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A sometimes solo female traveller

My Vidivino wine tour of Provence

A real highlight of my recent visit to the French Riviera was my wine tour with VidiVino, Provence. At 100 Euro for the day, this turned out to be excellent value for money in terms of time, the expertise and personal attention of our guide, the vineyards we visited, the (very generous) wine tastings and group size. It was also a day out in glorious countryside and off-the-beaten-track villages and trails that I could never have reached without a local guide.

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Provence

I found the tour through the Azur Wine Tours website and it’s one of several tours run by VidiVino, https://vidivino.fr/en/small-group-wine-tour-from-french-riviera/. They do pick-ups from several points around Provence; I was staying at Cannes and they arranged to pick me up at the Cagnes sur Mer train station, about 15 minutes from Cannes. They take a maximum of eight guests on the tour. Lunch is not included but you are dropped at off at a medieval village to a recommended (and excellent) restaurant where you can spend 20-25 Euro on lunch. My pasta dish and a cup of coffee cost 20 Euro, including tip.IMG_0430

Wines of Provence – the basics.

I won’t lie – I love wine but I don’t have a very discerning palate. The complexities of wine tend to be lost on me but I DO KNOW that I love Rose when I’m in Provence, and Rose accounts for about 80% of wine production in the region. Cotes de Provence is the largest AOC region in France (Appellation d’Origin Controllee) as well as being the oldest wine-producing region in all of France (recent excavations of ancient Roman ruins attest to this). The region’s Mourvedre grape benefits from a balance between the warm Mediterranean climate and the Mistral winds. While it produces several varieties, Bandol and Cassis are among its most renowned.

The tour

I’ve done wine tours and tastings before but this was a far superior experience with wineries that were steeped in history and character. For instance, the traditional, aristocratic Chateau de Saint Martin is owned by a countess who inherited her winery from generations of women who managed the estate down through the centuries, passing it down from mother to daughter. Recent excavations unearthed tools used by the ancient Romans for vinification purposes and these are on display in the cellar, alongside portraits of her ancestors.

 

For a completely different experience, we visited a maverick producer of natural wines in a charmingly ramshackle, quirky little winery where we tasted wines from the barrels (Clos Cassivet).IMG_0408  We tasted about six wines at each vineyard and I actually had to stop tasting after a while because we were given so much. We also visited a stunning winery with a Cistercian style cellar and incredible views of the surrounding mountain range.

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Tasting wines straight from the barrel

 

Our guide, Erwan, shared both his knowledge and passion for wines with humour and ease. As a small group, we got to ask endless questions which were never dismissed, no matter how basic. Erwan knew about every aspect of the process, from the soil and the winds to the sensations on the palate. In fact, he harvests grapes with friends during the vendange so he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.  These are the kind of details that give a really strong sense of a community, specifically the Provence wine community of neighbours and old friends.

 

The whole experience was informative and convivial, while the landscape was beautiful and very, erm, French. At the end of the tour, having tasted so many good wines, I swore I would go home and be a more discerning customer, sacrificing quantity for quality. You can imagine how long that lasted.

 

 

The very best of Kerry, Ireland

There’s almost no point in advising people on where to go in Kerry. Whether you drive the Ring of Kerry or the Wild Atlantic Way, or take a tour bus, or just drive aimlessly, you’re going to find natural beauty everywhere you turn. However, after many visits to Kerry, and a recent stay in Dingle under my belt, I feel I have to share my favourite spots and recommend a few places for eating and drinking. (Scroll to the end if you just want to know about food and drink.)

Around Killarney and the Killarney National Park

My favourite spot near Killarney has to be Moll’s Gap, a short drive from the national park, after Torc Waterfall. The tour of Muckross House in the national park is also very good especially if it’s raining and you want to be indoors. After that, Sneem village is lovely. The Strawberry Field Pancake Cottage on the way to Sneem from the National Park is great for pancakes or lunch. Went with my niece and we both loved it.

The town of Kenmare is also lovely; I saw the actor, Gabriel Byrne, there on his honeymoon a few years ago!

