TRAVEL

The Dreamy Islands Where Italians Go to Escape

Fortified castles atop craggy outcroppings? Check. Blue coves? Check. Colorful village? Check. Italian islands (like Ischia above) have charm on lockdown.

Photo by Jan Mach/Shutterstock

Some of Italy’s prettiest and most uncrowded beaches are on the islands in the Mediterranean, Tyrrhenian, and Adriatic seas.

When Italians want a quiet getaway, they know to get off the busy mainland and head to the country’s best islands. From pristine Mediterranean coves to fishing villages near active volcanoes, these idyllic escapes off the coast of Italy can fulfill your vacation dreams, whether you’re in the market for a jet-set fantasy, homey beach vacation, or an off-the-grid digital detox. 

Sicily and her satellites

With nearly 650 miles of coastline, Sicily is Italy’s biggest island, with some of the country’s most interesting and diverse culinary delights, exciting cities (like Palermo and Catania), and transporting hilltop hamlets and baroque towns. Sicily is also home to world-class archaeological sites, such as the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, the Greek Theater in Taormina, and the temples of Selinunte and Segesta. But when you want to find a quiet sdraio (sun bed), look to the small islands off Sicily.

Popular with Phoenicians and fashionistas, Pantelleria is midway between Italy and Tunisia.

Photo by Erica Firpo

Pantelleria

Pantelleria, a tiny volcanic island 67 miles southwest of Sicily (and 37 miles east of Tunisia), has long been a favorite getaway for the reclusively chic, like Truman Capote, Giorgio Armani, and Sting. The glamorous allure of the turquoise water is offset by a rugged coastline of jagged lava-rock formations, steaming fumaroles, and mud baths. Reminders of the island’s millennia-long human history—from the Bronze Age, on through its Roman occupation, into its heyday as Arab outpost Bent el-Rhia, and to its inclusion in the Kingdom of Italy—are revealed in its ruins, historic architecture, and even its language. Some of Pantelleria’s dammusi (the island’s iconic white-washed lava-rock houses) have been transformed into luxury resorts like Sikelia, the most coveted. Italians love Pantelleria not only for its remoteness but also for its world-renowned capers and for Passito di Pantelleria, a sweet wine made from zibibbo grapes. This variety of muscat grapes was introduced by the Phoenicians, and its cultivation has been honored by UNESCO by inclusion on its list of instances of intangible cultural heritage.

The Aeolian Islands

Just off the northeastern coast of Sicily are the UNESCO-protected Aeolian Islands. The rich green landscapes of the seven-island archipelago—Vulcano, Lipari, Salina, Panarea, Stromboli, Filicudi, and Alicudi—are punctuated by smoking volcanic peaks, making them the perfect setting for lost-at-sea fantasies. Of the seven, Vulcano and Stromboli have active volcanoes, which can provide epic backdrops for nature lovers whether hiking, kayaking, or diving. Lipari is the liveliest and most easily accessible of the Aeolian Islands, while Panarea is the most exclusive: Limited to pedestrian traffic, it’s a perfect place to tune out and recharge. Can’t pick one? No problem: Island-hop via ferries that run between all seven islands. Insiders stay at Salina’s sea-facing Principe di Salina.

Sardinia (Sardegna)

Second in size to Sicily and in the middle of the Mediterranean, Sardinia is also Italy’s second best-known island. Its most popular destination, Costa Smeralda, the northeastern “emerald coast,” is an enclave for the rich and famous, but the island offers more than a berth for mega-yachts. Sardinia’s distinctive personality—insular and a bit secretive—makes the destination fun and filled with surprises to explore. In addition to white-sand beaches and turquoise waters, the landscape includes Gola di Gorropu, the largest canyon in Europe; UNESCO-protected Su Nuraxi di Barumini, a defensive structure from the second millennium B.C.E.; and the Dunes of Piscinas, sand dunes that reach 200 feet in height. Two diverse off-island adventures are also available: From the north coast, the seven-island Maddalena Archipelago offers beaches, lagoons, and uninhabited islets. And off Sardinia’s southwestern coast, tiny San Pietro is a throwback to 19th-century island living at the charming fishing town of Carloforte and the lighthouse at Capo Sandalo.

The Tuscan Archipelago

Yes, Tuscany has islands. Along with novel- and movie-inspiring villages, the province has its  own collection of gorgeous islands where smart Italians dock their boats during the summer holidays. 

Elba was famously home to Napoleon during his exile.
Photo by Stefano Valeri

Elba

Six miles off the Tuscan coast, Elba is the most recognized of the Tuscan islands thanks to Napoleon, who lived here in exile in 1814. Back then, Elba was a quiet place, but today its beaches are busy from June through September with vacationers. Away from the sand, Elba has a lot to discover, including the largest protected marine park in Europe, perfect for underwater exploration, plus mountain biking, trekking, and hiking. 

Giglio

With more than 90 percent of its landscape covered by lush wild vegetation, Giglio is the Tuscan island for nature exploration. The hilly island’s highest peak reaches nearly 1,600 feet, and the seaside cliffs present dramatic descents to Giglio’s beaches and caves. For those looking to simply relax, the Tyrrhenian Sea views from Giglio are ideal for contemplation of the blue waters (expect dolphins and even whales to make an appearance). You can also gaze upon nearby Montecristo, the island made famous by Alexandre Dumas, who set his fictional prison fortress there in The Count of Monte Cristo. (Montecristo, now a nature preserve, can only be visited twice a year, by permit.)

