Where to go in Italy in 2018? Here’s my annual off-the-beaten path list

Eating breakfast in the garden courtyard of Procida's Albergo La Vigna was one of the highlights of our year. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Eating breakfast in the garden courtyard of Procida’s Albergo La Vigna was one of the highlights of our year. Photo by Marina Pascucci


So you’re sitting at your desk and you can’t decide whether to continue your mind-numbingly boring project or kill your boss? Your last three Internet dates looked straight from the cast of “Night of the Living Dead”? It has snowed so much you’re questioning your commitment to global warming?

What photo do you put on your computer to keep you motivated? The Grand Canal in Venice? The Ponte Vecchio in Florence? Piazza Navona in Rome? How about just a damn pizza from Naples?

I have a better idea. In fact, I have 10 of them. If you daydream about Italy, go where few others go. Here is a list of 10 highly recommended off-the-beaten-path places I’ve been, mostly last year, during my combined 5 ½ years living in Italy.

Print this list (including links to expanded blogs of destinations), written in alphabetical order, and post it on your laptop instead of that gondola photo. My 2017 list received a tremendous response. I’m hoping this list will produce the same.

And maybe I’ll even save some boss’ life.

Porchetta truck in Ariccia, the birthplace of the suckling pig treat.

Porchetta truck in Ariccia, the birthplace of the suckling pig treat.


ARICCIA

It’s one of 14 towns in Castelli Romani, a series of villages in the picturesque Alban Hills southeast of Rome. At one time, they were used as defenses against an NFL lineup of foreign invaders and now offer some of the best views in Italy.

Ariccia is where Romans go to get away from the summer heat. It’s notably cooler in the hills and the town’s center is lined with restaurants specializing in porchetta. That’s the rich, sizzling, suckling pig you see served all over Italy. Seemingly every shop window in Ariccia has a giant pig, its eyes thankfully closed, laying prone with a meaty butcher carving huge slabs off it.

Leading you into town is a long suspension bridge with a beautiful view of the deep valley 60 meters below. It also has an eerie reputation. So many people committed suicide, the town built steel netting on both sides. At least now if you want to throw yourself onto the jagged rocks below, you have to work at it.

Ariccia can be reached by taking Rome’s Metro subway A line to Anignana then the COTRAL bus 40 minutes, getting off at Largo Savelli. Cost is 2.50 euros.

Where to stay (All prices based on two adults for one night June 1. Numbers are without the country code 39): This is an easy day trip. However, I highly recommend spending the night in small Italian towns. You’ll meet more locals at night. Try the three-star Hotel California, Via Quanto Negroni, 46, http://www.hcalifornia.com/, 06-934-0122, 55 euros including breakfast. A simple but clean hotel a short walk from the commercial center and highly rated.

Where to eat: Dal Brigante Gasperone, Via Borgo S. Rocco 7, http://www.fraschettabrigantegasperone.com/, 06-933-3100, 6 p.m.-midnight. An amazing antipasti plate including porchetta, bufala mozzarella, ricotta bufala, three different sausages (including horse), pancetta, prosciutto, salami, bruschetta and bruschetta with spinach. If you have room, order the pappardelle cinghiale, wide, flat noodles with wild boar sauce.

Piazza del Popolo in Ascoli Piceno. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Piazza del Popolo in Ascoli Piceno. Photo by Marina Pascucci


ASCOLI PICENO

In 2002, I threw a felt pen at a giant map of Italy on my wall and visited wherever the pen landed. It hit Ascoli Piceno and I couldn’t have had better aim. It’s a charming small town of about 50,000 on the Le Marche-Abruzzo border only 15 miles from the Adriatic coast.

Le Marche is Tuscany light. It has everything Tuscany has — beaches, vineyards, hill towns — at about half the price and a quarter the tourists.

Ascoli Piceno is so cute you’ll want to wrap it up in a doggy bag along with it signature dish, the olive all’ascolana: olives stuffed with breaded veal then fried. It’s served from Sicily to the Alps but nowhere is it better than its birthplace. You also must try the fiori di zucchini con mozzarella e acciughe (zucchini flowers with mozzarella and sardines), cremini (fried cream puffs) and agnello fritto (fried lamb). Come during its annual Frito Misto (Mixed Fried) festival April 21-May 1.

Walk it all off by prowling the 9th century Piazza del Popolo, which may be the prettiest piazza in Italy

Where to stay: Il Decumano B&B, Corso Giuseppe Mazzini 335, 348-339-9592, 70 euro. A simple but charming B&B on quiet Corso Mazzini lined with some of the prettiest buildings in town.

Where to eat. Del Corso, Corso Giuseppe Mazzini 277, 07-362-56760. Just down the street from the B&B, the scowling owner wasn’t enough to spoil spectacular seafood fresh from the nearby Adriatic. Try the fish soup.

Cala Azzurra on Favignana.

Cala Azzurra on Favignana.


FAVIGNANA

I liked this little island off the west coast of Sicily so much I went there twice last year with my girlfriend, Marina. The Weather Channel made Favignana famous in 2016 by ranking it 13th on its list of bluest water in the world. Go in the fall when the Italian tourists have left and the water is still warm.

The butterfly-shaped island, formerly a major tuna fishing outpost, is only 14 square miles and the main mode of public transportation is bicycle. Rent one and cruise along the lonely roads, trying different beaches at every stop. Don’t miss Cala Azzurro (Blue Beach), which earned Favignana the spot on The Weather Channel’s list.