Dingle
My favourite place of all is Dingle, especially the Connor Pass – totally unmissable.Kerry 2017&Susie 022 Go to Brandon Point while you’re there. If you go in the other direction towards Mount Brandon you’ve got a beautiful hike which overlaps with an old pilgrim trail and you should take a look at Brandon Creek which is so lovely, especially in the morning.

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The colourful village of Cloghane

Slea Head and Dun Chaoin (pronounced Dune Kween – sort of) are breathtaking and serene. You’ll want to stop all the time. There’s a petting farm there as well beside the old famine cottage. (It’s also a sad place if you know anything about the Irish Famine and how it devastated the region in the 1840s.)

While Dingle was thronged when I was there, the countryside wasn’t at all so you may have a lot of these places to yourself.

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Cool craft shop in Sneem

Closer to the Cork/Kerry border, you could visit the Dzogchen Beara Buddhist monastery on Beara Peninsula near Castletown Bere. Most people I meet don’t seem to know about it but it is so beautiful, as is that region and West Cork.

I adore Inch Beach in Dingle but there are lots of wonderful beaches around – Dun Chaoin, Muireagh (wrong spelling), Caherdaniel, Derrynane…
Eating in Dingle:
Great lunches, cakes and coffee in Bean in Dingle. Great new cafe run by young people. Better value than pubs or restaurants if you’re happy with a sandwich for lunch.

Anchor Down – seafood. The owner is a fisherman and the wife runs the restaurant. I thought it would be expensive but it’s no more than the pubs around there. Out of the Blue is also excellent. If the fishing boats don’t sail that day, they don’t open. Dick Mack’s pub is also great for music and craic, and there’s a yard beside it with some small restaurants/cafes.


Killarney:
Not my favourite town but if you’re there you can get a decent, inexpensive lunch in Jam Cafe. If you’re looking for something more formal or ‘fancy’ you can get nice bar food and a glass of wine in the Maldon Hotel beside the train station. The setting is formal but the staff are friendly and welcoming; it’s a nice spot to chill with a glass of wine while you wait for your train home.

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Lobby of Maldon Hotel

 

Unmissable day trips from Nice and Cannes

Many visitors to south of France find themselves based in Nice or Cannes, both of which are wonderful! (For more on Cannes, see: https://travally.net/2016/07/26/cannes-and-beyond-good-food-good-wine-lets-dine/Cannes)

Cannes and Nice are fabulous and have plenty to occupy visitors but there is no shortage of day trips along the Cote d’Azur, as you can hop on and off the train service (SNCF) which takes you along the coast to stunning locations, often just 20-40 minutes from Nice or Cannes. Buses are really cheap at 1.50 per journey and often the routes themselves take you along breathtaking, unforgettable scenery ( like no. 81 on the way to Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild). With so much to see and experience, it can be very difficult to make a choice but I’ve narrowed it down to some experiences which I found outstanding.

Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild

Villa Ephrussi is the wondrous creation of the eccentric heiress and art collector, Beatrice de Rothschild.

Completed in 1912 during the Belle Epoque, it was one of Beatrice’s homes and it housed her collections of fine art, antiques,  monkeys, dogs and national treasures. Here you will find renaissance art, silks, chinoiserie, porcelain collections, vatican tapestries, salon des singes (a room dedicated to monkeys) and an exquisite little bureau which once belonged to Marie Antoinette.

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Garden at Villa Ephrussi

The main garden (there are nine themed gardens) is a delight – every 20 minutes it comes alive with fountains and classical music. People’s gleeful reactions to this little spectacle are just as charming and heart-warming as the event itself.

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Beatrice’s drawing room at Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild

 

While the villa is palatial and arguably decadent, it never exceeds the bounds of good taste (it’s not a Gatsby-style mansion). The audio guides give valuable insights into Beatrice’s world and her vision for her stunning holiday home. Equally stunning are the views which surround it.

Take the 81 bus from Promenade des Arts in Nice, departing every 20 minutes, and get off the bus at Passable. Ticket to the villa with audio guide is 14 Euro. While there, you should also take the time to stroll around St Jean Cap Ferrat and marvel at the views which are breathtaking.

Eze is a medieval, hill-top village with stunning views of the coast. You take the train to Eze sur Mer, followed by a short bus ride to Eze village.