Giannutri

Nine miles south of Giglio, the crescent-shaped Giannutri, at one-square mile, is the least populated island in the Tuscan Archipelago. Though swimming is restricted to certain areas, Italians head to Giannutri for diving and snorkeling—the sea floor presents a landscape of corals, meadows of Posidonia seagrass, and Roman- and Etruscan-era shipwrecks at Punta Scaletta and the Bay of Spalmatoio.

Ponza maintains a low profile but is a quick day trip from Rome.

Photo by Claudio Zaccherini/Shutterstock

Ponza

One of the most charming and least-known Italian islands is only an hour’s drive, plus a ferry ride, from Rome. Blissfully off the popular Italian travel circuit, Ponza has tiny, appealing villages and a charming harbor. You don’t have to be a local to participate in the island’s boating life–here you’ll want to rent a gommone (dinghy) to explore Ponza’s beaches and coves. Ponza happily is not overly fancy, but from among the smattering of cute bed-and-breakfasts, smart Romans choose to stay at Villa Laetitia, a B&B owned (and curated) by Anna Fendi Venturini, of the Fendi couture family.

The Campanian Archipelago

Most everybody knows Capri, the island beloved by the international jet set, but what if Capri were less, well, Capri? The Campanian Archipelago, dominated by the tourism powerhouse Capri, also includes Ischia and Procida, two delightful and much more laid-back islands.

Ischia 

Ischia, the largest of the archipelago, is by far the greenest of Italy’s volcanic islands. The by-products of this volcanic nature—lots of natural thermal springs along the coastline—have made Ischia a wellness-focused retreat; adventure-seekers, meanwhile, can find volcanic treks around the craters of Mount Epomeo. Ischia is also the name of the main city, notable for the Aragonese Castle and a modern port area with boutiques and restaurants. The island’s other outposts, like the picturesque town of Forio and the fishing village of Sant’Angelo, can be visited by water taxi or hired boat. Near Forio, the newly restored Mezzatorre is becoming the place to stay, while traditional favorite Regina Isabella retains its 1950s charm.

Procida 

At two square miles, Procida is the tiniest island in the Campanian Archipelago and possibly the most picturesque, with pastel-hued fishing villages and small ports like Marina di Chiaiolella and Marina di Corrice (locations for such films as Il Postino and The Talented Mr. Ripley). Overlooking the island and the Bay of Naples, Terra Murata is the fortified historic village at the center of Procida. Whereas Ischia has fewer beaches and more rock promontories, Procida offers scenic stretches of sand like Chiaia and Chiaiolella. A perfect day-trip destination from Naples, Procida is a 40-minute hydrofoil ferry from the port and entirely walkable. Most importantly, Procida is known for spaghetti ai ricci di mare (spaghetti with sea urchin)–it’s best enjoyed with a sunset view.

The five Tremiti Islands in the Adriatic are part of a protected national park.

Photo by Paolo Barelli/Shutterstock

The Tremiti Islands

Everyone forgets about the other coast of Italy. Over off Puglia’s gorgeous Adriatic coastline, right above the heel of Italy’s boot, is Italy’s most off-the-radar archipelago—the Tremiti Islands of San Domino, San Nicola, Capraia, Cretaccio, and Pianosa. The remote region long served as a penal colony: In 8 B.C.E., Emperor Augustus exiled his granddaughter Julia the Younger here for licentious behavior; in the 20th century, Mussolini interned homosexual men on San Domino. Today, even though there are a few hotels and restaurants, the Tremiti are a protected part of Gargano National Park. Visitors can expect rugged coasts, limestone cliffs, rocky beaches, caves, and small coves with clear water. The small islands are easy to explore by foot and best visited via boat—whether a personal rental, a water taxi, or a tour boat.

This article first appeared in AFAR, September 2019.

Find Well-Being at Italy’s Costa Smeralda

(Photo: Marriott International)

Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda has long lured luxury vacationers seeking to enjoy its emerald green waters and chic lifestyle. But the true indulgence here might well be Sardinia’s embrace of wellness, thanks to a combination of slow living, clean air, locavore dishes and some of the best waters on Earth.

In fact, the island has been ranked as one of only five “Blue Zones” in the world for its longer-than-norm life spans. Sardinia’s Gallura region, where the Costa Smeralda is nestled, is a nexus of natural beauty and well-being and is one of the top places in the world to recharge.

Here’s how to maximize your stay in 48 hours.

(Photo: Marriott International)

Friday

Arriving in Costa Smeralda is always epic — whether flying over its shimmering waters to Olbia or mooring a private boat at Porto Cervo, the area’s picturesque seaside town.

Book a sea view suite at the Hotel Romazzino, where you can enjoy a private beach and then let your true wellness begin with a treatment at Spa My Blend By Clarins, the hotel’s onsite spa. Spread throughout two floors, Spa My Blend has four suites and a wellness area with sauna, emotional shower, steam room, Pilates and yoga studio.

(Photo: Marriott International)

Opt for one of Clarins’ quintessential Art of Touch treatments, which focus on skin rejuvenation, then book one of the head-to-toe wellness treatments that combine purifying, massage and relaxation techniques to help reboot your sleep, reduce your stress levels and boost your energy.

