On Ischia island, you can soak in the very source of ancient healing waters
I’ve been seduced by a landscape. Called Arime by the poet Virgil, Italy’s spa island of Ischia may be less known than its neighbor, Capri, but is every bit as splendid. Though I’ve arrived at the island’s harbor on the ferry from Naples rather than in a private launch or vintage wooden yacht, I still feel like a starlet as the sea breeze lifts my hair off my neck and tangles it with the ends of my scarf.
Island of Ischia
Crossing the threshold of the historic Hotel Regina Isabella, the feeling of glamour intensifies. Once the favored address for some of cinema’s biggest stars including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable, the hotel first opened to guests in 1956, and now includes 128 rooms and suites. Overlooking the Bay of Naples and backdropped by seaside cliffs in the village of Lacco Ameno, the five-star property has lost none of its original luster. Original tiles, created at the famed Capodimonte porcelain factory, grace the floors and vary in color and pattern from room to room.
The Regina is host to a prestigious annual film festival in July, and a wine festival at harvest time that celebrates the impressive volume of wine produced on this largely mountainous outcrop rising steeply from the sea. Two natural springs still flow beneath the hotel, with a regular ratio of 70 percent seawater to 30 percent thermal waters. Thanks to the presence of the towering volcano, Mount Epomeo, and the constant movement of magma occurring at shallow depths beneath Ischia, the water is continuously heated.
After a refreshing glass of local wine in one of the beautiful ground floor parlors, I spend a half hour leaning over the railing of my room’s balcony, watching the bright boats bobbing in the water below. Besides its volcano and mountains, Ischia — the largest island of the Phlegrean Islands — is rimmed with watchtowers built as defense against the pirates who regularly roamed the surrounding waters hundreds of years ago. Even the infamous red-haired pirate Barbarossa stalked the nearby sea.
There’s even a castle. From the surface of a small outlying crag of rock, Aragonese Castle and its towers rise, afloat above the surface of the ocean. Built by Hero I of Syracuse in 474 B.C., the castle is accessible via a stone bridge that leads to a tunnel and an entrance. A tiny chapel, vineyards and a gallery of rotating art exhibitions wait within.
The rugged landscape on the island is dotted with thermal pools and spas built at the locations of a host of natural springs. Since I’ve come specifically to soak in the healing waters, I make my way to Giardini Poseidon Terme, where two types of thermal waters feed the pools: the first a mix of sodium, bromine and iodine; the second spring containing chlorine, sodium, sulphates and alkaline substances. There are also trace amounts of minerals including magnesium, calcium and lithium. Sampling the 20 separate pools within the park, each at a slightly different temperature, begins with a short swim in the ocean spanning the park’s edge. The water is brisk, but in a good way, and provides a wonderful incentive to seek out the warmer pools.
The bathing sequence commences with immersion in the cooler pools, leading up to short soaks in the warmest waters. It would be easy to spend longer, but I limit my stay to four hours, dozing between dips in a comfortable chaise located along a rocky projection overlooking the pools. After a sojourn in the rock grotto sauna, I wander through the gardens and head back to the Regina Isabella for a fabulous meal prepared by Chef Pasquale Palamaro at the Michelin-starred Indaco restaurant. Local to Ischia, Chef Palamaro specializes in beautiful produce and freshly caught fish for the island. Settling in on the restaurant’s terrace overlooking the sea, I choose the Mediterranean soup with tiny round pasta orbs, followed by lemongrass-infused hake that’s served with herbed ash-roasted potatoes.
There’s also wine, of course. The island is home to 150 grape producers, some so small that they’re literally backyard ventures. The Greeks originally brought vines here centuries ago , and hardy Forastera and Biancolella grapes dominate modern vineyards. Sparkling wines seem to be especially popular, and during my stay I sample the offerings in several small, deep wine caves carved into the sides of mountains, where more than one label is a handwritten work of art.
The following morning after yoga, breakfast and a long walk through the village to visit the extensive archaeological museum and its pottery, jewelry, frescoes and other ancient Greek and Roman treasures, I head back to the hotel for an afternoon in the vast wellness center and its private thermal pools. The Regina Isabella maintains a full medical staff that includes nutritionists, dermatologists, psychologists and aestheticians, and offers cooking classes and extended-stay wellness programs that address conditions ranging from insomnia to weight management.
The medical equipment, including Dermascope devices for skin testing, is state-of-the-art. Traditional therapies, such as mud baths, are particularly popular, and mineral-rich volcanic mud is used to treat arthritis and joint conditions. There’s even a separate water room for Watsu treatments, with a private pool, music, and lighting that moves from one end to the other of the light spectrum. After my consultation with Spa Director Costanza Popolano, I head off to enjoy a full-body circulation massage and a session in the Inhalation Room, where I relax while breathing in the saltwater-infused air. Later, there’s time to enjoy the thermal pool on the spa’s lowest level, where I spend nearly an hour floating in absolute contentment.
One of the most rewarding experiences for anyone who’s serious about spas and healing waters is to soak in a warm wash of thermal water while sitting in a seaside cove at the spring’s origin. Hotel manager Davide Maestripieri has told me about the springs at Sorgeto Bay, and arranges for a driver to take me there. Along the way, it begins to rain, and I’m a bit confused when the driver — who speaks roughly as much English as I speak Italian — pulls over at a high point along the coastal road and gestures for me to get out.
Once at the road’s edge, I see a series of steps winding down the cliffside with a small cove at the base. The descent leads down two hundred steps to the edge of the shallow, pebbled cove, where rocks rise above the surface. I step in gingerly, my feet quickly locating the flow of warm water issuing from the tumbled stones. This, I realize, is a therapeutic bath at its most basic. Lolling in the water, my back pressed against a smooth stone, I’m alternately covered to my chest by small, cold inbound waves, followed by a heavenly rush of warm water pulled across me by the receding waves rolling back out to sea. For at least this brief time, I could be a goddess. A mermaid. A grateful traveler, at the very least, healed by volcanic gifts on this generous island.
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