The Complete Guide To: Italian isles

Stunning beaches, ancient monuments, fabulous food - Sicily, Elba, Sardinia et al have them in abundance. Rhiannon Batten jets in

TURQUOISE WATER, WHITE SAND...

You will find plenty but there's more to Italy's 30 or so inhabited islands than beaches. Apart from rocky coves and watery caves, there are archaeological sites, picturesque towns, dramatic landscapes and villages perched on steep cliffs to explore. Not to mention the chance to indulge in some of the country's best food and wine. From the Napoleonic bolthole of Elba to swanky Ischia in the Gulf of Naples, the majority of Italy's islands are to be found off the west and south coasts of the country, in the sparkling Tyrrhenian Sea.

BUT IT'S THE BEACHES I'M INTERESTED IN...

Then start in Sardinia. D H Lawrence described it as "lost between Europe and Africa and belonging to nowhere". The most famous stretch of its 1,949km-long coast is the Costa Smeralda, or "Emerald Coast". This stretch of wild shore in the north of the island is as close to beach heaven as you'll get this side of the Seychelles. It is also a favourite destination for divers. Another good beach area is the Costa Verde, which is named after the green macchia that covers the cliffs.

When you've had your fill of sun, there's plenty more to explore, including the atmospheric old town of Cagliari, glamorous harbours and the vine-clad hillsides of the interior. There are several scheduled airlines that fly from the UK, including British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Gatwick to Cagliari, easyJet (0871 244 2366; www.easyjet.com) and Meridiana (0845 355 5588; www.meridiana.it) from Gatwick to Olbia, and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted to Alghero. For a package, try Costa Smeralda Holidays (020-7493 8303; www.costasmeralda-holidays.com), Sardatur Holidays (020-7242 2455; www.sardinia-holidays.co.uk) or Just Sardinia (01202 484858; www.justsardinia.co.uk).

WHAT IF I JUST WANT TO SWIM?

Then try Ponza. This 7km-long strip of land off the coast between Rome and Naples is the largest of the six volcanic Pontine islands. Dotted along its appealingly rugged coastline are a number of natural swimming-pools and one of the country's best beaches, the Spiaggia della Luna.

Ponza is accessible by ferry (00 39 0771 23800; www.caremar.it) from both Rome via the port of Anzio (from €19.40/£13.85 per person each way) and Naplesvia the port of Formia (singles from €10/£7) - but the connections via Naples are marginally better. Aer Lingus (00 353 818 365 000; www.aerlingus.com), British Airways, BMI (0870 607 0555; www.flybmi.co.uk), easyJet and Thomsonfly (0870 190 0737; www.thomsonfly.com) all offer direct flights to Naples from the UK. Airlines flying from the UK to Rome include British Airways and Alitalia (0870 544 8259; www.alitalia.co.uk) from Heathrow; easyJet from Gatwick and Ryanair from Stansted.

I WAS THINKING MORE OF SPAS

Then head for Ischia. This island not far from Naples is famous for the 69 fumaroles and 29 hot springs that line its shores. The thermal waters have been attracting visitors for centuries, and it is now home to a well-developed spa industry. Even quieter is Ischia's tiny, lemon-grove filled neighbour, Procida, where much of Il Postino was filmed. Snav hydrofoils (00 39 081 428 5555; www.snav.it) runs services to Ischia and Procida from Naples's Mergellina port from €12 (£8.60) return. Alternatively, Erna Low (020-7594 0290; www.bodyandsoulholidays.info) offers five-night packages to the Mezzatore Resort and Spa on Ischia from £835 per person, half-board, with flights and transfers.

HOW ABOUT SOME SIGHTSEEING?

Beach bums with a taste for culture should head for Sicily, the Med's largest island. This Greek-influenced corner of Italy offers olive groves, the picturesque hill town of Taormina and the buzzing city of Palermo. It also has an active volcano: Mount Etna dominates the eastern half of the island. One of the biggest attractions is the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, on the south coast, an impressive collection of Greek structures that includes the well-preserved Temple of Concordia and the Temple of Zeus, once the largest Greek temple in the world. All are open daily in summer from 8.30am-7.30pm, entrance costs €4.50 (£3.20) (00 39 0922 497 226). And if you want to combine archaeology with sunbathing, carry on 25km north to Eraclea Minoa, where you'll find a wide beach and the remains of a Greek city.

Air Malta (0845 607 3710, www.airmalta.com) and British Airways fly direct from Gatwick to Catania airport, while Ryanair offers flights from Stansted to Palermo. For a package, try Crystal Italy (0800 980 3381; www.crystalitaly.co.uk) and the Sicily specialists Think Sicily (020-7377 8518; www.thinksicily.com).

WHAT ELSE CAN I DO THERE?

Eat. Along with marsala wine, Sicilian delicacies include cassata Siciliana, an Arabian-derived sponge and ricotta pudding; maccu, a broad bean purée introduced by the Romans; and caponata, an aubergine salad. If eating isn't enough, various companies run dedicated cookery courses on Sicily. Italian Secrets (01494 676136; www.italiansecrets.co.uk), offers one-week courses for £1,550 per person with food, accommodation, instruction and excursions but not flights, while Tasting Places (020-7460 0077; www.tastingplaces.com), has similar one-week courses for £1,375 per person.

I'M LOOKING FOR MORE ACTIVITY

Exodus (0870 240 5550; www.exodus.co.uk) offers cycling tours through the west of Sicily. Eight-day trips start from £875 per person, including flights, transport, accommodation and some meals. Another good place to get active is in the wild mountains of eastern Sardinia. ATG (01865 315678, www.atg-oxford.co.uk) runs eight-day walking trips here from £1,695 per person with transport, accommodation and guides, but not flights.

