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If nature and outdoor pursuits rank high on your list of island criteria, the Tuscan Islands are a no-brainer. Elba, along with its tourist-friendly sisters, Giglio, Capraia, and Giannutri, are not only the best Italian islands for an active vacation but also among the top spots in Italy, period, for hikers, bikers, and watersports enthusiasts. This being Italy, there's nothing terribly extreme about the outdoors activities, and a hearty meal and a good glass of wine are always close at hand -- good news for those of us who only don our "outdoorsy" caps when on vacation.

In Italy's northernmost holiday archipelago, evergreens predominate, the light is crisper, temperatures take longer to warm up in spring and are quicker to cool in fall, and the air is just . . . different -- even on a hot day in the middle of August. Yet the Tuscan sun shines brightly on the archipelago (and it's milder here in winter than on the mainland), and you can get just as wet and tan here as in more southerly locales.

Many things that have made traveling in mainland Tuscany so enormously popular -- the gentleness of the land and its people, the ease of doing things, to name a couple -- also carry over on Elba and the gang. Excellent wine is produced on Elba, and if you're smart about where you eat, you can have gourmet experiences every day in the archipelago. Elba's Capoliveri, Marciana, and Poggio, and Giglio's Castello are inland hill towns as charming as any in the Tuscan countryside. The archipelago doesn't offer too much in the way of cultural sights beyond a few historic fortresses and Napoleonic residences -- but who wants to spend his or her island time indoors anyway?

Much of the archipelago, both land and surrounding sea, is designated parkland of the Parco Nazionale dell'Arcipelago Toscano. That translates to wild landscapes of Mediterranean forests and flowers, rich bird and mammal life on land, teeming populations of fish undersea, and protected geological treasures -- from the granite massif of Elba's Monte Capanne to the red volcanic rock of Capraia. Locals are passionate about their protected status; even your hotel desk clerk is likely well informed about the nearby seagull colony or the unusual outcrop of feldspar down by the beach. Opportunities abound to get out and experience the park one-on-one throughout the archipelago.

Elba (l'Elba for Italians) is the largest of the Tuscan islands and the closest one to the mainland; it's also the most developed and frequented by travelers, accounting for about 90% of the archipelago's tourists every year. Geographically speaking, think of it as the eastern vertex from which the other islands are arranged in a fanlike pattern. From north to south, drawing a sort of half-moon around Elba, the other Tuscan islands are Gorgona, Capraia, Pianosa, Montecristo, Giglio, and Giannutri. Due west of il Giglio (and the gateway to Giglio and Giannutri) is the mountain promontory of Argentario, connected to mainland Tuscany by the wispiest of isthmuses. So, the Argentario isn't technically an island, but as a resort essentially surrounded by water, it's functionally an island.