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Escape to Ischia Island
Enjoy the family Island
Even though Ischia is not as famous as its neighbor Capri, it is a beautiful island and worth a visit for its exciting activities, thermal spas, delicious food, hospitable people and pleasant atmosphere.
In the Gulf of Naples in 6 B.C the Emperor Augustus traded the island of Ischia for Capri. This swap still resonates today as the island that gained Imperial favor, Capri, remains popular and the other, Ischia, continues to be fairly unknown. In fact, if you were to ask someone from Ischia about Capri the response would most likely be that Capri is good for a day trip while staying on Ischia, which has so much more to offer. Over the centuries Ischia has been ruled by occupying armies, countries, pirates and ruling families; however, in spite of its shaky political and natural history it remains faithful to its Greek and Italian roots. Today the rocky island has a population of about 60,000 that is divided among five towns with the two largest being Ischia Town and Forio. Once on the island, Ischia Town has the most nightlife and shopping while the quieter Forio provides a quaint and relaxing atmosphere.
My wife and I spent four days during the end of May on this island that has remarkable beauty, warm days and crisp nights, whitewashed buildings with blue trim, great food, and friendly people that are proud of their history and island. Our days were activity filled with swimming, driving the scooter around to the island’s attractions, hiking Mount Epomeo and soaking in the many hot springs while our evenings were spent relaxing and eating the local dishes. As two very independent travelers with vastly different requirements for a relaxing getaway, Ischia satisfied us both as it offers good and unique food plus plenty of activities. And our enjoyment was compounded because our hosts delivered superior hospitality and a clean place to stay. Ischia could be precisely what you need if traveling with friends, as a couple, with a family or if you are just looking for a quiet and easy to reach escape from a noisy city hopping grind.
Getting to and around Ischia:
We departed from Naples on a hydrofoil (€18 each way) and within a little over an hour we reached Forio, which is smaller than Iscia Town but with plenty to do and is easy to access the rest of the island. Rather than dealing with public transportation we rented a scooter for €25 per day as it allowed us to set our own schedule. Although, with the windy roads, fast cars, faster scooters and hills a scooter is not for the faint of heart or inexperienced so a car rental might be a better option- they were not much more than the scooters. In talking to other travelers we were told that the buses were timely, cheap and adequately got them around.
Where to stay:
We stayed at La Rotonda sul Mar, which is a Colella Family property. Amerigo, one of the Colella sons, picked us up at the port, brought us to our apartment, recommend things to do on the island, arranged our scooter, transported to and from their restaurant and then finally dropped us off at the port. From Papa Salvatore and Mama Tina to the three brothers Giuseppe, Amerigo and Lorenzo this clan delivers their promise of family hospitality and as a consequence they provide an authentic Italian experience. From cooking lessons with Mama Tina to learning how to make limoncello with Papa Salvatore to each of the brothers zooming between all their properties to look after the guests the Colella Family provides a truly unique opportunity to learn, rest and enjoy Ischia.
Depending on your preferences the Colellas have three different and distinct accommodation options.
A traditional hotel: Poggio del Sole is on the same land that Salvatore’s and Tina’s respective families owned before they married so in a way it is the land that grew the family. Each room has its own bathroom and balcony with a sea view and some rooms even have a kitchenette and two balconies. It is located just above the family restaurant La Casereccia so meals are an easy commute. The hotel is a good choice if you are looking for a quite get-away. Poggio del Sole is in a neighborhood that makes it impractical to walk to the port so if you stay here you will want to factor in transportation.
View from patio on Rotonda sul Mare
Apartments and rooms: We chose to stay at La Rotonda sul Mar, which is located on the sea and is a 20 minute stroll from Forio and even less to some bars (in the Italian sense) and restaurants. Keep in mind that many European beaches are rocky but approximately 300 meters away there is a sandy beach. From June to September a deck is set up so you can sunbathe right on the water and as of May 2009 there are plans to install a beach bar. With a few levels of patios, the beautiful sunsets and easy water access we loved the location. The interiors of the rooms are basic, but very clean and spacious. My wife normally prefers a luxurious feeling room but she found this very comfortable and I had no complaints.
The hostel: Ring hostel is a standard hostel that offers more atmosphere than amenities. This is one of those places where if the walls could talk, goodness knows what they would say. But as luck would have it the walls do talk in that travelers have been using them as a guest book since Ring Hostel was opened in 2005.