(Photo: Marriott International)

As the sun sets, take in the view of the island’s twinkling lights while enjoying dishes at Romazzino Restaurant from the hotel’s Equilibrium Menu. This gourmet program was created by nutritionist and bestselling British author Amanda Hamilton, who collaborated with Romazzino chef Gianni Mallao and Hotel Cala di Volpe chef Maurizio Locatelli to develop health-focused dishes based on the flavors and traditions of Sardinian cuisine, with some produce selected daily from La Fattoria, Hotel Cala di Volpe’s vegetable garden.

Guests can find Equilibrium Menu dishes at Romazzino Restaurant.

Saturday

Warm up the weekend with a personal yoga session on Hotel Romazzino’s private beach. And if you need a little more energy, join any of the property’s fitness activities, including muscle strengthening and elongation through Pilates, power workouts with boxing and functional training, and post-injury exercises, or ask to have one of the wellness gurus onsite create a bespoke workout.

Wind down the day at one of the Costa Smeralda’s famed beach clubs, like Cala Beach Club and Nikki Beach, for an afternoon of drinks, dining and dancing.

Sunday

Kick it into high gear on Sunday at the Pevero Health Trail, an eight-mile hiking and biking trail.

(Photo: Marriott International)

Starting from the grounds of Hotel Romazzino, the trail includes pedicured paths that wind around the Pevero Golf Course. For those looking for a power workout, there are inclines and fitness stations at each kilometer.

When you’ve worked up a sweat, enjoy a swim in Romazzino’s freshwater pool or head over to Hotel Cala di Volpe for the afternoon. The iconic Hotel Cala di Volpe is a mecca for those who want to keep a low profile while enjoying the Costa Smeralda’s sun and sand.

With the afternoon cooling down, you’ll want to book a treatment at the hotel’s new Shiseido Spa as the perfect closure to a weekend focused on recharging and invigorating your wellness lifestyle.

Shiseido’s holistic approach combines Eastern traditions and techniques with the most innovative advances of the 21st century — and more importantly, the spa dedicates itself to treating the body as a whole, with personalized therapeutic scrubs and massages. Afterward, enjoy a dip in the hotel’s olympic-sized saltwater pool.

(Photo: Marriott International)

Sit for an aperitivo at the hotel’s Atrium Bar followed by dinner at Matsuhisa at Cala di Volpe, Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s Nobu-style Japanese restaurant with spectacular views overlooking a charming pier lined with jaw-dropping yachts.

This article first appeared in Marriott Bonvoy Traveller, July 2019.

Costa Smeralda for Every Type of Traveler

An aerial view of Hotel Romazzino, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Costa Smeralda. (Photo: Marriott International)

Long before Italy’s Costa Smeralda became an iconic retreat for the rich and famous, the 12-mile stretch on Sardinia’s northern coastline was just another — albeit spectacular — corner of the region’s wild terrain.

It didn’t gain notoriety until a late-1950s visit by a committee of investors and architects that fell hard for the Emerald Coast, named for its beautiful translucent, emerald-colored water, and transformed 5,000 acres of land into Porto Cervo, the most famous coastline resort in Sardinia, if not the world.

A collection of coves, towns and beaches, the Costa Smeralda is a destination for those looking for an honest and insightful experience, whether they prefer adventuring or recharging, eating or meeting local artisans, or just enjoying that ever-so-easy Sardinian lifestyle.

From the remote quietude of Hotel Romazzino and Piccolo Romazzino to fashionable Hotel Cala di Volpe and Porto Cervo, the coastal area becomes a dynamic and international crossroads whose boundaries extend to the water, as the port itself is a floating city of hundreds of the world’s most enviable boats, yachts and super yachts.

Regardless of your travel tastes, Costa Smeralda will exceed even your steepest expectations.

Soak in the sun and enjoy azure waters. (Photo: Marriott International)

For Adventure Travelers

The emerald waters and natural terrain of the Costa Smeralda are meant to be enjoyed, especially by those who love the outdoors. Its mesmerizing waters are always just warm enough for snorkeling, scuba and free-diving, a centuries-old island hobby.

The region’s life aquatic includes dolphins, sea turtles, tuna, swordfish and sunfish, rare mobulas (Mediterranean mantas) and schools of whales.

Start your exploration at a beach like the one found at Hotel Cala di Volpe, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Costa Smeralda, decidedly the most beautiful and exclusive location in Porto Cervo for its immaculate white beaches, incredible setting and lineup of activities from flora and fauna spotting to boat rides to Maddalena Island.

For land lovers, the countryside is lined with nature hikes, including the local favorite Pevero Health Trail. Starting from the grounds of Hotel Romazzino, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Costa Smeralda, a series of pedicured trails circumnavigate Pevero Golf Course, with fitness stations, inclines and more.

Stroll along trails or play a round of golf. (Photo: Marriott International)

For Romance Seekers

By its nature, the Costa Smeralda is romantic. Any sunset will inspire a poem, or declaration of love at the very least. Though Porto Cervo is a hub of who’s who, it’s the quieter corners that are made for couples.

Spectacular landscapes of rolling hills and hidden coves are inspiration for stories, and as Italians will tell you, they are stories that you have to make.

Nestled in a grove of pine trees and cascading to the bay of Liscia di Vacca is the Emerald Coast’s best kept secret, Hotel Pitrizza, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Costa Smeralda, a sprawling complex of suites and rooms with its own private beach. You’ll find ample privacy for just the two of you.

Costa Smeralda heats up after dark. (Photo: Marriott International)

For the Fashionista

Expect to find luxury everywhere you look. Above all, stroll through La Piazzetta and La Passeggiata, the area’s most exclusive fashion hubs.