Leave enough time to hang out in Piazza Madrice where the locals go to drink Nero d’Avalo, Sicily’s signature red wine. Favignana is only a 70-minute flight from Rome to Trapani and then a 30-minute hydrofoil ride to Favignana.

Where to stay: Albergo Isola Mia, Strada Punta Marsala 18, http://www.favignanaisolamia.com/, 09-2392-2116, 333-310-0154, 120 euros. Run by rocking musician Jose Tammaro, the single story bungalows have nice porches, a great breakfast spread and is walking distance to the main village.

Where to eat: Trattoria da Papu’, Piazza Madrice, 324-532-1497. The best seafood on an island known for it, Papu’ has a nautical theme with fish nets and seashells hanging from the walls. Order the busiate, western Sicily’s trademark thick twisty pasta, great with seafood. Reservations a must.

Hotel Lenno

Hotel Lenno


LENNO

Lake Como is my favorite lake in the world and Lenno may be my favorite town. Quiet and unpretentious, it’s lined with casual lakeside eateries for afternoon aperitivos. The lake is surprisingly warm in the summer and there’s even a small sandy beach for sunbathing.

Don’t join the throngs ogling George Clooney’s mansion in nearby Laglio. You can see it well enough when the ferry passes it on its way to Lenno. Instead, take a tour of Balbianello, built in 1700, one of the many astounding villas in the area. You can also climb to the top of 1,700-meter Monte Tremezzo for great views of the cobalt-blue Lake Como.

Where to stay: Hotel Lenno, Via C. Lomazzi 23, 0344-57051, http://www.albergolenno.com/, 170 euros. The four-star hotel is across the narrow street from the dock and has a gorgeous swimming pool and lakeside seating for drinks.

Where to eat: Al Veluu, Via Rogaro 11, Tremezzo, 0344-40510, http://www.alveluu.com/index_full.html, noon-2:30 p.m., 7-10 p.m. I don’t remember if the food was any good. No matter. It’s up on a hill in neighboring Tremezzo with a spectacular panoramic view of the lake. Lit by candles and adorned with white tablecloths, it’s no place to go alone — as I did. Shut up. It’s not funny.

Matera's cathedral at night. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Matera’s cathedral at night. Photo by Marina Pascucci


MATERA

It’s hard to classify a place that gets 400,000 tourists a year “off the beaten path” but Matera is so far out of the way — yet so worth it — only the hearty make it here. It’s the world’s third-oldest city, a dead ringer for Old Jerusalem. That’s why 25 movies have been filmed there, including “The Passion of the Christ” in 2003.

It’s a seven-hour bus ride from Rome to Matera in Basilicata, Italy’s forgotten region between Puglia (heel of Italy’s boot) and Calabria (the toe). Basilicata has only 570,000 people, making it one of the most rural in Italy.

Walk the narrow, windy streets between the stone houses of a city that has been continually inhabited for 9,000 years. Look inside the sassi (caves) where people lived until the neighborhood was abandoned after World War II. It stayed that way until the 1980s when a reclamation project brought it back to life.

You can also take a two-hour hike across the gorge for fantastic views back to the town.

Where to stay: La Dolce Vita B&B, Rione Malve 51, 08-35-310-324/328-711-1121, http://www.ladolcevitamatera.it/, 80 euros. Vincenzo Altieri is Matera born and bred and has a great B&B in the heart of the old town. He’s a wealth of knowledge.

Where to eat: Soul Kitchen, Via Casalnuova 27, 368-328-2232, http://www.ristorantesoulkitchen.it/, 12:45-2:45 p.m., 7:30-11 p.m. Picture elegant cave dining, maybe the finest in town. Try the potato ravioli stuffed with bufala mozzarella and covered in pesto and tomato sauce.

Orvieto's Duomo

Orvieto’s Duomo


ORVIETO

Instead of hustling from Rome to Florence, stop halfway in Orvieto. It’s a nice hilltown in oft-overlooked Umbria where the wineries are much less crowded and cheaper than neighboring Tuscany.

Orvieto is perched atop a volcanic rock above vineyards and olive groves. Its duomo, a giant confection of white marble with an outrageous facade, is one of the prettiest in Italy. It should. It took 300 years to build. Take a tour of Orvieto Underground, a series of 440 caves used as bomb shelters during World War II.

Better yet, just wander the narrow streets and listen to the soft jazz wafting from various restaurants. Orvieto’s annual jazz festival, Dec. 28-Jan. 1 this year, makes a stop worthwhile during the holidays.

Where to stay: Hotel Posta, Piazza del Popolo 27, 0763-341-909, http://www.orvietohotels.it/en/, 56-69 euros. Roomy, homey lobby with cast-iron bed frames in nice rooms right on the beautiful main piazza.

Where to eat: Trattoria del Moro Aronne, Via San Leonardo 7, http://www.trattoriadelmoro.info, noon-2:30 p.m., 7:30-9:30 p.m. Wednesday-Monday. A simple trattoria near the piazza specializing in Umbrian dishes such as carbonara with fava beans and bacon.

