How to Do Ischia Ponte, Capri’s Lesser-Known Neighbor
At the west end of the Gulf of Naples, the Italian island of Ischia has always been the anti-Capri—which is exactly the reason to go.
I suspect most Americans have a Talented Mr. Ripley moment the first time they visit the Italian island of Ischia. Mine happened as the hydrofoil from Sorrento sped past the ancient fortification of Castello Aragonese. Clinging to a massive rock shearing up from the glassy Tyrrhenian Sea, the late-medieval castle complex is connected to Ischia by a 700-foot-long stone causeway built about 575 years ago. At its other end is a town of crumbling palazzi and listing fisherman’s houses in faded pink or sun-bleached yellow—a dense labyrinth of right angles and arches washed in sugary hues. As the striped sun loungers along its narrow beach came into focus, recognition hit: Hey, that’s Mongibello! The novelist Patricia Highsmith, whose best seller Ripley was published in 1955, imagined “Mongi”—where her protagonist Tom Ripley fell for the insouciant dolce far niente lifestyle of his wealthy schoolmate Dickie Greenleaf—as a timeless Anyplace south of Naples. Ischia Ponte, as this pleasantly askew little harbor town is called, stood in for Mongibello in both screen adaptations of Highsmith’s novel. (Alain Delon and Matt Damon prowled its narrow cobblestone lanes as Ripley in 1960 and 1999, respectively.)
That these films might be the primary (or even lone) reference many Americans have for the 18-square-mile island in the Gulf of Naples is likely because Ischia has long existed in the shadow of a far more glamorous sibling: Capri. Part of the same archipelago, the two islands share commonalities, located as they are just a few miles from each other. Both were favored idylls of the ancient Romans, but only one still attracts a significant share of that city’s monied classes (hint: not Ischia). Both are heavily touristed in July and August, but only one sees Italian remain the ascendant language above English—and Russian—all summer (that’s Ischia). Capri’s outsize commercial and material offerings belie its tiny, definitively contained dimensions: It has just two main centers, Capri Town and Anacapri. Its beaches are few, rocky, dauntingly exclusive, and extravagantly expensive.
Ischia is easily four times Capri’s size, with six municipalities and a wooded interior that’s large enough to have cultivated its own cuisine style, one that skews far more terra than mare. (Its best-known dish, coniglio all’Ischitana, is a pared-down, piquant rabbit stew.) It’s flatter, broader, a bit rougher, and far more developed than Capri, with towns and villas proliferating haphazardly, and not always prettily, across its hills, amid the oleander and bougainvillea that flourish in unmanicured splendor. Its beaches, unlike Capri’s, are plentiful: wide, often sandy—and never, in the island’s history, remotely exclusive.
Counterintuitive though it may seem, herein lies Ischia’s appeal. When I told my friend Francesco—a bourgeois Roman, raised in the States and Italy—that I was headed to Ischia, his eyebrows shot skyward in amused disbelief. “Ischia? That’s where I went on my spring break in the ’80s.” Well, yes, exactly. Gilded Capri’s spotlight has, in a way, been Ischia’s salvation. It is a throwback paradigm, a place where families from Naples or Salerno still come to the same villas, the same apartments, the same breeze-stirred beaches that their nonno (and possibly his nonno) played on as a toddler. It’s an iteration of southern Italy, whose rough edges remain in some places alluringly unsmoothed.
While it’s not fabulous—there’s no supermodel-studded queue for spaghetti alle vongole, no Missoni, no Eres, no sandal maker once favored by Jackie Onassis—it’s not without refinements, which are made perhaps more intriguing by their relative obscurity. The exquisite gardens at La Mortella, for instance, planted in the 1950s by Ischia’s most venerable expats, the British composer William Walton and his Argentine wife, Susana. Lush, varied, and almost never crowded, they tumble picturesquely down a steep grade overlooking the blue bowl of the Bay of Chiaia. Or the island’s wines—especially the whites, floral and delicate, some of which enjoy international esteem. Gelasio Gaetani d’Aragona Lovatelli, the wine consultant and impossibly glamorous Roman-about-town who cocreated the International Wine Academy for Rome’s Hassler hotel, extols the virtues of island producers like Pietratorcia and Casa d’Ambra. “Ischia is not a place you can get the measure of in two days, like Capri. You could spend a week and not know all of it,” he says. “It’s not at all mondano”—worldly—“but it has so much charm.”
Here, our tips for where to stay, eat, drink, and more on the island.