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View from Eze cactus garden

You could walk from the station (ca. 2 KM) but you’re going to do a ton of walking when you get to the village itself so save your energy and your feet for the best part! Wear comfy footwear.

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Eze – old stone buildings and cobbled streets intact

Like so much of this region, it’s a visual feast. There are lots of cafes and restaurants in the old stone buildings so you can dine and shop here if your budget stretches that far and you fancy a glass of wine atop this medieval village, overlooking the most incredible views of the aptly-named Cote d’Azur (Azure Coast). Yes, it is a commercial enterprise as well as a heritage site but it is tastefully done so that the site retains its character. 2016-06-17 11.36.28

Provence wine tourIMG_0428

A real highlight of my second visit to the Riviera was my day trip with VidiVino, Provence. At 100 Euro for the day, this turned out to be excellent value for money in terms of time, the expertise and personal attention of our guide, the vineyards and wineries we visited, the (very generous) wine tastings and group size. IMG_0420Our guide, Erwan, shared both his knowledge and passion for wines with humour and ease. As a small group, we got to ask endless questions which were never dismissed, no matter how basic. He runs the tours with two partners and they take a maximum of six guests on the tour. Lunch is not included but you are dropped at off at a village restaurant where you can spend 20-25 Euro on lunch. (I had a main and a cup of coffee for 20, including tip.)

I’ve done wine tours and tastings before (e.g. Napa Valley, California; Maipo in Chile) but this was a far superior experience. From a traditional winery owned by a countess, to a maverick producer of natural wines in a charmingly ramshackle, quirky little winery where we tasted wines from the barrels, we gained unique and fascinating insights into the traditions and culture of wine in Provence. There is so much more to say about this tour but I don’t want to give any spoilers! https://vidivino.fr/

Monaco, with its casinos, yachts, fast cars, palaces, and royal family is, as might be expected, a tribute to wealth and its associated pleasures. Social conscience aside, if you are on the Riviera, Monaco/Monte Carlo has to be seen, even if just for half a day.2016-06-17 14.11.142016-06-17 14.30.12 While there is an ostentatious display of wealth around the casino and the marina, the old town villas are remarkably elegant and a pleasure to behold – rub  your muzzle against the window and dream. The palatial Casino at Monte Carlo is open to visitors should you wish to take a look around – it’s free and well worth a look. Monte Carlo gets crammed with tourists during the day but – I am told – it empties out in the evening as no-one can afford to stay there. From Nice or Cannes, you can easily visit Eze and Monaco in one day by train.

Visiting St Paul de Vence was a priority for me but, sadly, I didn’t make it as I was ill. I missed it but I bet it’s unmissable too! Yet another reason to return to the Cote d’Azur.

 

 

 

 

Ischia – an island paradise in Italy

Source: Ischia – an island paradise in Italy

Hanoi in 24 hours

Source: Hanoi in 24 hours

What to see, do and love on the Greek island of Naxos

Naxos Island, Greece, has it all: pristine beaches, ancient ruins, great food and shopping, breathtaking mountain landscape, rural villages, Byzantine churches, water sports, a Medieval castle, value for money, day trips and cruises.

The largest of the Cyclades islands, Naxos has the charm and beauty of the Greek islands, but is also a working island with permanent residents, independent family businesses, schools, a hospital, and a tiny little airport which connects to the mainland. Or, as Andrew Bostock in The Guardian puts it, ‘Naxos is probably the only Cycladic island that could survive if all the tourists stayed away’. It’s real. (Can I say authentic? Does that word mean anything anymore?)

It’s the kind of island that merits much more than a day trip; I met travellers staying for four days (on average) but I also met people who stay for several weeks every year and don’t get tired of it. After a week there, I can see why.

Getting there

You can fly from Athens in 25 minutes or you can get the Blue Star Ferry from Piraeus port in Athens which takes five and a half hours. There are other ferries but Blue Star is the main one.

 Little tip: if you choose business class, it’s much the same as economy but it’s much quieter and less crowded.

Getting around

A car would be ideal but the local buses are great. Return journeys around the island range from 4 to 7 Euro in price.

Where to stay

One option is Chora, the main town on the harbour. You can walk to everything and hop on the local buses which take you all over the island. I stayed at Pension Sofi.