Otranto

Otranto


OTRANTO

This former fishing village has become an offbeat beach destination in Puglia for those tired of the more popular Bari and Lecce. Some of Italy’s best beaches are only three miles from the city center, all accessible by public bus starting in June. In the off season, you can rent a bike for an easy, flat ride along the beautiful coastline. May is ideal as the Adriatic is already warm enough to swim and Italian tourists are a long way from arriving.

The charming port is a great place to stroll at sunset or have a glass of Puglia’s trademark Negroamaro wine in one of the many restaurants with views of the sea. For insight into Otranto’s bloody history, check out the 11th century cathedral where on display in glass cases are the skulls of 700 locals, courtesy of a Turkish invasion 600 years ago.

Where to stay: Balconcino d’Oriente, Via San Francesco da Paola 71, 0836-801-529, http://www.balconcinodoriente.com, 80 euros. A short walk up the hill from the harbor, this B&B has an odd but cool African-Middle East theme in the rooms. It’s also close to local restaurants.

Where to eat: Peccato di Vino, Via Rondachi 7, 08-3680-1488, http://www.peccatodivino.com/, closed Tuesdays. A romantic, candlelit, elevated, outside dining area is the perfect place to enjoy Pugliese cuisine such as the trademark orecchiette with sausage and shaved provolone cheese. Don’t lose your appetite with the 700 skulls just across the alley.

Porto Ercole

Porto Ercole


PORTO ERCOLE

Like art? If you like art, you must study Caravaggio. If you like Caravaggio, you must visit Porto Ercole. This is the idyllic, seaside village in Tuscany where the great Baroque master died. His death remains a mystery (Madness? Malaria? Murder?) but his intriguing life comes together in this lovely town sticking out on the end of a jetty.

A 90-minute drive from Rome, Porto Ercole has a Piazza Caravaggio, a Via Caravaggio and La Locanda Del Caravaggio. “The Master of Darkness” is everywhere. His presence in the forest near the beach is marked by a small white statue, his face contorted in a silent scream.

The town wraps around a lovely harbor lined with nice restaurants, bars, crafts stores and high-end apartments. The Spanish, who ruled in these parts 500 years ago, built forts on facing hills.

Where to stay: Hotel Don Pedro, Via Panoramica 7, 05-64-833-914, La Locanda Del Caravaggio, http://www.hoteldonpedro.it/, 100-120 euros. I only came to Porto Ercole on day trips but this three-star hotel has beautiful views of the harbor.

Where to eat: La Sirena, Via Caravaggio 89, 05-64-835-032, noon-2:30 p.m., 7-11 p.m. Just off the harbor, it serves fresh seafood such as squid and prawns with excellent service and fair prices. Reservations recommended.

Marina and I on a port-side bar in Procida.

Marina and I on a port-side bar in Procida.


PROCIDA

Forget Capri. Next time, avoid the crowds and come to Procida, 10 miles to the north. It’s what an Italian fishing village was like in the 1950s. That’s where “Il Postino” was set when the charming love story was filmed in 1994.

Procida is an island only 1.6 square miles with just 12,000 people. Its curved harbor with pastel-colored buildings is a perfect place to eat a neapolitan pizza or have a glass of wine. Take a cheap bus to the fine beach on the north end where you can also while away an afternoon at one of the many harbor bars.

It’s only a 70-minute train ride from Rome to Naples then a 30-minute hydroplane ride to Procida.

Where to stay: Albergo La Vigna, Via Principessa Margherita 46, 08-1896-0469, http://www.albergolavigna.it/, 130-180 euros. It’s set in a vineyard with remarkable views of the Bay of Naples. And don’t miss the spa which you can reserve for a private hour. (Wink!)

Where to eat: La Lampara, Via Marina di Corricella 88, 08-1896-0609. Impossibly romantic location above the harbor. The seafood ravioli, stuffed with shrimp and ricotta cheese, was the best ravioli of my life.

Terme dei Papi in Viterbo.

Terme dei Papi in Viterbo.


VITERBO

This walled hill town is 40 miles north of Rome and can be done in a day trip. However, after spending all day in the Terme dei Papi thermal baths, you don’t want to sit on a bus. The outdoor baths, with different temperature pools, have been around since Michelangelo and Dante Alighieri used them and are still popular with Romans today.

Wander the Old Town behind the Roman walls. The window shopping is wonderful but stop in Ejelo, a local wine and cheese shop where the owner will ply you with local Nettaro di Confini wine and wild boar sausage.

To get here, go to the Roma-Nord train station outside the Flaminio subway stop and take the train to Saxa Rubra. From there take a bus to Viterbo and get off at the Porto Romana stop.
Where to stay: La Meridiana Strana, Str. Cimina 17, 347-0173-5066, http://www.lameridianastrana.com/uk/prima_uk.html, 60-80 euros. A charming 19th century farmhouse just outside of town seven kilometers from the spa, it features a swimming pool.

Where to eat: Felicetta, Strada delle Terme 5, 07-612-50420, https://www.facebook.com/TrattoriapizzerialaFelicetta/, 7 a.m.-11 p.m. The little country inn not far from the thermal baths has what’s considered the best gnocchi in Italy. Go on Thursdays, Italy’s “Gnocchi Day.”

Your Italian island guide for 2018 — but book by Dec. 31 or your travel budget will regret it

Arcipelago di La Maddalena, featuring this Cala Coticcio, is just one of Italy's underrated islands.

Arcipelago di La Maddalena, featuring Cala Coticcio, boast some of Italy’s underrated islands.


