My favourite Mediterranean island

It was Francesca Amfitheatrof, Louis Vuitton’s high-profile artistic director for jewellery, who introduced me to the very low-profile Ventotene. A habituée since childhood, Amfitheatrof spoke rapturously of a scantly visited place that had somehow remained virtually unchanged from those 1980s days.

I soon learnt how such a unicorn state of affairs might have come about: Ventotene was, for most of the year, a real pain in the ass to get to. When I went in late September, it was a two-hour trundle on a shabby Intercity train from Rome’s Termini station to a coastal port called Formia. From there, after milling around at the ferry dock for an hour or so, it was another two hours over the water to this bluff-ringed speck measuring less than 3km long and at most 800 metres across — technically one of the Pontine Islands, but almost as close to Ischia, in the Gulf of Naples, as it is to Ponza.

On Ventotene, the filtering effect of this journey is bolstered by the brevity of the season and the scarcity of accommodation (a handful of hotels, none with more than 25 rooms). In September, it was a cinch to find a table with a view, a quiet path to walk alone, a gozzo to putter around the island’s perimeter in. The tiny port, carved out of volcanic rock that swirls in mesmeric morphological patterns, dates back to the reign of Caesar Augustus, when the island was known as Pandataria.

A person jumping off a rock into the sea. Two other people wait in the sea; another stands on the rock waiting to jump in
Leaping from the rocks of Ventotene . . . © Alamy
An overhead shot of beach umbrellas, most of them orange, some yellow, and red sun loungers on a beach
. . . and relaxing on one of its beaches © Alamy

The ancient alcoves along its perimeter now house cafés, restaurants and a few diving centres (the surrounding seabed is rich with posidonia and gorgonian soft corals, the odd shipwreck resting among them). Augustus also maintained a pair of stonking summer palaces here, and banished his adulterous daughter, Julia the Elder, to a life of exile in one of them. A mile off its south shore is the even tinier island of Santo Stefano, where in the 18th century the Bourbon king Ferdinand IV elaborated on the Augustan exile theme by building an actual prison.

Map of Ventotene island in Italy

Ventotene’s population of about 750 is concentrated around the port; the town thins out as you travel south-west, ceding to fields of wildflowers and stands of prickly pear meandering in waves along the edges of roads. I stayed at Agave e Ginestra, which sits where one such road terminates in a hillside of holm oaks overlooking the sea. Its 12 rooms are spread across three storeys; they’re simple in the extreme, with tiled bathrooms and iron or wood beds; each has a hammock strung across its terrace, and a couple more hammocks beckon from the shade of the patio.

The restaurant is achingly nostalgic, evincing all the throwback 1980s Italy-that-was feel that Amfitheatrof had extolled — spilling out from a whitewashed grotto, its floor clad in aquamarine tiles, its walls lined with maritime memorabilia. One menu written on a chalk board, three courses, like it or leave, prego.

You’ll almost certainly like it; the produce all comes from their garden down the hill, and the fish from family cousins. Or you can opt for dinner back in the port, at Un Mare di Sapori, dining under a half-arch of morphologic rock, a few feet from the still navy-blue water of the inlet. Even in July it might be quieter than you expect; you can use the peace to ponder the salutary nature of inconvenient journeys.

Between June and September 10,Snav operates a ferry from Naples taking about two hours. The year-round ferries from Formia, also about two hours, are operated byLaziomar

The island feels halfway to Africa. Marooned off the west coast of Sicily, Favignana is not pretty or cute or lush. It is a bony place of limestone and tufa, of wind-bent trees and tussocks of grass dusted with wild flowers. There is a haunting edge-of-the-world beauty here — something about vast skies and empty elemental landscapes.

Regular ferries bring visitors from Trapani and Marsala, on the Sicilian coast, a couple of hours west of Palermo. On misty mornings, the islands of the Aegadian archipelago emerge like ghosts on a porcelain sea. Stepping ashore in the small port on Favignana, among fishing boats and yachts, nets and stylish Italians, always feels like arriving in another world.   

The houses have a Cubist simplicity: whitewashed, square, flat-roofed. No cars are allowed, beyond those of the locals, so everyone navigates the narrow meandering roads, lined with drystone walls, on bicycles and scooters.

Map showing the Favignana island in Italy

Relatively few foreigners venture to Favignana, but well-travelled Italians adore it and have brought a sophistication to the island’s simplicity. A handful of boutique hotels now perch on the sea’s edge, places reminiscent of Morocco or Greece, and in the little harbour town, young entrepreneurial chefs are creating dishes that would impress in Turin.

The island’s saving grace is the lack of sandy beaches. There are no regimented rows of striped umbrellas, no queues waiting on changing cabins, no crowded beachside cafés. On Favignana, bathing is a more primitive affair. On wild coasts, people bring picnics and swim from shelves of rock, cantilevered over the water.

