Remarkably lovely Elba is Italy's third largest island -- though only a pea in comparison to Sicily and Sardinia, which outrank it handily. Its name may be internationally synonymous with Napoleon's place of exile, but one look at Elba and you realize that this would be a wonderful place to be forced to live if your country ever kicked you out. However, Elba is not Italy's chicest resort destination. There are no "it" hotels, no hot spots where you're likely to rub elbows with supermodels, no gleaming yachts in the harbor (though a few VIPs call at Portoferraio from time to time) -- and that's what island devotees love about it. With its abundance of campgrounds and affordable accommodations, Elba is like the summer camp of Italian islands; it has an especially laid-back vacation atmosphere and endless opportunities to get out and enjoy nature.
Giglio (il Giglio), the next most visited island in the group, is at the southern end of the archipelago, served by ferry from the Argentario peninsula's Porto Santo Stefano. Geologically, it's almost a miniature Elba -- a granitic formation with a mountainous inland that slopes gently down to an intricate coastline (28km/17 miles) of countless bays and coves. Plenty of accommodations, restaurants, and services make for easy travel, but even with those conveniences Giglio feels like more of a hidden treasure than its well-trodden sibling.
Exclusive Giannutri is directly west of Giglio and is typically visited as a day trip from that island. There are two restaurants but no hotels on Giannutri, just a very small number of vacation rentals; the rest of the island is privately owned by rich Romans.
Pancake-flat Pianosa was, until 1997, a prison island, and some of the most notorious mafiosi in Italian history did time here. Tourism here is limited to day trips (most often from Elba, 12km/7 miles to the east), which take in the picturesque old port, early Christian catacombs, nature hikes, and, of course the defunct penitentiary structures.
Rough and wild Capraia prides itself on being the least tamed of the visitable Tuscan isles. Hikers will find utter solitude, and boaters can explore the rugged coastline in blessed peace, even in high season.
Gorgona is the northernmost of the group and still an active penal colony -- the last remaining prison island in Italy. The number of public visitors is carefully controlled, and those who do make it ashore are strictly limited to guided tours, which are escorted by prison wardens.
Legend has it that, before being taken by pirates in the 16th century, the monks who lived on Montecristo stashed away an unimaginable sum of gold somewhere on the island. The supposed existence of that lost treasure gave rise to Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Montecristo (his protagonist, Edmond Dantès, finds and uses the gold to exact his revenge on those who imprisoned him falsely). Thanks to that novel, Montecristo's name is internationally known, but forget any fantasies you might have of finding the monks' gold: The island is a biogenetic nature reserve (pretty much off-limits to humans) of the Tuscan Islands National Park. A view of its hauntingly jagged outline several kilometers away, from southern Elba or western Giglio, is as close as you're likely to get. Visits are strictly limited to 1,000 persons per year, who must demonstrate scientific or academic reasons for wanting to go ashore, and there is currently a 2-year waiting list to join one of the Forestry Service's guided tours.
To visit Montecristo, send a written request to the Corpo Forestale dello Stato at one of two addresses (this being Italian bureaucracy, it's better to cast your net wide): Ufficio Territoriale Biodiversità di Follonica, Via Bicocchi 2, 58022 Follonica, Italy (tel. 0566/40019, fax 0566/44616; email@example.com), or Ispettorato Generale del Corpo Forestale dello Stato Servizio V, Via G. Carducci 5, 00187 Roma, Italy (tel. 06/4881804). Then, wait about 2 years; if you ever make it to the island, leave an ex-voto for old St. Mamilianus as a thank-you.