Here’s a little travel tip for everyone. If you’re planning on traveling in 2018, don’t wait until 2018 to plan your travel. I’ve read numerous places that travel costs will jump next year. Many struggling airlines (that’s become a redundancy in recent years) will increase their airfares to an average of 3.5 percent, according to the 2018 Global Travel Forecast. Hotels will rise 3.7 percent. It’s primarily due to projected higher fuel costs and an increase in travel demand. It all means you start planning your travel sooner.

Like now.

I am here to help. If you’re already tired of fall weather and daydreaming at your desk of sky blue seas and boats docked in secluded coves, you need an island vacation. Instead of the Caribbean, where there’s not much left, or Greece, where there’s not much left unspoiled. Try my recommendation.

Italy.

Its islands are vastly underrated. Quick. Name two. No, Sicily and Sardinia don’t count. Those are more regions than islands. Sicily and Sardinia have their own islands. OK, you just chose Capri. No, Corsica belongs to France. Can’t think of others? Read on.

Italy’s islands may not have the sugar-white sand of the Caribbean or the variety of Greece, but they have their own charm. Because you totally bombed my little quiz, you know they are naturally less crowded. Many are as unspoiled as they were before Allied and Axis forces bombed mainland Italy into rubble during World War II.

Plus, the food is pretty good.

I have been to seven. I have many more to go. Here’s a little guide, in alphabetical order and unvarnished with some bad mixed with the very good. I have written blogs about some of them and inserted the links if you want more detail and obnoxious commentary. So print it and put it on your wall to ponder as you watch the clock in your office while rain or snow pound the pavement outside.

I wrote that Capri "is the prettiest island in Europe."

I wrote that Capri “is the prettiest island in Europe.”


CAPRI

In my blog from three years ago, I called Capri “the prettiest island in Europe.” It better be. The crowds it gets it should put it on the same level with Bora Bora. It’s not for a number of reasons.

Namely, Capri has no beaches. It is surrounded by rock. Giant boulders and uncomfortable pebbles separate you from some of the bluest water in Europe. It is 27 miles off the coast of Naples and tourism is the lone industry. The only things Capri (pronounced CAH-pree) dumps in the sea are tourists.

You can place your towel on the flattest rock you can find and pretend you’re a Hindu fakir. One beach had lounge chairs selling for 21 euros but they were sold out — in October. I didn’t even see an unoccupied rock to place my beach towel. In Piazza Umberto I, the main square people go to see and be seen, I saw people bumping into people’s forks as they dined. I sometimes waited 30-45 minutes for a minibus that climbs the mountain which composes this island.

In summer, Capri becomes a parody of itself. This is an island 4 miles x 1.8 miles and in summer it gets 10,000 tourists a day. Nowhere on Manhattan island is it this crowded.

But if you don’t come for the beaches or the food, come for the views. That minibus ride is worth the wait, even if your bed & breakfast, as mine was, isn’t on top of the hill. Each switchback the bus made I got a new and improved view of the sea below.

The Capri countryside (yes, there is one) is worth exploring.

The Capri countryside (yes, there is one) is worth exploring.


For a reverse view, pay the 18 euros for a beach tour of the island. You get a good history lesson from the learned ship captain, and some stop for dips in the sea.

Capri has three parts: Capri town where most tourists congregate, Anacapri where most locals live and the countryside. My B&B, the Alle Ginestre, was in Anacapri and had terrific views of Naples and Mt. Vesuvius. I highly recommend finding your lodging in Anacapri. It’s where you’ll find schools and kids kicking soccer balls in the street and locals sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes.

Also, don’t pass up the Torta Caprese, Capri’s local chocolate cake.

he Weather Channel ranked Favignana's waters as the 13th bluest in the world.

The Weather Channel ranked Favignana’s waters as the 13th bluest in the world.


FAVIGNANA

Marina and I went here twice this year, we liked it so much. We went for my birthday in March and again in October, carefully avoiding the summer high season. Favignana’s waters make Capri’s look like the North Sea. The Weather Channel ranked it 13th in its list of Bluest Waters in the World. Favignana earned it. Its water is as turquoise as around French Polynesia.

The largest of the three Egadi Islands, Favignana is an easy get from Rome: a 70-minute flight to Trapani on Sicily’s west coast, then a 30-minute hydroplane ride. What greets you are 14 square miles of island tranquility. It is spider webbed by narrow two-lane roads where the main mode of transportation is bicycle. The island is as flat as an Italian model’s stomach and touring the island isn’t a strain for even the fattest of tourist. Few places in Italy can you spend hours cruising the countryside with the only sounds being the birds above and the sea below.

Cala Azzurra, on the southeast coast, took credit for the No. 13 ranking and it is indeed beautiful. It’s a soft bend of the island seen from a cliff, with a precarious walk down to the rocks. However, Cala Rossa on the northeast coast should push Azzurra for the honor. While most beaches were all rock, like on Capri, last month we did find a sandy beach at Punta San Nicola, even closer to the main town.

Don’t come in March. The water temperature was 52 degrees. In October, the water was swimmable and as clear as any I’ve seen in Europe although not quite as turquoise as in spring.

Marina and I. Bike is the main form of transport on Favignana.

Marina and I. Bike is the main form of transport on Favignana.


