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The tiny Tremiti (pronounced Treh-mi-ti), with a whopping 310 hectares (766 acres) among them, are the only Italian islands in the Adriatic, a sea whose coast tends to be drearier than the Tyrrhenian. The Tremiti are a shining exception, however, presenting incredible natural beauty, significant history, and a laid-back vacation atmosphere. Although they're packed to the gills in August, the Tremiti still feel like a relaxing getaway from civilization. No one is here to parade his or her designer beachwear, and most of your time will be spent bobbing in rented gommoni (small boats), picnicking in rocky coves, and swimming in bright turquoise waters. After a requisite romp through the castle-monastery of Santa Maria a Mare, it's all about nature and the sea on the Tremiti.

The islands of the Tremiti -- San Domino, San Nicola, and the uninhabited Caprara (aka Capraia) -- are 20km (13 miles) north of the Gargano promontory, the "spur" of boot-shaped Italy. The Gargano itself is a National Park, and the Tremiti are a Natural Marine Reserve within that park. The transparent waters teem with marine life, making the archipelago very popular with divers of all skill levels, and the main tourist island of San Domino is so naturally gorgeous that it has rightly earned the marketing nickname of Perla dell'Adriatico ("Pearl of the Adriatic"). Pinewoods act as a canopy for a prolific macchia mediterranea, thick with fragrant junipers, capers, rosemary, and myrtle, while the squiggly coast is dotted with picturesque coves.

Its imposing abbey-fortress complex has made San Nicola the historic heart of the Tremiti, and it's still where most of the islands' year-round residents live. Off season, the population of the Tremiti goes down to about 400 souls, most of whom are descended from fishermen (or mobsters and ladies of ill-repute, depending on which version you believe) from Naples. To this day, the local dialect on the islands is much more Neapolitan than Pugliese, and the islands' restaurants turn out dishes that have more in common with the Campanian tradition than with the cuisine of Puglia.

Just 500m (1,640 ft.) across the water from San Nicola, verdant San Domino is the largest of the group and has most of the tourist infrastructure. This is where most ferries call and where all but one of the islands' overnight accommodations are located. San Domino's 7km (4 1/3-mile) perimeter is a series of lovely inlets -- though only a few sandy beaches -- that make for wonderful swimming. Although many of the coves can be reached on foot, the best way to discover San Domino's coastal treasures is by boat.

Caprara, just north of San Nicola, is generally considered the third and final Tremiti island (the others, Cretaccio and Pianosa, are usually dismissed as mere scogli, or rock outcrops). Though uninhabited, its unique rock formations make it a popular destination for boaters and swimmers. Cretaccio is a clay outcrop between the ports of San Domino and San Nicola, and far-flung Pianosa (another 20km/13 miles from the other islands) is a desolate platform where only the seagulls alight.

A Homeric Connection

The tremitesi and many a Classical scholar believe that the Homeric warrior-hero Diomedes lived out his final days on the Tremiti islands, which were in antiquity once known as the Insulae Diomedeae. A more imaginative version of the legend is that the islands were created when the hero tossed a few pebbles into the Adriatic. An ancient Greek tomb is in fact preserved on the island of San Nicola and is venerated to this day as the Tomba di Diomede. It gets even more colorful: When Diomedes died, Aphrodite (Venus) turned his grief-stricken companions into birds that would guard his tomb. These birds, so the story goes, are the diomedee, or shearwaters (calonectris diomedea) that still breed and nest in the Tremiti. On evenings in the breeding season, you can hear their plaintive calls, which sound uncannily similar to the cry of a baby or the mew of a cat in heat.