Nothing this year went “according to plan.” That means uncertainty and a fair bit of anxiety for us tour guides as we wait for it to be safe enough for US tourism to come back to Italy. The silver lining? That we can actually be the tourists this year and travel in June – something unheard of during “normal” seasons. So off we set: me, Luca, his 8-year old daughter Alessia and two nonni (grandparents) ever ready to comment on the havoc that can be wreaked by cold water on ones digestive system (it’s an Italian thing). Elba turned out to be the perfect place for a post-lockdown family vacation.
Why visit Elba? Variety and authenticity.
Elba stole my heart with the sheer diversity of things to see and experience. Beaches range from white rock to pebble to sand and the crystal blue waters are perfect for snorkelling. Active adventurers can swim, hike, bike and dive. History buffs can explore Etruscan sites from ancient Romans ruins to Napoleon’s houses and abandoned post industrial remains of a century-old iron industry. Take a break to shop and people watch in a variety of beautiful towns both high in the mountains or on the seafront and taste wonderful seafood. There really is something for everyone in the family to enjoy on Elba. One of the things that we liked the most was the feeling of authenticity. Elba is a haven for travellers but it hasn’t succumbed to the inauthentic touristy vibe of some other more popular Italian beaches.
Read on for how we spent five days in Elba or skip down to the bottom for logistics on how to get to this Tuscan Island, what to bring and where to stay. We can’t wait to go back so if you have been and have any suggestions for what else we can enjoy in Elba, please share in the comments section!
Five Days in Elba
Monday: Arrival in Portoferraio and Elba’s famous White beaches
First, we drove down to the port town of Piombino to catch the ferry. We decided to bring the car with us to Elba which I can’t recommend more highly. Within a few minutes of disembarking at Portoferraio we were already at our apartment nestled between Elba’s three white rock beaches.
We were thrilled with our choice to stay at “Residence Capo Bianco.” This cluster of apartments is perched right above the beach with its own private stair down to the water. Since we were traveling as a family, we wanted a place where the grandparents could have their own apartment and where we could count on all the essentials. This meant having a designated parking place, a kitchen, air conditioning and good water pressure in the shower (hey, priorities). Residence Capo Bianco delivered.
The apartment was clean and simple but the best part was the private terrace in the front and the view (we stayed in apartment H). Because we were so close to the water, we could pop down for an early morning swim or sit on the white pebbles after dark and have the place entirely to ourselves.
Elba has three white rock beaches and you can easily swim from one to the other. In between Padulella and Capo Bianco we even discovered a little cave that catches the blue of the water below and the white rock cliffs swooping down to the white pebble floor (featured in the video above!).
- Seccione is the beach you can walk to from the ferry in case you are on foot.
- Padulella is my favourite. It’s harder to access so has fewer people and was the beach we could reach from our apartment.
- Capo Bianco is the most famous and probably the one you picture when you think of those Acqua dell’Elba advertisements!
Tuesday: Napoleon’s Villa(s) and Evening in Porto Azzuro
Elba is perhaps most famous for the fact that Napoleon was exiled here in 1814 … for a grand total of 10 months. I was under the false impression that he was in some kind of luxury house arrest but oh no. One’s punishment for getting a little carried away and trying to become emperor of all of Europe is to become ruler of “just” Elba. He had a palace AND a beach house in Portoferraio (it’s an island Napoleon, every house is a beach house but ok) and you can visit both of them so be sure you are visiting the one you had in mind. Unfortunately for us, the palace was closed this year in June so we’ll just have to come back. (It’s not a normal time of year to be closed but it’s 2020 and as already stated, nothing is normal).
Since we couldn’t visit Napoleon’s Villa, we decided to check out what was called “The Roman Villa” right above Portoferraio. It was a fun fifteen minute stop but the real benefit of visiting this site was to imagine how cool it would have looked if more of it was still intact. I’d say stop by if you’re passing but I wouldn’t go out of my way for a visit.
We ended the day with an evening stroll and seafood dinner in Porto Azzurro at one of the restaurants lined up right over the water. Yes, a little touristy but the view was worth it as was the ease of grabbing a refreshing yogurt and fruit gelato and people watching afterwards as the light faded from the sky.
Wednesday: Boat Excursion and Dinner in Portoferraio
An organised boat excursion was one of those things we thought we would do to entertain both child and grandparents for half a day but I could not recommend the Magic Princess boat trip enough. It completely blew our expectations out of the water. We opted for the five hour excursion at €25 per person that explored the south east coast of Elba (they also offered a shorter evening one and a full 8 hour day one). With numerous stops for dives and all the things we couldn’t have seen if on foot, it was absolutely perfect.
We saw the creepy skeletal remains of the iron works in a few places (if you know me, you know I like abandoned stuff), goats jumping out of caves high up on the side of a cliff, the Gemini Islands and in the distance the island of Montecristo (as in “The Count of Montecristo” – book lover rejoice).
We dove in beautiful blue water and visited a scorching hot black rock beach, snorkelling through beautiful clear water. On our way back to port, salty, sandy and windswept we experienced a moment of pure joy as a pack of dolphins played around the boat. Click here to see the video on instagram.
