07 June 2023

Discover Europe’s Best-Kept Vacation Secrets (Let’s Keep This Between Us)

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Santorini’s popularity has grown exponentially over the past decade, but there remain hidden gems among the 10,000 Mediterranean islands that offer tranquil, under-touristed escapes. These secret islands may be harder to reach or lack the tourist-centric amenities of popular destinations, but they offer unique experiences, from exploring the cultural heritage of secluded Mediterranean communities to discovering untouched landscapes and serene beaches. While these islands may remain off the mainstream radar, they are cherished vacation spots for the locals. This article highlights ten secret Mediterranean islands, offering a glimpse of their natural beauty, cultural richness, and unique histories. From La Maddalena’s wild beauty to the lost-in-time charm of Procida and the affluent Cycladic enclave of Andros, these hidden gems are worth the extra effort to explore. So why not venture beyond the typical tourist trails and experience these less-crowded, yet enchantingly captivating destinations?

Presenting 5 lesser-known islands that are worth the discovery—and keeping to yourself:

  1. La Maddalena, Sardinia: A rugged extension of the Costa Smeralda.
  2. Meganisi: Timeless beauty nestled within the Ionians.
  3. Procida: An overlooked jewel in the Bay of Naples.
  4. Rab: The Dalmatian Coast’s top beach destination.
  5. Ponza: The go-to holiday escape in Lazio.

La Maddalena, Sardinia

Costa Smeralda’s Wild Haven In the 1960s, the Aga Khan stumbled upon the pristine beaches of Sardinia, instantly transforming Costa Smeralena into a paradise for billionaires. However, a lesser-known treasure, the Maddalena archipelago, lies just off the coast, largely unspoiled by the luxury hotels and high costs typical of Sardinia’s northeast coast.

Until 2008, the island was a nuclear base for the US Navy, which somewhat curtailed tourism and development, bestowing upon it a stark contrast between its natural beauty and a somewhat frigid ambiance. However, this once secluded outpost has now evolved into an area of unbridled wilderness.

The archipelago, now designated a national park, boasts stunning beaches that encapsulate the essence of Mediterranean allure with hidden coves of fine white sand, ensconced by aromatic thyme and opening into life-enhancingly vibrant bays. Explorers can rent a boat and set sail for the warm turquoise lagoons surrounding the uninhabited pink-sand shores of Budelli.

The island town of La Maddalena, free from the trappings of luxury hotels, maintains a low-key atmosphere with its collection of restaurants and bars concentrated around the port and town square. Its charm lies in its laid-back attitude and relative obscurity, providing a more authentic experience for travelers. Therefore, a visit sooner rather than later may be wise before this well-kept secret becomes mainstream.

Meganisi, Ionian island

An Unspoiled Slice of Tranquility. Imagine stepping back in time to an Ionian island untouched by the modern world, reminiscent of the Corfu that captivated Gerald Durrell. Welcome to Meganisi, a miniature version of that era. Verdant promontories of cypress, olive and Jerusalem pine gently envelop fjords of Ionian blue, so glass-like they could be mistaken for a millpond, wherein lie glowing underwater grottoes and white-pebble beaches dotted with moored sailing boats.

Famous personalities like Aristotle Onassis, who married Jackie Kennedy on the neighbouring island of Skorpios, have succumbed to the timeless beauty of Meganisi. However, Meganisi’s charm lies in its modesty and pace of life. Here, cows meander along the beaches, while long-haired goats cohabit with sun-worshippers on rocky platforms beside the sea.

In the quintessential Greek hillside villages of Spartochori and Katomeri, you will find pink bougainvillaea draping over colorful doors and windows. Meanwhile, the bustling harbour of Vathi offers a vibrant dining scene, where charter boat crews stop by for lunch at waterfront tavernas serving fresh fish and bright salads.

Although Meganisi lacks the grandeur of luxury restaurants or nightlife, it offers a tranquil escape, making it an idyllic destination for families with young children and anyone seeking respite from the fast pace of the real world.

