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Tremiti: Italy's lost archipelago, by Tristan Rutherford

The Times, February 2018

It’s a million dollar arrival in a pauper’s paradise. The thwack-thwack-thwack of helicopter blades sharpens our sense of focus on the five Tremiti Islands below. The first four are forest green circles haloed with turquoise.

 

The final island points like a sun-tanned finger towards Croatia over a carpet of Adriatic blue. With a nod to his navigator, our Italian pilot arcs his WestlandAugusta into a downward spiral towards the main island of San Domino. All 15 passengers – most hardened locals, some Tremiti first timers – gape at the twisting helix of beach-island-sea before the chopper squats onto the helipad, a 60-second walk from my hotel.

The Eden Hotel is aptly named, as are other island accommodation gems like Oasi and Paradiso. Each is set up for sightseers arriving on the 9am chopper, with a courtesy room in which to dump bags and take a shower before hitting San Domino’s sun-licked coast. The surprising thing is that my 20-minute helicopter ride to my £39 hotel cost just £25. That’s because the service forms a twice-daily lifeline for the 500 Tremiti islanders – if they want to meet their bank manager on the mainland, they pitch up to the helipad ten minutes before take-off. Such splendid isolation has rendered the Tremiti an Italy that time – and high prices – forgot.

San Domino’s best freebie is the round-the-island path. By 10am the hour-long trail is stocked with nut-brown locals taking their morning constitutional. As all five islands sit within Puglia’s Gargano National Park, they are scented with a blazing haze of fragrant herbs. Authorities have placed weather-beaten notice boards to highlight the pino d’aleppo, rosmarino and timo – and, in season, mirto (myrtle), asparago (asparagus) and ginepro (juniper).

Signposts point down sandy staircases to the dozen calas (coves) and grotte (caves) that ring the 2km-long island. At Grotta del Sale, a septuagenarian snorkels for octopus using jelly shoes as paddles. On the swim-to island just offshore a couple sport typical Tremiti swimwear – skin-tight swims last seen in the seventies and bikinis bleached by sun and sea. But what the islands lack in cool, they make up in postcard looks. At Cala delle Roselle a dive boat casts a perfect shadow on the sandy seabed. At Grotta delle Murene a bronzed freediver emerges from the sapphire-blue cave like David Gandy in that classic Davidoff ad.

The reasoning behind the Tremiti’s enduring remoteness becomes apparent as you hike the coastal path. Each bend beguiles with a 270-degree panorama, where seascapes shelve from limpid aqua to crashing navy to deep sea blue. Like Italy’s other former prison islands of Santo Stefano, Ponza and Pantelleria, the Tremiti were once penal colonies whose allure was airbrushed from history for centuries at a time. Emperor Augustus banished his dissolute granddaughter here, while King Ferdinand IV of Naples settled his opponents on this subtropical idyll.

 

Perhaps the strangest exile came during Mussolini’s 1930s fascist regime when 50 homosexual men were banished here as a societal threat. However Il Duce, never the sharpest knife in the drawer, unwittingly created the only part of Italy where men could be openly gay. The archipelago remains the  

Puglia you’ve never heard of. An archipelago of Capri clones without the cost.

Dinner ingredients have been necessarily sourced from the islands since the Iron Age. Cucina tremitesi revolves around mussels, figs, lemons, olives, snails and goats. It’s best served in Ristorante Oasi where I eat three dreamy solo dinners of ciambotta del pescatore (fishermen’s stew) and spaghetti allo scoglio (rockfish spaghetti) and idly jot and read. Indeed San Domino is the sort of place you’d come to write a novel. It’s so far adrift from mainland Italy that on day one you’re treated with respect for having made it this far out. By day two you’re given extra helpings of vongole. By day three you’re helping a fisherman mend his tuna nets.

Breakfast at the Hotel Eden is also lost in time. White jacketed waiters direct guests to a vast dining terrace perched above a twinkling sea. Linen-topped tables are shaded by futurist concrete arcs that look they were installed by aliens in 1973. The breakfast buffet is a best-of-Italy cornucopia of hams, cheeses, figs, prunes. Plus a sweet-toothed medley of brioches, apricot tarts and croissants that are sugar-coated for good measure. The entire scene is suffused by Italian disco sounds from an era of Gianni Agnelli and Diane von Furstenberg. I sleep it off on the hotel’s private cove where a cappuccino bar has been built from driftwood. Again, I can’t believe double rooms including breakfast here start from £39.

There are a mere handful of B&Bs on San Nicola, San Domino’s little sister island across the bay. In days of yore locals swam the hundred yards between the sandy landing coves on each shore, whereas I’m content to slip a boatman a €5 note for passage across. Rising above the remains of Greek tombs and Roman amphorae is a gigantic medieval fortress that crumbles seaward like a tumbledown Dubrovnik. I stroll ramparts so weighty that they held off the Ottoman fleet in the 16th century and the Royal Navy in the 19th century. Unlike Croatia’s coast, San Nicola is empty during my off-season visit. Like all the Tremiti it’s a film set Italy – albeit without the cast.

Back on the quay, tour boats are whipping up business for a £13 archipelago outing. This being Italy, the vessels look like supersized Rivas with enough poke to raise an Instagram-savvy curtain of spray. After zipping around San Nicola the boat anchors for a swim off Capraia, the second-largest island. The uninhabited island of Pianosa is deemed too far for our tour (it’s quite literally halfway to Croatia). So our boat circles back around San Domino to peep inside Grotta della Viola, a watery cavern that bubbles with fish, and Grotta del Bue Marino, a pitch-black cave where phosphorescent fireflashes light up the inky sea.

By booking myself on the once-per-day evening ferry home, I’ve netted myself another full day in paradise. There’s time for one last swim. Calle de Arene near the ferry port is the island’s only entirely sandy swoosh. The beach curves like a Caribbean banana against a Thai-blue sea; although a wave-your-hand service that hails a €1 espresso to your beach towel proves your in Italy. I lug my bag to the quay. Beside my ferry dive boats tout for custom. The Tremiti are an undersea paradise where sights include a Roman shipwreck shivering on the seabed. Plus a sunken statue  of Italian saint Padre Pio gazing skywards in 10m of crystalline water off Capraia.

The distance from San Domino to the mainland is the same as Dover to Calais – but with Aperol Spritz served at the zinc-topped bar. The Tremiti are reduced to a twinkle as the sun sets red across the sea. It’s hard to escape from Italy’s answer to Devil’s Island. This irresistible Alcatraz has stolen my heart.

Read more about Italy's secret islands from travel journalists Tristan Rutherford and Kathryn Tomasetti.