“You must drink the water,” Anna says, gesturing toward the spouts sticking out of the rocks at the entrance to the Fonte delle Ninfe Nitrodi, which claims to be the world’s first spa. I cup my hands under the running water, lift it to my mouth, and drink. It tastes pure, almost sweet. This is the natural thermal water that has been drawing travelers to the Italian island of Ischia for millennia. Long before Elena Ferrante, Ischia was a Greek colony. The Greeks would come here to bathe in and drink the mineral-rich water said to cure everything from psoriasis to infertility.
When I asked Anna how long she has been working at the spa, she replied, “Eight thousand years,” with a coy smile. She insisted I bathe in the waters, but I had left my swimsuit at the hotel and anyway, I didn’t have time, so I promised her I would return in a few days, when my boyfriend had joined me from Rome.
I had visited the island—Italy’s third largest—twice before, immersing myself in the water at one of the large thermal parks and trying one of the mud treatments at the Albergo della Regina Isabella, but this visit was a bit different. It was the end of a season that started late and was cut short by COVID-19. Italy’s strict lockdown was lifted in phases in May and June, and European travelers were permitted to visit this summer, but with citizens of many countries (including the U.S.) still barred from coming to Italy, the island—and the surrounding region, which includes the Amalfi Coast—were suffering from lost revenue. In order to maintain social distancing, most hotels were only able to fill a portion of their rooms.
That’s why twelve entrepreneurs decided to unite with the common goal of promoting sustainable tourism to Ischia and prolonging its season. There are the hoteliers behind the Mezzatorre Hotel (since last year a member of the chic Pellicano Hotels group), San Montano Resort & Spa, Albergo della Regina Isabella, Leohotels, Giardino Eden, Botania Relais & Spa, and Federalberghi, spas like the Fonte delle Ninfe Nitrodi and Parco Poseidon, transport company Alilauro (which runs hydrofoils to Ischia), and retailers such as Judith Ischia and Scaglione Group. The campaign started with the Instagram account @IschiaIsMore, which shares inspiring photos and stories about the island and its inhabitants, but the goal is to grow it into a consortium of ambassadors that will promote the destination.
“The idea was born during the COVID-19 emergency. In that period of solidarity, we thought it was the moment to develop a project that would uplift our island,” Maurizio Orlacchio, General Manager of San Montano and a born-and-bred Ischitan, told me. “We need to present ourselves as united and proud to live in a magical place where the mix of wellness and nature, food and wine, and arts and culture is part of our DNA. ‘Ischia Is More’ is the synthesis of an authentic, original place, insular and isolated but above all 100% Italian.”
Orlacchio and Michele Sambaldi, the Managing Director of Pellicano Hotels, are two of the founding members behind the project. Though Pellicano Hotels is a relatively new presence on the island, having just opened Mezzatorre last year, Sambaldi believes in the destination. When I asked why the brand decided to take over operations at Mezzatorre, he replied, “Ischia represents a true Italian experience. It’s a place that expresses a rare authenticity and really captures the essence of Italy.”
Having visited the island three times, I have to agree. Ischia is a special place. It’s had its ups and downs. It was born out of a volcanic eruption and suffered an earthquake in 1883 that destroyed the town of Casamicciola. It took about 70 years for tourism to return. Filmmaker and publisher Angelo Rizzoli ushered in a renaissance in the 1950s, when he built the Albergo della Regina Isabella, a luxurious hotel with three restaurants, direct beach access, and a massive spa. In the following decades, it was joined by properties such as il Moresco and the Excelsior Belvedere, now part of the Leohotels group run by Alessandro Leonessa and his family. Over dinner at il Moresco, he told me how his family ended up as accidental hoteliers, having built their first hotel—il Continental Terme—in 1966 with the intention of selling it. When they couldn’t find a buyer, they decided to run it themselves. After the first season, they looked at the books and realized they’d be crazy to sell. They now run four hotels on Ischia, each with a loyal clientele.
But Ischia has so much more to offer than its hotels and thermal baths. There are a handful of wineries that produce a local white called Biancolella that’s deliciously crisp and nearly impossible to find outside of Ischia. I drank it every night with dinner and visited one of the wineries that produces it, Casa d’Ambra, a family-run winery established in 1888.
Ischia also has a strong tradition of craftsmanship, with artisans making the beautiful hand-painted ceramics seen throughout the region. One afternoon, I stopped by the ceramics shop and studio Kèramos in Forio, the island’s largest town. I had seen the studio’s work at Indaco, the Regina Isabella’s Michelin-starred restaurant, where local chef Pasquale Palamaro lets his imagination run wild, serving creative dishes on bespoke plates. The studio’s founder, Nello Di Leva, explained that he often customizes pieces and showed me the sketch for a hand-painted tile mural the studio is creating for the Fonte delle Ninfe Nitrodi.
But perhaps my new favorite place on the island is the Giardini Ravino, a magical garden full of cacti and other succulents brought here from South and Cental America. Luca D’Ambra, who runs the garden and a small hotel above it, gave me a tour, explaining how these plants thrive in the unique microclimate found on this sunny side of the island. His father, a ship captain, began collecting the plants 60 years ago during his travels. When the family decided to create this garden in 2001, people thought they were crazy. It now welcomes 17,000 visitors per year and collaborates with botanists and sustainability experts. It’s the perfect place to spend a quiet afternoon strolling through the gardens and relaxing with a cactus cocktail at the café.
Over the last few years, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels and the HBO show My Brilliant Friend have put a spotlight on Ischia, but there are so many other stories just waiting to be told.