Ischia: The paradise island the offers a taste of the real Italy

Editor’s Note — Sign up to CNN Travel’s Unlocking Italy newsletter for insider intel on Italy’s best loved destinations and lesser-known regions to plan your ultimate trip. Plus, we’ll get you in the mood before you go with movie suggestions, reading lists and recipes from Stanley Tucci.

(CNN) — A quietly idyllic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, Ischia offers a heartwarming dose of Italian beauty, spirit and hospitality, with a generous splash of nostalgia for the Italy of yesteryear.

Here, five-star hotels and luxurious thermal springs are juxtaposed with scenes of Italian grandmothers hanging out laundry, religious street parades, and kids strapped on the back of adults zooming by on Vespas.

Its unspoiled beaches have long been popular with Italians, but international visitors were more likely to be drawn to the glitzier shores of nearby Capri or the Amalfi Coast.

Ischia, however, still has something which its more polished neighbors perhaps lack. You don’t need to dig deep here to find the real Italy. Ischia is a little less manufactured, a little more in-your-face and ultimately, that little more authentic.

And now, finally, it’s having a moment.

The rise of what Italians call “the green island” has gone a little something like this. Firstly, its famous tufa rocks, narrow streets and bougainvillea-draped landscapes became one of the backdrops for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, global bestsellers turned hit TV show.

Then came investment and the promise of bigger things to come when the luxury Pellicano Hotels group took over the island’s five-star Mezzatorre Hotel and Spa.

And finally there’s the new Ischia is More campaign, driven by a community of local hotels and businesses who are keen to revive the island’s fortunes after a tough two years for tourism.

Michele Sambaldi, the group’s president and Pellicano’s managing director, says it wants to position “Ischia as one of Italy’s most prestigious destinations while attracting and retaining the international jet-set.”

Here’s what the island has to offer, all year round.

Sunsets, views and thermal waters

The beauty of Ischia is that the landscape and traditions change from town to town, so you can have a different experience each time you visit.

Ischia Porto is hustle and bustle and the commercial heart, while nearby Ischia Ponte has an old-world vibe.

Casamicciola Terme sits on the northern coast and has the largest concentration of thermal springs, while Barano di Ischia is best known for Maronti beach, the island’s biggest.

Lacco Ameno, with its pretty marina, and Forio, with its picturesque old town, are perhaps two of the most charming towns.

The island has several not-to-be-missed sights, including the medieval Aragonese Castle which sits on its own volcanic rock formation accessed by footbridge.

This symbol of Ischia was a royal residence and, during the Renaissance, a hive of activity for artists and writers.

A guided tour through the rooms and gardens can be followed by a rest in the Terrazzo Café, with its views across the gulf of Naples.

For more vistas, the church of the Madonna del Soccorso in Forio is a whitewashed hilltop stunner with incredible sunset views.

Private sunset and even all-day boat tours can be arranged from most ports here and are a great way to orientate yourself with the island’s landscape, even while you have a dip in the crystalline waters.
For swimming and real Italian summer vibes, a day at a beach club is a must. The Giardino Eden is a tranquil oasis where you can lunch with local dishes and then swim off the beach platforms with striking views of the Aragonese castle. And La Scannella Beach Club is everything you’d expect of an island beach set-up with three swimming pools and beach access from sun lounger decks literally suspended off the rock edge.
For breathtaking mountain and sea views, hikers will love the trek up Mount Epomeo, a reminder of the island’s volcanic past. And on the topic of history, the Villa Arbusto which houses the Pithecusa Archaeological Museum is worth a visit for its fascinating collection of Roman and Greek artifacts including, amphorae, ceramics and jewels.

Ischia has no shortage of gardens or thermal parks. The manicured botanical gardens of La Mortella were created by Susana Walton, wife of English composer William Walton, and are often home to events and concerts. Complete with exotic plants, views of the bay and a Zen garden it makes for a peaceful break at any time of year.

Also perfect for all seasons is a soak in the healing thermal springs, including the spa at Nitrodi Nymph Park, which claims to be the oldest in the world. For multiple pools, spa treatments and dining options, spend the day at either Negombo or Poseidon Gardens.

A gelato stroll might just be the best way to experience the picturesque former fishing village of Sant’Angelo. Closed off to cars, it’s a kaleidoscope of flowers, vines and white houses and importantly, has one of the best granitas at Enzo’s Kiosk.

Dynamic cuisine guided by land and sea

Forio lies on the island's west coast.

Forio lies on the island’s west coast.

