12km (7 1/2 miles) off the coast at Piombino; 86km (53 miles) S of Livorno; 179km (111 miles) SW of Florence; 231km (143 miles) NW of Rome

Elba is Italy's third-largest island, but at about 27x18km (17x11 miles), it's much smaller than Sicily or Sardinia. So while it has a tall, mountainous interior speckled with ancient villages, the sea is never far away. Coastal fishing and port towns in soft pastels are interspersed with some fine sandy beaches -- and only the occasional overdeveloped spot.

The Greeks founded the first large-scale settlements here in the 10th century B.C., calling the island Aethalia after the Greek word for sparks, a reference to the forges sailors could see winking throughout the night. Elba's forges smelted iron ore, one of the hundreds of minerals that make up the fabric of the island, for 3 millennia.

When would-be emperor of Europe Napoleon Bonaparte was first defeated, he was exiled to Elba to rule as the island's governor. Beginning May 3, 1814, the Corsican general busied himself with revamping the island's economy, infrastructure, and mining system -- perhaps out of nation-building habit or merely to keep himself and his 500-man personal guard occupied. Napoleon managed to be a good boy until February 26, 1815, at which point the conquering itch grew too strong and he sailed ashore to begin the famous Hundred Days that ended in his crushing defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. The island preserves his two villas and various other mementos of its brief Napoleonic era.

These days Elba is a proletarian resort island, visited mainly by middle-class Italian youngsters, young families, and German tourists, who together fill just about every available inch of hotel and camping space in August. The best time to come is during May, when the scrubby interior is illuminated by millions of wildflowers in bloom, or late September, when the seas are still warm but the beaches are empty.