The Italian island of Ponza isn’t on most maps—you have to zoom in several times to see it on a smartphone. Often overshadowed by the Amalfi Coast, the eclectic volcanic island is teeming with marine life, historic grottos, and well-preserved Spanish-Italian architecture. After one circle around the island via dingy and you’ll be thankful the 5-mile stretch of land flies under the radar—you’ll want to keep the secret safe long after you leave. Here are five realizations you might have when you’re there.
1. Treasure hunts are real, and history leaves plenty of room for imagination.
During the Roman Empire, the elite ventured to Ponza and built villas overlooking its stunning vistas—but they didn’t just stick to the hilltops. Dotting the island are man-made caves with pools inside. Locals say the Roman aristocrats built these caves to breed and raise moray eels—a Ponza delicacy—but given the statues and artwork inside, some assume the caves were also used as noble quarters for leisure and dining. You can decide for yourself by venturing to the Grotte di Pilato (Pilate’s Caves) and swimming inside the hallowed archways. The air is brisk and the echoes of dripping water are spooky, but bring a snorkeling mask and you can easily spot the hidden gems lurking under the surface.
2. The Tyrrhenian Sea has never looked better.
The water is a stunning mixture of azure and cobalt blue, and its clarity is unmatched. The best way to explore the diversity of color around the island is by boat, and there are plenty of dingys, sailboats, and speedboats available for rent with DivaLuna. All you need is a driver’s license to rent one and, after receiving a 30-second lesson in boat driving and a map with red X’s signifying danger zones, you’ll be off to find your own snorkeling sites and sandy beaches. Drop anchor and float ashore at Chiala di Luna or Spiaggia di Lucia Rosa.
3. The ‘comunita’ is everywhere.
Ponza is sparsely inhabited most of the year: the population hovers around 3,000 in the off-season, then spikes to 20,000 in the summer months when vacation homes are occupied. Despite the influx, the year-round locals have fostered and maintained a laid-back culture centered around conservation and mutual trust. Every morning, the Ponzesi congregate at the market on Via Dante Alighieri to shop and share fresh fish, fruits, and veggies in the shade of Porto’s pastel-colored row houses. With no sources of fresh water on the island, it’s not uncommon to be urged to use only small amounts of the water that’s shipped in daily. And restaurateurs are so friendly that when the chefs at the delicious, and busy, Ristorante Tutti Noi runs out of pici noodles, they just holler out to the neighboring cafés, which happily lend a handful of freshly made pasta.
4. It’s never been easier to get around.
You don’t need a vespa, an ATV, or a bike to get from the south to the north on Ponza—but you can rent one if you have a need for speed. You can easily walk if you’re up for a few steep hills and want see Ponza’s rich topography: massive tuff walls painted snow white and scalloped coastlines dotted with thin stacks of brown rock. There’s only one main road that winds its way from Porto to Le Forna, the only other town on the island. For easy access to every path or hiking trail, stay at Hotel Chiala di Luna. From there, you can follow the signs that say, ‘al mare’ to the beach, where pop-up stands rent umbrellas, towels, and gear for afternoons of sunbathing and diving into the sea.
5. Fresh seafood is everything.
Most Ponzesi rely solely on fishing for their livelihood, and much of the bass, cod, tuna, and various crustaceans they source end up in the osterias of Rome. But the catch that remains on the island is certainly a delicacy, and makes for one of the best meals you’ll ever have in Italy. At any time of day you can find marinated anchovies with a lemon-vinegar zing, or carpaccio with a bit of everything that was caught the night before. I knew I had to try Ristorante al Tramonto (il Forno) after a local gelateria owner told me they serve the best fish she’s had in over 50 years on Ponza. The moray eel and octopus were stellar, seasoned to perfection and as flaky as they come. The sea urchin mayonnaise—well, I wish they gift-wrapped that stuff. With a spot that overlooks the sea, Ristorante al Tramonto is the perfect place to take in the idyllic dichotomies of Ponza: land and sea, nature and culture.
The island of Ponza isn’t far from Rome—make the best of your Italian getaway with our guide to the historical city.
© 2016 AFAR Media