Elba, Italy


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Elba is not to be confused with Saint Helena, though it would be easy to do so: both of them are islands and both were home to Napoleon for a period of exile after a defeat. But the island in the pictures is Italian and only ten kilometres off the coast of Tuscany, while Saint Helena is right down in the South Atlantic Ocean, two thousand kilometres or more from land in either direction. Getting to Elba is a lot easier: probably most visitors come on day trips from Mediterranean cruise ships or resorts in Tuscany, but it’s more fun to join the 30,000 or so inhabitants and stay there.

Getting there
You can fly to Elba direct from a number of European airports, but the authentic way to arrive is by boat from Piombino on the Italian mainland. Three ferry companies operate the route all year, but don’t bother to take a car – there is a bus service connecting all the main villages and towns, and if you want to go somewhere special you can take a local taxi. There are hills and Mount Capanne (1,018 metres) to the west, and mostly flat land in the centre where the island is narrow and most of the resorts are to be found. The oldest part geologically is three million years old and used to be part of a land bridge linking the much larger island of Corsica to the Italian mainland.

When to go
Elba offers hot summer holidays and winter sun breaks, and rainfall is minimal at any time of year. July and August are crowded and hot, so the best time to go is probably May or September when it is slightly cooler and more peaceful. June is a good compromise if you want guaranteed sun and warmer evenings.

What to see and do
In case the beach and sea are not enough for you, there are plenty of varied things to do. If you or the children are interested in fish, there is an Aquarium, but maybe a bit more exciting are several iron ore mines that you can go down. For centuries iron was a major commodity exported from Elba, and the Romans, and earlier the Etruscans, exploited its resources to the full. In the second half of the 20th century the mines closed down, but the inhabitants have made a virtue out of the situation and there is now The Island of Elba Mineral Park and the Calamita Mineral Park giving guided tours and samples of haematite to take home.

However adults and children interested in history may find Napoleon a more charismatic figure to learn about. You can visit his two residences in Portoferraio, and the Napoleonic Antiques Museum in the same town; close by is the theatre that the great French military leader had built while he was here, the Vigilanti Theatre House.
As the iron trade declined, Elba had to re-invent itself as a tourist destination, so there is now trekking, mountain biking and all kinds of water sports available on the island. There is a dive school in Capoliveri with a Swiss instructor, and guided walks on varied terrain in woods and mountains and at different levels of difficulty are available inland. There are dolphin and whale watching trips, and a cable car to take you up Monte Capanne for fabulous views of the island.

Where to go
Elba is full of caves, ancient stone villages, romantic forts, historic quarries and iron furnaces. Wherever you go, the island is steeped in history, but these are the main centres:

Portoferraio (note the iron in the name) is the capital city and the place for shopping or just being seen in the evening ‘passeggiata’. The harbour is always interesting to explore. Villa of San Martino, Napoleon’s summer home 5km out of town, (closed Mondays and free for EU citizens under 18, and for everybody on the first Sunday of each month); and La Villa dei Mulini on the Piazzale Napoleone (same details, except closes on Tuesdays instead of Mondays) are both not to be missed, and you can buy a combined ticket.

Porto Azzurro is quite a common place name in Italian, which is not surprising when you realize it refers to ‘blue sea’. The one on Elba is on the west coast and is famous for its beach: in a narrow cove you will find white sands and fascinating rock formations. The main sight in the town is the Forte di Longone: there is a beautiful church inside, but you can’t see it as the fort is still in use as a prison! Down in the harbour area don’t miss the small, pastel-coloured houses.

Marciana Alta is the highest town on Elba at 375 metres (1230 feet). It is also one of the oldest towns on the island, and is where the islanders fled to when pirates attacked. Its picturesque small streets and fine views make it popular with photographers. It is from here that you catch the cable car up Monte Cappanne. Down at sea level, Marciana Marina is a lovely spot to while away some time. Take the sea front walk from Cotone to the 12th century Saracen Tower (a pirate early warning look-out) or browse the shops and restaurants in the alley ways and historic squares.

