It started as far back as the first century BC, when the Emperor Augustus gazed out on the Bay of Naples and decided to give his island, Ischia, to Naples in exchange for Capri. Ever since then, low-key Ischia has been overshadowed by its chichi sister; while Capri has lured an endless stream of the rich and famous over the years, Ischia has had a humbler existence, drawing a faithful clientele of German tourists to its time-warped spa hotels.
Truth is, Capri is beautiful, but it’s swarming with tour groups. For a chilled-out island holiday, Ischia is a far better bet. Even as the ferry approaches, gliding into the horseshoe-shaped harbour of Ischia Porto, you can tell that this place is special. Rising like a mirage from the shimmering Bay of Naples, the island is topped by rugged Monte Epomeo, a craggy volcano, now dormant and blanketed in dense pine forest: a vision so lush that it could almost pass for a Central American isle, rather than a Mediterranean outcrop a short hop from chaotic Naples.
But disembark the ferry and all is emphatically Italian. Bronzed ragazzi lounge on scooters, making eyes at girls; cheeky local kids holler “complimenti!” to the owners of the sleek yachts in the harbour; housewives jostle for space at hole-in-the-wall grocers, critically squeezing plums and sniffing lemons; and elderly gents prepare for a game of cards with a shot of the local pick-me-up, caffè corretto (espresso “corrected” with grappa).
Take the waters
The island’s main claim to fame is its volcanic springs. It boasts 103, each known to benefit different ailments, from rheumatism to gout. “Wellness” is a serious business here: so potent are the thermal waters that patients are referred to the island’s spas by Italy’s national health service. Pick of the spa hotels is the hilltop San Montano, a discreetly luxurious bolthole with seven pools and a garden fragrant with lemon, lavender and jasmine, used for alfresco spa treatments. Nearby Negombo is one of the island’s biggest draws: a complex of thermal gardens whose fourteen pools are couched amid jungle-style foliage and exotic blooms, and dotted with contemporary sculpture. For an Ischian spa experience on a budget, head to Il Sorgeto, a scenic cove near the village of Panza, where you can wallow in bubbling rocky pools just offshore – do as the locals do and head down at sunset with a beer.
Brave the bus
The best way to get a feel for Ischia is to hop on one of the buses that circle the island, stopping off at all the main towns. Riding the bus is an experience in itself – you’re likely to be crammed in with a busload of school kids, nuns, hikers and spa-hoppers, all attempting to stay upright as the bus accelerates round the bends – but grab a spot by the window and take in the view. Tangles of bougainvillea adorn the sun-bleached houses, cactus and prickly pear sprout along the roadside, and vineyards dotted with wild poppies bask in the sunshine. The main towns, clustered along the north coast, whizz by: a scenic tableau of faded spa hotels, beachfront trattorias and waterfront promenades lined with Caribbean-worthy palm trees. On the south coast, winsome Sant’Angelo is Ischia’s chicest corner, its whitewashed houses sheltered by soaring cliffs; boat-taxis leave from the little harbour here to the Spiaggia dei Maronti, one of the island’s best beaches.
Hop over to Procida
Just 15 minutes by ferry from Ischia, the pint-sized island of Procida is refreshingly tourist-free (except in August, when Italian holidaymakers pack its sandy beaches), with the sort of unshowy charm that has you constantly reaching for your camera. Roadside shrines hold jam-jars of geraniums, trees heavy with Procida’s celebrated lemons line the roads, and in Marina Corricella – not just the prettiest spot on the island but the entire Bay of Naples – houses in sugared-almond colours tumble down to a harbour where fishermen mend their nets. The area featured as a 50s-era Italian idyll in both The Talented Mr Ripley and Il Postino. One of the latter’s locations, the Taverna del Postino in the middle of the harbour, makes a scenic spot for a lunch of seafood and zeppoline (“little zeppelins”): melt-in-the-mouth herb dumplings.
Go back in time
Named Pithecusae in ancient times, Ischia was colonized in turn by the Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Turks and Aragonese. A few simple museums across the island pay tribute to Ischia’s chequered history, but the must-see is the Castello Aragonese, a hulking medieval castle that sits at the end of its own promontory in Ischia Ponte. You can wander the walkways, take in the breathtaking views and poke around the buildings inside. A highlight (for the ghoulish) is the little room lined with stone seats, where the bodies of dead nuns were propped up for the living sisters to visit and contemplate the nature of death. Afterwards, head to the bar at the castle’s highest point, and take in the seascape with a restorative Campari.
Head for the hills
Wherever you are on Ischia, you can’t escape Monte Epomeo, the island’s 789-metre-high volcano. An hour’s walk from the village of Fontana, up the mountain’s forested slopes, you come to the summit, where the head-spinning views take in the entire Bay of Naples. If this was Capri, you’d have to elbow your way past crowds of tourists to get to the top, then queue for lunch at an overpriced restaurant; this being Ischia, you’ll probably have the views to yourself, and you can treat yourself to a lunch of rabbit stew, the local speciality, at family-run restaurant La Grotta on the way down. The terrace has views to make you swoon: vineyards line the slopes, fruit of a wine heritage that dates back to 700 BC, thanks to the island’s fertile volcanic soil and temperate climate. After lunch, they’ll ply you with homemade limoncello – Ischia’s version is particularly potent – before you’re allowed to leave, tottering down the hillside and congratulating yourself on resisting the siren call of Capri in favour of Ischia’s earthier charms.
Ischia’s nearest airport is at Naples. From here it’s a 30min bus or taxi journey to the port, then a 50min hydrofoil. Most hotels on the island are open from April to October. Rooms at the San Montano (sanmontano.com) start at €180 per night.