Favignana is full of surprises: a pop-up juice bar on the way to Cala Rossa; a former tuna canning factory, built like a cathedral and now a fascinating museum; a botanical garden of over 500 plants in an old tufa quarry known as Il Giardino dell’Impossibile, the Garden of Impossible.

An old-fashioned shop called ‘Capricci del tonno’ with a table out front with baskets on top 
A shop specialising in tuna products on Favignana © Alamy
A small boat in the crystal blue waters of a small harbour with a huddle of flat-roofed houses
The harbour of Marettimo, the least-visited of the Aegadian Islands © Alamy

I climbed to a fort founded by the Normans a millennium ago. I rented a boat and circumnavigated the island, dropping anchor to swim in empty coves among startled fish. One day I took a ferry to Marettimo, the furthest and least visited of the Aegadian Islands, where fishing boats were parked among the white houses like cars.

It was that idyllic island world — salt air and Mistral winds, bicycles and little motor boats, fresh fish and divine pasta, and a sea as clear as a desert sky.

Don’t go in July or August, when summer heat can overwhelm, along with too many holidaying people. But April through June, and September and October are divine. And don’t miss the scoglio, the seafood pasta, at Sotto Sale.

Ferry services to Favignana are operated bySiremar andLiberty Lines

It was supposed to be nothing more than a sunset visit to Agios Isidoros, a red-domed chapel that seems to float in the sea. Shafts of sunlight ricocheted across the flaking blue walls as I lit a candle in memory of the soldiers who lost their lives in the 50-day Battle of Leros, which led to the German conquest of the Dodecanese in 1943.

Driving back for supper by the sea, I asked my taxi driver whether the rumours of tanks abandoned in the highlands were true. Moments later, we had veered off course and were heading up a bumpy track towards Mount Markellos. For miles, there was nothing but a few scattered farms and skittish goats — until suddenly we came upon them: two tanks from the second world war camouflaged in a field of daisies.

At the summit, a flock of sheep was sheltering in a stone building with 360-degree vistas of the archipelago. Designed to protect Leros from air and sea raids, this observation post once doubled as a firing range; the remains of a circular artillery battery looked like an art installation.

Map of Leros island in Greece

Leros is replete with offbeat wonders that you won’t find on any other Greek island. There’s the art deco town of Lakki, built in the 1930s to house 30,000 of Mussolini’s troops. (The Italians occupied Leros from 1912 to 1943, which explains all the Vespas and excellent spaghetti.)

There are underground bunkers and tunnels, shipwrecked warplanes and submarines. There are two converted windmills where you can taste the best ouzo sour and calamari carbonara in the Aegean: the wryly named Harris Bar and Mylos By the Sea, a restaurant whose setting is as sensational as the seafood.

Mylos attracts Turkish gourmands on gulets and occasional gin palaces from Patmos. Although the beaches are middling, the boating on Leros is divine — Lakki has one of the largest (and cheapest) marinas in the Mediterranean. Looming beyond the marina are the former Italian barracks, which later became a notorious psychiatric asylum.

A close-up view of a well-shaded garden of shrubs and bright flowers in front of a house with a pink facade
The Archontiko Angelou hotel on Leros
A view through a pair of yellow doors into a sunny bedroom. A double bed sits on a wood floor, neatly made with white bedspread
Inside Villa Clara, Leros

Many Greeks still shudder at the thought of staying on Leros, which was also a place of exile for leftists during the country’s military dictatorship. Some of these political prisoners painted the iconoclastic frescoes in the church at Agia Kioura; the saints are in fact portraits of their wives, girlfriends and prison guards.

This dark history of occupation, asylum and exile has spared Leros from mass tourism. Everywhere, the atmosphere is unpretentious and old-fashioned. There are hardly any “organised” beaches and no big resorts.

Instead, you can stay in 19th-century mansions converted into charming guesthouses, such as Villa Clara and Archontiko Angelou, respectively decked out with contemporary art and antique heirlooms. Many of their guests end up buying houses on Leros, such is the island’s modest but ineluctable appeal.

Leros can be reached by ferry from Athens (10 hours; or via a one-hour flight on Olympic Air ( Alternatively you can fly to Kos and take a fast catamaran (about 90 minutes;

At first glance, Pag may seem an unusual choice as a favourite island. Wild and rocky, with meagre pastures supporting hardy little sheep, it appears otherworldly and almost prehistoric. Its windswept limestone landscapes reflect in a phthalo blue sea, making it spectacularly photogenic. So much so, that Vogue and Porsche have used it for photo-shoots.

For centuries, Pag’s wealth was based on its salt pans. In Pag Town, the Solana Pag salt pans are still working — you can attend a salt harvesting demonstration, and buy their mineral-rich fleur de sel to bring home.

