Sometimes, it's serendipity. When I found myself going to Europe to settle my daughter in as an au pair, instead of returning home right away, I decided to take the opportunity for a little holiday. Easy, right?
I don't like big crowds, lineups, traffic or noise – that's why I live in Toronto. No, seriously, that's why I need to get out of Toronto, and this side-step vacation was the perfect excuse to travel. Except for one little, teensy, tiny thing: It's August – the worst possible time to go to Italy.
Summer is in full swing and Italy is on vacation. Services are sometimes slower and shops may be closed as locals flee concrete cities. On the upside, traffic and parking are less of a headache – that's if you plan to stay in the city.
But if you want some relief from the heat and desire a beach holiday, like me, and most of the people of Italy, the scenario goes like this: All roads to the seaside are jam-packed with cars and RVs, accommodations are already booked and, if you plan to bite the bullet and pay for an elegant boutique hotel because it's the only thing left, you still have to fight for a piece of real estate to stick a toe in the sand.
So I went.
And this is what I learned: Always pick the farthest beach you can reach by plane, train, car and ferry, choose rock over sand and you cut the number of vacationers in half.
When you holiday on an island, it's one more obstacle visitors must overcome in the race of getting to the beach first: Simple math suggests there would be fewer vacationers vying for the same umbrella space near the sea. My pick was Elba, the island to which Napoleon was exiled in 1814 and the third-largest in Italy.
With 147 kilometres of coastline, Elba is only 27 km across from east to west and 18 km north to south, but if you think you can zip around the Tuscan island in your Fiat 500 in one day, you would be mistaken. One map showed 75 beaches dotting the perimeter, but I suspect there are dozens more unmapped beaches to explore. Hands-down, that is the best part of Elba: If one beach was packed, I could just move on to the next, and the next, and the next.
There is public transit, but it's an inefficient way to get around if you want to beach-hop all day long. (If I'm doing nothing, it had better be on a plastic floaty in the sea, not waiting for a bus to come by.) Rent a car on Elba, or at the airport in the mainland city you fly into. Then drive through the hills of Tuscany right onto the ferry in Piombino. Arrive at Portoferraio, the principal town of Elba, and then leave as fast as you can.
What's the point of escaping the weekend madness of driving up Highway 400 en route to Ontario cottage country only to land on a different beach across the ocean with throngs of people in thongs? It can be tricky trying to share your holiday with a country on summer vacation, but it's not impossible. I simply headed to the opposite end of the island to a rocky beach that older folks and young families try to avoid.
I booked a room with a balcony and sea view at the contemporary Boutique Hotel Ilio in Capo Sant'Andrea – it's pricier than most island rooms and it's a 30-km drive from Portoferraio, full of wonderful switchback turns. Getting there, I felt like I was living a race-car game. That was the second-best part of Elba.
It's not only fun navigating around Elba in a peppy little car; the island's size makes it totally doable. Driving becomes an event – the best way of finding mountain hamlets and hidden coves, of exploring the medieval town of Marciana and stumbling upon the roofless San Giovanni Battista church, built around 1150. If you stand in the middle, you can almost imagine the comings and goings of people long ago.
The landscape is lush and varied, from scented pine forests and clusters of chestnut trees to wide-open, cliffside roads where, along the western coast, you can spot beside the guard rails narrow foot paths that lead precariously down to the sea as people seek less-populated beaches.
Capo Sant'Andrea and Boutique Hotel Ilio lie at the base of Elba's largest mountains – and the road to them is narrow and winding. You'll pass faded signs for B&Bs, a few family-run, low-rise hotels, a couple of casual restaurants and a little store that stocks made-in-Elba limoncello, a local liqueur. By 11 a.m., a decent stretch of sand is blanket-to-blanket with Italian-speaking families, their children splashing in the water, taking cover under colourful umbrellas, eating seafood pasta and gelato at Il Gabbiano, the beach snack bar, just a stone's throw from the crystal-clear water of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The vibe was definitely touristy, but I wasn't disappointed. I bought a $10 pink plastic floaty and walked into the sea.
The reality is that international tourists heading to the coast have to compete with the country's own citizens for rooms and a place in the sun. But with the sheer number and variety of beaches on Elba, your chances of finding a spot to stake out as your own are better than most other sun and sand destinations.
The morning after I checked into Boutique Hotel
Ilio, the manager handed me a map and drew a route to beaches on roads less travelled. Before leaving, I wandered over to a little wooden foot bridge near the beach snack bar. I turned away from the rental boats and dozens of lounge chairs and walked farther onto what looked like rolling hills of smooth rock. I turned a bend and then without warning, I saw the magnificent views of Capo Sant'Andrea's swooping and majestic granite rock face – hidden from the busy beach area. In some spots, it is so grey and stony, I imagine it's like walking on the moon. Its beauty is its bareness.
I found an outcropping that provided a natural visor for my face and settled down. The warmth of the rock penetrated my body. I closed my eyes to listen to the only sound there was: the rhythm of crashing waves.
How to get there
Finally, peace on a far-away beach in the middle of the summer.
Fly into Rome, rent a car and drive three hours to Piombino. Or fly into Florence, rent a car and stay a night in the medieval town of San Gimignano, drive to the coast of Piombino in the morning and board the ferry to Portoferraio, Elba.
There is an airport on the island of Elba, Marina di Campo, though no direct flights from Toronto.
It's a trek to get to the opposite end of the island from Portoferraio to Capo Sant'Andrea, so plan to land on the island no later than 5 p.m. The road is winding and takes much longer than you think, but it's worth every single swear word.
Where to stay
Check into the romantic, 4 1/2-star Boutique Hotel
Ilio in Sant'Andrea. Book an ocean view in one of their well-appointed rooms and enjoy a glass of wine at sunset on your private balcony. Breakfast is included. Weather permitting, they offer boat trips, wine tasting, trekking, kayaking, diving, snorkelling and horseback riding. The best activity? Rent a car and zip around the lush and mountainous island.
Tuscany double room with sea view from €155 ($230); hotelilio.com.
Where to eat
Il Gabbiano, an open-air seaside snack bar and restaurant in Capo Sant'Andrea, is worth a stop. It's just steps from rental loungers and umbrellas along the beach. Go for authentic Italian seafood, pasta and salads in your flip-flops and wind-swept hair. Cheap and cheerful.