Italy’s best beaches are islands
When Italians want a quiet getaway, they know to get off the busy mainland and head to the islands. But with 450 and counting, how can you choose? Well, you need to think about whether you want coves or volcanoes, fishing villages or exclusive ports. Whether you’re thinking jet-set, family fun, or off-the-grid digital detox. here’s a guide to the islands of Italy, idyllic escapes that will fulfill your dreams.
Sicily and her satellites
As you well know, Sicily is a personal favorite of mine. Its nearly 650 miles of coastline make Sicily Italy’s biggest island. This is a land of the most diverse culinary delights, dynamic and historic cities like Palermo and Catania, hilltop hamlets and baroque towns.
If those are reason enough to visit, what about the history? Everyone from the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Spanish, French, British and Americans have set foot here. But ancient is best. The island has world-class archaeological sites, such as the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, the Greek Theater in Taormina, and the temples of Selinunte and Segesta.
As for the beach, I’m partial to the rocky coast of the southwest near Sciacca adn the tiny strips of sand below Taormina on the east but when I want a little quiet, I look Sicily’s small satellite islands.
Ranking top in my list is Pantelleria, a tiny volcanic island 67 miles southwest of Sicily (and 37 miles east of Tunisia). Known as the Black Pearl, Pantelleria has been a preferred getaway for the reclusively chic, like Truman Capote, Giorgio Armani, and Sting, for decades.
Rugged coastline of jagged lava-rock formations, steaming fumaroles, and mud baths define the tiny island which still has remnants of millennia-old history including a Phoenician settlement and a medieval fortress. Dotting the landscape are dammusi, the island’s iconic white-washed lava-rock houses, some of which have been transformed into luxury resorts like Sikelia.
Italians love Pantelleria not only for its remoteness but also for its world-renowned capers and for Passito di Pantelleria, a sweet wine made from zibibbo grapes. This variety of muscat grapes was introduced by the Phoenicians, and its cultivation has been honored by UNESCO by inclusion on its list of instances of intangible cultural heritage.
The Aeolian Islands
Vulcano, Lipari, Salina, Panarea, Stromboli, Filicudi, and Alicudi, these islands make the UNESCO-protected Aeolian archipelago. Located in north of Messina, the Aeoli are punctuated by smoking volcanic peaks (Vulcano and Stromboli are active), making them the perfect setting for lost-at-sea fantasies and dramatic backdrops for nature lovers, hikers, kayakers and divers.
Lipari is the liveliest and most easily accessible of the Aeolian Islands, while Panarea is the most exclusive: Limited to pedestrian traffic, it’s a perfect place to tune out and recharge. Can’t pick one? No problem: Island-hop via ferries that run between all seven islands. Insiders stay at Salina’s sea-facing Principe di Salina.
Second in size to Sicily and most popular on the international jet set scene is Sardinia. Most only know of the Costa Smeralda, the northeastern emerald coast and enclave for the rich and famous. Just off the Costa Smeralda is the seven-island Maddalena Archipelago offers beaches, lagoons, and uninhabited islets.
Sardinia is so much more than white-sand beaches and turquoise waters, you just need to explore. Cagliari, a charming hilltop city in the south, has been around since antiquity. And you can tell through its varied architecture form Roman theatre to Baroque palaces and contemporary museums. Head southwestern coast to San Pietro, a throwback to 19th-century island living at the charming fishing town of Carloforte and the lighthouse at Capo Sandalo.
Gola di Gorropu, the largest canyon in Europe; UNESCO-protected Su Nuraxi di Barumini, a defensive structure from the second millennium B.C.E.; and the Dunes of Piscinas, sand dunes that reach 200 feet in height.
The Tuscan Archipelago
It’s bad enough that Tuscany has is beautiful, with its novel- and movie-inspiring villages. But the province has its own collection of gorgeous islands.
Six miles off the Tuscan coast, Elba is the most recognized of the Tuscan islands thanks to Napoleon, who lived here in exile in 1814. Today Elba isn’t quite as secluded. From June through September, the beaches are busy with vacationers. Off the sand and inland is the largest protected marine park in Europe, perfect for underwater exploration, plus mountain biking, trekking, and hiking.
