The Tremiti consist of three main islands, two of which are inhabited: San Domino and San Nicola. The smaller boat trip destination of Caprara, where only wild rabbits live, is at the northeastern end of the group. Between the islands of San Domino and San Nicola, and acting as a natural bulwark for each of their ports, is the rock outcrop known as Il Cretaccio ("bad clay"). The islet is in fact made of clay and shaped like a heart-shaped locket that has been cleft down the middle. Another 20km/13 miles to the northeast, uninhabited Pianosa is the black sheep of the group, and not even included in some locals' list of the Tremiti. Except for Pianosa, the islands are very close together, making getting around by boat an easy and pleasurable way to see every nook and cranny.
To make things simple, think of each island in the Tremiti as having its own function: San Domino is where the hotels, hiking, and majority of beaches and swimming coves are; San Nicola is where you visit the fortress-sanctuary of Santa Maria a Mare and Diomedes' tomb; Caprara is where you take your boat (or a boat excursion takes you) to explore the natural arches and splendid inlets of its intricate coastline. Places to eat are on both San Domino and San Nicola.
San Domino is the largest island (208 hectares/514 acres) and has the prettiest landscape. Its low limestone platform is covered with Aleppo pines and groves of ilex (holm oak), and its perimeter is a delightfully tortuous series of lovely coves where the limestone drops off ever so picturesquely to the sea. San Domino is much longer (2.8km/1 3/4 miles) than it is wide (1.7km/1 mile at its thickest point), with the port at the northeastern end and the town a 10-minute walk away, more or less in the center of the island. "Town" is a modern, laid-back affair consisting of hotels, vacation apartments, tourist residences, restaurants, and some shops and services, so don't worry about checking off any churches or other historic sights while you're here. Beyond the town, roads and trails lead to the wilder, southwest half of San Domino and to numerous inviting coves, otherwise accessible by sea. The pinewoods and dense shrubs of macchia mediterranea that cover the vast majority of San Domino offer the islands' only opportunity for hiking -- although, given the gentle elevations (max 116m/381 ft. above sea level) and short distances, it's not so much rigorous hiking as a leisurely nature walk.
San Domino also has the Tremiti islands' only decent-size sandy beach, the 100m-long (328-ft.) Cala delle Arene, just south of the port. Cala delle Arene ("cove of the sands") is fully equipped with lounge chair and umbrella rental, but it's also overcrowded in summer. For swimming opportunities elsewhere on San Domino, it's all about the small cale (coves), natural inlets with interesting rock formations and calm, transparent water in shades running the gamut from light turquoise to almost purple. Many of these coves can be reached by pretty trails that descend down from the woods to water's edge (which may be a strip of pebbly sand or a smooth rock platform), but the easiest way to sample them all is by rental boat or a group boat excursion.
South of Cala delle Arene, Cala Matano is a gorgeous inlet with a small sandy beach backed by a sheer wall of white limestone and framed by pines that cling tenaciously to the rocks. This cove is accessible by land via a lovely trail that hairpins down from the woods above. Continuing south from Cala Matano, you'll see a rock outcrop known as Scoglio dell'Elefante, for its resemblance, if you let your eyes glaze over, to a pachyderm kneeling and drinking from the sea. Farther along is the Grotta del Sale, a sea cave where salt (sale) has piled up. Next up, don't miss the Grotta delle Viole, another small sea cave whose water takes on the most amazing violet tones, especially on summer mornings.
Rounding the southern tip of San Domino -- the so-called Punta del Diavolo for the hellish sea conditions here in rough weather -- and heading back up along the western coast, you'll soon arrive at the island's most celebrated cave, the enchanting Grotta del Bue Marino, named for the "sea-ox" or monk seals that used to make this their lair (the species is now almost extinct). At the end of the 75m-long (246-ft.), 6m-wide (20-ft.) grotto, there's a small sandy beach where you can picture pirates stashing treasure chests once upon a time, and throughout, the water takes on an electric-blue tone thanks to the peculiar light effects of the sun penetrating the water. You can swim in the cave as long as there aren't too many other boats around. The cliff outside the Grotta del Bue Marino is known as the Ripa dei Falconi and is famous as a nesting place for peregrine and Eleonora's falcons as well as diomedee, the shearwaters whose nocturnal calls sound like the wail of a child.
Farther up the western coast is another cave, Grotta delle Rondinelle (so named for the rondine, or robin, that nests here in spring), with a fat rock pilaster dividing its entrance into two archways. At sunset, the low rays of light create magical, polychrome effects on the water, walls, and ceiling of the cave. Next up are Cala dei Benedettini and Cala degli Inglesi, both coves with smooth rocks and protected waters that make them good swimming spots -- and busy in high season. The pretty coves of Cala della Tramontana (part of which is Cala Tonda, almost wholly enclosed by the rocks as to form a sort of lake) and Cala Tamariello are also excellent for idling at anchor and swimming.
