Some trips we plan months in advance. We pinpoint the dates on the calendar, gather and compare hotels, pour over forums for the best ways to spend our time, and shop for just the right gear to bring. Few of our Italian trips get this treatment. Lately I’ve been trying to be better, but it seems that many of our overnighters involve this formula: (Friday-night + holiday)wine + ipad = roadtrip. So on the first weekend of June we found ourselves armed with all of the variables and booked ourselves a few nights in the Tuscan Island of Elba (of Napoleonic fame).
Elba is not the easiest to get to. There are no non-stop trains, cheap flights, or toll bridges to get you there. The path of least resistance is to take a car/train to Piombino on the coast, then board an hour long ferry to the island, and then drive to your booked destination from whichever of the three ports you were dropped off at. It goes without saying, but driving involves the least amount of hassle.
Unless traveling during July or August I wouldn’t bother booking the ferry in advance. We were unexpectedly stuck in traffic in the middle of nowhere. The wasted time could have made us miss our ferry if we would have booked beforehand. Another confusing element was where to buy the tickets. As soon as we entered the city limits official looking signs were pointing in all directions to buy ferry tickets at various agencies/gas stations/tabacchis. We waited and bought tickets at the small strip mall outside the port gates that comprised entirely of ticketing agents. I don’t think it matters which one you choose. Prices vary based on time of day and year, but in our case a roundtrip ferry ticket to Elba including a standard sized car and two adults is about two hundred euros. We didn’t love the price, but we were both a little overexcited to ride on a boat.
After a chilly windblown ride where we were too stubborn to go inside, we drove out of the ferry and into the town of Portoferraio.
I wonder what Napoleon thought when they exiled him here. I’m no megalomaniac but this hardly seems like punishment. Fresh ocean breezes, clear emerald waters, rocky mountains, smiling locals; it’s enough to make one weigh the pros and cons of becoming a beach bum. And though neither of us has made a career change, bumming on the beach and staring at the horizon happened to be the glorious theme of our trip.
Last minute booking discounts meant we scored a fantastic deal for Villa Ottone, a five star resort with ocean views, private beach, excellent restaurant, delightful staff, and just a ten minute drive from the port. If you find yourself in the area in low or mid season, or if you just want to treat yourself in high season, definitely check this place out. (A tip if you do stay here: Go for the cottage rooms instead of the rooms in the main hotel. You have a huge patio and a chance for an ocean view.) We lucked out and got a room with a view.
We spent the rest of the afternoon lounging on our patio and sipping limoncello, which is supposed to be an after dinner drink but we were feeling rebellious. We toyed with the idea of driving to town for dinner, but decided to keep it simple for once and go to the hotel restaurant. The only downside is that it looked rather fancy, which isn’t our normal speed but we have learned to bring sport coats and dresses on trips for just this reason. And it was worth dressing up.
I won’t go into every course and glass of wine, but we were extremely impressed with both the food and the staff. Both nights we dined here we had fresh five course meals (menu changes daily), that included things like gnocchi in a duck ragu, seafood risotto, steak tartar, and the dreamiest panna cotta I’ve had yet.
So yeah, we ate too much. But if we’ve learned anything from the Italians it’s the importance of after dinner drinks for just this occasion. Uncomfortably full, we meandered to the actual villa portion of Villa Ottone where they keep a bar with a stunning view.
We sat on the patio and watched the last of the sunset turn into a starry sky, wondering how we could start our day in traffic and packing chaos, and end it listening to the tide and pointing out constellations.
We tried to stick to our main goal of doing nothing while on this trip, but we were too curious to see what was beyond our little bay and went on an impromptu roadtrip.
Elba, which is the third largest island in Italy, is shaped like a fish. We were on the north side near Portoferraio, and conveniently near the main road that follows the coast around the island. The center and western side of the island is dominated by mountains, the north side is rockier with lots of cliffs, the south side is less rocky and has sandy beaches. We could see it all in a few hours of gorgeous views, plus my husband got to drive on windy roads which happen to be his favorite.
We passed several signs indicating directions to Napoleon’s residence and decided to detour a little and see where the little guy spent his time. Don’t do this, there is nothing to see except a small flea market, and a nice villa that has been converted into a hotel. Time is much better spent gawking at these views.
Between the views our car wove around tiny mountain villages and windy seaside towns with glowing turquoise shores. All of them looked too perfect, elegant yet casual, something that only islands seem capable of achieving.
Something we didn’t do that would be worth saving up for is hiring a boat. Local boat companies pick clients up at their hotel if it has a dock, or in town, and take them to private sandy nooks with supplies. All over the island we saw small groups set up on idyllic beaches with no road access, and boats parked in the near distance. Like in the photo below, can you see the tiny umbrella and the couple of people-dots hanging out on their own private beach, does it get better than that?
We decided to skip the fish tail part of the island and go back to the hotel for lunch. Afterwards we suited up and joined everyone else at the beach.
My only complaint about Portoferraio is the lack of sand. The rocks really hurt your feet, definitely keep your flip flops nearby. We spent the rest of the day doing what beach goers do – sunbathing, swimming, reading, etc. This day also marked the first time I swam in the Mediterranean, all previous attempts had been far too cold, but the shallow waters this time were more refreshing than they were bone chilling.
When our minds wandered we fed the local ducks, and I started a sea glass collection. Nothing mind-blowing but the entire afternoon was incredibly relaxing.
That night we followed the same pattern as the day before, because there was no reason to mess with perfection.
The following morning was our last. We checked out at the last possible minute and drove back to the docks after a quick pottery detour. After boarding the ship we posted ourselves on the side deck to get our last look at the island.
This whole last minute trip surprised us. A place that we hadn’t given much thought to previously turned out to be one of our favorite places yet. We only spent two nights there, and we didn’t really set out to get to know the island, but what we found was a profoundly peaceful, unspoilt and friendly region that feels a few shades more laid back than the main land. As our time here gets shorter I know that most places we visit we will probably never see again, but I encourage everyone else to try out Elba if you get the chance, and then tell me all about it.
Until next time, ciao!