The food: Forio had many tasty restaurants, but our experience was tainted due to one tourist trap. To start positively, the hotel Poggio del Sole is connected to the family restaurant, La Casereccia, which everyone should try. It has a traditional wood burning pizza oven and they serve many of their homemade products including Papa Salvatore’s limoncello and prune juice. La Casereccia is a restaurant where you can “si mangia bene” and stay on budget. One of the most outstanding dishes that we had was the octopus salad (insalata di polpo). It is an Ischia specialty so it will be on the menu most places. In Ischia this salad is prepared by adding some small cut-up octopi with oil, lemon and a few other garden ingredients that results in a simple and tasty appetizer.
Just down the beach from the La Rotonda sul Mar is a string of restaurants that all seem to be about the same. We chose one at random and ended up being pleasantly surprised. The name is called L’Ancora and it is really not that much to look at but it does have an extension on the beach, which met our single criterion for that meal. We ordered a frutti del mare pizza complete with octopus, mussels and anchovies and it was fresh and tasty while not being too fishy. But the real treat was a bruschetta panino that they make with their homemade pizza dough. I thought that I had seen all variations of the bruschetta but this was a stand out by being served on pizza dough. L’Ancora is a good bet for the restaurants along that strip.
Sometimes the problem with traveling off-season is that many of the places that heavily target tourists will not be opened or in full swing. Indeed, the port of Forio on a Tuesday night at the end of May was pretty empty. Unfortunately we settled for the restaurant called La Romantica di Porto Francesco because it at least had a few other guests. When we arrived the waiter seemed nice enough. He recommended a decent bottle of Greco di Tufo (we found the table white wine on Ischia to be pretty poor) and walked us through the menu making a couple reasonable recommendations. Then he pulled what I call an “off menu” stunt which is when a waiter suggests a “special dish” that is not on the menu, so there is no price. In this instance although we insisted we were not all that hungry the waiter heartily insisted that we had to try the specialty of the house. As seasoned travelers we know to ask the price – but didn’t as the waiter seemed pleasant and we were feeling comfortable. In the end we paid as it was way too much food and had a price 2-3 times any other appetizer on the menu. We disputed the bill when it came but the waiter said we had agreed to it. Instead of making a scene we paid and left with another traveler rule more ingrained in our minds. The lesson is always the same: insist on knowing the price before ordering and when you hear, “I have something special for you” or “don’t worry about it I will make you a special price” most likely you are about to get taken. It is no surprise that this little scam and overcooked pasta ruined the evening; the wine was decent and a real steal at only 50% the price of the appetizer.
What to do: Hike to the top of the Island: The hike to the top of Mount Epomeo is easy but strenuous. The hike took us about 45 minutes to an hour but the view from the top alone makes it worth the hike. The hike can get a bit hot so try to do it in the morning. It is strange to think hike and then automatically think food, but there are three places to eat along the way: one at the very bottom, another hidden in the woods about 25% of the way up and another at the very top.
Hunters' rabbit is an Ischia specialty
After the hike we stayed on the top for some cold water and a snack at the restaurant that looked like a mud hut but had, as you might imagine, an excellent view. My wife sampled the bruschetta, which was a pile of tomatoes and basil bathed in tasty olive oil set on a garlicky half loaf of toasted Italian bread. I went for the specialty of the region that I discovered while hiking up when I saw a few playful signs advertising coniglio alla cacciatore, translated hunter’s rabbit. Fortunately, I ordered the coniglio because it was easily the best rabbit that I have ever eaten and IMG_5457among some of the best dishes that I have ever tasted. It was served in a thick but not too heavy tomato sauce with roasted red bell peppers, onions, garlic along with some white wine, salt, pepper and a few family secrets. For those that have not tried rabbit the taste is not particularly strong or gamey but has the taste of fowl dark meat with a texture of duck so it is not stringy like chicken. However, in this recipe the rabbit is smothered in so much sauce that the natural flavor is in a supporting rather than starring role. The pasta dishes that we saw come out were also plentiful, actually enough for two. Our bill totaled €39.00 with the €18.00 rabbit being the lion’s share of the bill with the bruschetta, salad and half liter of wine making up the difference. It was an excellent meal and experience- highly recommended.
