“I’m awfully sorry to trouble you,” an elderly English lady on holiday at the five-star Albergo della Regina Isabella says as she approaches me, “but one so rarely hears an English voice here that I wanted to say hello.” It’s something you might expect to hear in a remote part of Peru, perhaps, but not a short hydrofoil hop away from a mainstream European city served by EasyJet. This spot, so oddly devoid of Britons, is the island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples, just 15 miles from the Italian mainland and the same distance from Capri, the Swarovski-studded playground for supermodels, Formula One drivers and the singer Mariah Carey, who owns a villa there.
Yet Ischia, Capri’s volcanic, lusciously green, larger yet far less flashy neighbour, has slipped beneath the radar for British holidaymakers and those in search of an island holiday home.“I can’t think of a single British property owner here,” says Salvatore Barba, director of Re/Max, an estate agency based in Lacco Ameno, on the northwest coast. “An English lord was looking last year, but he didn’t buy anything. We’re starting to see Russians, though.”
Lacco Ameno is where the Greeks settled in the 8th century BC. The Romans followed and visitors have come ever since to soak up the mineral springs and volcanic mud. Now it is home to the Le Terme della Regina Isabella medical spa, where mud is pumped from the ground into the treatment rooms.
While the Germans lap it up, British visitors are thin on the ground. “Until a few years ago, the German health service paid for people to come here for thermal spa treatments,” says Carlo Esindi, sales representative of the Mizar estate agency in Ischia Porto. “Now even the number of German visitors is dwindling. As for English clients, we’ve had just three in 20 years,” he adds. “We’re hoping the enormous decrease in German tourism will force tour operators to appeal to other markets, so Ischia will become well known again.”
The island is hardly lacking in charm, its colour-ful port and nearby beaches providing the idyllic setting for the fictitious Mongibello in the film The Talented Mr Ripley, starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law. The interior is dominated by verdant mountains, pine-forested on the northern side and home to vineyards in the warmer south. Everything is built – pretty densely, at that – around the coastline, with one main road skirting the island’s 20-mile circumference and four main towns, Lacco Ameno, Forio, Casamic-ciola and Ischia Porto, on the water’s edge. From a hilly vantage point, it looks more earthy Caribbean than wealth-flaunting Mediterranean, the houses simple and – regardless of their worth – rarely acquainted with a fresh coat of paint.
“Ischia and Capri are to Italy what Ibiza and Majorca are to Spain,” says Andrew Langton, a director of Aylesford estate agency, which works in conjunction with La Vecchia Toscana Properties. “Very few houses change hands. The larger villas with sea views are usually hidden in the hills and cost £5m-£6m.”
Ischia may luxuriate in its laid-back, low-profile charm, but it has seen its fair share of famous names in the past. The English composer William Walton and his wife, Susana, caused great consternation when they arrived from London in their Bentley in 1948 – the only Britons back then, and among the only car-owners on the island. Walton had been struck by Ischia’s beauty in the 1920s, when he was introduced to it by the eccentric Sitwell family, Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell, so he and Susana moved to a converted wine cellar in the northwest of the island, where Laurence Olivier was a regular visitor. The couple built La Mortella, on Monte Zaro, where Lady Walton – now 83 – still lives, and where Sir William (who died in 1983, aged 81) composed one of his best-known works, the opera Troilus and Cressida. The house is surrounded by subtropical botanical gardens, which they planted and nurtured over the years, and which are open to the public.
Ischia has never failed to inspire. Truman Capote, Henrik Ibsen and WH Auden all came here to write, but its heyday began in the late 1950s, when the film producer Angelo Rizzoli built the Albergo della Regina Isabella hotel. Then Hollywood came to town. “Eliza-beth Taylor threw Richard Burton’s clothes off their balcony here during a row, and local fishermen immediately gathered to retrieve them,” Giancarlo Carriero, the hotel’s owner, recalls. “Charlie Chap-lin, Clark Gable and Sophia Loren came here, too.”
The island’s cinematic tradition continues each June with an international film festival, partly funded by the hotel, with screenings on the cliffs. This year (June 21-29) will be its seventh. Vanessa Redgrave and Matt Dillon attended last year, able to wander around untroubled by photographers, and Gerard Butler sang to guests in the piano bar.
