Italy Segreta was created to celebrate the secret corners of Italy – the places that you might not have heard of, the unspoilt gems and the very best of what this wonderful country has to offer. L’Isola d’Elba is my paradise and might just be Italy’s best kept secret. Nestling in the warm waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea just off the coast of Tuscany lies the island of Elba; a relatively unknown haven and somewhere I’ve been fortunate enough to spend many happy summers over the years. Here’s how to spend a few days in paradise…
The island is the largest of the Tuscan Archipelago and is sufficiently far from the mainland to feel secluded and yet conveniently only an hour’s ferry ride away from the port of Piombino. Elba is most famous for being home to Napoleon Bonaparte during his enforced exile following his abdication in 1814, where he remained for just under one year as Sovereign of Elba. Napoleon certainly left his mark on the island, which is still apparent today thanks to his introduction of underground drainage systems to stop flooding and widening the roads to enable the imperial carriage to pass. Elba is well known among Italians and it’s not unusual to spot a supermodel, actor or politician on the neighbouring sun lounger discreetly enjoying the summer away from the paparazzi, but the island remains largely unspoilt by foreign mass tourism.
The sea in Elba is unlike anything I’d ever seen before; crystal clear water, bright white sand and vast quantities of fish swimming in the shallows – who needs the Maldives! The most important things to pack for a trip to Elba are goggles and a snorkel! The island is very hilly with plenty of dramatic cliffs with sunset views as well as gorgeous hilltop villages tucked away between the pines. Keep an eye out for the wild boar which roam the woods and can often be spotted trotting along the roads at night with piglets in tow. The town of Portoferraio on the north side of the island serves as the main port where ferries from the mainland dock and is where Napoleon’s official residence, the Villa dei Mulini, still remains. Colourful houses with striped awnings line the seafront around the marina where there are often super yachts jostling for space. Be sure to visit the old fort in Portoferraio and explore the ramparts which offer fantastic views across the bay. The town of Marina di Campo on the southern side of the island has one of the largest and most beautiful beaches on Elba, along with a charming old town with some lovely little boutiques – Etno Bazar is my favourite local spot to pick up a hand-printed pareo or beautiful bedspread.
Elba is complete heaven and there are plenty of ways to spend a day on the island, but the following takes a lot of beating. Start the day with an early morning bike ride to the local focacceria to pick up a few slices of Tuscan schiaccia – my favourite is La Cambusa in Marina di Campo where we always fill our boots with slices of rosemary, onion and olive focaccia, still hot from the oven. For an especially indulgent treat, try the sweet focaccia baked with sugar from Panetteria Mara in the hilltop village of San Piero, but get there early – they sell out by 8am. Next, stop off at one of the daily fruit markets and pick up a bag of white peaches and susine plums. Hop in the car and drive along the beautiful coastal roads to one of Elba’s stunning beaches and set up camp for a few hours of swimming, reading and dozing in the sun. Enjoy your picnic lunch on the beach, paying particular attention to the glorious combination of salty fingers and sugary peaches. Spend the afternoon snorkelling with occhiate and looking for starfish and sea urchins before a nap under an umbrella. Drive to the seaside village of Chiessi to watch the sunset from the rocks, Spritz in hand, before going out for supper at one of the many excellent osterias on the island for grilled local fish. After dinner, call in at the local gelateria for a scoop or three – cassata is always top of my list! – before wandering down to the beach for a moonlight digestif – our favourite is the Paglicce Beach Club in Marina di Campo, which serves the best negronis on the island. End the night listening to live music by the Elban band La Compagnia Scapestrati, who perform at various open-air venues across the island throughout the summer months and whose brilliant tunes will have you dancing all night long.
WHERE TO STAY:
Elba is home to plenty of charming B&Bs, residences and private houses available for rent but is mercifully free from sprawling tourist resort hotels. We are lucky enough to stay at my boyfriend’s family house the island, but I’d recommend renting a charming villa on the beach or up in the hills to live like a true Elban. There are, however, a couple of small, special hotels dotted around the island, the loveliest of which is Villa Ottone – a historic palazzo turned luxury hotel right on the water across the bay from Portoferraio. Hotel Hermitage at Biodola beach on the north side of the island is another great option, offering its own private stretch of sand with some of the clearest water on the island. Some close friends of ours run a charming bed and breakfast, La Collina sul Mare, tucked away in the hills above Marina di Campo, which has one of the best views on the island and easily the best breakfasts in town.