Whenever you go, be sure to hang in Piazza Madrice. It’s Favignana’s nerve center. Go to quaint, friendly Caffe Aegus where you can sip their house Nero d’Avalo and chat with old-timers who left the mainland for Favignana long ago.

We have twice eaten at Trattoria da Papu’, maybe Favignana’s most popular seafood restaurant where the specialty is busiate di profumo di mare. Busiate is western Sicily’s signature pasta, a thick, twisty noodle they cover in a big mess of shellfish. We needed reservations in October, when the large outdoor seating was filled by 9 p.m.

A great place to stay is Isola Mia. It’s a 15-minute walk to the piazza and run by Jose Tammaro, a touring musician, and his wife. Both are affable and friendly and put out a breakfast spread of meats, cheeses and cornettos, Italy’s signature croissants.

Unlike Capri, just to the south, Ischia has beautiful beaches.

Unlike Capri, just to the south, Ischia has beautiful beaches.


ISCHIA

While tourists flock to Capri, Italians flock to Ischia, Capri’s bigger cousin to the north. It doesn’t have Capri’s view or international cache but it has the sandy beaches and authentic Italian vibe.

I came here in the mid-2000s and stayed in a nice hotel (of which its name escapes me) with a glorious pool not far from an equally tranquil beach. The beach and pool were so mesmerizing, I didn’t bother with what attracts many Italians.

Thermal baths.

Ischia is lousy with them. Take a water taxi to the south side of the island to Maronti beach and the Il Sorgeto cove where a thermal spring awaits. If you want to really pamper yourself at a cheap rate, you can go to Negombo, which sports 12 pools and thermal pools ranging from 75-97 degrees, a private beach and 500 exotic plant species. Price is a very reasonable 33 euros a day.

Ischia’s waterfront is quite lovely despite not offering Capri’s jaw-dropping views from above. Small whitewashed buildings separate the sky-blue bay from cliffs hovering over the town. Dominating the view is Castello Aragones, the 15th century castle built by King Alfonso of Aragon who also added the causeway and accessory ramp that exist to this day. This is a well-worn fortification. Gerone I of the Syracuse republic in Sicily first built a fortress here in 474 BC.

The restaurants are more reasonably priced than in Capri and most offer rabbit (coniglio), a specialty in Ischia. Afterward, wash your palate with Rucolino, a local green liqueur, especially if you have a hankering for licorice.

Like Capri, Ischia is easily reached by a steady stream of hydrofoils from Naples.

Lampedusa is more than just for refugees.

Lampedusa is more than just for refugees.


LAMPEDUSA

It’s closer to Africa than it is to mainland Italy and has made international news as the first stop in refugees’ desperate, and often, ill-fated boat journeys. Waters around this island are littered with drowning victims.

When I lived in Rome the first time from 2001-03, it was before the big wave of refugees poured in. I came to seek an Italian island experience with sugar-white sand beaches like the Caribbean and the kind of heat that requires an act of the military to get you up from said sand.

Lampedusa is 180 miles south of Sicily and easily reached with flights from Rome via Palermo. I was told by a Rome friend that Lampedusa was the perfect “simple Island” getaway. I wrote in my journal that “The only thing simple about Lampedusa was it simply sucks.”

It is 160 miles off the coast of Tunisia and is dry as a lunar landscape and just as barren. I went in August 2002 and I could not see a speck of sand under the cheek-to-cheek, towel-to-towel flesh mob on the beaches. The village of Lampedusa was chock-a-block with souvenir shops, T-shirt emporiums and hack singers butchering “Time in a Bottle.” It looked like a satire on Italian tourism.

What no one writes about is the island’s main mode of transport, the motorino, seemingly has no regulations. Each one is as noise as a Harley 1800 cruising a California freeway. With people buzzing around the island until 3 a.m., Lampedusa is the only island I’ve visited that’s noisier than Manhattan. It was like being on the infield of the Indy 500 or living inside a bumble bee’s nest. I couldn’t get away from it.

The north side of the island is as desolate as the south side is overcrowded. At the time, a putrid public dump extinguished any delicious aromas drifting up from the Mediterranean below. I don’t recall seeing a single village.

Lampedusa has nice beaches when it's not crowded.

Lampedusa has nice beaches when it’s not crowded.


Still, after five days I warmed to Lampedusa. Its beaches are worth it. Spiaggia di Coniglio has been ranked among the top 10 in the world. It’s a gorgeous slice of white sand in a cove you’ve seen in tourist posters. I saw an equally good beach at Cala Madonna 15 miles out of town. Just go in September after the mobs have left.

The island is governed by Sicily meaning it’s Sicilian meaning you get the great Sicilian desserts. Stroll along Via Roma, the main drag, with a granita or a cassata. Or sit outside in one of the plethora of cafes and eat one of the famed cannolis.

Also, even if it is crowded, it’s crowded with Italians. You still feel you’re getting away from wherever you’re from. You have no worries about getting in a bar fight about politics.

Parco Nazionale dell'Arcipelago di La Maddalena off the north coast of Sardinia contain just some of Italy's underrated islands.

Parco Nazionale dell’Arcipelago di La Maddalena off the north coast of Sardinia.


MADDALENA

Again, if you come to Sardinia, do NOT come in the summer, particularly August. Italians pour over from the mainland during one of their two extended vacations a year. It’s as crowded as a pope’s coronation.

