Most Brits could write what they know about the Ischia on the back of a postage stamp. Around 5,000 British holidaymakers each year could then stick the stamp onto a postcard home from this spectacular volcanic island that lies to the north of Italy’s Gulf of Naples.
“Having now enjoyed a fabulous five-day stay on Ischia, I can’t believe that I have reached the grand age of 52 without having taken the trouble to find out more about this intriguing and delightful Mediterranean island!”
Ischia rubs shoulders with the much better known island of Capri. It is the much larger neighbour, it isn’t as glitzy and cosmopolitan, but it does have some equally outstanding hotel `finds’. These include the very individual Relais & Chateaux Terme Manzi Hotel & Spa, with its eclectic and original interiors, roof-top swimming pool terraces and 2-star Michelin restaurant, the 5-star Lux Hotel Regina Isabella with its genuine 1950s interiors, apparently effortless service levels and enviable beachside location and the lovely villas and 50-room hotel at the 4-star Garden & Villas Resort, built in traditional style, blending local architecture with verdant native planting amid 2 acres of grounds.
It takes just over an hour to circumnavigate Ischia by car, the largest of the Phlegrean islands at approximately 1 from east to west and 7km north to south, and it takes around 40 minutes to reach it by hydrofoil from Naples, and a little over an hour by car ferry. That makes the island very accessible from the UK, by flying into Naples and taking a short taxi transfer to the port.
Before my visit, my knowledge of Ischia would have adequately filled the back of a pictorial stamp. I only knew that it had thermal spas and a famous garden, ‘La Mortella’, the gardens created by British composer Sir William Walton and his wife, Lady Susana Walton.
That scant knowledge is selling the island very short. Ischia is a truly fulfilling place to discover during a holiday of a week or more. Its terrain is similar to the greener Greek islands, with undulating roads that dip down to villages that front sandy stretches of the Mediterranean. Combine that with Italian style and you have Ischia.
The island’s mountainous interior culminates in the highest peak of Mount Epomeo, which rises to 788m above sea level. But the real draw for holiday visitors is the seaside towns and villages and their adjacent beaches. These include Ischia town with its cosmopolitan walking streets, ice cream parlours, restaurants and bars and its old port, with cobbled streets, Lacco Ameno, with its very pretty piazza, the lovely peninsula village of S. Angelo and the town of Forio, with its baroque church, pretty harbour and narrow streets.
The 5-star Hotel Regina Isabella is just a few steps from Lacco Ameno’s tree lined square, with its central fountain, fringed by bars, shops and striking baroque public buildings. The hotel has a glamorous celebrity past whose guests include Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable, William Holden and Maria Callas, as well as a clutch of famous royals. Enough to rock the better known celebrity island of Capri in its socks.
The Regina Isabella’s restaurant was a particular pleasure, as was Room 236, with its two balconies, set above a small stretch of private sandy beach, with its generous and beautiful retro tiled bathroom, (which had similarly stunning view out to sea), and the massive bed dressed in crisp white linen.
Breakfast and dinner are both taken in the main restaurant, with its panoramic views with floor to ceiling windows on three sides looking out to sea, to the beach and to the coastline back towards Ischia town.
The waiters and service levels alone would make me want to return to the hotel as they hark back to an era when waiters didn’t huff and puff or roll their eyes, an era that is also reflected in the genuine 1950s and 1960s ceramic tiled floors, wood lined bar, high ceilings and crystal chandeliers.
Not surprisingly, the Hotel Regina Isabella is one of the best known hotels on the island and as well as having an auspicious celebrity following, it has many less well known but even more loyal guests who wouldn’t consider staying anywhere else.
The very eccentric and equally luxurious Hotel Terme Manzi, adjacent to Ischia Town, is a far more recent addition to Ischia’s choice of hotels, having been re-shaped by its present owners just six years ago. The hotel’s collection of statuary, original artworks, mosaic studded columns and intriguing lighting includes a metal ceiling plate from the ashes of Venice’s La Fenice theatre. Just one or two of the hotel’s myriad of collectables would be excessive, but the owner’s passion for objects d’art fills every space and is designed to remind guests of Ischia’s many rulers and its exotic history.
Hotel Manzi’s integral spa is open for longer than the hotel itself, which closes between November and April, and is built above the most famous and mineral rich thermal waters on the island that feed the naturally warm swimming pool and spa baths.
The father of Italian independence, Giuseppe Garibaldi’s own thick marble bath is set in an apse in the entrance to the spa, another reminder of Italy’s extremely varied history of conquerors and occupiers. By the time guests have navigated past the vast and traditional nativity scene that fills the end wall of the reception bar, walked beneath huge Murano glass chandeliers, past ancient statues and extravagant artworks, the bath `souvenir’ comes as no surprise.
This winter sees new projects take shape as Manzi’s third floor level terraces built around ancient olive trees from the main restaurant, ‘Il Mosaico’, are refurbished and the conversion of 10 rooms of the hotel’s 60 bedrooms creates an additional five suites, opulently designed and furnished to individual designs, with generous and sumptuous living and sleeping areas.
There’s not much that could improve Terme Manzi Hotel & Spa’s glorious roof-top swimming pool with its undulating terraces, blue mosaic staircases and ogee domed chimneys, other than one of Ischia’s many sunny days during which to enjoy them.
Another new destination for visitors to Ischia, mid-way between the lovely town of Lacco Ameno and the Walton’s famous ‘La Mortella’ gardens, is the 4-star Superior Garden & Villas Resort. Close to San Montano Bay and the Negombo thermal spa gardens (a lush, beachside haven of sea and freshwater pools, thermally heated by volcanic action), the Garden & Villas resort features 9 white-washed villas, typical of the island architecture, set in the resort’s two acres of beautiful landscaped gardens, amid lush verdant plants and native flowers.
The resort also has a 50 room hotel, a wellness centre, and a restaurant (‘Il Corbezzolo’), that blends harmoniously the tasty Neapolitan and Ischitana cuisine, with an abundance of fresh fish, seafood and locally grown produce. The hotel’s close proximity to La Mortella gardens, to the beaches and to bus links to the local towns and villages, adds to its draw as a friendly and comfortable place for a couple, or a family, to while away the days.
With the back of my stamp now overflowing with superlatives, a post card home would simply urge friends and family to visit this truly surprising island. I can’t praise it highly enough for its style, service, scenery and surroundings, good quality hotels, stylish resorts and surprising variety of things to do and places to see.