This annual week of glamour aside, the island needs a boost. Elderly Germans come in search of restorative mud baths out of season, and Italians pack out the beaches in summer, but Ischia has not entered property-buyers’ consciousness in the way the nearby Amalfi coast or Capri have.
“It was a fun place 25 years ago, when we used to rent out Lady Walton’s villas,” Langton says. “It’s quiet and safe, a welcome escape from Naples. Then the Balearics emerged as a destination, and people started to go there instead.”
Hoping to bring the jet set back to Ischia is the developer behind Villa Isabella, a huge 1950s clifftop villa above the Albergo, which is being converted into seven lavish flats. The two- or three-bedroom properties cost between £2.4m and £3.1m, and are due for completion next February.
The original villa, which belonged to an old friend of Rizzoli’s, was a vast 2,100 square metres – even divided, each single-storey flat feels like a villa, with large terraces and plunge pools overlooking the sea to Naples and Mount Vesuvius. The house has a large garden with a communal pool and orchards where owners can grow produce.
Built within the walls of the old villa, the homes retain original features including arched windows and high ceilings. With so much space to play with, and only so many bathrooms a flat can take, most of the properties also have a hammam. “These are the only waterfront properties for sale on the island,” says Carlo Cavandoli, sales manager for Villa Isabella. They even have their own private – if precipitous – steps down to the beach.
“Buyers get access to the hotel’s facilities, such as the swimming pools, spa and tennis courts, and 24-hour security. There will be a dining area on the rocks just for owners, as well as use of a motor yacht, and buyers will have the chance to access all areas of the film festival, which is usually available only to VIPs and press. We want to be the hip place on Ischia – few properties have this kind of space and location.” Rental potential in summer is good, which is why so few waterfront properties come on the sales market. “The Villa Isabella flats can be rented out through the hotel, so are likely to cost about £1,800 a night, with the revenue split 50/50 between the owner and the hotel,” Cavandoli says.
Even cheaper properties, such as a two-bedroom flat near the waterfront in Lacco Ameno, which Re/Max is selling for £335,000, will let for about £2,600 a month in summer, according to Barba.
It may not have the manicured perfection of Antibes or the kudos of Capri, where properties are twice as expensive, but property doesn’t come cheap on Ischia. Average prices run from £6,000 to £9,000 per square metre, with most potential purchases needing work. “We are selling four 90 sq metre flats in a converted villa overlooking the main square in Sant’Angelo, a pretty fishing town, for £710,000, but they need complete renovation,” Barba says. “The cheapest property you could expect to buy in a good location would be something like a one-bedroom flat in Lacco Ameno, without sea views, but only a three-minute walk from the beach, for £240,000.”
With no English estate agents based on the island, no new-build properties and local agents dealing with a small fraction of what’s available for sale – the rest can be heard of only by word of mouth – Ischia may not experience the sort of influx of British buyers that places such as Sorrento, on the Amalfi coast, have seen. “Perhaps the lack of British owners is part of Ischia’s charm,” Langton observes.
It may attract the odd Hollywood star from time to time, but nobody in Ischia drives a flash car or flaunts their wealth. They prefer to let the island’s natural attractions do the talking. “We think that to encourage tourism, you need culture, Carriero says. “People who buy here are the exact opposite of the sort of people who buy in Dubai. They come to Ischia for authentic experiences – the fishermen, the old barber’s shops. Here, you can see real life all around you on a Mediterranean island.” + Aylesford, 020 7351 2383, aylesfordresidential.com; Mizar, 00 39-081 984 253, ischiaimmobiliare.it; Villa Isabella, 081 333 0207, villaisabellaclub.com
Three properties on the market in Ischia
Ischia Porto £1.34m This villa has five bedrooms, two reception rooms, a kitchen, five bathrooms, balconies and terraces. Surrounded by a 1,000 sq metre garden, it is 1km from the centre of Ischia Porto. Ischia Immobiliare; 00 39 081 981897, ischiaimmobiliare.it
Forio £709,000 One of two flats in Villa Parco degli Ulivi, this 70 sq metre property, arranged across two floors, has two bedrooms and one reception room. It comes with a terrace with sea views, as well as a garden and parking. Re/Max; 00 39 081 507 2431, remax.it
Forio £444,000 This 80 sq metre flat is one of four in the converted Villa San Francesco, by the sea front in Forio. It hasa sitting room, two bedrooms and two bathrooms. Outside, there is a balcony and a terrace, as well as a garden with a swimming pool. Remax, as above