Forget international tourism -- Ventotene is barely even on the radar of Italians. For those who have made it to this utterly relaxing and authentic island, Ventotene draws the same words of praise -- deliziosa, carinissima, and more permutations of "delightful" -- conveying the surprise of having found this gioiellino ("little jewel") of an island right here in Italian waters, mere hours from the chaotic cities of Rome and Naples. In an archipelago where the largest island, Ponza, is only 7.5 sq. km (3 sq. miles) with a population of 3,100, Ventotene brings new meaning to "diminutive," with only 1.5 sq. km (1/2 sq. mile) of surface area and year-round residents numbering 600.
Ventotene's isolation appealed to the ancient Romans, who established an exile colony here where they sent several embarrassing female members of the imperial family on extended "time-outs." The ruins of the sumptuous villa built for Julia, the wild-child daughter of Augustus, can be visited on the northern tip of Ventotene. But the Romans' most salient legacy on Ventotene is the port they built by hand, excavating a basin of tufa on the northeast coast. The porto romano was a triumph of engineering then as now; it's still in use for the small boats of Ventotene, and still the heart of the tight-knit seafaring community here.
The narrow squiggle of porous brown tufa that is Ventotene (highest elevation: 18m/59 ft. above sea level) takes less than an hour to walk from end to end. Along the coast, the tufa drops off to create suggestive coves ideal for exploring by sea -- and excellent diving -- but only one sandy beach of any size, Cala Nave, which is crowded in July and August. Ventotene town, adorable and authentic though it is, is a one-piazza affair that offers plenty of charm but not a whole lot of excitement. Visible from the eastern coast of Ventotene is the former prison island of Santo Stefano, where after a 7-minute crossing (informally arranged with local boatmen) you can explore the defunct 18th-century Bourbon prison, as well as some Roman ruins, and marvel at the rampant vegetation on this panettone-shaped tufa spur.
Ventotene may be the best island in Italy for adopting the unhurried rhythms of real isolani. Stressed-out city folk and hopeless romantics love it, as will anyone looking to unplug and inhale the sublime isolation of this little Mediterranean paradise. If that sounds good, book a weeklong stay. But if you're an action-and-amenities sort of traveler, 1 day and evening on Ventotene, before continuing on to Ponza or Ischia, will be just right.