Boutiques here introduced the island to some of the world’s most innovative designers. You’ll also find a lineup here of the major fashion houses, while the Promenade du Port is a concept retail mecca with small boutiques and surprise pop-up shops.

Before the sun sets, the see-and-be-seen set will want to stake a claim at the Atrium Bar at Hotel Cala di Volpe for a cocktail, or head to Cala Beach Club and Nikki Beach for an afternoon of drinks, dining and dancing.

For Foodies

For decades, foodies have migrated to Porto Cervo to taste regional seafood dishes, which has inspired a dynamic food community in the small town.

Savor the many flavors of the region. (Photo: Marriott International)

Every year, Porto Cervo kicks off the summer season with its annual Wine & Food Festival, an exhibition of Italian food and wine products.

Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa launched a restaurant that has officially staked its claim at Hotel Cala di Volpe, overlooking an iconic pier and sparkling bay.

Meanwhile, the iconic Porto Cervo restaurant, Al Pescatore, has welcomed a partnership with the Nerano restaurant Quattro Passi, run by Michelin-starred Chef Tonino Mellino. A selection of Tonino’s signature dishes from Quattro Passi is now included on the Al Pescatore menu.

For Wellness Travelers

Wellness has always been integral to Sardinian lifestyle, and no more so than in the Costa Smeralda, which boasts some of Italy’s most beautiful coves and beaches and integrates holistic ingredients into a lifestyle that turns down the dial on vacation to a focus on relaxation and wellness.

The natural beauty and peaceful exclusivity make Hotel Romazzino, Piccolo Romazzino and Hotel Cala di Volpe the most coveted areas for total recharge, which can be as easy as taking a dip in their beaches’ emerald waters.

For a truly decadent way to unwind, make your way to Hotel Cala di Volpe’s SHISEIDO Spa and Hotel Romazzino’s Spa My Blend By Clarins, which each celebrate Sardinian wellness with beauty and fitness offerings. Both properties collaborate with nutritional expert Amanda Hamilton to curate bespoke wellness programs that include healthy menus, spa treatments and exercise regimes that include yoga, pilates and hiking.

This article originally appeared in Marriott Bonvoy Traveller, June 2019.

The 6 Sestieri: An Insider’s Guide to Venice’s Distinct Neighborhoods

Explore Dorsoduro's church of Santa Maria Della Salute. (Photo: Getty Images)

Thanks to its labyrinthine streets and impossible canals, Venice is one of the world’s easiest cities in which to get lost. But with a bit of research, it is also the easiest town to understand. From a bird’s-eye view, Venice is made up of two central islands that look like intertwined hands.

Neighborhoods, called sestieri, subdivide the islands into six characteristic areas, which range from busy marketplaces to quiet communities. Here’s a look at each of these distinct sestieri.

Dorsoduro

Traverse the wooden Accademia Bridge to arrive in Dorsoduro, known for its charming artsy vibe thanks to a mix of families and university students. Its beautiful palazzi and campi (squares) are picture-perfect, and the area is peppered with bars, galleries and restaurants.

The southern neighborhood spans from Punta della Dogana, the old customs building at the very eastern tip of the island, to the Port Authority in the most southwestern edge and includes Giudecca, the long residential island immediately to its south.

Sites not to miss: Gallerie dell’AccademiaPeggy Guggenheim CollectionIl Redentore, Campo Santa Margherita, Chiesa Le ZitellePunta della DoganaSanta Maria della Salute.

Castello

Campo Santa Maria Formosa. (Photo: Getty Images)


Named for a former fortified palazzo, Castello is the largest of the six sestieri and the greenest. Its western border lines up with the edges of San Marco and Cannaregio, so expect a bustle of tourists and souvenir shops.

Head east down the calle and along canals; the farther afield you go, you’ll find Castello becomes a charming microcosm where the tourist flow trickles down to a near standstill.

Eventually, the eastern half of Castello becomes a large public garden and shipyard — the Biennale Giardini and Arsenale — home of the annual La Biennale festival. The cemetery island San Michele is also part of Castello.

Sites not to miss: Basilica of Santi Giovanni e PaoloChurch of San Zaccaria, Campo Santa Maria Formosa, Complesso dell’Ospedaletto

San Marco

St. Mark’s Square. (Photo: Getty Images)

Named for the city’s patron saint, San Marco is the most visited of all Venetian sestieri. The sestiere’s heart is Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), the number-one destination for all visitors to Venice. Here you’ll find tourists taking photos of the inimitable Basilica San Marco or enjoying a spritz at the square’s historic cafés.

The San Marco neighborhood spans from the Rialto Bridge to St. Mark’s Square, so once you’ve visited the piazza, head deeper into the neighborhood. Wander past small-scale piazzas and peek into lavish museums, and keep an eye out for waterfront photo ops across the lagoon to San Giorgio Maggiore island, also part of sestiere San Marco.

Sites not to miss: Basilica di San MarcoDoge’s PalaceTeatro La Fenice, Campo Santo Stefano, Palazzo GrassiScala Contarini del BovoloMuseo CorrerCaffe Florian

San Polo

To many, this tiny sestiere is the heart of Venetian life. One of the oldest neighborhoods in Venice, San Polo is a dynamic neighborhood filled with families, shops and students who all seem to converge on Campo San Polo, the second-largest square in Venice.

San Polo is also a thoroughfare for tourists walking toward San Marco after visiting the Rialto market, the historic and picturesque fish market.

