PORTOFERRAIO, Italy — I stood on the deck of the enormous ferry, watching Elba's capital city come into view, trying to imagine how Napoleon Bonaparte must have felt as he sailed into this port more than 180 years before. Portoferraio greeted me as it does thousands of vessels and millions of visitors each year: peering from behind her rocky, industrial veil and winking with pledges of quiet Mediterranean beauty and intriguing island history. Her promises were not empty.
I would like to say that I stumbled across the tiny fish-shaped island by serendipity, fell in love and decided to stay, but that would not be completely correct. Hardly anyone stumbles across Elba, but many who end up here fall in love, stay awhile and, if they're smart, eventually return.
Elba was not on my list when I made my vacation plans. Nor was it on my mind when I landed in Rome last summer. For good reason. I didn't even know Elba was part of Italy or, more specifically, the Tuscan Archipelago, until I leafed through a guidebook while standing on the bank of the Arno River in Florence. Fortunately, several events interrupted my well-laid plans, prompting my visit to the third largest Italian isle, behind Sicily and Sardinia.
A friend who was to meet me in Venice canceled at the last minute, and in Venice I was put out on the streets when my hotel reservation turned out to be for two nights, rather than the three I'd been guaranteed. Other hotels in town were sold out.
These misfortunes resulted in my having extra time and no need to adhere to a particular schedule. Plus I had a yen to visit a beautiful, historic destination that rhymed with my name. Surely, it was fate.
"I want to go to Elba," I told the concierge at my hotel.
"But of course, signora," he said. "Is very beautiful, Elba."
A prime vacation resort for Europeans, who prefer its provincial charm to other more polished Mediterranean resorts, Elba is just enough off the beaten path to discourage some travelers.
To reach it, I took the train from Florence west to Pisa, then another south to Campiglia, where I changed trains again for the 20-minute ride to Piombino, the unimpressive wharf town where I caught the ferry to Elba. The pleasant ferry ride took about an hour (it's only 30 minutes if you go by hydrofoil) to Portoferraio, the island's main port and most populous city.
I stepped, bone weary, off the ferry to begin my search for a room just as the tourist office was opening.
"A room," I said to a friendly man behind the counter. I had made notes on several.
After a few calls, he found a double for me at the Nuova Padulella for $60 a night, including breakfast and dinner.
"From here it's only about a five-minute walk," he said, directing me to the street.
That short walk turned out to be a taxing trek, more than a mile uphill. Still dressed for the air-conditioned train in the bright morning sun, I arrived sweating, dropped my backpack and collapsed into a chair in the comfortable lobby.
The concierge smiled and asked, "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" "Francais?," the queries indicating to me the paucity of American tourists. In all my Italian travels, Elba was the only place where the U.S. dollar was not listed first on the exchange posting. Nor was it second or third.
After settling into my spare but clean room, I walked back into town to rent a scooter from one of the many places along the waterfront. After a bit of haggling, the owner and I settled on $20 a day, a price similar to what other scooter places were charging. But when I repeatedly asked him to point out the gas, brake and clutch controls, he tried to amend the deal, obviously concerned about the safe return of the scooter. But I refused to pay the additional $70 deposit that he demanded and walked, instead, to the main bus station. This, too, was serendipitous.
I found it in the center of Portoferraio, next to the ferry landing and tourist office. From there, buses leave for everywhere on the island. I headed west.
Winding through the narrow coastal and mountain roads, I was relieved I had not taken a scooter.
Five and a half miles from mainland Italy, heavily forested Elba has 90 miles of coastline, more than 50 beaches and 3,000-foot mountains. Vineyards, olive groves and fig trees span the horizons. Sheep and goat farms speckle the countryside. To reach the top of Mt. Capenne, the island's highest point, it's possible to take a cable car. The reward is a spectacular view of the Italian coastline and Corsica, Napoleon's birthplace.