The ticket seller at Sorrento’s ferry port looks up from his mid-morning snack and says: ‘I call this my island dream: prawns from the sea, lemon from the trees. Delizioso!’
Discovering a poet in a ticket kiosk is a good start to the day as I board the ferry for Ischia — one of three islands, including glamorous Capri and pocket-sized Procida, in the Bay of Naples, all within an hour’s crossing from Sorrento.
My base for exploring them is the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria — the town’s benchmark for luxury since 1834.
Kate Wickers based herself in Sorrento (pictured) to explore three of Italy’s islands
It may be a little on the costly side, but with its potted palms, polished marble floors and black-and-white photographs of the glitterati who have stayed there, it’s worth the splurge for a taste of a bygone travel era.
An added bonus is a private lift to whisk you directly to the port from the hotel’s clifftop location.
Castles and Aperol
At just less than 18 square miles, Ischia is the largest island in the Bay of Naples
At just less than 18 square miles, Ischia is the largest island in the Bay of Naples, first settled in the 8th century.
The ferry arrives in what was once a volcanic crater lake, ingeniously opened up to the sea in 1854 to create a port, and now surrounded by a ring of attractive pastel-coloured buildings.
I walk along fashionable Via Roma, from Ischia Porto at one end to Ischia Ponte at the other, where a sombre-looking castle sits moodily on its own rugged islet. This is 15th-century Castello Aragonese, a sprawling fort and religious compound with a macabre history.
‘Worth a visit?’ I ask another tourist at its entrance.
‘If you like stories about decaying nuns,’ comes the deadpan reply.
Instead, for a reasonable £58, I negotiate a taxi to be at my disposal for five hours.
On this hot day, I bat off offers to be driven to a natural thermal spa (the island has many, of which I’ve heard Negombo is the best to visit during cooler months) and we head instead to the garden of La Mortella, the former home of the British composer William Walton and his wife Susana Gil, which is recognised as one of Italy’s finest botanical gardens.
It’s a dreamy place, the air thick with the scent of jasmine and lavender. There’s a Nymphaeum pool that’s said to reflect the soul not far from a Thai pavilion complete with a lotus pond reserved for quiet reflection.
Among the Waltons’ famous friends, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Charlie Chaplin liked to escape here.
We take the coastal road to Sant’Angelo in the south — the island’s most idyllic beach resort, dwarfed by the immense scoglio (rock) that connects a shallow sandbank, dotted with umbrellas and loungers, to the village.
I join the locals for their afternoon passeggiata (stroll) along the promenade, continuing to Piazzetta Ottorino to sip an Aperol Spritz.
In this lazy, sun-filled moment I really couldn’t feel more Italian.
Ferry time: About one hour.
Price: From £38 (directferries.co.uk/sorrento_ischia_ferry; you can also go to ischiareview.com).
Solitude and seafood
Procida is the smallest island in the Bay of Naples at just 1.6 square miles
Procida is the smallest island in the Bay of Naples at just 1.6 square miles and, as I trip off the ferry at Marina Grande, I can’t quite believe my luck with how quiet it is.
You may recognise the island from the film Il Postino (The Postman), which won an Oscar for best soundtrack in 1995, but it hasn’t let fame go to its head and remains perennially sleepy.
I walk the short distance to the fishing village of Corricella, where the canary-yellow church of Santa Maria delle Grazie nestles in a Cubist landscape of small houses, painted brightly so fishermen can identify their homes from sea.
The Postman film was set in Procida
Leather-skinned men sit quietly mending nets and hopeful cats prowl for scraps — this really is as lively as it gets. Up scalatinelli (staircase streets) I wind my way past houses dripping with bougainvillea to Terra Murata (the old town) and a piazza decked with old cannon, from where I get the full measure of this island’s sparkling beauty.
A micro-taxi (Italy’s answer to Asia’s tuk-tuk) is the only vehicle, beyond two wheels, that can squeeze through the town’s narrow lanes, and I hop in one to reach Marina di Chiaiolella at the other end of the island.
A cluster of seafood restaurants line a pretty marina with views to the tiny island of Vivara, a nature reserve, linked by bridge to Procida. I settle at La Lampara and order razor clams, mussels and prawns served di paranza (from the trawler) and consider not taking the last ferry back.
Ferry time: About 45 minutes when on a direct route, which runs from May to October. It’s longer at other times of the year, involving a change.
Price: From £38 return (alilauro.it); this year’s timetable has not yet been released.
Stars and scents
The antithesis of sleepy Procida, glitzy Capri has been a crowd-puller since the rich and famous began to visit in the Fifties
The antithesis of sleepy Procida, glitzy Capri has been a crowd-puller since the rich and famous began to visit in the Fifties. Many were lured by the island’s Grotta Azzurra — a cave illuminated in an ethereal blue when sunlight shines through an underwater cavity to reflect off the white sand bed.
If you want to visit the cave in true movie-star style, tie on a head scarf, pop on your shades and take a speedboat taxi from the port.
In the centre of town, Piazza Umberto I is the number one place to spot celebs (Leonardo DiCaprio was recently seen there) and boutiques such as La Parisienne are where you might catch one shopping.
Audrey Hepburn first bought Capri pants here in 1960, and they’ll run you up a pair if you’ve a spare £200. J-Lo bought pink ones, I’m told.
After spotting Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt enjoying a reunion (it wasn’t really them, but fun to pretend) I make the 45-minute climb to the crumbling ruins of Emperor Tiberius’s Villa Jovis, completed in AD 27.
Here, the Salto di Tiberio, a pretty ivy-clad balcony over the sea, is where Tiberius is said to have hurled insolent servants below. Not so charming.
Elsewhere, the art nouveau Villa Lysis is a place to let your imagination roam. Its opium den is a big clue to the debauched goings-on of its heyday.
At the decadent perfumery of Carthusia I Profumi, established in 1380, I buy a bottle of Via Camerelle eau de parfum (George Clooney wears its Mediterraneo fragrance).
With notes of the lemon and sea moss, it’s the perfect sensory souvenir, as though Ischia, Procida and Capri have been captured in a bottle.
Ferry time: About 25 minutes.
Price: From £34 return (capri.net/en/ferry-schedule).
B&B doubles at Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria from £415 (exvitt.it); the concierge can book ferries on guests’ behalf. See sorrentotourism.com for more hotel suggestions. There are direct flights to Naples from all major UK airports. EasyJet flies Gatwick to Naples from £58 return (easyjet.com).