If you’ve heard of the Tuscan archipelago, it’ll be down to Napoléon. The diminutive emperor was exiled here in 1814 and stayed on the main island of Elba for 300 days before escaping into the Ligurian Sea.
Not a bad place to be exiled, I decide, as I putter across to the seven-strong island chain scattered between the Tuscan coast and the French island of Corsica, where monsieur Bonaparte was born. I’m not here to dissect the finer details of Napoléonic history, however, but to experience another thing these islands are known for: watersports.
I’m staying in Portoferraio, a hook-shaped harbour town and the largest ‘city’ on Elba, where almost everyone stays when they visit the Tuscan archipelago. Fuss-free seafood restaurants line up along the waterfront, superyachts dot the shore and pastel-painted houses rise to a hilltop villa, where Napoléon resided during his stay.
While Elba is the main hub, I also visit Capraia, a volcanic island, whose craggy, beach-free coast has saved it from large-scale human development. The blood-red rocks of Punta dello Zenobito are the result of successive eruptions, and still draw boats to admire their elemental beauty today. With a population of just 300, Capraia is an island preserved in aspic, where ancient mule tracks lined with oleander and holm oaks now double as hiking trails, and the ocean crashes against the rocks below.
In the island’s tiny (read: only) town of Porto di Capraia, I visit the home of cook Siria and her fisherman husband Antonio, whose brown skin bears the signs of a life at sea. He spends his days fishing, and she cooks up the catch in her simple kitchen. It’s homespun hospitality at its best.
But you have to work to earn these rewards in the Tuscan archipelago. This fiercely protected marine park has carved out a name for itself as an adventure destination, with miles of crystalline coastline, quiet coves and hidden beaches, and where you can kayak, standup paddleboard, sail and scuba dive. I head out into the big blue to give them a go.
Marina extends a hand and welcomes me aboard. A good name, you’d say, for someone who works at sea, but it’s no coincidence. Her father, Stefano is the captain of this ship. You can hire one of his boats crewed for activities like sunset cruises and whale-watching tours with a marine biologist, where dolphins and sperm whales leap from the murky depths. Today, I’m aboard a 49ft sailing boat. Meals are strictly of the fresh-fish variety, so Marina serves up a lunch of seafood spaghetti as we spend the day inching around Elba’s north coast.
Next, it’s time to take the plunge and explore the archipelago’s sub-aquatic hinterland. After yanking on the equipment: wetsuit, flippers, mask, tank, and weights, I plop into the boat and head over to Elba. But it’s the underwater fauna we’re here to see, and everything from bottlenose dolphins, razorfish and fan mussels frequent this area. We roll over the side and into the depths, drifting to 12 metres, where I spot giant grouper, barramundi and snapper, as well as colonies of brightly-coloured coral. Back on board I think again of Napoléon — who’d want to escape these islands, I don’t know.
A Zodiac zips over to collect me and transport me to Enfola, a craggy, windswept peninsula and the starting point for my next excursion: kayaking
I’m greeted by Silvia and Patrizio, guides as well as real-life partners. We hop in our kayaks and push off from the shore, stopping at La Grotta dello Spruzzo (the Spray Cave), where winter storms cause water to spout out of a hole in the top of the rock. I get stuck in the cave, but it’s no bad thing: the cerulean waters here are worth pausing for. Once I’ve managed to unwedge myself, we pass the tiny sea-scattered rock of La Nave (the Ship), before paddling on to Sansone, the most famous beach on the north coast.
It turns out we’re not the only people on the water today, over to my right a pair of standup paddleboarders make a notoriously difficult sport look like a walk in the park; there’s not a wobble in sight. I make a mental note to test it out for myself before returning to my own oar .
It’s a blazing hot day, European shags squawk from the rocks, and the company is cheering. Silvia and Patrizio urge us on to the next scenic stop with calls of “andiamo, andiamo!”
Published in the Tuscany guide, distributed with the October issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)