Able was I, ere I saw Elba. This saying might be the most famous palindrome of all time and yes, when I think of Elba, the island off the coast of Tuscany, this always pops into my mind.
I’ve wanted to go to Elba for a while, although to be honest, I’m not sure what the pull has been. Maybe it’s the magnetic pull of Elba’s Monte Calamita, which literally is an iron mountain. The magnetic force from Monte Calamita is said to be so strong that it wrecks havoc on passing ships’ compasses.
Prior to tourism, Elba was a mining island and at one point was mined for iron, granite, amethyst, tourmaline, quartz and other minerals. Elba is perhaps best known as the exiled home of Napoleon and is now known as a spot for holiday goers escaping from the summer heat.
Pete and I had talked about what we wanted to do this summer on our trip to Italy and I had mentioned that I wanted to see Elba. We arrived at the house to find a note on our gate saying that our power (and that of surrounding houses) would be interrupted for a full day. Decision made. Elba calls. (It also didn’t hurt that the weather in Umbria was, and had been for weeks, a scorching 36-42°C and Elba looked a much cooler 24°C.)
To get to Elba, one must first get to Piombino, a town on the Tuscan coast, and then hop on one of the four ferry services (Toremar, Moby Line, Blu Navy, Corsica-Sardinia Ferries) that run several times an hour from Piombino to Elba and back. [See the ferry schedule here.] We bought ferry tickets for ourselves and the car, headed to the ferry dock and, in surprisingly un-Italian fashion, boarded in a straightforward and orderly manner. The ferries have a movie theatre, children’s play area, snack counter and bar. Very civilized.
The hour ride is quite relaxing and makes you feel like you are indeed escaping to someplace special. As you cruise past the Italian archipelago, you are greeted by the rocky coastline with its mountains springing into view, sail boats, very large yachts and other ferries heading back from Elba to Piombino. Departure from the ferry is again surprisingly straightforward and pretty efficient.
As we were only in beautiful Elba for two days, we decided to spend day one at the beach and then tour around on the second day. For our beach break, we chose to stay at the fabulous Hotel Hermitage. Located in Biodola (Portoferraio), this hotel, which has been owned and run by the De Ferrari family since opening, is perfect for an Elba getaway. There are three pools, a private beach, tennis courts, a 9-hole golf course, spa, and numerous walking trails. We wished we had stayed longer to order a drink at the swim up infinity pool bar!
The staff is extremely friendly and go out of their way to make sure you feel at home. The rooms are quite large and nicely appointed – we loved the racks on the balcony to dry bathing suits. The hotel has a private beach and provides covered beach chairs (the canopy top swings up) and towels.
Unlike some of the Caribbean Islands, there is no one walking by harassing you to buy things. If you dislike your bathing suit, fear not, there are several stands on the beach selling bathing suits, hats and water toys.
The ocean can get a little rough. There were several lifeguards keeping a watchful eye, as well as rescue boats. [PETE’s TIP: the waves are sometimes rough, don’t wear your sunglasses in the ocean, leave them on your chair or you may end up making a sacrifice to the Elba water gods.]
[ELIN’sTIP: once we got to the hotel, we didn’t want to leave, so we booked the half board package which included breakfast and a great 4-course dinner, with a stunning view of the sunset over Elba.]
For fish lovers, you can’t get fresher fish! Pete’s main was a whole fish, masterfully deboned tableside and served. For my sister and other celiacs, the hotel is AIC (Italian Association for Coeliac Disease) and in all the restaurants on site, one is able to find gluten-free products.
The second day, after a great breakfast on the terrace, we sadly left the Hotel Hermitage and headed off to explore. First stop was Mount Capanne. After driving on narrow roads with lots of switchbacks (albeit with stunning views) we arrived at the western part of the island, Marciana, and the “Cabinovia” entrance.
We bought our tickets to take the open yellow
bird cages cable cars (think Gubbio) up to the highest point in Elba. The cages start to go up, and then up, and then up and up. After approximately 15 minutes, we reached the top of Mount Capanne, which is over 1 kilometre (1,019 m) above sea level. On a clear day, you can see over to Corsica and the Tuscan coast.
On a cloudy day, you feel like you are isolated at the top of the world.
We had a mix of fog and clear spots, so we had the best of both worlds. You can hike up or down the mountain, but block yourself a good chunk of time if you choose to hike. There are snack bars at the top and bottom of the Cabinovia stations. Getting to the top provides quite the adventure.
WARNING: In very Italian fashion, the cable cars stop running, up or down, between 1 pm – approximately 2:30 pm. Plan the time fo your ascent wisely or your only choice for a descent may be a walk down or a wait.
The bird cage cable cars take a little getting used to, but provide uninterrupted views and of course, a good story. What goes up, though must go down.
After more driving along the stunning coastline, we stopped for lunch at “Da Teresina” in Marciana Marina, a small restaurant across the street from one of the stone beaches. There, we were reminded of the island’s most famous resident.
We can take a hint! We headed off to Napoleon’s summer residence, the Villa di San Martino. This was one of Napoleon’s private homes while he was exiled to Elba (May 1814 – February 1815). The other was his “official” residence, Villa dei Mulini (in Portoferraio).
The Villa is on a hill, surrounded by trees and grounds and is still quite well furnished.
Walk to the top and the terraced roof gives one a great view down to the Tyrrhenian Sea!
Napoleon owes his sister Paolina a big thank you, as she sold some of her jewels to give him money to furnish the property. Napoleon liked all of his houses laid out the same way; the Villa di San Martino is no exception.
Of note is the Egyptian room, with its octagonal shape and papyrus plants and painted walls.
The dining room, or the lovers’ knot room, has a frescoed ceiling of two doves holding lovers’ knots. While this is said to symbolize the love of Napoleon and his wife, Maria Luisa, she did not visit or live with him while he was exiled to Elba.
The Demidoff Gallery is on the main floor and is fairly bare, with the exception of a nude statue by Canova of Paolina as Galatea.
While it might seem a little strange to have a nude statue of your sister in your house, perhaps it was a thank you for the loan, or perhaps it was a thank you for being the only one of Napoleon’s seven siblings to visit him in Elba while he was in exile.
What to buy in Elba? Besides a great assortment of bathing suits and hats, here are two of our suggestions.
Cocktail and Amaro lovers, rejoice! Elba is home to Smania which produces their own amaro and other unique liqueurs and grappas. We were able to find a variety of these products at the local COOP grocery store. We bought the Amaro and Liquore di Mortella.
Christmas is coming: Luxury skin care product lover? We fell in love with the toiletries at the Hotel Hermitage which were the local “Acqua dell’Elba” line, in their distinct Tiffany blue containers.
Elba is a summer destination. Most hotels are closed after early October. The Cabinovia is only open in the summer. The Villa di San Martino is open all year round. It is a great spot to beat the heat and visit.
After spending a time in Elba, to be honest, I think Napoleon was crazy to leave. The island is beautiful! We would definitely think of escaping there again. If you go, keep an eye out for Pete’s sunglasses!
If you go:
Hotel Hermitage: 57037 Portoferraio Isola d’Elba (Li) Open April – early October. Please note, we were not paid to promote this hotel, we booked and stayed there and loved it. (The food was very good and I am hoping to get some recipes for future posts.)
Mount Capanne schedule. The yellow bird cages are located in Pozzatello, just off the center of Marciana.
To reach Villa di San Marino, follow the signs in Portoferraia, Localita’ San Martino, 57037 Portoferraio LI, Italy. Click here for