Sites not to miss: San Giacomo di RialtoSanta Maria Gloriosa dei FrariGrande Scuola San Rocco, Campo San Polo.

Cannaregio

The Rialto Bridge. (Photo: Getty Images)

Cannaregio is the gateway to Venetian life. Starting from the steps of the Venezia Santa Lucia train station and extending eastward on the famed Strada Nuova to the Rialto Bridge, Cannaregio is a vivacious sestiere of boutiques, restaurants, squares and palaces.

The wide Strada Nuova is a busy shopping promenade, while its side alleys lead to niche communities like the Jewish Ghetto, which dates back to the city’s original 4th-century Jewish settlements. Fondamenta Nuova, the northern edge of Cannaregio, connects to the island of Burano via vaporetto (boat).

Sites not to miss: Ca’ d’OroMuseo EbraicoChurch of Santa Maria dei MiracoliChurch of Madonna dell’Orto and the Oratorio dei Crociferi

Santa Croce

This sestiere is said to have a dual personality. The southwestern area of Santa Croce is a transport center, with Piazzale Roma as a hub for buses and taxis. Its northeastern area is more typical of Venice, filled with canals and alleys lined with historic palaces. Though tiny, Santa Croce packs a cultural punch with lavish architecture ranging from Byzantine to contemporary.

Sites not to miss: Fontego dei TurchiSan Giacomo dall’OrioSan Zan DegolaPonte della Costituzione (Constitution bridge) and Palazzo Mocenigo


This article is part of a series which appears
Venice travel for Marriott Bonvoy Traveler.

Andiamo! A Local’s Guide to Island Hopping in Venice

This article first appeared in Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, March 2019.

The Island of San Giorgio. Photo: Getty Images

With 118 islands making up the Venetian archipelago, there is far more to see in Venice than St. Mark’s Square. Whether an afternoon or a weekend affair, island hopping is the best way to get to know Venice and its 1,500-year-old culture. Here’s a guide to some of Venice’s most must-see islands.

San Giorgio Maggiore

The emblematic San Giorgio Maggiore is one of those islands that is always photographed but rarely visited. Dominated by the San Giorgio Maggiore church, a multilevel marble landmark designed by Renaissance phenom Andrea Palladio, San Giorgio Maggiore seems to float impossibly in the middle of the Venetian lagoon.

Today, exhibition spaces Le Stanze del Vetro, a former boarding school, and the Fondazione Giorgio Cini showcase contemporary arts projects, while the rest of the island remains green — impeccably pedicured gardens hiding mazes and more.

Discover the art of glass blowing. (Photo: Getty Images)

Murano

For centuries the tiny island of Murano produced the world’s most beautiful glass pieces behind closed doors. Its reputation seeped out of the lagoon, and now Murano is the most popular of the Venetian islands.

Master glass artisans open studio doors to give tourists a select glimpse into their secretive workshops with organized, behind-the-scenes experiences at historic fornace (furnaces) like Seguso. The key to best experiencing Murano is to get past the souvenir shops and explore deeper into the island. Visit the Museo del Vetro to learn Murano’s glassmaking history.

Catch the colors of Burano. (Photo: Getty Images)

Burano

Of all the Venetian islands, Burano is the one most remembered. Here visitors find a mini version of Venice, with a rainbow of brightly colored houses lining picture-perfect canals.

Burano, like most of the outlying islands, is a microcosm of locals who have grown up with one another for generations and for generations have been making its famous lace products by hand. The Museo del Merletto (Lace Museum) chronicles Burano’s more than eight centuries honing lace craftsmanship.

Mazzorbo

Linked to Burano by the Ponte Longo, a wooden bridge, Mazzorbo is a quiet island of less than 400 inhabitants and was once an important political and commercial scene in medieval Venice.

Mazzorbo’s draw today is that in the midst of Venice’s tourist-laden streets, it remains untouched and out of the way of clutter and kitsch. Charming residential areas line up with stretches of cultivated land, including vineyards such as Venissa, a walled-in vineyard reviving heritage dorona di Venezia grapes. The 13th-century Chiesa di Santa Caterina, the island’s last remaining church, has a bell tower with one of Europe’s oldest bells and is also worth a visit.

San Michele

Within a gondola ride from the fondamenta nuova, Venice’s northern waterfront, you’ll find the mysterious San Michele. Beautifully landscaped with tall cypress trees and surrounded by a pedicured redbrick wall, San Michele has served as the city’s official cemetery ever since a Napoleonic decree banished burials from Venice churchyards.

Serene and tranquil, San Michele is the final resting place for Venetians and famed outsiders, including American poet Ezra Pound, Italian painter Emilio Vedova and Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

Lido di Venezia

Everybody loves Lido, the large Venetian island best known as the home of the Venice Film Festival, the august cinema fest where the world’s best directors and actors celebrate their films.

What most people don’t know is that all year round, Lido remains a charming community of families. The seven-mile-long Lido is also a jewel box of art nouveau and art deco architecture — including villas, hotels and ornamental gardens.

In the warm months, Venetians from all over the islands head to Lido’s stabilimenti balneari, beautifully coiffed and colorful waterside establishments on the island’s six miles of uninterrupted beach.

Torcello

Located on the northern edge of the lagoon, Torcello is one of the most remote islands in the Venetian archipelago and the oldest that has been continually populated — in fact, its origin story predates Venice.

