Bongiorno! After disembarking in the Civitavecchia (Port of Rome) after our incredible Mediterranean cruise on Windstar, my dad and I hitched a ride to the train station. Usually, taxis for this trip need to be arranged in advance, and the short five-minute trip will probably cost you about 20 Euros. Most cruise ships prearrange buses to the Rome airport or to the city center, but since we were heading to the island of Ischia instead of home, we were on our own.
Ischia is a volcanic island that’s six miles (10 km) wide and four miles (7 km) long. It’s located in the Tyrrhenian Sea between the Gulf of Gaeta and the Bay of Naples. It’s famous for its warm mineral springs and incredible vistas—and in our family, as the island my grandparents emigrated from in the 1920s. I’d visited three times previously, and so had my dad. The first time for me was in 1996 with my brother Frank and cousin AJ, and the second was in 2007 with my buddy Mike. For my third visit, my dad and I went together for the first time three years ago.
Train tickets in Italy
In my experience, the earlier you book your train tickets, the cheaper they’ll be. I ended up buying ours Rome-Naples the night before and it cost $81 for two (no senior discounts) on a Sunday. On the way back from Naples to Rome, it cost just $67 for two (might’ve been cheaper since it was a Tuesday). Both trips were on the Intercity trains which take two hours. We could’ve taken the Regional (local) for half the price but it makes too many stops and takes 30 minutes longer. There was also a third option to take the fast train (Frecciarossa), which takes just one hour and 10 minutes, but it was almost triple the price.
Tip: Pay with a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. I use Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® for just that reason and the fact that it now comes with a chip, which makes international travel that much easier.
However you go about it, it’s much better to buy your tickets in advance so you don’t have to wait in any lines. I used Trenitalia, which is the local site (to get it in English just click the British flag in the upper right-hand corner), and it was easy and I didn’t need to print anything. The confirmation email did come with a PDF attachment, but that’s not what the conductor wanted to see. He wanted the PNR number that came in the email (and not in the attachment). Once he plugged it into his handheld device we were good to go.
Tip: You need seat reservations for these trains. The confirmation email you receive will tell you which car and seat you’re in. Before boarding the train, go to your designated car, which is printed on the outside.
Tip: If you prefer to have all your tickets in advance, you can buy them from RailEurope.com but they’ll cost you more money. I do recommend RailEurope if you’re going to be in Europe for a while and/or taking a bunch of trains since they offer great deals on larger-size rail passes.
Rome to Naples
We found our seats in the second-class car on our first train in private compartments with three seats on each side facing each other. If the train isn’t full these compartments are excellent, but when it’s full and the A/C isn’t working (which seems to always be the case) then it’s a long ride. There are luggage racks right above you should you need them, but I’d suggest not packing too much so you won’t have to lift it all way up high on the racks. On the train back to Rome, we were seated in a regular train configuration and the luggage racks above were really tight, so I had to put my bag on the storage racks near the door. When I have to do this, I always make sure I’m facing it so I can keep an eye on my bag.
Notes and observations from the trip:
- The scenery was excellent.
- A train attendant came by twice to check on tickets so have your PNR number handy.
- There were two salesmen. One was walking around with a bucket filled with cans of soda and bottled water. The other was selling SOCKS. How random.
- The Intercity train made five stops (the high-speed train makes zero).
Naples train station to the port
Naples is notorious for crime so be sure to take off all your jewelry (better yet, leave it home), including the fake stuff, and safeguard your belongings. Once in the station I always make a beeline for the taxi stand, which in my experience has always had plenty of cabs.
To get to Ischia, I go to the Molo Beverello Port (the other is Mergellina, but it’s further away and doesn’t offer trips as frequently). Taxi drivers rip off tourists leaving Naples station all the time, so be sure to agree on a fare before getting in. They always seem to charge me a flat rate of 15 Euros ($20). It’s only a couple of miles or so and takes about 12 minutes. My local Italian friends tell me to request the “Tariffa Predeterminata,” which is supposed to mean a fee of just 10 Euros ($14) including luggage, but it never works for me. Good luck.
Naples to Ischia
There are multiple ferry companies operating between Ischia and the two Naples ports. As I have in the past, I looked at the screen to see which ferry was departing first without making a stop (which is usually in Procida), and found one and bought two tickets. Onboard, our hydrofoil didn’t have an outdoor seating and the seats were tight! So try and get on first to get one of the bulkhead seats—it’ll make a difference.
Tip: If you have big bags they’ll charge you 2 Euros a piece and make you leave them on the bow when you board.
Don’t leave anything valuable in them and keep in mind if it’s raining they’ll get wet and if it’s hot stuff like chocolate will melt inside. Getting off the ferry is slow because everyone is trying to find their bags. I pack light, so I kept my bags with me and didn’t have to pay the 2 Euros.
