Often referred to as the Pearls of the Mediterranean, Italy’s Pontine Islands lie just a short distance south of Rome. While this cluster of five islands used to be home to a number of prisons, they are now considered to be somewhat of an island paradise, packed with sandy beaches, artisan workshops and local cafés, and surrounded by sparkling turquoise waters.
Ponza is the largest of the Pontines, and is from where the archipelago acquired its name. Measuring around nine square kilometers, Ponza’s narrow streets are a hive of activity, with the sun constantly glinting off the brightly colored buildings along the ancient Roman harbor. When it comes to the island’s beaches, Chiaia di Luna is the most popular due to its massive stretch of sand, while Feola Cove boasts idyllic natural shallow pools. There are a number of local eateries to choose from on Ponza, but if you are only visiting for a short while, La Marina is a beach bar that serves up delicious Italian meals alongside refreshing cocktails.
Considered to be one of the most beautiful islands in the world, Palmarola may not offer much in terms of facilities, but it is most definitely a snorkeling paradise. The island is pretty much uninhabited, with just one beach bar on the main beach. Here, visitors can enjoy a meal of freshly caught fish, as well as rent out a refurbished whitewashed fisherman’s dwelling in which to spend the night.
The second largest of the Pontines, Ventotene is completely car-free, immediately making it feel much more laid-back and relaxed. Ventotene is one of the top scuba diving spots in Italy, and while the island may only have two beaches, the underwater wonderland here more than makes up for that. For those who want to stay on the island, the Parata Grande Hotel is a stunning former colonial villa set high up in the cliffs, and surrounded by fields of lentils and other locally grown produce, with their talented chef making the most of this in the meals that are created for guests.
Zannone is the least-visited of the Pontine Islands, mostly due to the fact that it is the furthest away from Ponza. It is also completely uninhabited, with absolutely no facilities, and is covered with a rugged wilderness. From the trekking trails that take you through ancient monastery ruins to the wild goats grazing on the cliff tops, a visit to Zannone almost feels as though you are stepping back in time.
The smallest of the Pontines, Santo Stefano is also uninhabited, but is home to a prison fortress that used to house thousands of criminals up until the mid-60’s. Only those who are relatively fit should attempt the trek to the fortress, as the trail is steep and lined with prickly pears, but the view from the top, as well as the eerie feeling when exploring the ghost-like prison cells, make it worth the journey.
While it is possible to visit the Pontines year-round, the islands really come to life during the summer months, making this the ideal time to visit. While most tourists will usually only visit one or two of the islands, it is easy to explore them all in just a weekend, with each island providing you with quite the unique experience.