La Collina sul Mare B&B
WHER TO EAT:
L’Affrichella, Marciana Marina – seriously good fine dining with outdoor tables covered with rambling bougainvillea.
Osteria del Noce, Marciana Alta – one of my absolute favourites. We always order the gnocchi with whatever fish they’ve caught that morning. The puddings are exceptional too.
Da Paolo, Marina di Campo – the very best of homecooked Elban food and the closest you can get to eating with the locals.
Sciamadda, Poggio – run by two brothers from Liguria, this is perhaps my favourite restaurant on the island. You simply must order the homemade testaroli pasta with pesto, it’s non-negotiable.
Capo Nord, Marciana Marina – the perfect spot to watch the sun go down over a plate of pacchero allo scoglio.
Molo G, Portoferraio – ask for an outdoor table and marvel at the superyachts. The fritto misto is not to be missed!
Osteria Libertaria, Portoferraio – the spaghetti with squid ink here is terrific.
Osteria delle Grazie, Capoliveri – characterful tables tucked into a cobbled side street away from the bustling main square – order the cacciucco fish stew!
Agriturismo Montefabbrello, near Portoferraio – a wine estate with extensive vegetable gardens and a lovely secluded spot for dinner. Order the antipasto dell’orto followed by a traditional Fiortentina steak. Just don’t have lunch beforehand!
Zero Gradi, various locations – officially the best gelateria on the island. Highlights include the almond granita and the cassata gelato but prepare to be racked with indecision.
WHERE TO SWIM:
The key to the perfect swimming spot on Elba is which way the wind is blowing. Use one of the local weather apps or look to see which way the boats are pointing to determine whether there is a northern or southern wind. If there is a southern scirocco wind, it’s best to head for the sheltered beaches on the north of the island where the white pebble beaches are protected by the cliffs. My favourites include Sansone, La Paolina and Spartaia. On days where there is a northerly maestrale wind, the white sandy beaches on the south of the island are simply paradise. Fetovaia and Cavoli are two of the most stunning sandy beaches. As for that perfect beach with crystal clear water? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind…
MOST BEAUTIFUL BEACHES:
Marina di Campo
BEST WAY TO EXPLORE THE ISLAND:
Hop on the ferry to the nearby island of Pianosa, once home to a maximum-security prison full of Italian Mafia bosses serving time and now a gloriously unspoilt hidden gem. The waters surrounding the island have been a marine protected area for 25 years, meaning fishing and anchoring boats are banned, plus the island only permits 250 visitors per day and only via guided excursions, so there is a dazzling array of largely undisturbed fish patrolling the waters.
Back on Elba, swim out to the shipwreck off Pomonte beach and snorkel around the eerie wreckage alongside hundreds of fish.
Cycle along the dramatic western coastal road and try to spot the island of Corsica. Stop for granita in every village along the way.
Take a road trip along the scenic coastal road from Rio Marina up to Cavo on the very north-eastern tip of the island.
Hike up to the lighthouse at Capo di Poro, where there is a fabulous view of sweeping bays on each side.
HILLTOP VILLAGES TO VISIT:
HOW TO GET THERE:
Elba is not the easiest place to get to, but there is a good ferry service from the port of Piombino in Tuscany which takes around an hour. The island is tricky to explore without a car (or a Vespa!), so I’d advise renting a car on the mainland and taking it on the ferry with you. There is a tiny airport on the island where small charter flights come into land just inches from the beach – one for the private jet.
WHEN TO GO:
As with most places by the sea in Italy, August on Elba is rather chaotic. Instead, escape for a few days in late May or June and return in September for a final swim before the colder months and have the place pretty much to yourselves.
The island of Elba is my favourite place in Italy bar none and so, dear reader, take yourself off to paradise and enjoy the island in all its glory but it must remain our little secret…
Ella lives in Milan and is currently studying for a masters at SDA Bocconi business school