Beaches & Coves Accessible by Land
Boating is a way of life on Ponza, but if you don't feel like bobbing your way around the island, not to worry: Some of Ponza's coolest swimming spots are best accessed by land. First and foremost is spectacular Chiaia di Luna, truly one of the most amazing beach settings in Italy. (Although it was closed for security reasons when this guide was researched, I -- and the Ponzese -- hold out hope that it will reopen again someday soon, so I'm writing about it as if it were open.) Walk up Via Panoramica Tre Venti (it's the road leading straight inland and uphill) for about 300m (984 ft.), then look for the pedestrian underpass on the left that takes you back under the road and to the right. This path leads to the ancient, 100m (328-ft.) tunnel (aka galleria) that the Romans bored under the mountain to allow easy access between the two sides of the island. At the end of the tunnel -- an attraction in its own right -- you step into the gorgeous tableau of Chiaia di Luna beach. A dark turquoise bay laps at a long crescent of golden sand and fine pebbles, immediately behind which is the beach's most impressive and distinctive feature, a 500m-long (1,640-ft.) and 100m-tall (328-ft.) wall of luminescent tufa. The strip of beach is narrow, but nevertheless equipped with snack bars and umbrella rentals.
The other major swimming destination on Ponza that is preferably reached by land is Cala Feola, home to the Piscine Naturali ("natural swimming pools"). To get there, take the bus toward Le Forna; stay on past Cala Feola until the church of Le Forna, then take the pretty up-and-down footpath toward the water. Formed by volcanic sinkholes and connected to the bay and each other by arches in the rock, the seawater Piscine were traditionally used as havens for fishing boats, and still carry out this function to some extent; they're also now a favorite swimming spot, with incredibly clear water and smooth stone platforms for sunning and lounging.
The very social beach at Frontone, just north of Ponza port, isn't accessible by land, but because it's so convenient to town and served by handy water taxis throughout the day and evening, I'm putting it in this category. Frontone is a cushiony strip of fine pebbles and extremely popular with the young crowd, who stay for an aperitivo of champagne and oysters (or just a beer) here when the sun sets. The Sporting Club is the only beach establishment here, and it has a restaurant and bar. For 15€ per day, you can use their changing rooms, sun beds, and umbrellas; otherwise, just pick a spot of public beach. Kayak and pedal boat rentals are also available at Frontone, which sits at the end of a large, calm bay, frequently filled with yachts. To get there, take a shuttle boat (operated by Cooperativa Barcaioli Ponzesi; tel. 0771/809929) from Molo Santa Lucia, adjacent to the ferry landing. The boats leave every 10 minutes all day long; round-trip tickets cost 4€.
An Endangered & Potentially Dangerous Beach -- The dramatic lunar-looking cliffs of Chiaia di Luna beach are its greatest asset -- and its greatest menace. The cliffs are prone to constant erosion, which means periodic rock falls. Due to several tourist injuries and one death from these rock falls over the past decade, Chiaia di Luna is currently closed, even though a metal reinforcement net has been installed over the cliffs at the southern end of the beach, which is the only part of Chiaia di Luna where tourists are normally allowed anyway.
But the cliffs aren't the only problem facing Chiaia di Luna. Because the Roman tunnel to the beach is essentially an archaeological site and subject to periodic restoration, the tunnel can on occasion be closed to the public for safety reasons. When it and the beach are closed -- as is the situation at press time -- the only way to reach Chiaia di Luna is by boat, and even then, you must keep well away from the shore. Alternatively, just enjoy the breathtaking view of the bay over sunset drinks at Kibar at the Grand Hotel Chiaia di Luna.
Around the Island by Sea
Group giro dell'isola excursions are plentiful from Porto, usually leaving at 11am and returning by 5 or 6pm and including several stops for swimming. Cooperativa Barcaioli Ponza (Tunnel S. Antonio; tel. 0771/809929; www.barcaioliponza.it) offers round-island tours of Ponza and excursions to Palmarola (22€ each Apr-July and Sept-Oct; 25€ each in Aug) or a combination tour of Ponza and Palmarola (25€ or 30€ in Aug). Sometimes lunch on board is included; otherwise, pick up a sack lunch (there is a panino kiosk on Via Dante that is legendary). But for more adventurous types, the 22km (14-mile) perimeter of Ponza is very easy to circumnavigate with your own small motorboat (available for rent from 70€ per day -- I recommend Diva Luna), which will permit you a more intimate and customized tour of the island's many distinctive coves. Provided the sea is calm, it's also a piece of cake to zip over to Palmarola with your rental boat and explore that island's magnificent coastal features. You can also hire a small private yacht and skipper to do the driving for you, and you'll find an embarrassment of yacht charter outfits at Porto eager to put such packages together for you, but of course this is much more expensive -- from 200€ for a half-day's outing.
The organized group tours usually head south from the port and go clockwise around the island. However, to follow the sun, and encounter a little less sea traffic, I suggest DIY-island-circumnavigators motor around Ponza in a counterclockwise direction, with one caveat: Visit the Grotte di Pilato, the Roman sea caves immediately clockwise from Porto, first, as the light is best in the morning, then head back to the north.
In addition to simply covering the perimeter of Ponza, I highly recommend a detour to Palmarola off the northwest coast. If you opt for this extended itinerary, with a few swimming stops along the way, it takes the best part of 6 hours (picnic provisions, bottled water, and a sun shade are musts). Otherwise, a quick tour around Ponza's coastline can be done in about 3 1/2 hours.
