Ponza: Italy's secret

Shhh. Keep it to yourself, but there's this great island in the Tyrrhenian. The Romans love it, but few others know about it. Except Aoife O'Riordain...

'Welcome to Ponza!" boomed a loud American voice, with more than a hint of a New York accent, as my husband and I stepped off the hydrofoil from Anzio. This was not quite the welcome we had expected. But as we chugged up the hill behind the seafront, we discovered that Joe the taxi driver was something of a curiosity.

He had arrived on Ponza from the Bronx some years ago at the age of 23, and proudly proclaimed his status as the only English-speaking cabbie on the island - hence why he had been despatched as our one-man welcoming party.

Joe dropped us outside the door of the Casa Fontana, which was to be our base. As he departed in a cloud of dust, he yelled out: "Call Joe, I know."

We had come to Ponza for a taste of the real Italy. The island has few foreign visitors and so has managed to remain almost exclusively the haunt of Italians. Around 20 miles long by three miles wide, it is the largest of the six islands in the Pontine Archipelago, a string of volcanic crags sprinkled across the Tyrrhenian Sea, 23 miles off the coast of Lazio. These are split into two distinct groups; Ponza, Gavi, Palmarola and Zannone, while Ventotene and Santo Stefano lie 22 miles to the south-east.

When we rang the doorbell of the Casa Fontana, we were greeted by the broad smile of a small Filipino woman who introduced herself as Preziosa. So far, so not very Italian. "Prezi", it transpired, was the housekeeper for the Roman owner of the property. She decamps to Ponza every summer to look after the house and any guests. When we asked if she ever got lonely, she pointed to the hillside behind us and picked out several houses that would soon be occupied by her friends working for other Roman families.

The Casa Fontana, however, is the best spot in town. Perched on a high rocky promontory, the four-bedroom house is built on three levels with a small garden, a plunge pool and far-reaching views out to sea. The main living room has floor- -to-ceiling windows complete with billowing white curtains, while all-white upholstery completes a chic, breezy Mediterranean style. But best of all, it feels like a loved and lived-in home.

We had an eagle-eye view of Ponza Town, which curls around the harbour. Moorish-looking cubed houses in faded raspberry pink and lemon rise steeply from the waterfront forming an amphitheatre around the bay. The harbour is connected to the main promenade above by a series of staircases, while a tangle of tiny streets continue up the hill. Ponza Town's picturesque good looks are no accident. When the Bourbons colonised the island in the 19th century, they commissioned the architect Antonio Winspeare to draw up the plans.

On our second day we joined the daily exodus along the coast. At around 11 each morning, Italians with deep mahogany tans jump into their boats and slip out of the harbour, bound for the crags and hidden coves around Ponza's ragged volcanic coastline. Prezi had enlisted the services of Lello, Casa Fontana's caretaker, to take us on a tour of the island. If Joe the taxi driver was a bit of a let-down as our first encounter with an authentic islander, Lello was the real Ponzesi deal. He has lived all his life on the island and rarely leaves. "I never go to Naples or Rome, they are too chaotic," he said. "I love the tranquillo life here."

As we left the harbour we passed a line of small arches, the entrance to the eerie Grotte di Pilate, built by the Romans to harvest salt and breed one of their favourite delicacies, moray eels. The ingenious engineering of the caves means that the ebb and flow of the tide naturally replenishes the water supply. These were the first of many Roman remnants that we encountered on the island, which include the 180ft tunnel through solid rock that connects Ponza Town with one of the island's two beaches, Chiaia di Luna.

From there, the spectacular geology of the coast unfurled with cinematic drama. After we had rounded the Punta della Guardia, the island's most southerly tip topped by a spectacularly placed lighthouse built by the Bourbons, we reached the towering 650ft cliffs of the Chiaia di Luna beach, so called because the colour and texture closely resemble a glowing moon.

Each hidden cove revealed a better place to swim, the water a more intense hue of emerald. We made mental notes of which ones to return to. Seemingly empty boats bobbed in the water. As you got closer you realised the occupants were sprawled, sunning themselves on any available piece of flat space. As we rounded the northern tip of the island, we entered the small channel that separates Ponza from the tiny island of Gavi. In the distance was the island of Zannone, once a hunting ground for the Romans and now a nature reserve. We zoomed at a breakneck speed to take our turn among the other boats and pass under a natural rock arch, and in the late afternoon joined the steady trickle of boats returning to harbour after yet another perfect Ponzesi day.

If the best is supposed to be saved until last, it was appropriate that our visit to Palmarola fell near the end of our stay. This tiny island may be only eight miles to the west, but it's a world away. Named after the dwarf palms that blanket it, Palmarola's allure is obvious. As we sped across the open sea - glittering flying fish disturbed by our progress - its dramatic coast came into full view fringed by coves filled with limpid water the colour of the green obisidian rock for which the island is known. Even Lello, who must have made the journey a thousand times, seemed excited.

An attempt was made to colonise Palmarola in the 19th century, but it was soon abandoned. The adventurous can still spend a night in one of the cave dwellings hewn from the tufa rock. These days, most visitors only set foot on Palmarola to lunch at the Cala del Porto, which is home to a seasonal restaurant where you can feast on plates of shellfish pasta. There's nowhere to moor, so it's just a case of dropping anchor and wading ashore. From your table you can admire one of the two houses on the island, owned by a member of one of the first families of Italian fashion, the Fendis. Lello whispered reverentially that the house is rumoured to be worth more than €3m (£2m).

After lunch Palmarola's most impressive geological feature came into view. Known as the cattedrali, this towering wall of volcanic rock has the look of a Gaudiesque cathedral - or perhaps, a giant Cadbury's Flake.

For our final night in Ponza we eschewed the bustle of town for a night at Il Tramonto, a restaurant overlooking Palmarola from a ridge near the tiny village of Campo Inglese, on the way to the island's other major village, Le Forna. After dinner, as we rounded the hill for the descent into town on board the bus filled with chattering locals, someone in the back seats yelled, "Guarda!" (look). Outside the window a scene of dreamlike perfection unfolded - the twinkling lights of the harbour were framed by a large, full moon that sent a golden path of light dancing across the sea.

It is moments such as these that make Ponza so special. Its devotees, however well heeled, come for the laid-back atmosphere, a lack of pretension and the raw, natural beauty. You suspect that if a Pucci or Gucci ever set up shop there might be some kind of a revolt. Life on Ponza should remain simple, just the way Lello likes it.

Aoife O'Riordain travelled as a guest of CV Travel's Italian World (0870 606 0803; cvtravel.co.uk). It offers the Casa Fontana to rent from £2,050 to £4,970 per week. The easiest way to get to Ponza is by hydrofoil from Anzio or Formia, operated by Vetor Aliscafi (vetor.it). A seasonal ferry service also operates from Fiumicino airport operated by Medmar (medmargroup.it). For information see prolocodiponza.it

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