Why the island of Ischia should be your next wellness getaway
By Rosalind Milani Gallieni
Along the busy roads of the Italian island of Ischia, you’ll come to a tranquil natural reserve: Botania Relais & Spa. Originally created as a golf course, this unexpected oasis is well described by its botanical name. Made up of a cluster of small homes scattered across a lush estate, the effect is rather like a “borgo” – a countryside hamlet – with golf caddies used to get around. Grabbing a sunbed by one of the private pools on the terraces ensures the day is spent in perfect tranquillity, overlooking the scenery of the island through the blooming purple bougainvillea and pale blue plumbago.
Botania is well regarded for its thermal waters, but in particular, do not miss the two old Roman pipes which were only just discovered at the property in May 2022, during a renovation. Their simplicity (and their efficiency) sums up a 2000 year-long story about people’s needs for healing and wellness. The warm showers – still in their original locations, scattered in and around the valley – are all set in beautiful leafy alcoves, each with its own breath-taking view. The waters, pure just as they are, travel from the centre of the earth at a rate of around 12,000 litres every hour, and it is humbling to think that this has been going on for not just hundreds, but thousands of years.
I watch the verdant gardens at Botania being tended in the day, with the natural delights from the vegetable garden offered as part of the great menus at Il Mirto, the new vegetarian and vegan restaurant at the resort. Bright, white and fresh, it’s a dining room in a greenhouse, proudly bringing the art of nature to your table.
Picasso’s famous bouquet of flowers is immediately recognisable and replicated on a beautiful plate of coloured edible flowers and greenery. This tantalising culinary art, created for the 8 or 4-course menus, has now just gained the accolade of a Green Michelin Star, for being best in class for its ingredients and sustainable practice.
Executive Chef Tommaso Luongo, who oversees both the Il Mirto and Il Corbezzolo restaurants, reflects his love of simplicity of tastes and genuine products in every dish. Ingredients are always from the island and he enjoys the culinary opportunities in their seasonal changes throughout the year.
For another of Ischia’s secrets, I highly recommend a visit to Nitrodi. You might dismiss the entrance and walk on, but do not be put off by your first impressions. Hidden down a charming cobbled lane, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it doorway bears a hand-painted ceramic plaque (like most of the house numbers on the island). A very small terrace – all of 10 x 20 metres – is dotted with guests of this thermal spa, reclining in deckchairs wearing what looks like white face-paint. Some face a wall, with their feet enjoying a warm thermal spring shower, reaping the benefits of this age-old water, which the Greeks and the Romans discovered for its benefits in healing and nourishing the skin. The “fons juventutis” (fountain of youth) was visited by warriors for its power to heal their injuries, by women hoping to become mothers, by the elderly to relieve their gout and arthritis, and by many others to protect their skin from the ravages of time. This is the oldest Spa in the world, once sacred to Apollo and the Nitrodi nymphs.
Of course, quite aside from the benefits of its thermal waters, one of the best ways to enjoy the beauty of Ischia is simply to go hiking (which can be arranged through Marianna Polverino of Ischia Hiking). The flora and fauna of this lush island reveal a riot of different colours throughout the seasons, and there are walks for all abilities to enjoy, with plenty of interesting local and historical highlights along the way. One such sight is the secular vineyard where Cantina Antonio Mazzella still collect their harvest the way the Romans did, by mooring a ship at the bottom of the vineyard’s steep slopes to gather the crates of grapes. Handed down from top to bottom, this is still the simplest and most efficient way to get the grapes to their destination without too much trouble or damage to the terroir. Three generations have worked their land this way since Nicola Mazzella began with his first harvest in 1940. Today, Antonio, Nicola’s son, heads up the winery of Cantina Antonio Mazzella, and has stayed strictly loyal to his father’s passion, dedication and sacrifice in following this heroic style of cultivation. Year after year, the harvest creates award-winning wines – both reds and whites. My favourite was the Biancolella, which I enjoyed in the handsome new wine-tasting rooms after a spectacular hike through the vineyards that bask in the sun along the coastline.
The hiking itineraries of Ischia really are another experience, and each one is constructed around a “finishing post,” which is usually the most deliciously simple lunch in a restaurant tucked away in the most unexpected place, and naturally with the most outstanding views of the seas, the islands and the Italian mainland beyond. For the peace attained from sustenance after physical exertion, there is really nothing better – except for perhaps the wish that my earlier visit to the Fountain of Youth is counteracting the effects of all the fine wines I tasted in the Cantina. Well, I can always hope…