Most of the boats to Ischia are large catamarans that hold almost 300 passengers. They’re similar to those servicing Nantucket, Catalina Island and the Great Barrier Reef. Travel time for the 18-mile (30-km) jaunt is normally just 45 minutes (that’s when you don’t stop in Procida), and there’s a small outdoor area in the stern where passengers can hang out, though the air is filled with exhaust fumes and the smoke of die-hard smokers. FYI: There are bathrooms onboard and they do sell drinks (water is 1.50 Euro) and snacks. The ride was smooth both ways, but it’s not when there’s bad weather. Here’s the best Ischia ferry schedule I found online.
Ischia in the summer
The island is a popular destination in the summer, attracting mostly mainland Italians, Germans and Russians. In fact, there used to be so many Germans here that almost all the signs and menus are in both Italian and German; many of the locals speak both languages, too. But when Italy converted to the Euro and everything became more expensive the Germans started going elsewhere and now the majority of the travelers are Russian.
Good to know:
- Like in Capri, most hotels in Ischia are seasonal: They open in early April and close at the end of October.
- The population in Ischia is 70,000, but in the summer it rises to 90,000.
- The island gets a total of five million visitors a year. Most come just for the day.
- Ischia has 300,000 total hotel beds while Capri only has 3,000.
I knew our hotel shuttle wouldn’t be waiting for us when we arrived there on time, because they’d already informed me that there was a race near the hotel and that the roads were closed. So I went and grabbed a pizza from La Pagoda, which was directly across the street. Pizzas take about three minutes to cook and they only cost 3 Euros here! If I knew our ride was going to take about 90 minutes I would’ve made alternative plans. The good news is most hotels offer complimentary shuttle service to and from the port.
San Montano Resort & Spa
We spent two nights at San Montano Resort & Spa which is arguably the second nicest hotel on the island (after The Regina Isabella). The hotel is located high up on the rocks in Lacco Ameno, about a 20-minute drive from the Port of Ischia (the Casamicciola port is closer). My dad and I had a wonderful time there, and here are my top ten reasons for staying at San Montano Resort & Spa:
1. The views
Since the resort is high up, it has the most stunning ocean views. I woke up every morning at 5:30 am and was treated to the most surreal skies each time. See photo above.
The hotel has seven swimming pools. The main pool is a thermal water swimming pool that’s approximately 35°C (95°F). The hotel says to go in this pool for thirty minutes, take a break, drink some water, and then go back in for another thirty minutes—and you’ll sleep like a baby. The other large pool is filled with seawater so it’s much colder, but it’s beautiful to look at (see photo above). There are also five smaller pools that are different temperatures and have incredible vistas, which is why they’re known together as the H2O Panorama.
Also: San Montano has two hot tubs—one for sunrise and one for sunset.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to give the spa more than a quick glance, since I was only in Ischia for two days and wanted to see my relatives and explore the island. But Ischia is known for its healing thermal waters, so the spas here have an advantage over those of regular hotels. What I saw at San Montano was impressive. They have all kinds of rejuvenating, holistic treatments and amenities including an aromatherapy path, a Kneipp Circuit, a Turkish Bath, a Natural Sauna and a Finnish Sauna.
4. The rooms
San Montano has 58 rooms and 15 suites. The interiors of all of these are classic examples of fine Italian artistry, with all of their colorful tile (from cava dei tirreni near Salerno) and luxurious linens. I also love that they have balconies that let you soak up the fresh air and admire the views.
5. The food
I didn’t get to eat dinner in their panoramic terrace restaurant but I did have breakfast twice (since it’s elaborate and included in the rate). Their restaurant serves Italian and international cuisine, and every Saturday they have a gala dinner show with a theme of “Cook & Learn,” in which all the chefs cook in front of the guests and explain the secrets of their recipes. The show costs 40 Euro ($54) per person.
6. The staff are Ischiatans
All the staff in the hotel are locals, which I love because locals help you get a sense of place. Most were very friendly, with the exception of the breakfast staff.
Unfortunately, it was unseasonably cold when we were there so we didn’t go down to the beach, but I did see if from afar and it looked great. What’s nice is the hotel offers free rides to and from and they don’t charge for chairs or umbrellas like many destinations.
8. Free transfers
As I mentioned above, San Montano offers free shuttle bus service to the beach, the port and to the nearby village of Lacco Ameno. And taxis in Ischia are not cheap, with a ride from the port to the hotel costing 25 Euros ($34).
Good to know:
- San Montano Resort & Spa closes this year on October 25.
- In 2015 they open on April 18 and close October 24.
- Room rates start at 250 Euros ($340).
- 10-Day Ischia weather forecast.
Visiting the relatives
The highlight of our trip, naturally, was visiting our relatives. My dad still has two aunts living on the island. One is 99 and the other is 96. The older one wasn’t doing well, so that’s why I left out her photo, but the 96-year-old is doing well and both my dad and she cried when they saw each other. I also got to meet a bunch of cousins that sadly I never knew; hopefully I’ll spend more time with them in the future.