To reach the first stop on the round-island tour of Ponza, simply follow the southern edge of the harbor and around the point to the south. Clearly visible in the sea-level rock wall of Punta della Madonna promontory are the arched entryways of the ancient Roman sea caves commonly referred to as the Grotte di Pilato ("Pilate's Caves," though they have nothing to do with the Roman general of Judea who condemned Jesus to death). Drop anchor outside the caves and swim in; bring a mask if you have one. These atmospheric caverns (four in all, connected by underwater tunnels) were hand-excavated by the Romans and used as a murenario (eel farm) as early as the 1st century A.D., when the emperor Augustus first built a villa on the hill above. Archaeologists hypothesize that the sea caves were also used by the haruspices (readers of animal entrails in ancient Roman religion) to divine the prophecies of eel innards; cult statues of Roman gods would have been placed in the niches around the grottoes' inner walls. Remember that it's important to visit the Grotte di Pilato in the morning, because once the sun goes over the island to the west in the afternoon, you can't see much in here.
Now, back to that counterclockwise itinerary: The first sight you'll encounter heading north from the port is the beach of Frontone. The beach itself, made of fine pebbles, is pretty enough, but above the beach is a huge rock wall in the shape of a triangle, resembling the front of a Roman temple, which gives the beach its name and makes this such a dramatic spot. The northern tip of Frontone bay is delineated by the defunct Forte di Frontone, beyond which there is a striking formation known as Piana Bianca. It looks like a giant foot made of pale grey pumice, and its smooth top, accessible only from the water, is where serious sun seekers come to ramp up their tans.
Farther north, Cala del Core (Heart Cove), named for a heart-shaped formation in the rock wall, has a small, rocky beach and a sea-level grotto. Just ahead is Cala Inferno (Hell Cove), with visible ruins of a Roman staircase hewn into the white tufa cliffs.
Past the promontory of Punta Nera, keep close to the coast so that you pass the rock outcrop of Scoglio Aniello Antonio on your right; look for fragments of a cargo ship that washed up here decades ago. In the middle of the next bay is a natural arch known as Spaccapurpo or Spaccapolpi (Octopus-Killer, but also referred to by some by the more banal name Arco Naturale). After the arch, pick up speed and set a course toward the uninhabited islet of Gavi, just off the northern tip of Ponza. Turn left so that you pass between the islands (Ponza on the left, Gavi on the right), and begin your tour of the western coast of Ponza.
The semi-enclosed bay of Cala Felce -- "Fern Cove," from the osmunda regalis (royal fern) that grows here -- faces north, with a few picturesque golden rocks jutting out of its shallow, light green waters. The loose stones on the beach contain sulfur, which locals rub on themselves to form a sort of mud mask, purported to have beneficial dermatologic properties.
Continuing down the west coast, you'll pass the wide inlet of Cala dell'Acqua, where bentonite was extracted up until a few decades ago, significantly altering the landscape. The curious name of this bay, "Water Cove," derives from a natural spring of fresh water that was first exploited by the Romans, who built an aqueduct in this zone. Past the next promontory is the halfway point of the island circumnavigation tour, Cala Feola, favorite refuge of boaters and a sort of secondary port for the island. This area is fairly developed but a worthwhile stop nevertheless for the Piscine Naturali.
Any point between here and Punta Fieno is a good jumping-off point for the 10km (6-mile) crossing to Palmarola.
Leaving Cala Feola, and rounding Punta Capo Bosco to the south, next up is the bay of Lucia Rosa, with its small pebble beach and enchanting offshore faraglioni. This spot is named for a certain 18th-century Ponzese girl named Lucia Rosa who, spurned by her beloved, jumped off the top of these rocks to her death. Beyond this bay, come upon the otherworldly tongue of milky rock known as Capo Bianco, sculpted into a smooth slide formation by the wind and waves. In this zone there are many little grottoes, some of which can be navigated with your boat (motor off, using oars) and some only by dropping anchor in the cove outside and swimming in. The most famous of these is a slanted cleft in the rock known as the Grotta della Maga Circe (Circe's Cave, where, according to legend, the Homeric enchantress cast her spell on Odysseus).
Beyond this point, you enter the magnificent bay of Chiaia di Luna with its iconic curtain wall of blond tufa towering above the beach. The bay is often crowded with boats at anchor, making it less enjoyable for a swim from the boat than from the beach itself.
Chiaia di Luna is delineated on the south by Punta Fieno -- Ponza's mini-wine region; you'll see vineyards clinging to the terraces here -- at which point begins the steepest terrain of the island. The next promontory is the southernmost tip of Ponza, Punta della Guardia, with its lonely, lofty lighthouse.
Heading back north along Ponza's eastern coast, you'll sail between the Faraglioni del Calzone Muto, triangular monoliths jutting out of the waters just offshore. Past the rock stacks of Faraglioni della Madonna, you're soon back at the Grotte di Pilato and the outer harbor of Ponza port.
For most people on vacation here, Ponza is all about the sea, but there are nonetheless several opportunities for low-key, panoramic hikes. The classic Ponzese trek is the walk from Porto (Ponza town) to Punta della Guardia and the lighthouse, Faro della Guardia, at the southern extremity of the island. This hike is about 7.5km (5 miles) round-trip, with a vertical change of about 200m; allow about 2 hours to do the whole thing, more if you want to stop for a swim at Bagno Vecchio along the way. You can also cut the hike short (trimming the distance by two-thirds) by only going as far as the panoramic Parata area, before the Faraglioni di Calzone Muto. In summer, I recommend going in the early morning -- or for an outing dripping with romance, after sunset.
Some of the most pleasant nature hiking in the Pontine archipelago is among the woods on the nearby island of Zannone, part of the Parco Nazionale del Circeo (Circeo National Park), and within easy day-trip distance of Ponza.
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.