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Conventional wisdom tells us that while in Rome, we should do what the Romans do – though why stop there? The citizens of the eternal Italian city are discerning and fastidious when it comes to their pursuit of pleasure and cultural enlightenment – whether food or art, fashion or architecture (they are, after all, the hereditary heirs to history’s great civilisation builders). So, when it comes to the summer months – at which point Rome reaches a near-unbearable boiling point – follow the old adage and ‘do as the Romans do’, which is to say leave the city entirely and head to Ponza, the secret isle where Romans have holidayed for decades.
Found off Italy’s Tyrrhenian coastline – 18 miles from Rome by boat, and about the same in the other direction to Naples – Ponza is part of the Pontine archipelago, a cluster of rocky islands which barely show up on a map. Despite their diminutive size, they nonetheless have provided an escape route for Romans all the way back to Imperial times, even if, back then, people found themselves sent there against their will (Ponza, the largest, was a prison island of sorts, where the enemies of Rome’s royal families were banished for acts of rebellion). There are worse places to be marooned, they discovered: among some of the most beautiful surrounds in all of Italy, the Roman rebels ended up living happily, building opulent palaces and swimming in pools carved out from the rocks.
Now, those who find themselves on the island – the majority of which still come from Rome – do so in a state of self-exile, choosing the sedate isle to while away springtime weekends or settle in for long summer breaks. And, though mumblings of its discovery by an increasingly international set (Rihanna, Jay-Z and Beyoncé, among others, have recently frequented the isle) Ponza nonetheless retains an unbothered demeanour, far-and-away from the glamour and gloss of the tourist-cluttered Capri just down the coastline. Instead, it has a dramatic beauty: monumental white cliffs, domed grottoes and vast rock formations emerge from pristine azure waters, relenting to more sedate coves and beaches – whether the popular Spiaggia Di Frontone, close to the main port, or secluded enclaves, like Cala Felce, Punta Di Capo Bianco, or the warm waters of Piscine Naturale.
Most will arrive at Ponza Porto – hydrofoils arrive there from Anzio, just outside of Rome, taking around an hour, or two-and-a-half from Naples – the island’s largest settlement, a collection of 17th-century houses in pale gelato shades stacked on top of one and other up the steep cliffside (an extended stay does require some amount of stamina in your legs). Along the pretty seafront, find a place to stay at the well-appointed Gennarino a Mare – low-key bedrooms are made up for by the hotel’s restaurant, where portside views backdrop just-caught seafood, served simply. The Grand Hotel Domitilla is close-by – at four stars, it is the highest rated on the island – a sedate boutique hotel and spa (the latter a subterranean construction of grotto-like swimming pools and passageways). Villa Laetitia, meanwhile, was renovated by Anna Fendi of the Fendi fashion dynasty (an assurance of good taste) and is housed in a small but perfectly formed Bourbon-era residenzia, with each room decorated in distinct style.
The well-versed, though, spend as little time as possible on land: surrounded by pristine waters, Ponza is best enjoyed by boat. Day or week-long charters are available: whether the traditional wooden gozzo, speedier motorised dinghies (you will not need a boating licence for either) or large yachts for which to island-hop (completely chartered boats are available, including captain and crew), you will find the best of the isle, much of which is entirely inaccessible by foot. Simply trace Ponza’s rocky edges and discover the many naturally hewn swimming spots, many of which remain entirely secluded, even during the summer months (evidence enough of why Romans return weekend after weekend).
After simple days spent sunbathing – there is little more pressing be done on Ponza, which is much of its appeal – head back towards town and join the pre-dinner passeggiata, where locals and visitors alike line Porto’s streets and bars for aperitivos (head to the popular Bar Maga Circe for spritz, though be prepared to forego a table and stand out front). Later, numerous restaurants buzz long into the evening: the much-loved Restaurant EEA, with its expansive terrace, serves familiar Italian favourites – pasta, risotto and the like, as well as local speciality, tuna tartar – while Michelin-starred Acqua Pazza, right on the harbour’s edge, is perhaps, despite much competition, the island’s finest seafood – their Amberjack carpaccio, with beetroot and dehydrated caper, is their own playful take on the island’s traditional tartar.
On Porto’s main central square, Piazza Carlo Pisacane, you will find Pasticceria Napoletana, a local institution, where a colourful array of Neapolitan pastries are made on the premises. Enjoy a morning coffee and sfogliatella – a local speciality where a ‘lobster tail’ of pastry is filled with ricotta and candied lemon peel – though be in no rush (in true Italian style, service is notoriously on the waiter’s terms).
A day on Ponza is best spent on sea: Diva Luna is a reliable local firm, where alongside self-drive rentals, a number of tours are available (numerous other such charters are available in the central port). Head to the island’s famed Grotte de Pilato, where biblical villain Pontius Pilate purportedly swum among the dug-out Roman arches and pools in the crystal-clear Tyrrhenian waters.
Head for lunch at La Marina, a no-fuss beachfront restaurant on the sheltered Cala Feola, where simple dishes – most of which revolve around spaghetti and seafood, and change daily – are served on colourful ceramic plates. Arrive by boat and stay for the afternoon on the paradise-like slither of sandy beach.
Ponza’s bustling centre – the harbour town of Porto, where ferries arrive from the mainland – is best enjoyed in the early evening. Join visitors and locals alike on the pre-dinner passeggiata and wander down the marina boardwalk where shops and bars (stop in to one for the requisite aperitivo) sit amid the picture-perfect backdrop of the town’s pastel-coloured Bourbon-era houses.
Though there are many simple trattorie to be enjoyed across the island, serving fresh, local fare, Acqua Pazza – with a terrace right on the harbour’s edge, and the island’s only Michelin star – is a better way than any to end a day on Ponza. Befitting its location, seafood remains the star: whether their signature crudo (raw fish carpaccio) or delicately plated snapper tortellini, it’s among the best on the isle.