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Go here instead | Elba – the secret Italian island your family will love

By Rebecca Miles – 20th July 2020

Of all the brilliant memories we have of our family holiday to Elba last September, it’s our trip to the mineral mine above Rio Marina that has stuck with our three-year-old daughter Evie. Regularly, and seemingly out of the blue, six months on she still talks about using a small hammer to tap at the rocks and break loose “sparkly stones”, the remains of what was once a profitable mineral mine for hematite (an key ingredient in iron) and pyrite (commonly known as fool’s gold).

Approaching Elba on the ferry, the castle at Portoferraio welcomes us
Approaching Elba on the ferry, the castle at Portoferraio welcomes us

Every time she brings this up it makes me chuckle – for me, visiting a mine isn’t top of my to-do list on holiday, but Parco Minerario came highly recommended so we (my husband, daughter and I) booked three seats on the train tour and set off from Rio Marina’s waterfront, a small red-stone town on Elba’s east coast.

The train climbed up through the steep quarry slopes, past discarded and rusting mining equipment lying in the scrub, before coming to a stop on a plateau above the sea. Armed with small hammers and a bag, we were encouraged to chip away at the rocks and take home as much hematite and pyrite as we wanted.

An unexpected hit with our daughter, the mining trip was just one of many highlights of our holiday in Elba. The largest island in the Tuscan archipelago between Italy’s Tuscany and France’s Corsica in the Mediterranean, Elba is half the size of the Isle of Man and has a population of just 30,000.

The copper mines on Elba give the landscape some vivid colours © Ridi
The copper mines on Elba give the landscape some vivid colours © Ridi

While us Brits flock to Tuscany for our holidays, the Tuscans go to Elba. And how wise they are for doing so. Six miles off the Italian coast, it’s an hour’s ferry crossing from humdrum Piombino on the mainland to humming Portoferraio, Elba’s capital.

No more than an hour’s drive from east to west of the island, its 147km of coastline is littered with beaches, coves and sun traps, some easily accessible with parking, bars and restaurants, others only reachable by boat, others a happy medium between the two. And the whole place has long been protected by the Tuscan Archipelago National Park (the largest marine park in Europe), so the island hasn’t been overdeveloped and exists in a blissful time capsule.

That protected status means its surrounding seas are rich with marine life, and the Elbans pride themselves on sourcing the vast majority of their diet from Elba’s own land and water. It makes for deliciously varied menus – while there are plenty of child-friendly pasta staples, we tucked into tasty dishes of octopus, mussels, cuttlefish, clams, stockfish and sardines during our stay.

The bay of Sant'Andrea, on the northern coast of Elba
The bay of Sant'Andrea, on the northern coast of Elba

Our first proper beach day on Elba is at Cavoli, on the recommendation of Maurizio Testa at the Hotel Ilio, where we’re staying for our first few nights. Fearing the wind may be a bit blustery for our little one to paddle in the sea on the Ilio’s side of the island at Sant’Andrea, Maurizio pulls up various shipping forecasts and quickly hones in on Cavoli, a 20-minute drive to the south, as being perfect for the day’s conditions. Maurizio makes a brief phone call and tells us all is sorted.

Only when we arrive at Cavoli do we fully appreciate this service. It may be September but it’s still fairly busy, and Cavoli isn’t big. Parked cars line the route from the main road, but Maurizio told us we just needed to keep heading for the end of the beach and there’d be a parking spot reserved for us there. And he’s right – Antonio gives us a warm welcome, takes the car keys and shows us to our loungers in a magnificent spot on the front row of the beach.

I could get used to the Italian way of beaching. Shaded by a canopy and with a parasol between us, we look out over the inlet of Cavoli and the shallow sea. South facing and bordered with Mediterranean scrub-covered hills broaching the water, it’s wonderfully sheltered, as Maurizio predicted, and we merrily while away the day building sand castles, paddling and swimming, and taking full advantage of the waiter service delivering us drinks and ice creams.

My husband balks when we’re charged €40 for our day’s parking and lounging but I think it’s worth every cent. Admittedly, paying this daily would soon add up, but not every beach on the island has rows of private loungers, and even if it does, there’s always an area left free and clear. No self-respecting Italian would be seen dead lying on a towel instead of a lounger, but we have no such shame.

A stretch of sand waits for us beyond the trees
A stretch of sand waits for us beyond the trees

The memories keep coming thick and fast from our holiday in Elba. On a boat trip with Mickey Mouse boats out of Marina di Campo we circumnavigate the island and spot a school of dolphins leaping out of the water, then snorkel above the Elviscot shipwreck that went aground on the Ogliera Rocks near Pomonte in 1972.