Pension Sofi, Naxos

I chose it because of its outstanding reviews on Trip Advisor and it didn’t disappoint. It’s run by a genuinely lovely, welcoming family and is immaculate, comfortable and very tastefully furnished.

Pension Sofi, Naxos

While it has all the charm of a family pension, it’s run efficiently, to a very high standard and offers excellent value for money. I met guests who’ve been coming back there for years.

View from my balcony at Pension Sofi

Where to eat

There’s an abundance of Tavernas which all offer standard traditional fare but these are my recommendations which came from locals and Greek travel bloggers:

Maro’s Taverna, Ioannou Paparigopoulou, Naxos 843 00, Greece: very traditional, down-to-earth family restaurant; huge portions; excellent value for money; jugs of local wine and dishes that you won’t see on tourist menus.

Metaxi Mas, Old Town, Naxos: a little more picturesque and romantic than the more robust, earthy tavernas.

Doukato: very highly rated by locals. Tucked away on the edge of the old town with a beautiful garden setting; romantic, finer dining than the tavernas. 

Kozi, Leof. Naxou Eggaron, Naxos: decent food, reasonably priced but the view is outstanding. Friendly, cheerful staff who wanted me to drink wine on the house but I’d already had enough!

Along the harbour, you could also try Irini’s taverna or Diogenes Bar for cocktails.

What to do and see: 

Beaches, sailing and water sports, quad biking, archaeological ruins from ancient (super ancient) Mycenean civilization, cruises and day trips to other islands, Medieval castle, mountain villages, stunning inland landscape, island bus tour.

My absolute favourite highlights from this trip:

Apiranthos: marble village in the mountains. It’s one hour from the port by bus and the journey itself is breathtaking. The village is absolutely beautiful and should not be missed.

 Full of white cobbled streets, nooks and crannies and surrounded by stunning mountain views.

Back street of Apiranthos, Naxos
Apiranthos, Naxos

The return bus schedule is really well timed. I’d recommend spending two hours there (time to stop and eat).

Halki: also a mountain village, it’s surrounded by walking trails among little Byzantine churches, olive groves, farmland and goats.

Byzantine church, Halki, Naxos
Countryside of Halki, Naxos

You can walk up to 8 KM around the tiny village with its gorgeous little cafes and famous citron distillery.

Distillery at Halki, Naxos  

 

 

Iason sailing trip to Koufinissia.

I was determined to see Koufinissia as a Greek friend had told me it was exceptional, unspoilt and a little off the well-beaten tourist trail. It took me a while to find a day trip that was just right for me but the Iason cruise was perfect.
The 18m long wooden boat leaves from the smaller port of Agia Anna and first takes you to a tiny, deserted beach (paradise) where passengers can jump off and swim for 45 minutes while the crew prepare the barbeque.

From there, you sail to the main beach of Koufinissia and you have a couple of hours to explore the island, have a drink, swim on the beach.

 It is a really relaxing day of sailing, sunbathing, swimming and strolling, unlike the other cruises that try to cram everything in and herd you around like cattle.

Blue sea of Koufinissia
Koufinissia Harbour
Windmill at Koufinissia

On the Iason cruise from Naxos

At 50 Euro for the trip, including barbeque lunch, it was excellent value and probably the best day of my holiday.

Other highlights

Plaka beach: 20 mins from town by bus, it’s pristine, calm and glorious. Agios Anna and Prokopios are also very popular.

Plaka beach, Naxos

History, Archaeology, Mycenean Civilization: landmark ancient ruins include the Temple of Apollo at Grotta (must be seen at sunset), the Temple of Demeter and the massive Kouros sculpture.

 Building projects have been halted at various sites on the island because archaeologist and ecologists are still discovering – and protecting – the remains of ancient civilizations.

Temple of Apollo, Naxos

This island is an exciting place for those with a passion for archaeology.

The village of Filoti, en route to Apiranthos.

The Eggares Olive Press.

And finally… I had one disappointment on my trip. A day trip to Santorini was a complete waste of money and time. The towns of Oia and Thira are over-crowded and over-priced. The harbour is full of cruise traffic, the towns and the walks are full of foot traffic, the streets are jammed with tour buses and tourists ride donkeys in the heat which I find cruel and exploitative (of the donkeys, not the people!).