Once a busy settlement, today Torcello is sparsely populated. What remains from its resplendent past are a few structures, including the seventh-century Cathedral of Santa Maria dell’Assunta with its beautifully preserved Byzantine mosaics and a head-spinning bell tower that overlooks Burano. It’s definitely the place to clear one’s head.

Find your way to remote Torcello. (Photo: Getty Images)

How to visit the islands

The only way to travel the islands is by water. A network of vaporetti (waterbuses) zigzag the Venetian Lagoon, connecting the islandsThe best option is the ACTV tickets offering unlimited travel within a 24-hour period at 20 euro. Less economical and far more efficient is a motoscafo, a sleek, wood-paneled water taxi, which can privately arranged through Consorzio Motoscafi.

Gondolas, Markets, Campi and More: Don’t Miss the Top 10 Things to Do in Venice

Visiting Piazza San Marco is a must. (Photo: Getty Images)

Visiting Piazza San Marco is a must. (Photo: Getty Images)

This article first appeared in Bonvoy, March 2019.

Venice is magic: a floating city caught up in the waves of modernity yet resisting the undertow of about-face change; a mind-bending, misleading labyrinth that always brings you to exactly where you didn’t know you wanted to be; and an interactive time capsule that manages to place you in 21st-century Italy and the 15th-century Venetian Republic at the exact same time.

It is a beautiful contradiction and a rebellious landscape of countless canals, narrow calle (streets), romantic palaces and wide-open campi (squares) where nothing is ever what it first appears. Since it’s just as easy to fall in love with “La Serenissima” as it is to get lost, here are our top 10 things to do and see in Venice.

Stand in Piazza San Marco and Climb the Campanile

St. Mark’s Square is Venice’s iconic landmark. It’s a vast piazza lined on three sides with 15th-century palaces and the beautiful Italo-Byzantine St. Mark’s Basilica on the fourth, and just standing in the middle of the square will give you an idea of the incredible riches and power of the former Venetian Republic’s heyday.

But as any Venetian knows, viewing the city is really all about perspective. It’s not about how you stand, but where you stand.

Climb the Campanile, the 320-foot free-standing bell tower in the Piazza’s southeastern corner, possibly the city’s best perch for a bird’s-eye view of the square and surrounding islands. For a little less effort, head to the Basilica’s balcony for a center stage view into the piazza.

Pro tip: Avoid on-the-hour visits or those bell tolls will drive you out of your mind.

Behind the Scene and Screams of the Doge’s Palace

Just behind the Campania, and facing the open waters of the Venetian Lagoon, is the Palazzo Ducale, the residence of the Doge, the chief magistrate and leader of the Republic of Venice.

For 400 years, the Doge’s Palace was the seat of Venetian government, as well as command center for all trade and commerce across the Mediterranean waters.

The palace’s Gothic exterior hides a labyrinth of rooms, from residence halls and courts to prisons and torture chambers. And this is where Casanova allegedly was held until his victorious escape.

Pro tip: Skip the queue and sign up for a private tour of the Secrets of the Doge’s Palace.

Get Lost at Libreria Acqua Alta

Photo: Getty Images

Considered one of, if not the, prettiest bookstores in the world, the Libreria Acqua Alta (Bookstore of High Water) is a whimsical secondhand bookshop tucked away in a back alley of Castello sestiere(district), which you can enter on foot or, more interestingly, by boat.

Its number of overstuffed rooms are stacked wall to wall with books, magazines, maps and other ephemera placed in shelves, bathtubs, bins and even a gondola.

Pro tip: You can wind your way through the Castello sestiere to get there or sneak in the back entrance — reachable by gondola — only if you take a water taxi.

Break Away to Burano

Photo: Getty Images

Venice is an archipelago of 118 small islands, each with its own distinct personality. If you want to avoid the throngs of tourists visiting Murano (known for its glass blowing), you’ll find that just a 40-minute water bus ride from San Marco is the city’s most colorful isle, Burano, which is known for its vibrantly hued houses — a patchwork of colors that brightens up any day and Instagram feed — as well its centuries-old traditional lace work.

Pro tip: Make like a local and head to a Burano bakery and ask for a bussolà, a donut-shaped cookie typically flavored with vanilla, rum or lemon.

Scale the Spiral Scala Contarini del Bovolo

Venice’s secrets are usually hidden in plain sight; you just have to know how to find them. Head to Palazzo Contarini, and along the way meander the side streets of Rialto, near Campo Manin. You’ll eventually arrive at an ornate palace showcasing Renaissance, Gothic and Byzantine styles, with an external tower attached to the facade, vaguely reminiscent of Pisa’s famous tower.

The elaborate arcaded tower is actually an open-air spiral staircase, or bovolo (Venetian dialect for “snail”), and after walking up the 80 steps to a domed lookout, you’ll have a private view of the rooftops of Venice.

Pro tip: Bring a camera; the bovolo is decidedly Insta-worthy.

Binge at a Bacaro

Venetians have fine-tuned snacking to an art form. Across the city are tiny bacari, typically rustic wine bars where, for a few euros, you can enjoy a glass of local wine with a taste of the owner’s cicchetti(delectable, homemade snacks) while standing at the bar.

Essentially, it’s Venice’s clever and very delicious version of wine tasting on the go. The idea is to enjoy a few glasses and taste a few snacks while catching up with friends and then move on to the next.

Pro tip: Save your appetite for Cantinone Gìa Schiavi, an 80-year-old outpost in the university-area Dorsoduro noted for incredibly creative crostini and cicchetti.