Punta del Diamante is the northernmost extremity of San Domino; a few hundred meters south, before reaching the port area, are striking rock formations known as the Pagliai ("haystacks").They are a dramatic setting in which to swim or simply bob in your gommone. One of the pagliai is pierced by a narrow arch that you can swim or -- very carefully -- guide your boat through.
San Nicola is where the only major historical sights of the Tremiti are located. About a quarter of the size of San Domino, it is the municipal seat of the islands and where most of the full-time population lives. Its coastline consists mostly of limestone bluffs that plunge to the sea, with few suitable spots for swimming.
The principal draw on San Nicola is by far the abbey-fortress complex of Santa Maria a Mare, Piazzetta Abbazia (tel. 0882/463063; daily 10am-12:30pm and 5-10pm; 2€), which dominates the landscape of not only San Nicola but also the entire port area between San Nicola and San Domino. Its towers and fortification walls seem to rise right out of the chalky limestone cliffs, creating quite a formidable sight. The abbey was built in 1045, when the first Benedictine monks arrived on the island, but it was later enlarged, modified, and fortified over the centuries (the Benedictines were later replaced by Cistercian friars and then Lateran monks), though the overall architectural style remains fundamentally medieval. The monks of San Nicola enjoyed great power and prosperity, especially from the 15th to the 18th centuries, but the island's history as a religious stronghold was abruptly cut off in 1793 when King Ferdinand IV turned San Nicola into a penal colony.
Within the complex, most of which can be seen well enough by walking around in the open air, are a few structures worth peeking inside. The church of Santa Maria a Mare, accessed by a long limestone scalinata (gradual staircase), has a precious 11th- to 12th-century mosaic floor with animal motifs. Remarkably preserved at the altar is the original wooden statue of Santa Maria a Mare that the Benedictines brought to the island and used to consecrate the church. In the right-hand chapel Il Cristo Grande is a wooden Byzantine crucifix, standing 3.4m (11 ft.) tall.
Elsewhere around the abbey complex, check out the cloisters (with a nice cistern) and the various watchtowers -- the highest is the Torrione del Cavaliere, rearing like a menacing animal above steep and impenetrable walls. The monks, forced to defend by themselves the considerable wealth that they had amassed on the island, frequently had to repel pirate invaders, pouring hot oil and shooting cannons from the towers onto their enemies. A moat known as the Tagliata runs along the east side of the abbey, effectively cutting it off from the rest of San Nicola.
Before leaving San Nicola, follow the signs to the Tomba di Diomede, where you'll find a small necropolis and Greek-era tholos (circular tomb with a domed roof) that the poetically inclined attribute to the Homeric hero, Diomedes, himself.
For those touring the perimeter of San Nicola by boat, the best place to drop anchor and go for a dip is at the Spiaggia Marinella (also accessible by a path from the town), halfway up the northern coast of the island.
The Festival of Santissima Assunta - August can be downright mayhem in the Tremiti, but if you're here over Ferragosto (the national summer holiday, celebrated Aug 15), you're in for a treat, since August 14 to August 16 are also the Festa Patronale della Santissima Assunta. Over the 3-day event, an effigy of the Madonna is carried from the church on San Nicola, through the town streets, then over to San Domino and around the islands aboard a festively decorated fishing boat. On the evening of the 15th, a fireworks display goes off over the water and everyone feasts at a communal fish fry on San Nicola.
Uninhabited Caprara or Capraia (even locals switch back and forth between the two names) is a popular stop for boaters because of its fascinating rock formations and grottoes. The top attraction on Capraia is without a doubt the Architiello di Capraia, a natural arch (5m-wide/16-ft. and 6m-tall/20-ft.) spanning the sea and acting as a gateway to a round inlet -- a sort of sea lake enclosed by the low rock-wall coast. This is the "lover's lane" of the Tremiti, where couples who pass under the arch are guaranteed everlasting love. On the northern coast of Caprara, near the western tip, Cala Pietra di Fucile is another worthwhile stop. The name means "Cannonball Cove," and the monks of San Nicola used to harvest the nearly perfectly round boulders from the beach here to use as ammunition against their seaborne enemies. If you're here off season, Cala Pietra di Fucile is a lovely spot for a swim, but in August, it's too crowded for comfort.
I Say Caprara, You Say Capraia . . . -- Even locals can't agree on the spelling or pronunciation of the third, uninhabited island in the Tremiti. The difference is in the penultimate letter, which can be I or R, depending on whom you ask, or on what day you ask them. Either way, the name of the island is derived from Capperaia, due to the abundant growth of capperi (capers) on its rocky terrain.
To make things even more confusing, there are two other "Capr-" islands in Italy: Capraia in the Tuscan archipelago and, of course, the famosissima Capri in the Bay of Naples. Both of these islands' names, however, seem to be derived from capra (goat) for the fauna that clung to their rugged slopes in antiquity.