The current town of Pag was built in the 15th century, to an urban plan by Renaissance architect Juraj Dalmatinac. Locals abandoned their original hillside settlement, moving down to the new town, fortified with nine towers, at the entrance of the bay, from where they could guard their salt pans. Here, nuns at the Benedictine Convent have made intricate needlepoint lace since the 16th century, a product now on Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Map of Pag island in Croatia

But for me, it is Pag’s extraordinary terrain that makes it so special. It was a hiking tour with Pag Outdoor that opened my eyes to the island’s ethereal beauty, following trails over jagged rocky slopes speckled with wild sage, to tiny stone churches, ruined Byzantine forts, and secluded pebble beaches.

There are also mountain biking trails and climbing routes, kayak tours and even a via ferrata, secured into the rocks above the sea. On full moon nights, Pag Outdoor organises guided hiking and kayaking trips and the island appears magical, bathed in silver moonlight.

Pag’s second settlement is Novalja, home to Zrče beach, setting for several open-air electronic music festivals. But much nicer is the isolated pebble-and-sand Ručica beach, giving on to translucent waters, at the far end of the bay.

Sea salt being raked into evenly shaped mounds
For centuries, Pag’s wealth was based on its salt pans © Getty Images/iStockphoto
A shelf of round-shaped cheeses, viewed side-on
Paški sir, local cheese made from the milk of Pag’s free-grazing sheep © Getty Images

Between Pag Town and Novalja lies the Gligora dairy. As long ago as 1774, Italian writer Alberto Fortis in his Travels into Dalmatia praised Paški sir (Pag cheese), a delicious dry salty cheese made from the milk of Pag’s free-grazing sheep. Gligora is the best place to try it; they run tours of the dairy and have a well-stocked farm shop.

Pag’s loveliest hotel is family-run Boškinac near Novalja. Its Michelin-starred restaurant does an eight-course “Essence of the Island” menu, including langoustine and sea urchin with lemon cream, and wellington of Pag lamb. On my last visit there, I opted for the wine pairing: northern Pag has patches of fertile soil where vineyards shelter behind the rocks, and — another surprise — it’s excellent.

Pag is attached to the mainland via a 300-metre-long bridge, which is about 40 minutes’ drive from the airport at Zadar and 90 minutes from the airport at Split

In the Aegean there are Greek islands by the hundred — but just two that belong to Turkey. I first visited 10km-long Bozcaada years ago, on a September evening, when the air was thick with the scent of fermenting grapes and a warship stood in the harbour.

The island lies at the mouth of the Dardanelles, within view of Troy and Gallipoli, by any measure a historic hotspot. I soon fell for the place as much for its epic location as for its age-old wine scene. Other draws are an all but unbroken ring of exceptional beaches and a delightfully handsome 19th-century port town.

Until the 1970s, the island’s largely Greek population knew the place as Tenedos where, as Iliad buffs will recall, the Greek battle fleet lay in wait, out of sight, while the Trojans pondered the wooden horse before dragging their enemy’s parting gift within the walls. There was more trouble during the 1980s when the resident Greeks left en masse for easier lives elsewhere; the keys of their surrendered houses are on moving display in the town’s excellent museum (opening hours erratic).

Map of Bozcaada island in Turkey

The island’s town, hard by the little harbour, is a grid of shaded lanes overhung with jasmine and lined by elegant merchants’ houses. Many now serve as taverna-style fish restaurants (try Hasan Tefik) or have been restored as light and spacious boutique hotels such as the Latife Hanim Konagi.

The interior is almost entirely given over to vineyards, much as it has been since the time of Homer. Among the best wineries is Amadeus, a little way out of town, where proprietor Oliver Giraes, who rhapsodises over the California-style terroir, makes much-admired light whites and rosés from the Vasilaki grape, native to the island. Wine tastings, accompanied by salami and cheese plates, are held at the winery’s Mozart Bar (11am-7pm every day until October).

A hotel room close-up of a bed with a pillow case embroidered with roses, an antique bedside table and an old-fashioned lamp attached to the exposed stone of the wall
A bedroom at Latife Hanim Konagi, a boutique hotel on Bozcaada © Deniz Ermis
A blue outdoor table with blue chairs in front of a red framed door and window, and in the shade of some hanging vines
Outside one of the houses in Bozcaada’s only town © Alamy

Sandy beaches fringe the island on every side; islanders make their selection depending on the direction of the wind, which can often be stiff. Favoured ones on the south side include Akvaryum, while wind surfers tend to opt for Cayir Beach to the north. The lanes are excellent for cycling and scooters (there are hire shops in town) though the main beach at Ayazma is also served by minibus shuttle.

Through the season (April-October) ferries serve the island from Geyikli (30 mins, with departures every hour). Now that a new bridge over the Dardanelles has put Bozcaada within easier reach of Istanbul, the island can be busy. Be sure to avoid Turkish national holidays and summer weekends, and leave vehicles on the mainland. Do that, and Bozcaada remains a captivating little place.

For details of the ferries between Geyikli and Bozcaada

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