By Vida Mcshane
It is not the best start to a holiday. My son, a decidedly lively 21-month-old, decides to ‘do what a man’s got to do’ just as we are boarding our plane in search of longed-for Mediterranean sunshine.
Then, shortly after take-off – by which time all necessary running repairs have been carried out – my husband tries to keep the youngster happy with a low-volume musical toy, only for the passenger in the next seat to ask, brusquely, for it to be turned down. Oh dear. How much longer to go?
It makes me ponder the wisdom of travelling with such a young child: the packing, the early-morning start, the journey to and through the airport, travelling on to the destination after landing.
Island idyll: Ischia lies in the Bay of Naples and has long been a favourite retreat for the stars
But we are heading for somewhere special –
Ischia, the volcanic island that lies so beautifully in the northern
end of the Gulf of Naples. An Italian wonderland, it is an outcrop that
has enchanted many – even Hollywood royalty. Fifty years ago, Cleopatra –
that masterful collision of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was
lighting up cinema screens, some of its scenes having been filmed on the
After our flight to Naples, we take the hour-long ferry voyage from the city’s port to the island, some 20 miles away. By the time we arrive at our hotel, even though our son has quietened down, we are exhausted. A feeling that every holidaying parent with a tiny bundle of energy knows only too well.
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Hotel Terme Manzi is a 200-year-old palace that was converted into a five-star hotel six years ago. It sits in the hills in Casamicciola Terme, a town famed for hot thermal springs with healing properties – a feature of the island that first enticed the Romans 2,000 years ago. It has attracted the great and the good ever since, notably the revolutionary ‘father of Italy’ Giuseppe Garibaldi – his bath is on show in the hotel foyer – and, according to legend, Ulysses too.
Silver screen: It was on the set of Cleopatra that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began their infamous affair
The hotel has a spa with an
indoor pool, saunas, treatment rooms and a fitness centre. It provides
‘wellness’ programmes, so it is not surprising that many guests come to
have healing treatments.
The property is decorated in that ornate, traditional Italianate style, oozing antiques from every nook – and has an outdoor pool on a roof terrace that proffers views of the surrounding hills and town.
Manzi is perfectly positioned to catch the sun. During our stay, this
is a mixed blessing, as temperatures hit the mid-30s. Thankfully, there
are numerous sun-shades dotted around. There is also a separate bar area
and a rooftop relaxation zone should you not want to be totally
We worry that Louis will ruin the calm with his toddler pep, but we order a freshly squeezed orange juice for him, and he is happy – though he turns up his nose up at the canapés served with it.
The thermal pool is a warm 29C, ideal for children, although the hotel recommends that youngsters do not stay in the water for more than 15 minutes at a time.
On our first evening, we take a ten-minute stroll to the seafront and in the cool of the fading day, we do some window-shopping and enjoy a drink on the seafront. Glorious.
Rural idyll: The Terme Manzi has its own thermal baths and a dramatic clifftop setting
We start the morning by sampling
the hotel breakfast, with its selection of home-made pastries, fresh
fruit and yoghurts, as well as a variety of cooked meats, eggs, fresh
mozzarella and ricotta. Louis recovers from the travails of the previous
day with a big croissant. We are up and running.
The hotel had a free shuttle service to a number of places on the island (which is roughly six miles by five miles in size) – not least the beach at San Montano, a ten-minute drive away.
quickly takes to swimming in the sea and looking at the boats as they
sail past while we find more edible pleasures. A beach bar serves slices
of pizza and toasted ciabatta sandwiches for a few euros, plus ice
creams and frozen sweet espresso coffee. A pleasing way to cool down.
But we do not fill up too much. We have a gourmet feast planned, at the hotel's restaurant Gli Ulvi. Here, the menu takes plenty of risks. I plump for the pumpkin flowers stuffed with ricotta and capers. Louis, not yet so adventurous, sticks to a dish of penne with tomato sauce. He behaves throughout, the waiters proving to be excellent at keeping him entertained.
Can you take a toddler to a two-Michelin-starred restaurant? We decide not, though it is a wrench to miss out on Il Mosaico, the hotel's gourmet landmark – run by handsome celebrity chef Nino di Costanzo, a native of Ischia. This is not baby territory – 11 intimate tables (including two inside the kitchen so that you can see all the action first-hand); a five-course tasting menu costing from €135.
Serene setting: The Gardens and Villas lives up to is name with plenty of lush landscapes
It would be easy to stay here forever. But we are keen to see the Terme Manzi’s sibling hotel, the Garden & Villas Resort, which perches in the hills above Laco Ameno. It sits within scented gardens with lovely lawns and flowers, and has nine individual bungalows.
Our room is splendid, boasting its own little garden with sun loungers. Louis is thrilled as he plays on the grass, captivated by the lizards that scamper away from him. He calls them crocodiles. Not quite.
He finds further thrills at the hotel's thermal pool, where the temperature is a perfect 28C. He shows an inexhaustible appetite for jumping in from the side while holding our hands.
Great fun for him, rather more tiring for us.
We have company, another family with an older and – I must confess – much better behaved son.
The difference is emphasised when Louis becomes crazed at the sight of the restaurant desert trolley and threatens to ruin the atmosphere for everyone in the dining room – until the waiters bring him a sticky pudding. Satisfied, he begins bouncing in his highchair shouting 'hooray'.
Our evening meal costs €35 – including a huge antipasti buffet, a choice of three starters, three main courses and a selection of deserts. Waist-troubling, but at least our bank manage will like us.
It is tempting to set up camp here, but on one evening we take a taxi to a delightful pizza restaurant alongside the port in the nearby town of Forio. This is a little slice of Italian charm, with cobbled streets and lovely gift and clothes shops. Another evening carries us to Ischia Porto town - an enclave which shows us the cosmopolitan side of this island of 60,000 inhabitants. On one street we find a tiny chapel where nuns are bowed in silent prayer. Adjacent is a busy sushi bar.
Lookout point: The Castello Aragonese sits on its own island and can be reached by a walkway or a cable car
Having a young child in tow can make excursions tricky going, but we manage to visit the Castello Aragonese in Ischia Ponte. Dating back to 400BC, this impressive fortress is connected to the main island by a walkway above the sea. You can either walk up or ‘cheat’ by taking the lift to a gorgeous wisteria-covered coffee shop with panoramic views over the Gulf of Naples. We cheat.
Elsewhere, Negombo is a thermal park, perfect for children. We take turns in looking after Louis, dipping into the the various different heated and freezing pools – all set in gardens with sea views.
My favourite is the 'torture pool', which is not as gruesome as it sounds. You walk across a pool full of stones in 40C water – then come back on a similar route, this time through ice-cold liquid. Bracing.
Going abroad with such a young child is hard work. But Louis works his magic - and seems to have a flair for Italian. Whenever he sees a girl with long hair (who reminds him of his aunt back home), he blows a kiss and smiles, while saying her name: "Bella, Bella." This goes down a treat with the locals.
I'm not sure if Louis realises 'bella' means 'beautiful'. But I like to think that he does.