Giglio is a gem of more than 90 percent lush and wild vegetation. This is where you want to go for a nature exploration. The hilly island’s highest peak reaches nearly 1,600 feet, and the seaside cliffs present dramatic descents to Giglio’s beaches and caves. From Giglio you can see, the island was made famous by Alexandre Dumas. Montcristo is the location of Dumas’ fictional prison fortress in The Count of Monte Cristo. and is uninhabited. But there is a real life nature preserve, that can only be visited twice a year, by permit.
Nine miles south of Giglio, the crescent-shaped Giannutri, at one-square mile, is the least populated island in the Tuscan Archipelago. Though swimming is restricted to certain areas, Italians head to Giannutri for diving and snorkeling—the sea floor presents a landscape of corals, meadows of Posidonia seagrass, and Roman- and Etruscan-era shipwrecks at Punta Scaletta and the Bay of Spalmatoio.
Lazio’s Pontine Islands
One of the most charming and least-known Italian islands is only an hour’s drive, plus a ferry ride, from Rome. Blissfully off the popular Italian travel circuit, Ponza has tiny, appealing villages and a charming harbor. You don’t have to be a local to participate in the island’s boating life–here you’ll want to rent a gommone (dinghy) to explore Ponza’s beaches and coves. Ponza happily is not overly fancy, but from among the smattering of cute bed-and-breakfasts, smart Romans choose to stay at Villa Laetitia, a B&B owned (and curated) by Anna Fendi Venturini, of the Fendi couture family.
Nearby is the wild Palmarola. From a distance, the tiny island looks like an uninteresing rock but explorer Jacques Cousteau spilled the beans when he declared Palmarola “the most beautiful island in the world”. Its rough and craggy, with wonderful grottos and fishermen coves to explore and a single restaurant that makes the best calamari fritti. More on Palmarola here.
The Campanian Archipelago
Probably the most famous of the archipelago or better of all Italy is Capri. Beloved by the international jet set, Capri is tourist haven that can turn some people off. I say visit as soon as the season opens, roughly around Easter or at the end of September. You’ll have breathing room and time to sit in the piazzetta, walk the Phoenician steps, meander Anacapri, explore emperor Tiberius’s Villa Jovis, visit Villa San Michele and get a table at Fontellina.
Ischia, the largest of the archipelago, is by far the greenest of Italy’s volcanic islands. The by-products of this volcanic nature—lots of natural thermal springs along the coastline—have made Ischia a wellness-focused retreat; adventure-seekers, meanwhile, can find volcanic treks around the craters of Mount Epomeo. Ischia is also the name of the main city, notable for the Aragonese Castle and a modern port area with boutiques and restaurants. The island’s other outposts, like the picturesque town of Forio and the fishing village of Sant’Angelo, can be visited by water taxi or hired boat. Near Forio, the newly restored Mezzatorre is becoming the place to stay, while traditional favorite Regina Isabella retains its 1950s charm.
At two square miles, Procida is the tiniest island in the Campanian Archipelago and possibly the most picturesque, with pastel-hued fishing villages and small ports like Marina di Chiaiolella and Marina di Corrice (locations for such films as Il Postino and The Talented Mr. Ripley). Overlooking the island and the Bay of Naples, Terra Murata is the fortified historic village at the center of Procida. Whereas Ischia has fewer beaches and more rock promontories, Procida offers scenic stretches of sand like Chiaia and Chiaiolella. A perfect day-trip destination from Naples, Procida is a 40-minute hydrofoil ferry from the port and entirely walkable. Most importantly, Procida is known for spaghetti ai ricci di mare (spaghetti with sea urchin)–it’s best enjoyed with a sunset view.
The Tremiti Islands
Everyone forgets about the other coast of Italy. Over off Puglia’s gorgeous Adriatic coastline, right above the heel of Italy’s boot, is Italy’s most off-the-radar archipelago—the Tremiti Islands of San Domino, San Nicola, Capraia, Cretaccio, and Pianosa. The remote region long served as a penal colony: In 8 B.C.E., Emperor Augustus exiled his granddaughter Julia the Younger here for licentious behavior; in the 20th century, Mussolini interned homosexual men on San Domino. Today, even though there are a few hotels and restaurants, the Tremiti are a protected part of Gargano National Park. Visitors can expect rugged coasts, limestone cliffs, rocky beaches, caves, and small coves with clear water. The small islands are easy to explore by foot and best visited via boat—whether a personal rental, a water taxi, or a tour boat.
A version of this article first appeared in AFAR, September 2019.