Negombo: One reason why Augustus decided to trade Ischia was because of the risk of severe volcanic activity was too great to invest building an imperial palace or even spending time there. But it is exactly all of that activity that creates all of the thermal springs that makes Ischia such a find. Negombo is a thermal bath park that is one of the best places that we have found while traveling. We are not a sit on the beach type couple so we appreciated the opportunity to visit the 25 different thermal pools that the resort offers. With everything from hot and cold dips, to Turkish baths, to a variety of heated pools in addition to one of the nicest beaches we saw on Ischia, it is an excellent way for anyone to spend the day.
We spent an enjoyable day trying all of the pools, returning to the ones we liked best, eating lunch and swimming in the ocean. Our favorite was the water cascades that drop water from various heights that when you stand under the water stream it actually gives you a pretty thorough and effective massage. The cost of entry was €29 per person which might not be in everyone’s budget, but both of us felt that it was well worth it as we spent 6 hours jumping from pool to pool. If you decide to go – bring your own towel, a pair of shoes you don’t mind getting wet, and careful of the sun – all that jumping from pool to pool wipes off any sunscreen. Another note is that if you plan on going here to be sure and ask the reception at your hotel for discount coupons which will save you €3 per ticket.
Baia di Sorgeto: Nestled into a small bay and just off the beach are a few warm water pockets that are like hot tubs in the sea. Also known for the mud that is dredged from around the area, which is used for an all-natural facial this is a worthwhile destination. Baia di Sorgeto can be reached by bus, taxi, on your own, boat or water taxi from Sant’Angelo. The rocky beach is not very comfortable but there are lounges to be rented for about €15 and the bar / restaurant is very reasonable. The mud can be bought either by the jar, or when we were the bar was selling it by the mask. At times this place can be infested with jellyfish thus making the pools inaccessible. To avoid this have your hotel receptionist call La Sorgente, the bar / restaurant only meters away, and ask for a jellyfish report. Phone number: 081.907837. Nothing would be worse than traveling across Ischia to Baia di Sorgento only to descend the 200 something stairs and learn that the sparkling in the water is really sacs of stinging plasma.
Nitrodi: These sulfur springs have been in use since ancient Romans visited Ischia. We stopped by and gave them a look but decided against going in because the whole area was not inviting plus the €9 frankly did not seem worth it. We would recommend this if Baia di Sorgento is infested with jellyfish but on its own with a limited time or financial budget we recommend giving this a miss.
Sant’ Angelo: This fishing village is on the itinerary of every organized tour in Ischia. The main draw is the beauty created by the isthmus- also a sandy beach- that connects the mainland to a small dot of land that is now covered with hotels. Sant’ Angelo is great for walking around because they severely limit motor traffic all over town so you are not being constantly buzzed by cars and omnipresent scooters. There is a cluster of bars and cafés on the mainland that are not terribly expensive and there are a lot of shops, with typical tourist stuff in addition too some pretty fun boutiques. We found that Sant’Angelo was perfect for a light lunch or drink but not worth spending an entire afternoon that is unless you are there for the beach.
After our four days on Ischia we were completely relaxed and recharged. Aside from the “off menu” incident, which could have taken place anywhere, Ischia was a very worthwhile destination. We felt that we could have stayed a couple more days so now we just have to figure out how to go back!
Where to stay: The Colella Family www.hotelpoggiodelsole.it or for Ring Hostel www.ringhostel.com They waill also be able to set up the apartment or room rental at Rotona sul Mar.
Where to eat: At the top of Mount Epomeo, La Casereccia (The Colella Family restaurant)
Food and drink: Coniglio della Cacciatore; Rucolino is the local liqueur made out of arugula and tastes like Jagermeister; octopus salad; paccheri pasta (large round tubes) with mussels and pecorino.
Where to go: Negombo, Baia di Sorgeto, Sant’ Angelo, Mount Epomeo
Cooking classes: Contact La Casereccia www.lacasereccia.com to inquire about cooking classes and other classes that the Colella Family provides.
When to go: The busy, busy season is in August when the island is full of Europeans. April – June and Sept – October will still have great weather but Ischia will be quieter. The benefit of going during the busy season is that everything will be open and there will be a lot more nightlife options. However, we are more early and late season travelers so we did not mind the fewer options in exchange for no crowds. While Ischia may be fairly untrodden by English speaking travelers it is not a secret to Germans and Asians so expect to share the island with them no matter when you decide to visit.
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