Ischia is the largest of Campania's islands, covering about 46 sq. km (18 sq. miles). Its velvety slopes, green with pine woods and vineyards, have earned it the nickname Isola Verde (Green Isle), while its fame as a healthy retreat has earned it another nickname, Island of Eternal Youth, for its peaceful atmosphere and its spas. These are fueled by the widespread volcanic activity still present on the island, although its volcano, Mount Epomeo, has long been dormant. Hot springs, mineral-water springs, and steam and hot-mud holes dot the island's slopes.
Once separate, Ischia Porto and Ischia Ponte have now merged into one; together they make up the largest town on the island, lying on its northeastern corner. The two are linked by the pleasant promenade of Via Roma and Corso Vittoria Colonna (known locally as "Il Corso") stretching about 2km (1 1/4 miles). The majority of activity is concentrated in Ischia Porto, around its naturally round harbor which is, in fact, an extinct volcano crater. The town was founded in the 18th century by the Bourbons who fell in love with a villa-cum-spa built by a doctor, Francesco Buonocore, and decided to establish their residence there. They transformed the villa overlooking the lake into a small palace -- what happened to the doctor is unknown; maybe he graciously donated his home to their majesties -- the Casina Reale Borbonica, which today houses a military spa (closed to the public). They also cut a channel into the outer shore of the lake, transforming it into the present-day large harbor. Inaugurated in 1854, it has been the island's major port ever since. Today, Ischia Porto is a typically bustling and attractive Mediterranean port town with a yacht-filled marina, a busy commercial port, and plenty of restaurants and bars strung out along the water's edge.
Ischia Ponte is more attractive and retains something of the atmosphere of a sleepy fishing village. It is dominated by the vast bulk of the Castello Aragonese which looms over the town from atop a rocky islet that is linked to the main island by a causeway-like bridge (or "ponte"). This islet, with its small natural harbor, is the site of the original Greek settlement which was fortified in the 5th century B.C. Alfonso of Aragon re-inforced the fortifications in the mid-15th century and added the bridge. We recommend a visit to the castle (Piazzale Aragonese, Ischia Ponte, tel. 081-992834; www.castellodischia.it; 10€ adults, 6€ youth 9-19; free for children 8 and under; winter 10am-4:30pm, summer 9am-7:30pm) for the spectacular views from its terraces and ramparts; you can take the elevator to the top or walk up, but it's a steep climb. The last eruption of Mount Epomeo, in 1301, destroyed most of the village that had grown around the small natural harbor. The population resettled, but closer to the castle and bridge.
A short distance (6.5km/4 miles) from Ischia town, along the coast to the west, lies the small village of Casamicciola Terme, with its scenic harbor and marina (although, being right on the main road, its charm is compromised somewhat by the traffic), and Villa Ibsen, where the famous Norwegian writer wrote Peer Gynt. Founded in the 16th century to take advantage of the area's thermo-mineral springs, Casamicciola Terme is where the first "modern" spa was opened on the island in 1604. Tragedy struck, however, in 1883 when the village was virtually destroyed by a violent earthquake. It was immediately rebuilt, but closer to the shore, in its current position by the marina. The remains of the original town can be seen a little way inland in the hamlet of Bagni, with the island's oldest spas opening onto its main square, and in the village of Majo, farther up the slope.
Adjacent to Casamicciola, 8km (5 miles) west of Ischia Porto, is the picturesque Lacco Ameno, famous for the mushroom-shaped rock that stands in the shallow water a few yards from the sandy shore. The ancient Greeks established their first settlement on this coast, although daunted by the frequent -- at that time -- earthquakes and eruptions, they never developed a colony. An unassuming fishing harbor until the 1950s, it was then shaken out of its torpor by Italian publisher Angelo Rizzoli. He built his villa on the promontory of Monte Vico, overlooking the village to the west, and decided to invest in the area and transform it into an exclusive resort. His plan was successful and the promontory has become the most exclusive spa destination in Italy, offering many luxurious hotels and villas. Villa Arbusto, Angelo Rizzoli's own summer home, is today a museum -- Museo Civico Archeologico di Pithecusae (tel. 081-900356; admission 3€; Tues-Sun 9:30am-1pm and 4-8pm) -- displaying the findings of local archaeological excavation. It is worth a visit, if only to admire the famous Coppa di Nestore or Nestor's Cup. Dating from 725 B.C., this drinking vessel bears one of the oldest known Greek inscriptions, which, appropriately, celebrates the wine of Ischia. Nearby is an important Catholic pilgrimage site, the Sanctuary of Santa Restituta (tel. 081-980161; daily 10am-1pm and 4-7pm), with its attached archaeological excavations and museum. The original church was created in the 4th or 5th century A.D. by adapting an ancient Roman water cistern, and later restructured.
On the west side of the Monte Vico promontory are the lovely gardens of Villa La Mortella, Via F. Calise 39, 80075 Forio (tel. 081-986220; www.lamortella.it). Covering 2 hectares (5 acres), the gardens were created by the famous British landscape gardener Russell Page for Susana Walton, the Argentinean wife of composer Sir William Walton, who collected many rare botanical species. Admission is 12€ for adults, 10€ for children 8 to 16 and adults over 60, 6€ for children 5 to 7, and free for children 4 and under (Apr 1-Nov 15 Tues, Thurs, and Sat-Sun 9am-7pm; ticket booth closes 30 min. earlier).
On the western coast of the island, 13km (8 miles) west of Ischia Porto, is the lively town of Forio, with its wealth of bars and beaches. Popular among Naples residents, it is usually bypassed by foreign tourists. A favorite retreat of writers and musicians for centuries, Forio is known for its plethora of fine restaurants and its particularly delicious locally produced wine. The attractive town centre is dominated by Il Torrione, a solid, late-15th-century watchtower that was one of 12 such constructions built to ward off frequent Saracen attacks. It is occasionally opened for special exhibitions. La Colombaia, Via F. Calise 130, 80075 Forio (tel. 081-3332147; www.fondazionelacolombaia.it), is the historic villa of Italian film director Luchino Visconti; it houses a film school and a small museum (Mon-Sat 9:30am-12:30pm and 3:30-6:30pm). Our favorite church on Ischia, the tiny, whitewashed Madonna del Soccorso stands in a spectacular position on a headland jutting out to sea just to the west of the town. Inside, you will find model ships offered to the Madonna by sailors who have survived shipwrecks.
The southern half of Ischia is more agricultural, with only one town on the southern shore: the tiny fishing harbor of Sant'Angelo, 11km (7 miles) south of Ischia Porto. Shaded by a tall promontory jutting into the sea and connected to the shore by a sandy isthmus (10m-long/328 ft.) that is closed to vehicles, it is one of Ischia's most picturesque sights. Far from the hype of the high-priced spa resorts, it is quite exclusive and secluded. The other villages on this part of the island are nestled on the steep slopes of the mountain, overlooking the sea. Serrara Fontana (9.5km/6 miles southwest of Ischia Porto) is a tiny hamlet centered on a lookout terrace affording spectacular views.
Flower Power -- Ischia's unusual volcanic characteristics have produced more than spa-perfect conditions. The fertile soil and unique subtropical climate have been so favorable to flowering plants and shrubs that you can find on the island 50% of the entire European patrimony of flower species, a number of them indigenous to Ischia.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.