Italy: I'm all washed up in this town

With 300 hot springs and 100 spa hotels, Ischia is an ideal place in which to launder body and soul.

Having come to the Italian island of Ischia for sea and sun, history and food, I don't initially pay attention to my hotel's fringe benefits, but curiosity finally impels me to investigate. Pass on lymph drainage, cryotherapy, ozonotherapy, and myolifting face treatment, but mud-therapy and massage are always worth a shot, so I duly book in, and find a white-coated doctor taking my pulse, measuring my blood pressure, and listening to my chest.

Having come to the Italian island of Ischia for sea and sun, history and food, I don't initially pay attention to my hotel's fringe benefits, but curiosity finally impels me to investigate. Pass on lymph drainage, cryotherapy, ozonotherapy, and myolifting face treatment, but mud-therapy and massage are always worth a shot, so I duly book in, and find a white-coated doctor taking my pulse, measuring my blood pressure, and listening to my chest.

I'm ushered into a room where another gent in a white coat makes me lie down on some hot mud pancakes, slaps more pancakes on my feet, legs, hands, arms, and shoulders, and wraps me in tin foil to marinate. Twenty minutes later he hoses me deferentially down, and dunks me in a bubbling hot bath where I soak for 20 more minutes, before being scooped out and wrapped in a white cotton shroud. I'm advised to leave the space of an hour before my massage, so that the mud can penetrate my system. The massage, by a young Neapolitan called Leonardo, suggests ferocious strength held in check. "Your muscle-tone is good," he says flatteringly. "But if you come back tomorrow, I'll free up those jammed neck muscles." I do, and he does.

I'm staying in the Il Moresco hotel, a stone's throw from the sea in Ischia town. And Alessandro Leonessa, the young manager of the Moresco, has an interesting tale of how his family – who own three more hotels in Ischia – got into the business. His uncle was an engineer who speculatively built the hotel now called the Continental Terme, and when he found no buyer, decided to run it himself. Knowing the interesting property of Ischia's soil, he then dug a hole, and was greeted by water gushing out at boiling point.

That was in the Fifties; since then, on the back of this hot water, the Leonessa empire has blossomed. One great pleasure of the Moresco, for example, lies in the fact that you can choose the temperature in which you swim, with the hottest pool at a sweltering 34C. There are more than 300 hot springs in Ischia, with hotels – each claiming the magic word "terme" in its title – standing on 100 of them.

Half of Signor Leonessa's clientele come for health reasons, with two weeks being the usual length of stay. "A good mud-bath therapy takes at least 10 applications," he says. "If you only have one, you may feel temporarily better, but the effect wears off. When the organic properties in the mud penetrate your body, they can have a stimulatory effect on the immune system."

All this has long been known, with Pliny the Younger writing excitedly about it in the first century AD. In the 18th century, Ischia was one of the Mediterranean's most famous thermal resorts. "After being wounded in Calabria, the great Garibaldi came here to heal his wounds with mud," says Leonessa, warming to his theme, and adding that there is one bay, on the south side of the island, where springs gushing into the sea make winter swimming a sybaritic pleasure.

But the more routine pleasures of Ischia are reason enough for a trip: the isle is full of surprises, most notably that, in contrast to the noisy Neapolitan mainland, it's still a piece of old Italy. On one afternoon's drive through its hilly, wooded terrain, we saw two magnificently ornate funerals, a saint's-day procession complete with fireworks, and a well-attended roadside performance by the commedia dell'arte equivalent of Punch and Judy. Joining the evening passeggiata down Ischia's pedestrianised main street, you could imagine yourself back in the pre-Mussolini Twenties. Architecturally the island is fascinating, with Ischia's towering medieval castle enfolding all manner of grim secrets on its gigantic rocky crag.

Gastronomically you're also spoilt for choice, between rabbit done a dozen different ways, and endless varieties of fish. But in this respect Ischia imposes a surprising restriction: if you walk in off the street and order a meal at a hotel restaurant, they may be fined for serving you, because hotels may only serve their own guests. Moreover, restaurant licences are restricted by law to a quota: if you open a restaurant without one, you risk a hefty fine.

That's why the best restaurant we found had no name, and why I can't reveal its location. But it's well-known on the island, though, with Ischia's mayor one of its regular diners – that's why the police don't drop by with a writ. "Crazy!" says Signor Leonessa, longing to lure passers-by to his excellent dining room, and visibly champing at the bit.

Travellers Guide

Getting there: The nearest airport to Ischia is Naples. At the time of going to press, Go (0845 60 54321 www.go-fly.com) had return flights from Stansted from £167.50 for the weekend of 24-26 May. Alitalia (0870 544 8259, www.alitalia.co.uk) also flies to Naples from Heathrow via Milan or Rome, while British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) flies direct from Gatwick.

From Naples' Capodichino airport you can take a taxi to one of the city's two ports, Molo Beverello or Mergellina (about 20-30 minutes away). There is also a shuttle bus from the airport to Beverello.

There are a number of ferry companies based at both ports. Ferries to Ischia take about an hour and a half, the hydrofoil takes about half an hour. The hydrofoil costs around £13 per adult, while the ferry costs around £6.

Accommodation: The writer stayed at the Grand Hotel Il Moresco (00 39 081 981355) which has double rooms from €225 (£139)until 18 May, after which the price of a double room rises to €275 (£169.50).

Further information: the Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254, www.enit.it)

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