OR SOME GLAMOUR

Capri, the rock next to Ischia, promises the quintessential showy summer experience. Rising from the Tyrrhenian Sea south of Sorrento, it has a craggy beauty, lush gardens, ruined imperial villas and an enduring fascination for writers (among them DH Lawrence and George Bernard Shaw).

Most people agree that it's worth battling the summer crowds for a glimpse of the island's Blue Grotto, a dazzling sea cave where the Romans are thought to have conducted orgies.

There are frequent ferry services to Capri from Naples, costing around €12 (£8.60), per person each way, and the island is also served from Sorrento. Accommodation can be arranged through Cognoscenti (08717 500070; www.c-italy.com), which can put together local B&B packages in hotels and farmhouses from £296 per person per week.

ANY OTHER ROCK STARS?

Elba is Italy's third-largest island. Greek legend has it that a crown owned by Venus fell into the sea and turned Elba into a precious stone. It is perhaps better known as the place where Napoleon was exiled - you can visit his home, the Villa dei Mulini, in the capital, Portoferraio (open 9am to 7pm daily; entrance €2/£1.40; 00 39 0565 915846).

Getting to Elba is trickier than to some of Italy's other islands. First you need to fly to Pisa. Ryanair flies from Glasgow, Prestwick and Stansted; BA from Gatwick and Manchester; and Thomsonfly from Coventry. From here, take a train to Piombino (www.trenitalia.com). Finally, ferries and hydrofoils run regularly to Elba from around €10 (£7) each way (00 39 565 918 080; www.toremar-elba.it). If you'd rather an organised package, Magic of Italy (0800 980 3378; www.magictravelgroup.co.uk) offers seven-night trips to Elba from £705 per person, including flights, transfers and accommodation.

CAN I GO ISLAND HOPPING?

Most Italian islands are linked by boat, but don't expect a Greek-style network. Unless you have lots of time, the best place to do a bit of hopping is around Sicily, among the Aeolian, Egadi and Pelagie islands.

Each of the seven Aeolian islands is quite different: there's Stromboli with its active volcano; Vulcano with its black beaches; Panarea, the venue of rich Italians and honeymooners; quieter Filicudi and Alicudi; Lipari, the largest of the group; and lush Salina. All are easy to get to from Milazzo in Sicily. Siremar (00 39 081 251 4721; www.siremar.it) runs regular services to Naples via all the islands, starting with the closest, Vulcano, 40 minutes and €5 (£3.60) away.

Next up, anti-clockwise, is Ustica, 60km north of Palermo. Popular with divers, it has been designated a national marine park. Siremar's daily services here run from Palermo's port, 75 minutes and €9 (£6.40) away.

Continuing west, the three Egadi islands comprise remote Marettimo, popular Favignana and tiny Levanzo. Trapani, an hour by train from Palermo, is the main port for the Egadis. Siremar runs ferries (which take an hour) and hydrofoils (around 20 minutes), from €2.50 (£1.80) each way.

Finally, to the south west of Sicily, the sun-soaked Pelagie islands, Lampedusa and Linosa, can be reached via Siremar's regular services from Porto Empedocle (from €22.15/£15.80 single).

Long Travel (01694 722 193; www.longtravel.co.uk) can organise packages to the Aeolians. Prices start from around £659 per person for seven nights, including flights, transfers and half-board accommodation.

AYE AYE CAPTAIN

Various companies offer boat charters around Italy's islands. For a week in a skippered boat sleeping four to six, excluding flights and food, expect to pay around €2,000 (£1,400) - without a captain you'll pay around €1,000 (£714). Companies to try include Sail Italy (01728 747340; www.sail-italy.com), Toscana Charter (00 39 335 801 8954; www.toscanacharter.com) and Ocean Blue (020-8360 9191; www.yacht-charter-holidays.co.uk).

AN EXOTIC TOUCH?

A dry, stony island, 110km from Sicily but only 70km from Africa, Pantelleria is dotted with sesi, Neolithic structures that are thought to be funeral mounds. The island is also known for its celebrities; Giorgio Armani has a house here, while Madonna, Martin Scorsese and Julia Roberts have all visited. An intrinsic part of the experience is a stay in a dammuso - the ancient domed stone houses that are peculiar to the island. Among the most glamorous is Il Monastero (00 39 0258 1861; www.monasteropantelleria.com), owned by the photographer Farbrizio Ferri, where weekly rates start from €1,450 (£1,035) for two. Siremar operates ferries to Pantelleria from Trapani and Mazara del Vallo (from €19/£13.60 each way).

ANYTHING ON THE EAST COAST?

Perfect for anyone with escapist fantasies, the sleepy Tremiti islands are scattered 20km off the coast of Puglia's Gargano peninsula. Bari is the nearest international airport, to which Ryanair flies from Stansted. To get across to the islands, Adriatica (00 39 041 781611; www.adriatica.it) operates regular services from several ports, with the closest to Bari being Manfredonia. Single fares start at €7.40 (£5.30).

AND THE ULTIMATE...

The grandest of all Italy's islands is undoubtedly Venice, although it's actually a collection of 118 islands. With its gondolas, canals, hidden alleys and opulent palazzi, it's no wonder that "La Serenissima" is high on most itineraries. Several airlines fly direct, including BA from Gatwick and Manchester; easyJet from Gatwick, Bristol and East Midlands; BMI from Heathrow; Jet2 (0871 226 1737, www.jet2.com) from Leeds and Manchester; and Thomsonfly from Coventry. Ryanair also flies from Stansted, Liverpool and Luton to nearby Treviso.

MORE INFO?

Italian State Tourist Board at 1 Princes Street, London, W1B 2AY (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).

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