When people think of the Amalfi Coast, what usually comes to mind are Capri or Positano. Both are spectacular destinations, but hidden just off the coast is one of Italy’s secret gems — the island of Ischia. In addition to its rich history, historic sites, and gorgeous scenery (The Talented Mr. Ripley was filmed here!), it also has a special place in my heart.
Giardini Poseidon Terme
While Ischia isn’t familiar to most Americans, it is well-known to Europeans as a place to relax while indulging in wellness and self-care practices. A volcanic island, you can find plenty of thermal spas, natural hot springs, and treatments that utilize the healing volcanic mud of the region—but no place compares to Giardini Poseidon Terme, which is the largest thermal park on the island of Ischia, with more than 20 swimming pools overlooking the Bay of Citara. You will experience the revitalizing energy of the volcanic waters as you release stress and restore your natural balance. The full-service spa also includes holistic treatments, massage, personal trainers, and anti-aging treatments to enhance your natural beauty and radiance.
Samuele & Umberto in Lacco Ameno
I discovered the magic of Ischia through my husband Sam, who lived in Italy for 16 years. One of Sam’s best friends, Umberto, was born and raised on Ischia and completely embodies the beauty and spirit of the islands. A former model, Umberto can rock a Speedo the way only Italian men can, and like everyone we met on the island, he has a huge, welcoming heart. Despite the fact that he barely speaks a word of English – and I’m still mastering Italian – he and Sam are so close that when Umberto and I met, in 2014, he instantly treated me as one of his family. Both of his parents, brother, nephew, and his enormous Italian family are all natives to the island and have deep connections to Ischia’s people, land, and ocean.
I met Umberto and his family soon after Sam and I were married, and the four days we spent on Ischia are some of my most special memories. Sam jokes that Umberto was the “born in the sea” as he is always in the water. True to form, he picked us up one morning in his 10-person motorized dinghy and gave us a full tour around the island. Like many of the locals on the island, Umberto knew the waters so well, he could angle the boat to ride the current and used the engine only when he needed it.
After only 15 minutes into the ride, we came upon one of Umberto’s friends, diving for sea urchins. We pulled up to say hello, just as he emerged from the water with spiny urchins in his hands. He pried them open with a pocketknife and held them out to us. These delicacies are quite unique, and I am not an adventurous eater. However, feeling the warm sun on my shoulders and the Mediterranean gently rocking the boat, I didn’t think twice when one was offered to me. Sam took a slice of lemon from the cooler, squeezed it on the urchin, and I threw it back.
Soon after, we came upon Umberto’s father, who was fishing. “Ciao,” he said, offering us some beers that we happily accepted. We chatted for a bit and then he said he had to get back to work. “Ci vediamo stasera,” Umberto’s father called to us and turned back to the water. “Per cena mangeremo del buonissimo pesce!”
Sam turned to me and explained that Umberto’s father said he was looking forward to seeing us later when we would eat delicious fish for dinner.
We moved on, but it wasn’t long before Umberto waved to the crew of a beautiful wooden sailboat that soon pulled up next to us. After the usual effusive and joyous Italian greetings, they offered us limoncello and tiramisu. How could we possibly say no to that!
Boat Ride around Island with Aragonese Castle in background
I am a firm believer in kismet— those beautiful coincidences that seem too perfect to be caused by random chance (after all, I am someone who met her husband on a train ride though Italy). So while I admit I am somewhat of a romantic, our day on Ischia’s waters seemed too special, too magical to be just a series of unconnected events. I felt as though I was in a place that was unabashedly expressive, deeply spiritual, and inextricably connected to its history, its traditions, and a belief that the world was basically good. Whether I was given a hug, raw fish from the sea, or a welcoming greeting, I felt as though the entire day had been a feast.
That night, back at “home,” we ate the fresh fish Umberto’s father caught that morning and stayed for a long time at the table, talking and laughing. We spent two nights with Umberto’s family, sharing in their love and joy for living as well as the fresh fish Umberto’s father brought home. What I learned from Umberto’s mother though, was that fish is not the most iconic dish on the island. Instead, Ischia’s classic dish is coniglio all’Ischitana, a rustic rabbit dish that reflects the island’s rural farming history more authentically than its limited fishing industry. Like most of Italy, the food is local and in-season, meaning that every vegetable is picked at its peak.
After dinner one night, Umberto showed us Ischia’s vibrant night life, including night clubs and bars with dancing. We stayed out until 4 am and ended the night with Umberto buying us street food that was a far cry from the bacon-wrapped street dogs I used to eat on my way home from my Hollywood clubbing days (if you know, you know!) Sam had been ranting about this street food for a while, specifically the Zingara, which is a famous Naples hot, melted panini with crisp prosciutto, oozing mozzarella, and the Italian bread that I could eat every day for the rest of my life.
Homemade Risotto Vongole, courtesy of Umberto’s parents
If I could, I would send you all to Umberto’s family home for two days of wonderful food, beautiful living, and pure love. Since I can’t do that, I will recommend the next best thing – which is where Sam and I went next — the pure luxury of The San Montano Resort & Spa.
San Montano Resort & Spa View
But first, let me be clear. I understand that we are in a pandemic, and that luxuries are not something we are paying attention to right now as we are donning facemasks. I also believe it’s important to dream, and it’s important to remember that this pandemic will not last forever. While we are staying at home and taking as many precautions as possible, we also need to take care of our own souls and dream. And let me tell you—if you dream of sipping limoncello by the sea in Ischia, you are dreaming beautiful dreams.
Samuele & Christine at Sant Montano Resort & Spa
While at the San Montano, Sam and I experienced beauty at every turn. Imagine the scents of jasmine and lavender while you walk barefoot to cocktails, hand in hand. You can swim in eight different pools, be pampered in the Ocean Blue Spa and then enjoy authentic Italian pizza at Acropoli’s Bar. You will experience luxury that makes you grateful for every single moment you spend here, including sumptuous rooms with huge tubs and views of the azure sea just outside your window.
I recommend beginning your day overlooking the water at La Veranda restaurant where you can choose between decadent pastries, elegantly prepared breakfasts, and fresh, local fruit. Then, head to one of the island’s historical sites. Aragonese Castle was built by Hiero I of Syracuse in 474 BC and still stands today at the northern end of Ischia. If hiking is more your style, you can head to Mount Epomeo, the highest mountain on the island. Climb from the quiet village of Fontana through vineyards, greenery, and white lava trails to the peak, where the view will leave you breathless.
If you are interested in exploring more of the local culture, Lacco-Ameno is one of the smallest towns on Ischia. It’s known for a giant, mushroom-shaped rock that rises up from the sea, right off the coast and aptly named Il Fungo. While there are many legends about lovers and gods to explain the rock, its true origin is a result of the same volcano responsible for Ischia’s gorgeous hot springs.
If you stroll through the main part of town, you will be charmed by the tree-lined streets, boutiques, white houses, and ancient churches. Behind, on Monte Vico, stands Torre Aragonese tower, built in 1325 by the Aragonese Admirel Carroz, who conquered the region and needed a lookout to watch for Saracen invasions. It still stands guard over the region, more than seven centuries later. More of Ischia’s incredible history can be found in Lacco-Ameno’s main church, Santa Restituta, which is dedicated to the town’s patron saint and includes a museum.
The true magic of Ischia is that it will give you your own unique love story. From the warm sun to the even warmer people, the authentic culture will envelop you with open arms, nourish your heart, and provide you with an adventure that you will never forget.