Catch up with Contemporary Art

Every two years, Venice becomes the global center of contemporary art with La Biennale di Venezia, a six-month-long art fair that takes over the Biennale Gardens and Arsenale shipyard and spills across the island with arty events.

Pro tip: Bring a great pair of shoes and plan to dedicate at least two days to art hopping.

Gondola Ride at Night

Photo: Getty Images

There is nothing quite like exploring Venice by water, but with daytime traffic from tourists and local deliveries, the very best time to catch a true sense of the floating city is in the evening.

Venice’s gondoliers are ubiquitous, standing at the sides of canals in their striped blue (or red) shirts, black pants and white sneakers. It’s easy to catch off-duty gondoliers looking for their next ride. Before you go, check out Gondola Venezia, which details prix fixe daytime and evening rates; gondolas can accommodate up to six people.

Pro tip: Avoid the San Marco area and look for your gondolier at Ca’Sagredo (sestiere: Cannareggio) or Campo Dei Frari (sestiere: San Polo).

Make It a Market Morning at Rialto

The Rialto market in San Polo sestiere is one of Italy’s most historic and unforgettable fish markets. Built in 1907, the neo-Gothic loggia has been shacked up with vendors selling their wares for more than a century.

Of course, time doesn’t stand still, and though Rialto remains a vibrant fish market scene, bars, restaurants and boutiques have taken residence.

Pro tip: Take a seat at the market’s canal-facing bars and enjoy an afternoon spritz.

School Yourself on Tintoretto

You can thank a 15th-century confraternity — a group of religious laymen — for funding the creation of a literal wealth of Venetian art. Scuola Grande di San Rocco, as this well-funded brotherhood is still known, commissioned La Serenissima’s favorite painter, Tintoretto, to create a masterpiece of Old Testament and New Testament scenes within their headquarters. And he did.

After 27 years in residence, Tintoretto left the buildings of the Grande Scuola in San Polo almost entirely adorned in his inimitable, monumental paintings.

Pro tip: Tintoretto also decorated the adjacent church, San Rocco.

Isla Holbox, Paradise Found

This article first appeared in Huffington Post.

Island. Oasis. Hallucination. Somewhere on the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, I have found my perfect recharge of sun and sand, and ceviche and margaritas. Isla Holbox, whose name translates to Black Hole, is a blue oasis. Quite possibly only 100 km from Cancun (in our case, it was 300 km as we decided to take the wrong road and then backtrack a few times), Holbox is a tiny island of whale watching, horseback riding, kayaking, nature walks, bungalows and quiet time.

We were invited to Holbox for a long weekend to celebrate a friend’s wedding with the only description of the unfamiliar island as “not Cancun,” a place I deliberately ignore for its warranted Spring Breakers reputation. From the minute we drove into Chiquila, the last stop before Holbox, I knew this was my kind of place. Chiquila docks the ferries that transport to the island. And for me, ferries are the best way to gauge dimension and personality of a place — whether large like the Grimaldi cruisers that run between Rome and Palermo or Venice’s smallish vaporettos. In this case, small and relaxed. Within 30 minutes, we arrived on Holbox and taxied across the island on a golf cart, my second preferred method of travel.

 

Holbox is a conversation of colors — from the vibrantly painted buildings in the small town to the beautiful blue waters — there is color everywhere. What the small island of seven miles long and one mile wide does not have are cars, so its 1,600+ inhabitants and guests enjoy their days on foot, bicycle or golf cart. It is a 21st century Gilligan’s island where relaxation is a day’s event. Yes, there is whale watching, and other water sports, but to be honest, we didn’t really do much sight seeing Holbox beyond a lazy horse trail and an afternoon wedding. And really nothing should be a priority when walking Holbox’s coastline will suffice.

Though my stay was just a dip in the water, the cerulean blue immediately hooked me- slightly chilly, lovingly calm and deliciously salty. Had the water and the weather tipped the mercury upward a few degrees, I would have happily re-enacted Captain Jack Sparrow’s hallucination sequence from At World’s End.

How to Get There: Fly into Cancun, and drive west on Merida Libre highway, looking for indications to Chiquila, the port city where you will catch a 35-minute ferry to Isla Holbox. Ferry runs once an hour, depending on the season and costs 80 pesos. There are also short, private flights from Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, et al.

Where to Stay: Isla Holbox has a selection of beachfront hotels and villas, as well as city apartments, none of which have more than two or three levels. We stayed in a beach bungalow at eco-chic Villas Flamingos, who eco-intentions include a very clever ecological bathroom system where shower water is recycled into the villas’ small garden, along with compost-style WCs.

In Praise of the Sicilian Tease

this article first appeared in Fathom in March 2014.

In Praise of the Sicilian Tease

All photos by Erica Firpo.

We're kicking off Sicily week on Fathom, starting with the capital. Contributing editor Erica Firpo calls Rome her home but finds the siren song of Palermo irrestistible. Here's why.

PALERMO, Sicily – I am pretty sure that Palermo is a Gemini. The Sicilian capital seems to fit every definition of the astrological symbol: fickle, flirty, feckless, inconsistent, generous, brilliant, and entertaining. Whether it's a sultry summer day or a bitter, humid winter afternoon, Palermo is a tease, a three-dimensional split personality that will tell you one thing and then do another.

To be fair, Palermo has suffered the weight of colonizations, invasions, bombings, and restorations. Reinvention is second nature, and so is moodiness and distrust. The first time I visited, I just got it. You know that feeling when you intuitively understand the arrhythmic pulse of a person or a place? I felt Palermo's beat inside me, and immediately I was in love and still am.