Balate Dorin/Adobe Stock

Being so close to Naples, it’s not hard to find Neapolitan treats across Ischia, such as excellent pizza or a pasticceria serving up sfogliatelle (ricotta and candied orange peel-filled pastries) or the iconic babà (a small soft sponge sweet soaked usually in rum).

Many bars and beach clubs will also serve up a zingara Ischitana, a toasted sandwich made with rustic bread, fior di latte cheese, prosciutto, tomato, lettuce and mayonnaise — it’s said that two guys created it in their pub in the 1970s and it can be eaten around the island to this day.

Piennolo is the most popular tomato here, grown in the rich volcanic soil which makes them extra sweet and special. In fact, it’s guaranteed that if you’re eating a pasta al pomodoro around these parts, this was the variety that was used.

As it’s a Mediterranean island, you’d be forgiven for assuming the local specialty must be seafood. Instead it’s coniglio all’Ischitana, a rabbit stew cooked in a terracotta pot with tomato and local spices. The best on the island can be found at Il Focolare restaurant, high in the hills above Casamicciola Terme and Barano. They specialize in slow-food and for their famed rabbit dish, you must call ahead.
Of course, Ischia also does seafood extraordinarily well some of the most creative on the island can be found at Saturnino in Forio ,where gourmet meets the freshest catches of the day. Also in Forio, gastronomes will appreciate the raw selection at Umberto a Mare with panoramic sea views to match at lunch or dinner.
For those wanting to have a stylish sunset aperitivo right on the beach, Seasons is the place to be with expertly mixed creative cocktails served with gourmet canapés. Stay for dinner where you can select from a variety of contemporary seafood tasting menus with matching wines.

For hearty and rustic seasonal cuisine head to La Vigna di Alberto In Barano. Locals flock here for no-frills dining in a vineyard setting with a real family-style welcome. You’ll need to call ahead to order the rabbit but there’s plenty more to choose from between pasta, seafood and meat. Impress the locals at the end of your meal by asking for a Piperna, a locally made thyme and herb infused amaro digestif.

Fine diners will enjoy the two Michelin-starred restaurant Danì Maison where multi-award-winning chef Nino Di Costanzo delights with his culinary prowess and degustation dishes that are works of art. And at Indaco located right on the sea within the Regina Isabella hotel, Michelin-starred chef Pasquale Palamaro focuses on sustainable dining and wows diners with his innovate salumi di mare (cured seafood charcuterie).
For those looking to combine food and road action, local operator Personalized Italy offer a fun foodie tour around the island with in the much loved Italian icon, the three-wheeled Ape Calessino.

Elegant getaways

Ischia Ponte is home to charming narrow streets and is crowned by Aragonese Castle.

Ischia Ponte is home to charming narrow streets and is crowned by Aragonese Castle.

Tomasz Czajkowski/Adobe Stock

Ischia’s luxury five-star hotel game is strong. The offering ranges from classic to chic to contemporary design. With natural thermal spring waters throughout, most hotels have a day spa and natural pools.

To be immersed in nature and three hectares of perfectly manicured gardens, the recently refurbished Botania Relais and Spa is an adults-only hideaway with whitewashed villa-style suites and rooms. They now boast the region’s only all-vegetarian gourmet restaurant, Mirto, with a true garden-to-table philosophy. The historic Regina Isabella Resort and Spa is great for families and groups and has a variety of casual and fine dining options, including the one-Michelin-starred Indaco, and has its own private beach.
If old-world vibes are more your thing then the former aristocratic mansion that houses the Excelsior Belvedere Hotel and Spa in the heart of Ischia Porto won’t disappoint.
Overlooking the sea in the Bay of San Montano is the San Montano Resort and Spa. It has a breathtaking infinity pool and some suites with infinity pools of their own. Their lawn terrace is the perfect place to watch the sun go down.
And then there’s the Mezzatorre Hotel and Thermal Spa which oozes Italian beach sophistication. If you could distil la dolce vita and 1950s Italy, it would look like the Pellicano Hotels group. The retro peach beach umbrellas and private bay views, all with a backdrop in the shadow of a 16th-century watchtower, will undoubtedly stop you in your tracks.

On Ischia, it could be one of many things that captures your heart: an unforgettable meal, a sunset view that takes your breath away, the spellbinding panoramas or the mesmerizing blues and greens of the waters. This magnetic island has a way of bewitching you. And one thing’s for sure. This is isn’t just a moment. Ischia is the real deal and here to stay.