Capoliveri in the south is basically a big sandy beach, and one that is popular with teenagers in summer, so if you are not one, you may want to keep away; if you are one, you’ll probably want to go there! You can rent sunbeds and umbrellas, as well as pedalos and jet skis. You can hire a windsurfer too, or sign up for some lessons in scuba diving or surfing. There are some bars and restaurants nearby and a market, but mainly it’s the beach you would go there for. There is a public bus service.

Rio nell'Elba in the mountainous north east, is one of the oldest towns on Elba. With a spectacular location on the slopes of Mount Capannello, it is a perfect centre for anyone seeking peace and beautiful surroundings. There are various historic sites, beginning with the parish church on the main square. The Casa del Parco (Tourist Office) will supply you with information.
The longest sandy beach on Elba is at Marina di Campo to the south of the mountains and therefore with even less rainfall. A couple of churches and the Tower of St. Giovanni, along with some Roman columns, are the main historic sights. Children may like to know this small town was once the haunt of pirates.

Where to stay (Portoferraio)
If you are down with Napoleon on this holiday, you will want to stay at the Park Hotel Napoleone (4 star), housed in an 18th century villa but modernised inside. This hotel has two swimming pools and a private beach, although the latter is a five minute drive away; however there is a shuttle bus and if you have your own car, parking at the beach is free. All 64 rooms are air conditioned and there is a Mediterranean style restaurant. To continue the historic theme, The Napoleon Foundation is only 50 yards away. In the three star category, Hotel Mare is at the fishing village of Magazzini in Portoferraio Bay, just a 10 minute drive away. It too has its own private beach – a little small but right by the hotel. Meals can be taken on the terrace overlooking the marina, and the hotel’s swimming pool even has a sea view. This hotel has 30 rooms, each with a balcony and choice of hill, garden or sea views. For family beach holidays, many people prefer a self-catering apartment. One that sleeps four but in only one family bedroom is the centrally located Appartamento Cavour. Just 500 metres from the beach and less than a km from the harbour for the ferry to Piombino, this apartment is rated as excellent value for those on a tighter budget.

Where to stay (Capoliveri)
If you don’t mind a large hotel (131 rooms) which also caters for children and accepts pets, the 4 star Grand Hotel Elba International offers spa facilities in its Fitness Centre and a large outdoor pool, as well as a small private sandy beach with a decking area. There is a choice of room types ranging from suites to classic rooms, with family versions in each category. Organised activities for children are provided. For those preferring a much smaller hotel (57 rooms, 3 star) the Hotel Villa Giulia is only a ten minute walk from its own private beach, and less than a 5-minute drive from Porto Azzurro. They have live music once a week in the garden and a restaurant serving Italian cuisine on the terrace. As well as an outdoor pool, there is a children’s playground and games room, and pets are allowed there too. Breakfast is included. Those wanting self-catering and with their own car could try the Casa del Golfo beachside apartments just 10km from Capoliveri. The beach, where there is a snack bar, is private to the property and just metres away, and the garden offers a barbecue for guests to use. One-bedroom apartments sleep 4 with a kitchenette and bathroom. Some have a veranda and a sea view.

As a final choice, there are at least 25 campsites on Elba, ranging in category from 4-star to 2-star.

Car Ferry in Piombino Moby Lally, Car Ferry Car Ferry, People Elba, Coast
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Napoleon's Home in Portoferraio
Villa dei Mulini, Napoleon Napoleon's House in Portoferraio, Villa dei Mulini Park, Villa dei Mulini, Napoleon's home Napoleon in Portoferraio, Villa dei Mulini
Porto Azzurro      
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Porto Azzurro, Palazzo Comunale Porto Azzurro, Elba Porto Azzurro, Italy Elba, Porto Azzurro
Marciana Alta
Elba, Marciana Alta Marciana Alta Elba, Marciana Alta Marciana Alta, Italy
Marciana Alta, Elba Elba, Marciana Alta Elba, Marciana Alta Marciana Alta, architecture
Capoliveri, village Capoliveri, Elba Capoliveri, Italy Capoliveri, street
Rio nell'Elba      
Rio nell'Elba Rio nell'Elba, Italy Rio nell'Elba, Italy Rio nell'Elba
Marina di Campo      
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Napoleon's home; Villa of san Martino, Villa Demidoff
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