Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is Ponza, Italy.
Having twice spent time on the island of Ponza, "I'm fairly sure it exists," said Carla Power at Condé Nast Traveller (U.K.). I say so because for thousands of years the speck of land off Italy's west coast has occupied a space between fantasy and reality. In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus landed on a fictionalized Ponza and was seduced by the beautiful sorceress Circe after she turned his men into pigs. Even today, the place has a "trippy magic." Returning recently, 20 years after my first visit, I needed no sorceress to be seduced once more. "For proof that I'd been transported to an enchanted island, I just had to open my bedroom curtains and look out at the abalone-shell sea, glowing iridescent in the dawn sun."
Little changed during my two decades away. Yes, iPhones and the odd Hollywood star have come to the island, but it remains a rugged, low-key place with none of the tourist crowds that clutter the nearby isles of Capri and Ischia. Ponza has just 13 taxis and no luxury boutiques or five-star hotels. Those looking for a large spa have only one option — unless they do what I did one afternoon and head to Cala Felce beach. Copying the locals, I scooped handfuls of gray-yellow rock from the crumbling cliffs, mixed it with seawater, and slathered the paste on my face and arms. Within half an hour, I was convinced I had turned "as soft and smooth as Circe herself." Such transformative experiences are common on this mystical coastline. Out on a motorboat one morning, I watched the color of the water change from emerald to turquoise to lapis within minutes. The psychedelic shapes of the cliffs were equally unreal: One looked like a sea lion stretching, another like "the hawk-nosed profile of the great poet Dante." Still another approximated sea spray, "carved in bone-white stone."
On my last day, I finally distilled the island's spirit, eating lunch at the hotel-restaurant Gennarino a Mare, where the furniture on the all-white terrace is made from loading pallets. The simple pasta I ordered, a "ballsy and salty" blend of anchovies, lemon, mint, and pecorino, was, to me, "Ponza in a mouthful" — and an excuse to look out at the butter-yellow crescent of harbor and, like Odysseus, "contemplate the pleasures of exile."