Summer holidays have finished for Europeans but here in Rome, the days are still sunny and warm and I'm wishing I was back on Ponza, a little-known island off the coast of Lazio between Rome and Naples. Ironically, it's faster to get to Capri (much further south) than to Ponza, but don't let that stop you from discovering this jewel of natural beauty in the Tyrrhenian Sea. According to legend, Ponza was named after Pontius Pilate! Any boat tour of the Island - an absolute must while on Ponza - will show you the grotto or cave owned by his family. During summer, Ponza feels a lot like a Roman suburb. But if you're after peace and quiet you need only get out on the water.
4-star: Hotel Chiaia di Luna is my perfect idea of a four-to-five star experience (NB, Italian standards) at three-star prices, especially if it's off-season. The hotel is renowned for its restaurant and terraces for an evening aperitif, which become a disco later in the evening. If you're having a romantic weekend away and you're happy to pay four-star, take a gorgeous sea-view room. If not, ask for one of the hotel's appropriately named 'smart' rooms. You're on street level with steps to contend with to reach the pool and breakfast area but these rooms are actually better for coming and going between the port and the hotel, and large enough for a third person. I had an awesome girls' weekend on Ponza this summer and the room setup was perfect - three single beds with enough space for us to move around comfortably and three large mirrors so we had no problems with managing one bathroom. It's the small details that make or break holidays!
3-star: If it's your first time on Ponza, there's something to be said for staying at the port. Albergo Mari is a spotless little hotel just a few minutes walk from the ferry dock with friendly owners and stunning pottery pieces throughout. Warning: you won't be able to leave without buying a piece. We have a large turquoise whale at home to prove it! Since you'll be spending most of your time on Ponza at the port either shopping, eating or taking a boat trip, I'd highly recommend staying here. Ladies, don't miss Lunata, the best boutique on the island. Say hi to Eugenia for me!
EAT, HIKE and SWIM
There are a lots of eating options at the port, ranging from easy to the Michelin star Acqua Pazza for impeccable service and, as you'd expect on an island, an amazing selection of fresh seafood. 'La Baguetteria del Porto' is perfect for picking up salads and panini for a day out on the boat. If you're feeling a little more adventurous, take a five minute ferry from the port to Frontone beach (a return ticket is only five euros and boats leave at least every 20 minutes). Once you arrive, walk to the end of the beach (pictured above) and you'll see signs to a museum. Follow the track up and around for a few minutes until you find Ristoro di Gerardo Mazzella. 'Ristoro' means a place of solace or place to refresh and that it is. After one of the most delicious seafood dishes of your life (try the octopus and potato in spicy tomato sauce) and either a large piece of fresh cherry pie or their own special version of tiramisu, you'll be pleased to relax on one of their many sun beds available all day to lunch guests. We happily napped for an hour before hiking back down to the beach for a swim to work off dessert! Even though it's off the beaten track and very rustic (read mismatched crockery, island-time service etc), if you haven't booked a couple of days earlier, you won't get a table. It's hard to find so here's the number: 339/8491446.
When you arrive on Ponza, you'll likely be handed some publicity about Le Terrazze, the terraces at Hotel Chiaia di Luna, the place-to-be for a sunset aperitif from the end of June to the end of August. When the sun goes down, it quickly becomes a piano bar/disco. Hint: go for an aperitif but then leave for dinner and come back after 11pm for the last hour or two of the party. It was handy having this right at our hotel but the music will keep you awake. So be ready to party if you're at this hotel! For something more low key, there are lots of casual bars - such as the iconic Bar Tripoli - at the port to enjoy the stunning Ponza sunsets.
For Ponza first-timers, I was really impressed by the group boat tours with Cooperativa Barcaioli Ponzesi (it's under the tunnel at the port). They are friendly, helpful and have very knowledgeable guides on the boats. I've taken their Ponza day-tour which circles the entire island as well as their day-tour showcasing Ponza and nearby island of Palmarola, which I would only recommend when the sea is calm (usually later in the summer). Both tours are under 30 euros per person and stop regularly to give you time to swim in all the key spots around the islands. Hint: try to jump on the boat quickly at the start of the day to lay out your towels and claim your territory on the upper deck! Did I mention that lunch, water and coffee is included in the price? On both tours they served perfectly-cooked al dente pasta in a tuna and tomato sauce. Delish! On our girls' weekend, we brought a bottle of champagne on board and the staff were all too happy to keep it on ice for us. We received a few strange looks from other guests but we had fun! If we broke any etiquette rules there, it was nothing compared to the shock when we jumped straight in the water after lunch. Italians will not enter the water for at least two hours after they eat. So, be prepared!
If you don't want to be stuck on a boat all day with a group of strangers, it's cheap to hire your own small boat from the port. The Cooperativa also does a two hour mini-tour. Afterwards they can drop you at Frontone beach and the return boat is included in the price whenever you want to go back to the port. If you take the 11:15am tour, this works in perfectly for lunch at Gerardo's and the afternoon lazing on Frontone beach. Enjoy!
You can't miss the Church of Saints Silverio and Domitilla which appears prominently on the port's skyline. With Mass offered there on Saturday evenings and three times on a Sunday, there's no excuse for missing Church on Sundays while you're on holidays :) It's characteristically ornate inside and happily filled with families of all ages for Mass. After Saturday or Sunday evening Mass, head to Il Porticciolo, just down the street from the church on the corner. Their generous aperol spritzes and free accompanying food will be your reward! Take me back!!