I realise I went on a particularly bad day and I met lots of travellers who stayed for a couple of days and loved it so if I went back to Santorini – unlikey – I would stay for a couple of days and I would stay away from the tourist beat. Spend more time on Naxos!

 

 

 

 

Seven reasons to get your winter sun in Corralejo, Fuerteventura

  1. Year round sunshine with average highs of 22 Celsius in winter and 28 C in summer; approximately 15 days of rain per year.
  2. Surfing, yoga, hiking, walking, nature.
  3. Nature reserves and UNESCO Biosphere status
  4. Beautiful beaches with striking contrast between black volcanic rock and white sand.
  5. A mellow, laidback atmosphere.
  6. Some wonderful restaurants and seafood
  7. It’s cheap – drink, food, duty-free shopping, accommodation.

As a native of Ireland where winter lasts about eleven months, I crave bursts of sunshine to get me through the eternal grey skies of my beloved homeland. Corralejo in Fuerteventura is only 4 hours and 20 mins from Dublin by plane and it’s my new winter-sun-fix for the foreseeable future. As a Canary Island, it relies on tourism and there is naturally a very commercial side to it but it’s nowhere near the saturation levels of other resorts and islands in the region. There’s a commercial strip in Corralejo’s centre but there’s enough hiking among nature reserves, dormant volcanoes and lunar landscapes for anyone who wants to avoid the tacky factor.

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Cliffs and waves – El Cotillo

Surf

Surfing is massive here – from absolute beginners at surfing school to seasoned surfers who’ve never managed to leave, surf is the word of the day here.

Yoga

Yoga is also a big part of life and you’ll see yoga classes taking place all over the beaches in the morning. The retreat at Azulfit (http://www.azulfit.com/retreat-location/fuerteventura-retreats/) is meant to be excellent but it’s not exactly cheap so if you are on a budget, just book accommodation and find a yoga class when you get there. I did yoga on the beach while there and found the sand and distractions a bit of a pain so I’d recommend a studio class. wp-1483741392678.jpg

Family life

I saw quite a few families with small children here, as well as retired couples who own homes on the island – Irish, British, Spanish. This is probably because there isn’t a rowdy, Benidorm scene here – no lager louts or wet t-shirt competitions (maybe you’ll find them if you look for them?).

Excursions

No shortage of them. El Cotillo is a fishing village, north-east of the island, with stunning cliffs and waves, and some great seafood. Less developed than the rest of the island, it’s 50 minutes from Corralejo by public bus. The seafood at El Roque de los Pescadores is quite exceptional. The staff don’t speak much English but that didn’t stop me from having fantastic food – when I asked the waiter to explain the fish on the menu because my Spanish wasn’t up to it, he took me to the giant fish on display under glass so I could see for myself. No words needed.

 

 

Isla De Lobos  is a little island haven, accessible by (pretty small) ferry in 20 mins from Corralejo. Return trip by ferry is 15 Euro for adults and 10 Euro for 4-11 year-olds.

The tiny island is largely uninhabited and if you take the 10 a.m. ferry, you’ll experience an almost eerie silence and an other-worldly landscape. Expect lagunitas (little lakes), black rock, a sprinkling of fishing boats, tiny swamps and a dormant volcano. There’s a couple of walking trails so you can walk around the island for a couple of hours or do shorter walks for an hour or so.

Bring a packed lunch or book lunch with the ONE restuarant on the island- they may offer paella or fish for 7 Euro.

A day trip to Lanzarote is also a popular option. See my post on Lanzarote: https://wordpress.com/post/travally.net/324

Eating in Corralejo 

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‘Donkey Fish’- local speciality, baked in a mound of salt

There are plenty of mediocre restaurants with fish swimming in ‘Canarian’ sauces and chips on the side but you can eat well in Corralejo if you choose wisely. Sanus is the one everyone’s talking about at the minute. It caters for vegans, vegetarians, diabetics and celiacs but don’t panic – it’s not as virtuous as it sounds. There is meat and seafood in that mix of dietary needs and it’s great. The decor is minimalist and chic – a real relief from the tackiness along the main commercial strip. In high season you will need to book; it’s busy. wp-1483813987475.jpg

Mi Casa on Calle Maritima, facing the beach, is also highly recommended for its seafood and  Mediterranean cuisine. Excellent food and service with a cheerful, nautical ambience. Also very popular and busy in peak season. Will definitely be going back on my next visit.