Procida, Bay of Naples

Many of us have prided ourselves on discovering Ischia, the seemingly “secret” island nestled in the Bay of Naples. Known predominantly to the locals, Hollywood A-listers, and numerous elderly Germans seeking the rejuvenating thermal waters, it has been a cherished hideaway. Yet, there exists a more concealed sanctuary in this same bay – Procida, Ischia’s lesser-known but equally enchanting sibling.

The 17th-century fishing port of Corricella, with its vibrant palette, exudes charm comparable to the famed Cinque Terre. Dominating the town from high above, a fortified cliffside citadel overlooks the area, and just beyond its reach, rugged limestone cliffs descend dramatically towards beaches of dusky sand.

Procida possesses a unique quality of timeless tranquility, which has led to its cinematic fame as the historic backdrop in films such as The Talented Mr Ripley, Il Postino, and Taylor-and-Burton’s Cleopatra. Despite its celluloid recognition, this small island, spanning only two square miles, remains largely under the radar, a quality it has held since the 1700s. Before this, it was a favorite holiday destination for figures as diverse as Ancient Greeks, Roman aristocrats, Vandals, Goths, Saracens, and even the King of Spain.

In the present day, the rose-tinted backstreets of Procida are seeing a surge of vibrancy, fuelled by a thriving community of artists, craftsmen, and culinary innovators. This creative buzz contributed to Procida being declared Italy’s Capital of Culture last year. While it may lack the luxury spas, top-rated hotels, and high-end boutiques found in neighbouring Capri and Ischia, Procida has its own charming offerings. A selection of fine dining and lodging options, run by locals, celebrate the island’s excellent produce and wines, sourced both locally and from the surrounding fertile regions.

Rab, The Dalmatian Coast

The Dalmatian Coast’s Premier Beach Destinations Rab, a Mediterranean island of exquisite beauty, is yet to reach the peak of its popularity, a fact that remains puzzling. Its historic town, located on a peninsula, features a charming blend of homes and belltowers, their terracotta roofs offering a delightful contrast against the Adriatic’s aquamarine waters. The remainder of the island, an evergreen geopark cloaked in holm oaks, is equally enchanting. However, the ultimate allure of Rab lies in its captivating beaches, long, golden crescents of sand merging into pockets of vibrant emerald waters.

Venture into the island’s heartland via its network of trails, either on foot or by bicycle, to reach the widely favored Rajska (Paradise) beach and the expansive Sahara beach, which stretches over a mile. If you wish, discover your own special spot among the plethora of secluded coves. Remember to pack your swimwear, or simply a towel, as clothing is considered optional at these beaches. This liberal dress code finds its roots in 1936 when King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson initiated the naturism trend in Croatia by skinny dipping off Kandarola beach from their yacht.

Ponza, Lazio

Ponza’s allure is as timeless as the tale of Odysseus, who, upon stepping on its shores, was spellbound by the enchantress Circe. This enchanting island, tucked away in the Tyrrhenian Sea between Naples and Sardinia, has been charming travellers since ancient times. It serves as the ultimate summer retreat for discerning Italians, who come to enjoy the island’s unspoiled beauty. Majestic limestone cliffs tower over hidden, idyllic bays of shimmering sand and pebbles, secret beaches that can only be accessed by boat or a daring descent down rocky slopes. The sea, crystal clear, reveals the underwater rocks to the swimming visitor, its hue morphing from a soft green to a deep blue.

Ponza also caters to families seeking more accessible beach options. Cala Feola, with its beach bar and jetty, creates a bustling harbour brimming with boats. The expansive Frontone beach offers sun loungers scattered across its coarse sand during the peak of summer. Even in the busy month of August, Ponza retains its tranquil charm, a virtue preserved by the absence of an airport.

The island’s vibrant port provides a calming contrast to the awe-inspiring landscapes. Painted in the hues of an artist’s palette—ochre, lemon yellow, and rich Cadmium red—it emits a laidback vibe. Yet, this leisurely atmosphere doesn’t compromise the island’s sophistication, with an array of chic boutiques and gourmet restaurants (including the Michelin-starred Acqua Pazza) serving the sophisticated Roman and Neapolitan clientele who wish Ponza to remain their exclusive retreat.

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