Italy holidays: Bestselling author Mary Bly on why the island of Elba is a must-visit


My husband summered on Elba as a child, and for years we followed suit, driving onto the ferry in a car crammed with blown-up dinosaurs and eager children. 

When I was writing Lizzie and Dante, I thought of the island as a character in itself, an essential ingredient in a deliciously happy vacation. If Lizzie and Dante fall in love with each other, I hope readers fall in love with the island.

Elba isn’t fancy, like Capri; even the yachts that pull up to small coves and towns are human-sized. It’s a wonderful place to go when you’re heart-sick or tired, when you long for excellent, simple food, sunshine day after day, and postcard-perfect sunsets over the sea. 

Elba is the setting for Mary Bly’s new romantic novel Lizzie and Dante, out now. The American author was introduced to the island by her husband, who used to summer there as a child. Pictured, the island’s Sansone Beach

To get to Elba, take a train or car from Rome or Florence to Piombino near Livorno, and catch one of the ferries to the town of Portoferraio (pictured)

To get to Elba, take a train or car from Rome or Florence to Piombino near Livorno, and catch one of the ferries to the town of Portoferraio (pictured)

Mary writes: 'We celebrate the journey by walking directly into restaurant Stella Marina [in Portoferraio, above] facing the harbour for a leisurely wine-filled lunch'

Mary writes: ‘We celebrate the journey by walking directly into restaurant Stella Marina [in Portoferraio, above] facing the harbour for a leisurely wine-filled lunch’

Most beaches slope to shallow turquoise water: rent an umbrella, dig in the sand, bring your dog with you into restaurants. 

Unpretentious food abounds: grilled fish, octopus and potato salad, pizzas always cooked ‘al forno’ (in the oven), no matter the heat in the kitchen. Their signature ‘Elba’ wine is a milky, slightly sparkling white; ask for vino della casa, or the house blend.

To get to Elba, take a train or car from Rome or Florence to Piombino near Livorno, and catch one of the ferries to Portoferraio. 

We celebrate the journey by walking directly into restaurant Stella Marina facing the harbour for a leisurely wine-filled lunch. If you don’t mind a walk, the Ristorante ‘da Gianni’ (down an alley a few blocks away) specialises in astonishingly good hand-made orecchiette, pasta with the sweet shape of a child’s ear.

Mary says if you'd like a slightly more elegant scene, go further along the coast to the cape of Sant'Andrea, pictured. Here she says 'young Italians strut the beach dressed in minuscule bathing suits, dodging children building sandcastles'

Mary says if you’d like a slightly more elegant scene, go further along the coast to the cape of Sant’Andrea, pictured. Here she says ‘young Italians strut the beach dressed in minuscule bathing suits, dodging children building sandcastles’

Biodola beach is also 'lovely', says Mary, with a stretch of golden sand as seen above

Biodola beach is also ‘lovely’, says Mary, with a stretch of golden sand as seen above 

Portoferraio's Ristorante 'da Gianni' specialises in 'astonishingly good' hand-made orecchiette (stock image)

Portoferraio’s Ristorante ‘da Gianni’ specialises in ‘astonishingly good’ hand-made orecchiette (stock image)

From Portoferraio, you have a choice of delightful villages perched on the hills all the way around Elba’s coast. I recommend Marciana Marina, the smallest town on the island, a mere tumble of pink and orange houses leading to a white beach. 

Don’t eat at a restaurant facing the water (a rule for the entire island, frankly): go down an alley to La Scaletta, a small ristorante that began years ago as a panino stand. The black squid pasta and gnocchi are excellent.

If you are lucky enough to have a kitchen of your own, head out to the dock in the morning to choose your fish when the fishermen come. 

Marciana Marina, pictured, is the smallest town on the island - 'a mere tumble of pink and orange houses leading to a white beach'

Marciana Marina, pictured, is the smallest town on the island – ‘a mere tumble of pink and orange houses leading to a white beach’

In Marciana Marina 'don't eat at a restaurant facing the water (a rule for the entire island, frankly): go down an alley to La Scaletta' (pictured)

In Marciana Marina ‘don’t eat at a restaurant facing the water (a rule for the entire island, frankly): go down an alley to La Scaletta’ (pictured)

Buy glorious figs and apricots in the market right on the water, and excellent bread opposite the church in the tiny piazza. (The café makes tea with truly boiling water, another plus!) If you’d prefer a hotel, the Marina Garden Hotel has very friendly service, clean rooms, and excellent internet, not to mention a pool.

If you’d like a slightly more elegant scene, go further along the coast to Sant’Andrea. Here young Italians strut the beach dressed in minuscule bathing suits, dodging children building sandcastles. 

Don’t eat on the beach! Walk a block or two to restaurant Trattoria di Mare La Nassa.  

Biodola beach is also lovely, with a stretch of golden sand; if you fancy a splurge, Hotel Hermitage has great food, three pools, and a spa. People dress up for dinner, which leads to great people-watching (one night we ogled a rock star!).

'If you can't visit Elba this year, I'm hoping that Lizzie and Dante will enchant you enough to bring you there next year – if not in the future, in your imagination,' says Mary

‘If you can’t visit Elba this year, I’m hoping that Lizzie and Dante will enchant you enough to bring you there next year – if not in the future, in your imagination,’ says Mary

Elba is the setting for Mary Bly's new book Lizzie and Dante

Mary Bly also publishes under the pen name Eloisa James

Elba is the setting for Mary Bly’s new book, Lizzie and Dante. It’s published by Little Brown and is out now priced at £8.99. Mary Bly (right) also publishes under the pen name Eloisa James

If you’re up for exploring the island, don’t hesitate to stop at any one of the ristorante/pizzerias clinging to the mountain by the side of the road. For example, Osteria del Noce, in the hills above Marciana Marina, offers an incredible view of the countryside and excellent traditional food.

If you can’t visit Elba this year, I’m hoping that Lizzie and Dante will enchant you enough to bring you there next year – if not in the future, in your imagination.

Mary Bly’s new book Lizzie and Dante, published by Little Brown, is out now priced at £8.99. For more information visit www.littlebrown.co.uk    

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