After visiting Lampedusa in 2002, later that September I took the boat from Civitavecchia, 50 miles northwest of Rome, to Sardinia. Prices were less than August. So were the crowds. The water was just as warm. The sun just as bright.

The highlight of a trip that had me circumvent the north half of the island and cross back through the spectacular Sardi hinterland, was a side trip to Arcipelago di La Maddalena. It’s a series of seven islands, the lone lands still existing from a valley that once connected Sardinia with Corsica, seven miles to the north, and is now under water.

Located off Sardinia’s northeast coast, a 15-minute ferry ride from the town of Palau, Maddalena is subject to winds. While in September they were low, the winds carved natural formations in the granite that make the beaches unique in Europe.

They also formed numerous individual bays bordered by cozy, romantic beaches. I just looked in my journal from that week 15 years ago and I called the beaches on the island, “the best I’ve seen in Southern Europe outside Santorini.” I wrote further:

“Each turn of the road had a car park where you could pull over and take pictures of tiny bays individually carved by wind-washed rock.The water was (so) clear you could see the bottom 50 feet down and four shades of blue: cobalt, royal, turquoise, blue-green.”

If you haven’t heard much about Maddalena, it may because its romantic image is smudged by the presence of a huge U.S. naval base. An anchor the size of some tuna boats sits on shore as your ferry approaches. The Navy doesn’t have an overriding presence. Locals I talked to said the sailors are respectful, mature and reasonably sober.

A big consideration with Maddalena: a car is a must. Sardinia’s public transportation is extremely limited and I saw nothing on Maddalena. A rental car is highly recommended.

Ponza is the closest island to Rome.

Ponza is the closest island to Rome.


PONZA

Tired of the crowds and heat of Rome? Come to Ponza. It’s the closest island to the capital. Just take a regional train 50 minutes from Rome’s Termini station to the town of Anzio, Emperor Nero’s birthplace, and then a 90-minute to 2 ½-hour ferry ride, depending on the boat.

Ponza is a volcanic island which has its pluses and minuses. The biggest plus is its jagged outline provides tons of tiny, secluded coves; the biggest negative is hardened volcanic ash is lousy for sunbathing. Still, find a spare rock and lay down a towel. The Tyrrhenian Sea is a gorgeous blue and warm from June through September.

I went one September and loved the laid-back nature of Ponza town, void of package tourists and side-by-side souvenir stands. Its quaint harbor is backed by small buildings of red and blue and yellow and white. Ponza is popular for Romans seeking a weekend away but during the week it is your own paradise to explore.

A good public transportation system took me to the north side of the island where I had lunch with local villagers before descending down a narrow, switchback path to a beautiful secluded cove below. No entry fee. No lounge chairs. Just a royal blue sea and plenty of space to lay down a towel, however precarious it may be to lay on it.

The pool at the four-star Albergo Chiara Beach.

The pool at the four-star Albergo Chiara Beach.


I splurged and stayed at the luxurious four-star Hotel Chiaia di Luna, featuring a head-turning swimming pool overlooking the bay, port and Palmarola, the other inhabited island nearby. It also had 2,000 meters of terrace and free shuttle service to the port.
Procida was the site of the hit 1995 film "Il Postino." Photo by Marina Pascucci

Procida was the site of the hit 1995 film “Il Postino.” Photo by Marina Pascucci


PROCIDA

This is what island life was like in Italy in the 1950s. Fishermen mending fishing nets on old boats. Eating a pizza on a quiet, semi-secluded harbor. Old men in hats sipping wine and chatting on street corners. This step back in time is the polar opposite of the jet-set theme park that is Capri 10 miles to the south.

“Il Postino,” the movie about the love-sick postman in 1950 that was Oscar nominated for Best Picture in 1995, was filmed here. It hasn’t changed much since. The same pink dockside building where the postman hung out still exists on the harbor where I had a couple of great Sicilian pizzas for 4-8 euros.

Marina and I came here in May to celebrate our two-year anniversary. It lived up to its hype as a romantic paradise. We dined on a limestone cliff above the harbor at La Lampara where the ravioli al sapore di mare (ravioli stuffed with shrimp and ricotta cheese) was simply the best ravioli of my life. Nearly every menu features mussels and calamari as thick as lobster tails.

You get Neapolitan pizza everywhere on Procida.

You get Neapolitan pizza everywhere on Procida.


We took a bus up to the north end of the island where we spent a day combing the sandy beach and sipping cocktails at a dockside bar in the sun. Procida (PRO-chee-duh) is big with the boating crowd but doesn’t have the stuffiness of towns where you’re measured by the size of your yacht.

Topping the romantic weekend was a stay at the four-star Albergo La Vigna, high above a hill where a courtyard looks down at the sea below. Highlighting La Vigna is a spa you can block off for a, um, private hour to yourselves.

Favignana: “No. 13 Clearest Water in the World” tantalizes sun worshippers off Sicily’s west coast

Favignana's Cala Rossa, once the site of a great Roman victory in the 3rd century BC, now sport's some of clearest water in the world. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Favignana’s Cala Rossa, once the site of a great Roman victory in the 3rd century BC, now sport’s some of clearest water in the world. Photo by Marina Pascucci


FAVIGNANA, Italy — I’m a sucker for world lists. The World’s Most Beautiful Mountains. The World’s Most Dangerous Highways. The World’s Best Restaurants. Facebook is filled with them every day. Being a water person, one list from Weather.com made me stand up and look at my sunscreen supply: The World’s Clearest, Bluest Water.