That night, Luca and I left Alessia to have a sleep over with the nonni and went on a date in Portoferraio. We stopped at Ristorante Il Teatro based solely on the view and had a wonderful meal of crispy, lightly breaded anchovies, fritto misto, and a lemony buttery pasta topped with crunchy bottarga.
Thursday: Granite Quarries, A shipwreck and mind-blowing Gelato in Marciano Marina
The Romans came to Elba in search of its durable and slightly pinkish granite and we were determined to hike up the hills on the south side of the island above Cavoli beach to find the remains of the ancient quarries. The landscape on the south side of the island reminded me of the Sierra Nevadas in California where my family and I used to camp every summer. Broad expanses of stone among the scrub brush looked just like big scoops of melting ice cream and the view back over the sea was stunning.
Unfortunately for us, 2020 struck again and the trail wasn’t maintained. After 30 minutes of walking with a very belligerent eight year old urging us to turn back roughly every 20 seconds, the trail became so dense with jagged bushes that we couldn’t go on. Another reason to come back!
Photo credit: elbacomunico.com
The shipwreck was more successful. We picked up sandwiches at a little Alimentari shop in Secchetto to eat on the beach and then headed to what is called “Shipwreck beach” (between Ogliera Beach and Pomonte Beach). Snorkles at the ready, we rented a peddle boat for an hour to peddle slightly offshore and as soon as we jumped into the water, we saw it, just meters below us.
The Elviscot was a merchant ship that went aground on the Ogliera rock in 1972 (no casualties). Now, the ship is its own mini marine environment, housing plants and fish. We experienced it from above with snorkels but you can also go on guided expeditions to dive down 12 meters to the sandy floor and even enter the ship in certain places.
On our drive back, we stopped at the town of Marciano Marina for a gelato at the famous “La Svolta.” Their fruit flavours are seriously so delicious that we got one cone, strolled around the town taking in all the delightful sherbet colors of the city and then went back for seconds which we slurped down on a bench overlooking the little marina.
Friday: Paolina Island and Return Home
Why not end a visit to an island with a visit to … a smaller island? Our last stop on Elba was its own little Satellite Island called the Paolina, named after Napoleon’s sister. The rock beach here was short and intimate though you have to get here early as it fills up and parking along the road above can be hard to find. Swimming around the Paolina with Alessia and drying off on the rocks while watching hermit crabs battle for position in the shallows was a great laid back last morning.
Time to say goodbye. While I felt like we left with an even longer list of things to do on our return, a few days in Elba experiencing such a variety of different places and environments made it feel like we had been gone for much longer than five days.
Elba travel Logistics
When to travel? Summer.
Our apartment host told us that June was one of the best times to visit to visit the island as it gets much more crowded in July and August with Italians on their summer vacations.
Who travels to Elba
A lot of Italians! Especially those from the north of Italy who don’t want the tourist crowds of the Cinque Terre or Amalfi Coast. Elba is known to other Europeans but it’s not like the Amalfi Coast where a majority of tourists are American.
How to get to Elba
You can catch the ferry to Elba from the town of Piombino in Tuscany.
Getting to Piombino by train: you’ll want to get the train to “Piombino Marittima” which is right next to where you will be able to get the ferry. If you take the train simply to the “Piombino” station then you have about a twenty minute walk or a 5 minute cab ride over. From Rome, the train trip will take about three and a half hours and you’ll have to change trains once. From Florence it’s about three hours by train also with one change. For more on how to book trains on the official Trenitalia site, see my guide to train travel in Italy by clicking here.
Book your ferry tickets in advance. We used Ok-Ferry.com which is easy to use and can be changed to English if needed (click here for official site) and went from Piombino to “Portoferraio” (one of three ports on Elba to choose from). The three main ferry companies are Toremar, Moby and Blu Navy. We booked our our car over as well and the cost for two adults, one child and a car was about €80 each way.
There are car rental options within easy walking distance from the ferry in case you want to rent once you are on the island.
Where to Stay
Since we were traveling with Luca’s parents and eight year old daughter we wanted something that was as convenient as possible and we got just that with Residence Capo Bianco.
My review mentioned on Day One: This cluster of apartments is perched right above the beach with its own private stair down to the water. Since we were traveling as a family, we wanted a place where the grandparents could have their own apartment and where we could count on all the essentials. This meant having a designated parking place, a kitchen, air conditioning and good water pressure in the shower (hey, priorities). Residence Capo Bianco delivered. The apartment was clean and simple but the best part was the private terrace in the front and the view (we stayed in apartment H). Because we were so close to the water, we could pop down for an early morning swim or sit on the white pebbles after dark and have the place entirely to ourselves.
I’d also recommend Elba My Love as a great site to help plan your trip and find places to stay (look for “Where to Sleep” in their main menu for options on Hotels and Apartments.
What you want to bring
- A Car: I highly recommend having a car for your visit as it will make it so much easier to get around the island and see all the sites.
- Good Walking shoes if you want to go hiking around the island
- Snorkel: Not necessary but we brought some and it was a blast swimming off the coast and looking for fish. They are about €5 at Decathlon.
- Water shoes: If you are a weakling like me you’ll want water shoes to jump around on the rocks. Or you can be cool/tough and go without.
Have you been to Elba?
If you have been to Elba and have recommendations for what to visit, please share in the comments below. I can’t wait to go back!