I love the drunken heat that means you can't do anything all day, but you can go out until 5 a.m. every night. I love the food and its etiquette — as in, everything must be tasted, eaten, and discussed. I love its architecture — the decadent, decaying historic center; lovely Liberty buildings; and even the menacing late 20th-century skyrises. I love how shops close mid-day and people still get their groceries via a basket pulley system that courses all floors of the apartment building. I love how the beach seems to push up on the city suddenly and how the mountains overcrowd its perimeters. And I love its soccer team jersey of pink and black vertical stripes.

Palermo is the proverbial kitchen sink, a melting pot of everything good and bad that the centuries have offered; an ongoing social experiment in chaos theory. Its only constant is that it is a constant contradiction. Most Italian cities center around beautiful, coiffed historic centers, but Palermo left its historic center to fend for itself, and it is now a burnt umber mess of half-standing palazzi, beautifully painted street murals, and late evening ad hoc barbecues. The adjacent neighborhoods, in particular those to the northwest like Libertà, parts of Monte Pellegrino, and Partanna-Mondello, show off curlicues and picturesque turn-of-the-last-century architecture, wild concrete gardens showing the remains of World War II bombings, and new and newer buildings. Palermitani too are a crazy cross-section of the island's history. My fifth grade teacher (she of inflexible Italian sterotyping) should take note: Palermitani can be tall and blond, small and dark, lanky and curvy, gorgeous and ugly — and they are all beautiful.

Palermo

Like I said, Palermo is a Gemini, a siren and a vamp. The city drags you in with its coquettish, technicolor skies and quaint attitude. But that's just for the tease, because you will never truly know Palermo unless you've lived there for centuries, which is why I keep coming back.

MORE ON FATHOM

Palermo: Best Day Ever

Digital Detox Sicily

For the next few weeks, I may be dredging up some writing that has been shelved  as I tried to get in the right headspace.  Or I may not.  .  .

{September 2013} It's been a while.  Last spring, the Professor and I  realized that our computers and phones and apps were intravenously dripping into our daily existence. What was once a lovely symbiotic relationship [i.e. we could turn off/respond whenever we wanted], had become the clichè of photo realism documentation through a never-ending conversation of paths, tweets, grams, vines and any other word you can think that used to have normal street significance.   We had become parasites on the mothership of connectivity and we wanted out. We wanted off.  We wanted Sicily.

Why  Sicily and why one month?  Since antiquity, Sicily has been the Island of Abundance: a diverse terrain of beaches, rocks, hills, mountains, volcanoes, mini-islands, autostrade and dirt roads, an overflowing platter of sfincione, arancine, caponata, ricci, brioche con gelato, granita, pesce and panelle, and full daysand evenings of  hiking, horse back riding, car racing, art, archaeology, Caravaggio, Romans and Greeks.  Sicily encompasses everything we love and how we want to live- fresh food, fresh air and a necessary slow pace.  One week, hell, even one month is not enough.  But that was all we had, a month out of  Dodge.  The Professor's dig was dug, children's activities were no longer, Rome was hot, we found a cheap place to rent, and Trenitalia offered cheap night train tickets.  And secretly, where better could we go for a digital detox?

Digital Detoxnoun,informal: a period of time during which a person refrains from using electronic devices such as smartphones or computers, regarded as an opportunity to reduce stress or focus on social interaction in the physical world:

break free of your devices and go on a digital detox

The question was Could we do it?  Could we stop checking our email, stop looking at Instagram, stop responding on Twitter, and just turn off for more than a few hours?  Realistically, no.  There was just some shit that just needed to be done: summer homework assignments, article submissions, a Keynote presentation, job interview, donor outreach, calls, calls and more calls.  And there were some things that we wanted to do, like read Night Film, research Etna and make sure to pick up my sister at Punta Raisi, whenever she decided to show up.  Since Sicily has sporadic 3G coverage, digital detox was primarily decided by the island, but an anorexic connectivity was decided by us with the investment in a not-so-fast-nor-big mi-fi device that limited how much time we were allowed on the internet.  In other words, absolutely rare downloads, no films, Facetime and Skype calls of necessity, and a strong commitment to not connect.

Did we unplug?  Yes.  We cooked, ate, invented, swam, fought, played, paused, hung out and visited a lot of amazing places.  All the same things we always do, but taking our time to be in the moment, as opposed to simply taking a photo. (Yes, we did that too).  And most importantly, I read.  I read more books in four weeks than I had from January to June.  Along with Night Film, I read and re-read a bunch of books including Ghana Must Go, A Visit from the Good Squad,Super Sad True Love Story, A Song of Ice and Fire series, 22 JD Salinger short stories, a bunch of arty-spy-WWII novel and F. Scott Fitzgerald tales, and pretty much anything else that was left in my Kindle. [Please note the slight dystopian/digital post apocalypse them as in the Egan and Schteyngart novels.]  To be honest, I had forgotten how much I loved reading, which makes me realise that is probably why I had forgotten to love writing.

Yes, this detox was much more than unplugging from our addiction to digital communication.  It was about reminding myself what I liked, not just "liked".

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IMG_1456 (1)

For a glimpse into our days in Sicily, here's my spur-of-the-moment Sicilia flipagram I created with mini-e.  Forgive the spelling, I was in a rush to take my time and have lunch.