I’m a scuba diver so water clarity is huge for me. Visibility is as important as water temperature. The water off Cozumel in the early ‘80s was so clear I could see a wall 100 meters from the one I was swimming along. The turquoise water in French Polynesia made it hard to differentiate the South Pacific from the sky.

Who knew that I could add to my list of aqua paradises by traveling only two hours from Rome?

Yes, there it was, No. 13 on The Weather Channel’s 2016 list: Favignana, more specifically, Cala Azzurra beach. I’d never heard of Favignana, either. It’s a small island off the west coast of Sicily sporting a name it took me a month to remember. My girlfriend, Marina Pascucci, is an ace photographer whose whole profession is based on clarity. She’d been to Favignana (pronounced fa-vin-YAH-nah) before and wanted to take me to another special place for my birthday. Last year it was Syracuse, Sicily. This year, we’d go back to Sicily. One more trip and I’ll be paying off politicians.

WEATER.COM’S TOP 15
1. The Cook Islands
2. Cocos Island, Costa Rica
3. Knip Beach, Curacao
4. Five-Flower Lake, China
5. Maldives
6. Koh Lipe, Thailand
7. Jaco Island, East Timor
8. Marsa Matrouh, Egypt
9. Boracay, Philippines
10. Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
11. Los Roques, Venezuela
12. Lefkada, Greece
13. Cala Azzurra, Favignana, Italy
14. Havelock Island, Andaman Islands
15. To Sua Ocean Trench, Samoa

I’m sorry. That’s a crude stereotype of a Sicily that I have long since forgotten. Sicily has the best food in Italy, spectacular beaches, friendly people, fascinating history and, as I’d learn, some of the clearest waters in the world. Also, spring in Sicily is an almost ideal time to go. The warm weather has arrived before the waves of tourists. Prices are lower and there’s no need to wait in line for a cannoli.

Yes, the cannoli is always fresh in Favignana. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Yes, the cannoli is always fresh in Favignana. Photo by Marina Pascucci


I not only didn’t know anything about Favignana, I didn’t know how easy it is to reach. It’s a 1-hour, 10-minute RyanAir flight from Rome to Trapani, then a 30-minute ferry ride to Favignana four miles away. That’s it. In Italy it takes longer to buy a stamp.

Giuseppe “Jose” Tammaro, the 72-year-old owner of our Isola Mia hotel, met us at Favignana’s postcard-cute harbor. Sporting long, shocking white hair and shades, he looked like a movie director specializing in exotic locales. Or he could pass as an aging musician which he somewhat is. His folk music band, formed 15 years ago, is called Macuccusonu. A Favignana native who spends the winters in Northern Italian, he drove us the five minutes to Isola Mia, a series of one-story adobe-style bungalows connected with red-tiled roofs surrounding palm and Mediterranean pine trees. It’s like a small ranch in Arizona. Our room had a TV, refrigerator and space out back where we could eat our breakfast and stare out at the island countryside. Iose apologized for all the dirt in the courtyard. They were planting grass for the summer season. We barely noticed. It was as peaceful and quiet as anywhere we’ve been in Italy.

Isola Mia

Isola Mia


Favignana, the largest of the three Egadi islands, is only 14 square miles and shaped like a butterfly. The port and village form the head, with narrow roads snaking into the eastern peninsula and the more rural tracks in the larger western side featuring forests and grottoes .

A former Phoenician outpost during the Punic Wars of the 3rd century B.C., Favignana was where the Roman navy destroyed 120 Carthaginian ships in 241 BC. So many Phoenicians washed ashore that they called the beach forevermore, “Cala Rossa” (Red Cove). In truth, it was named for the beach’s red clay but the Roman military preferred its explanation for PR purposes.

Tuna fishing was Favignana's top industry for centuries. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Tuna fishing was Favignana’s top industry for centuries. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Since then, Favignana has been ruled by the Arabs, Normans, Aragonese and Spanish who discovered the waters had enough tuna for tapas from Madrid to Tierra del Fuego. The tuna industry ruled until declining in the 20th century. Taking over in the 1960s was tourism.

Not many come in spring. Water temperature is about 52 degrees, too cold for anything more than your more adventurous fur seals. Forget Italians. They don’t drink water 52 degrees. The time to come is the fall. The tourists have left but the warm waters, heated by Sicily’s steaming summer, are still around.

So Marina and I wandered the five minutes from Isola Mia through the narrow alleys lined with alabaster white apartments, tiny vegetable markets and cozy local trattorias. Near the harbor is a crude beach with some rusted boats behind a Cyclone fence. An old man played with his two dogs as we gazed at an apartment house with two balconies overlooking the sea. Near the harbor, the sea had the color of cobalt. We were told to get on a bike and explore to see the turquoise of tourist posters.

Piazza Madrice

Piazza Madrice


All the paths seem to lead to Piazza Madrice, a long courtyard anchored by the 18th-century Chiesa Madre Maria SS Immacolata on one end. On the corner is the nerve center of Favignana. Caffe Aegus serves some great pistachio gelato in town and a nice Nero d’Avalo, Sicily’s signature ruby-red wine. But you come here for the local rundown. It’s the perfect cross-section view of the island. As we settled into our seats, an old woman dressed in all black shuffled past us. Middle-aged men in street clothes played soccer on the cobblestones with surprising flair. Bells pealed from the church.

