soothing and massaging aching muscles like a natural Jacuzzi. Italians being Italians, you can often see bathers cooking up their lunch in one of the hotter steaming spring basins.
The most recognizable of Ischia’s monuments is the imposing Castello Aragonese, set on a craggy fortified island off the coast of Ischia Ponte. Dating back over 2,500 years, when Hiero I of Syracuse constructed two watch towers on the cliff to guard the coast against raids, the following centuries saw the citadel expand and change hands as waves of conquerers took advantage of its strategic position. The bulk of the structure remaining today (and the bridge connecting the castle to the main island) was built by the Aragonese royal family in the Middle Ages, and over the centuries the castle has been home to more than 2,000 people, has been used as a prison, and is now a historical monument open to visitors. Don’t miss the Cimitero delle Clarisse–“one of the creepiest places in Italy,” according to Brian—where the bodies of deceased nuns were posed in sitting positions and visited regularly by their living sisters, who would contemplate the decomposing bodies as a reminder of their own mortality.
Though Capri is known for its celebrity A-list visitors and residents, Ischia has also had its brushes with the internationally famous, many of whom travelled to the island as guests of composer Sir William Walton and his wife Lady Susana Walton, whose La Mortella villa and surrounding exotic gardens (designed by Russel Page) near Forio attracted stars including Sir Laurence Olivier and Maria Callas. The gardens at La Mortella, named the most beautiful in Italy in 2004 for their extraordinary flora and fauna, have been open to visitors since 1991, and the Waltons’ foundation stages two seasons of chamber music concerts a year in the recital hall and open-air theater on the grounds.