I kicked off winter 2016 in Corralejo and it looks like I’ll be ending it there in 2017. Counting down the weeks.

My trip in SE Asia

This blog started with my trip to South East Asia in 2015 and I’ve been adding other trips to it over the last year or so. I like to share mainly positive experiences – especially if th…

Source: My trip in SE Asia

Ischia – an island paradise in Italy

5012_94066962842_2494148_nMany years ago when I lived in Rome, I asked an Italian friend to recommend her favourite place in all of Italy. ‘Ischia’, she answered without hesitation. I hadn’t heard of this little island in the Gulf of Naples, but I trusted my source – a lady of exquisite taste and judgement – and placed it on my bucket list. Years later, I went there with family, and now, when people ask me to recommend somewhere special in Italy, I too can answer ‘Ischia’ without hesitation. 5012_94067117842_7313163_n

Some refer to it as the poor relation of Capri but this is a good thing as it means Ischia has the beauty of Capri without the bling or ostentation. You won’t see Ferraris and Porsches but you will see cute Cinquecentos with surf-boards precariously balanced on the roofs!

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Stepping out at Castello Sant’Angelo

Why Ischia?

You go to Ischia for a Mediterranean summer, stunning coastal views and lush, verdant landscape at every bend in the road; a small island that is easily covered by its very cheap and regular public buses; fantastic, inexpensive restaurants that exude charm and character; beaches and relaxation; to experience Italian life away from the grit and grime of the cities and their mass tourism.

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The scene:

Ischia is not really about clubbing and partying. It’s a quiet, relaxing holiday with leisurely dinners over a carafe of wine while watching glorious sunsets sink over the ocean. It’s popular with Germans; most of the staff there speak German, not English. This means the prices of food and drink are reasonable – as opposed to the exorbitant costs in Rome or Venice – because Germans, in my experience, are pretty sensible and will not stick around if they are being ripped off.

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The Highlights:

Poseidon Gardens – thermal baths, sulphur springs with healing properties, treatments, restaurants and wine grottos. (Deeply tanned elderly men in thongs!) The damage: admission costs 32 Euro for a day so it’s a bit of a treat but worth every penny to indulge yourself. http://www.giardiniposeidonterme.com/en/homepage

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Castello Aragonese – This medieval castle was built to protect Ischia’s inhabitants from invasions so it was much more than a castle and functioned as a fortified but thriving town with living quarters, shops, a market, a convent and a chapel. As a result, it’s  well worth spending at least half a day there to take it all in, enjoy the breathtaking views and take a break at restaurants and coffee shops.5012_94067177842_7964262_n

They also host occasional concerts and events so look these up before you go.   http://www.castelloaragoneseischia.com/en/

The Mortell Gardens – I went to see them but they were closed and I was gutted! (They open about three days a week.) These landscaped gardens sound incredible and are reason enough for me to go back to Ischia.

 

Getting there:

Ischia can be visited on a day trip from Naples but it deserves so much more of your time. If you are arriving from outside Italy, it does take a bit of time to get there: we landed in Naples Airport, got a taxi to the port, a ferry to Ischia port, a taxi to our hotel. If you book hotels in advance, most will send a driver to pick you up at the airport and take you to your hotel.

Getting around: 

Taxis are prohibitively expensive but buses are super cheap and go everywhere. You can easily get around the whole island on public buses.

Staying there: 

Accommodation is not cheap and gets booked up fast. The Hotel Sorriso is a 4 star, family-run establishment with phenomenal ocean views, a great restaurant and lovely staff and management. http://www.sorrisoresort.it/en

Even today, not that many people have heard of Ischia which is part of its charm. You may have seen it on The Talented Mr Ripley with Jude Law or in Antony and Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor. Many visitors will see Ischia on a day trip from Naples or Sorrento but it deserves so much more of your time, especially if you like beach time, stunning views of land and sea, sunsets and a taste of southern Italian food, wine and life.

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