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Waiting to be DISCOVERED

The little island of Ponza may be a genuine find. It has the beauty of its neighbor Capri, but few outside Italy know about it.

June 07, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

PONZA, Italy — Ignore for a moment the lapping Mediterranean, the sleepy hotel on stilts in the shallows across the harbor, the leather-faced fishermen fingering their red nets in the marina, and the sidewalk eatery that still serves pizzas the old way, folded over like tacos in brown butcher paper. Ignore all that and listen to the lament of Adele Feola.

"We've only got one discotheque. We haven't got a cinema. We have nothing," says Feola, gazing down at the waterfront from her family's hilltop Arcobaleno inn and restaurant. Beneath the window, a lone cat lazes in the sun-splashed alley.

"If we had all these things, tourists would come," Feola continues. "Even in winter."

You can listen to Adele Feola--in fact, she's one of just three Ponzese I met in three days who spoke English--but do not grieve for her. The fair isle of Ponza and its roughly 3,000 full-time residents have plenty going for them.

When I set out in search of an untrampled, underappreciated Italian isle, the sort of place that might stand in for the film location of "Il Postino," the sort of place that could provide counterpoint to the heavy traffic and big money of Capri, Italy's most celebrated island, 75 miles to the southeast--this is where Italians sent me. And sure enough, Ponza is intriguing, unself-conscious and virtually unknown to foreigners.

In other words, if you're ready to be lazy in a handsome, genuine place, to appreciate the way the sea slaps against the rocks and the homes cling to the slopes, to do without the mass-market conveniences that have overtaken most of tourist-friendly Europe, Ponza awaits with sun, shoreline, pasta and folded-over mini-pizza--which, by the way, is a tasty bargain at $5.

If you come in July or August, you will have plenty of Italians for company. The island gets a lot of fair-weather visitors from Rome and Milan and other Italians. But outside of those two months (and June 20, when islanders drop all else to celebrate the feast of San Silverio, their patron saint) business is slow. Prowling the island in late April, as I did, you find a destination just stirring to life. The fanciest hotel is still closed, and restaurant proprietors are watching the nightly news in their almost-empty dining rooms. In a year, tourism officials estimate, the island gets just 30,000 visitors, almost all of them Italian.

Where is Ponza? Look closely at the boot of Italy, and you'll see a speck just west of the knee. Ponza lies 20 miles off the coast, between Rome and Naples; Capri is 75 miles to the southeast. A tiny island--about 7 miles long and 2 miles wide--it has a handful of even tinier archipelago neighbors. (Only one of them, Ventotene, is inhabited, although the sea caves and ruins on the others are said to make for interesting exploring.) The ride out to Ponza from the mainland port town of Formia, about 80 miles south of Rome, takes about 2 1/2 hours by ferry, half that time via hydrofoil (there's also less frequent service from Anzio, Circeo and Terracina).

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Ponza's harbor, where the ferries arrive, is cozy and cat-patrolled. The town that huddles around the harbor is dominated by white and pastel hues and simple Mediterranean architecture--some of the austere, whitewashed homes could have been plucked right off Mykonos--and cars are outnumbered by pedestrians.

You can rent a car (about $50 a day), but many prefer to take local buses or rent a scooter for about $10 an hour (or $35 a day). I spent a day zipping around the island on a blue scooter, stopping for a snack in the secondary town of Le Forna, peering down at the emerald inlet that locals call le piscine (the pools), and sharing the road with the occasional farmer and donkey.

Terraced vineyards and orchards cling to the hills. A footpath leads from town to the top of Monte Guardia, which is the island's high point, at about 920 feet above sea level. Back down below, a beach of startling drama, Chiaia di Luna, lies a 15-minute walk from the ferry landing. To get there, you stroll through a stone tunnel first carved by ancient Romans--or maybe the Greeks before them--and emerge, in a sudden gust of salt air, at the foot of a 300-foot cliff of cleaved volcanic rock, its face curling around the sandy shore in a protective crescent. Suspended netting, scarcely visible from a distance, keeps falling rocks from reaching the beach. (A good Italian word to know is spiaggia--beach.)

McDonald's, KFC and American Express are absent on Ponza. So is gourmet dining, although several restaurants can give you pleasant versions of local specialties: spaghetti with mussels, lentil soup and seafood risotto, in particular.

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