Next to our table sat an old man in a classic Sicilian fishing cap, the kind with the top squished down and pinned to the bill and what Marina once gave me. He hailed from Frosinone, a downtrodden town 55 miles south of Rome. He’s been in Favignana 42 years and lauded its famed scuba diving and snorkeling. I asked him about the stories of overfishing and he scoffed.

Locals in the piazza. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Locals in the piazza. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“No, there are more fish,” he said then gave me the single fist bump, the international hand signal of, ahem, procreation.

Like everywhere else in Sicily, fish is all over the menus here. Iose recommended Trattoria da Papu’. The fish theme overwhelmed us as we walked in to walls draped in fishnets, anchors, starfish, black and white photos of old fishermen and a gorgeous sunset photo from the 1980s.

Busiate al Profumo di Mare

Busiate al Profumo di Mare


Multiple trips to Sicily have changed my perspective on Italian food. Sicily shot right past Emilia-Romagna as the top region. The large variety of seafood is so fresh and the desserts — the cannoli, the granitas — are perfect for the hot Sicilian climate. And every trip I discover something new. At Papu’ I discovered busiate, a thick, twisty pasta that’s specialty to western Sicily. It’s perfect with my dish, Busiate al Profumo di Mare, busiate covered in shrimp, clams and bread crumbs. With a tuna and fried shrimp cocktail, that was all of 23 euros and a half-liter of house Nero d’Avalo was 6. You do the math.
Marina and me at Cala Rossa

Marina and me at Cala Rossa


The only ways to see Favignana are by boat or bike. A car is a waste of money. The island is too small for a car and you get no feel for the fresh Mediterranean breezes. And the quiet. Oh, it is so quiet on Favignana you can hear the birds’ singing almost make sense. We woke the next day and headed back to the harbor where Noleggio Ginevra had some of the nicest bikes I’ve ever rented. They’re modern hybrids with 30-plus gears and men’s and women’s versions. I’m just not comfortable enough in my manhood to ride a bike without a crossbar.
On the road in Favignana. Photo by Marina Pascucci

On the road in Favignana. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Marina and I headed along the harbor before cutting inland and going south. We passed entire fields of golden rods lined with pine and lemon and cactus trees. Stone walls bordered off excavation sites with signs reading: “Attenti al cane” (Beware of dog).

Soon, we saw our tourist poster. To our left, stretching out from the craggy beach, sat a sea so turquoise I could see the bottom from atop the cliff. It was clear as any sea I’ve ever seen, making me kick myself for not bringing a swimsuit before remembering the water temps that would sterilize me for life. We parked our bikes and walked along the rocky cliffside trail. An old man stood next to his small trailer advertising “pane cunzatu,” a traditional Sicilian sandwich featuring tomatoes, anchovies and cheese. We stared down at the 80-foot drop and wondered how crowded this corner of the Mediterranean must get in August. Then we saw a sign.

Cala Rossa. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Cala Rossa. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Cala Rossa.

This is where the Phoenicians met their deaths in the 3rd century B.C. and where Italians meet their nirvana in the 21st century.

The problem with Favignana is it is so small, the locals figured, Who needs signs? As we cut inland, we got as lost as anyone can on an island with nothing more than a two-lane road. Favignana has a spiderweb of small roads careening around pleasant homes and fields. Unable to find the other beaches on our checklist, we stopped a man wearing gaiters. Maybe a fisherman, maybe a gardener, maybe Favignana is infested with leeches. It didn’t matter. He was flat out crazy as a loon. I asked directions and he said, “Parli italiano?” He then gave us directions Indiana Jones couldn’t follow. Marina didn’t understand him, either and she’s Italian.

After he grabbed my arm in emphasis, I shook away and we backtracked in the general direction of his protruding finger, assuming it was his index. We eventually wound our way down to the far southern coast where we saw Cala Tuono. Seagulls joined us and a picnicking couple on the cliff as we stared down at a long beach — covered in algae. Yes, the image was somewhat stained by the sight of green squishy substance you need flip-flops to navigate in spring. Yet looking out at the turquoise sea, I’d brave the gross texture under my feet knowing the pleasure that would envelop my body in time.

Cala Azzurra

Cala Azzurra


On the way back we passed a hiking group, the lone tourists we encountered on the weekend, and visited Cala Azzurra. Lined with resorts closed until summer, Cala Azzurra has a gorgeous view of 12th century Norman Fort of Santa Caterina towering over the village and beautiful turquoise swimming holes just feet from the shore.

In 15 minutes, we had pedaled back into town and parked at Paninoteca Costanza, a tiny deli with a sign featuring Wimpy, the burger-munching character from the American cartoon “Popeye,” holding a hamburger. It’s the one place on Favignana you can get a hamburger and hotdog, an unfortunately growing craze among Italian youth. We passed for the panino camparia, a fat chunk of freshly grilled tuna in a toasted sesame bun and lathered in mayo. For 6 euros, it was the best bargain in town.

My good friend, Giovanni Bertolani, floating in Favignana in summer.

My good friend, Giovanni Bertolani, floating in Favignana in summer.


I’ve long stopped asking Sicilians tired questions about the mafia and the pizzo (payoffs) and the past. Islands like Favignana are dotted all around Sicily and we plan on visiting many more.

After all, I plan on having many more birthdays.