The rocky island of Ponza is a surprise. The crescent-shaped rugged island is plopped in the Bay of Gaeta, rising from the water like a desert isle, with rocky hills covered in scrub and sheer cliffs that plunge to the sea. Yet beyond the facade are productive farms and cultivated vineyards, growing an indigenous grape varietal, biancolello di Ponza, with which the island's noted wine, Fieno Bianco, is made. Fieno, naturally, matches perfectly with the scrumptious seafood that is found in abundance here. The farms provide for the islanders' produce needs, but also grow a particular type of chickpea (cicerchia) and lentils, and turn out excellent cheeses.
The island was originally inhabited by prehistoric tribes, then the Phoenicians, the Greeks and the Romans all found their way here. It was sacked by Saracens and plundered by pirates - quite an impressive line-up of invaders through the centuries for a small island! Ponza measures roughly seven square kilometers, but it packs a hefty seaside punch into that little land mass. The Bay of Frontone and Chiaia di Luna offer sandy beaches, while the Cala del Core sports shale. Hidden coves and caves pock the perimeter of Ponza, reachable by water taxi for a day of swimming, snorkeling or diving.
The island's name was bestowed by the Greeks, from pontos, meaning "placed in the sea". The town of Ponza is known locally as Porto, as its life and livelihood are centered there. Still an active fishing port, it is also a popular mooring spot for sailors. Porto encircles the bay with its pretty white and pastel buildings that climb from the beach up the hillside. It is tidy and charming without any of the ugly modern high-rises that mar other beach resorts. Porto offers excellent dining, beachfront cafes, unique shops and beautiful scenery.
A hand-dug Roman tunnel connects the town to the beach of Chiaia di Luna, which has a stunning backdrop of sheer white cliffs. It's especially striking at sunset. Pilate's Caves are man-made grottoes where local lore says the Romans raised eels, an imperial delicacy. A lovely lighthouse stands sentinal on the southern tip of the island, at the aptly-named Punta della Guardia (guard point). All around the island are crags and coves to explore along the sea, as well as pathways through the terraced and rocky hills. The town puts on a party every August with its Fish Festival, and serves up cream-filled zeppolata for San Giuseppe, which is also Father's Day in Italy.
Ponza is an unusual, captivating getaway.
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