We have some of the best ice cream on the island at Zero Gradi in Capoliveri. A proper, family-run Italian gelateria open since 1984, it has snazzy individual chillers for each flavour; we’re told to optimise the taste. We’re convinced – the stracciatella is heavenly.

And we have a wonderful day cycling around the Calamita peninsula, the southeastern point of the island with the terracotta-hued hilltop town of Capoliveri at its centre. We hire electric bikes from Rent Bike Capoliveri, with a trailer attached to my husband’s for Evie, and head south on the unmarked coastal road.

E-bikes make cycling the beautiful coastal roads a cinch
E-bikes make cycling the beautiful coastal roads a cinch

I’ve previously been a bit skeptical about electric bikes, thinking they weren’t for ‘proper’ cyclists, but as we whizz along the winding, undulating road, with views out to sea and the tiny islands of Montecristo and Pianosa, I begin to view them differently. We’d have been exhausted doing this on ‘normal’ bikes, but a little turbo boost every so often makes the whole thing much more enjoyable.

At the suggestion of our guide Caterina, we descend a steep track to Remaiolo beach for lunch. She promises it’s worth it, and she’s right – there’s a shabby chic beach shack draped with festoon lights serving tasty paninis and its terrace has a view of the sea in the sheltered cove.

The path continues to the sandy gravelly beach – it’s not as gentle as some of the others on the island, but its surrounding rocks are perfect for some scrambled rock pooling, and the gently lapping sea means Evie and I can play our current favourite game of wave jumping.

Those electric bikes come into their own on the climb up from the beach; an ascent that would have taken about 40 minutes on a normal bike (longer with the trailer) takes less than 10 minutes and we barely break a sweat. We’re converted!

The hilltop town of Capoliveri is home to the island's best ice cream shop and delicious aperitivos
The hilltop town of Capoliveri is home to the island's best ice cream shop and delicious aperitivos

For my husband, Elba’s unquestionable highlight is its food and drink. As Evie reminisces of mining for rocks, Jon daydreams of Elba Magna, a tiny aperitivo bar and deli in Capoliveri owned by Gabriele Messina (magna means to eat in the Elban dialect).

So much more than just a bar, Gabriele recreates the recipes that only the grandparents of Elba now know. Using the best local produce and an exceptional amount of dedication to his craft, we eat such simple but scrummy dishes as onion soup with baccala served in individual bread bowls, octopus tentacles, and Panficatao, a local cake made with figs, honey and fennel seeds. To drink, we have sparkling red aleatico wine, and wish one of us didn’t have to drive back to the hotel.

Could Elba be one of those rare holiday destinations that work for every member of the family? It did for us – I often find myself daydreaming of its beaches, and the views out to sea through hibiscus bushes and maritime pine trees. A romantic, dramatic bubble of a Mediterranean island, we’re smitten. Elba is going to stay in all our memories for a long time.

The details

We travelled to Elba in September 2019 but fortunately the island had very few cases of coronavirus and everything is open again, with social distancing measures of 1m in place and masks required in enclosed public spaces. We’d highly recommend booking now for next summer. 

Getting there

We flew with British Airways to Pisa and hired a car. It’s about an hour and a half’s drive from Pisa to Piombino and we pre-booked a ferry through our hotel to get a 20% discount (pretty much all hotels on the island offer this). So as not to be cutting it fine for the last ferry of the day, we stayed overnight near Pisa at Fattoria di Fiocina, then travelled to Elba the following day, but if your flight is early enough it’d be doable in a day.

Where to stay

Hotel Ilio in Capo Sant’Andrea is the island’s only boutique hotel, with 20 bedrooms. It doesn’t have a restaurant but is walking distance to several in the little village. The service is really friendly and it has family rooms sleeping up to four. From €70 B&B per night, based on two sharing a room.

Hotel Antares in Lido di Capoliveri is right on the beach, with its own loungers and parasols. It has a pool, tennis court, kids club and bedrooms sleeping up to four. From €60 per person per night, half board.

Hotel Valle Verde is the sister property to the Antares and is at Spartaia. It also has its own reserved area of beach, plus a pool and can accommodate up to five people in interconnecting rooms. From €44 per person per night, half board.

For more information on the island, visit www.visitelba.co.uk/

RebeccaMiles
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