‘Elba stole my heart – and inspired my latest novel’ | Travel

Piombino, on Italy’s Tuscan coast, makes an unlikely gateway to paradise, with its abandoned steelworks and concrete port. Elba lies six miles from the mainland, part of the Tuscan archipelago, and during the summer ferries depart for the island all day, every day. Its capital, Portoferraio, is a town built in fruit-bowl colours, with a hilltop fort and the flash of a white marina.

Elba map

It’s easy to dock and dash at Portoferraio, eagerly bound for Elba’s rugged heights and bountiful beaches, but the old town is worth exploring. It’s charming, with cafes and boutiques, and a Friday market where you’ll find abundant local produce. I love the noon hush of the steep residential districts; wandering among the historic tenements, with bright-painted shutters and washing lines strung in improbable places.

Emylia Hall. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images

Elba is Italy’s third-largest island, after Sicily and Sardinia, but is little visited by the British. Italian and German tourists do flock here in August, though. There are eight settlements, each lovely, but it was tiny Sant’Andrea on the north-west coast that first stole my heart and planted my desire to set a novel there. It’s Elba’s wildest corner, popular with divers and hikers. I went snorkelling among shoals of rainbow-coloured fish; there’s the otherworldly contours of prickly pears; the way the sun dips over the hills at the day’s end; beach life takes on a contemplative note; and everywhere are oleander, bougainvillea and palms.

Islands have a distinct currency in folklore and our own dreams of escapism. Napoleon’s exile here was in a picturesque residence, Villa dei Mulini. I took the idea of self-imposed exile for my novel: it’s a story about Valentino Colosimo, who arrived 30 years ago and opened the Hotel Mille Luci, a fictional place created from my own island experiences.

View of Portoferraio, Elba.

Portoferraio. Photograph: Steve Dangers/Getty Images

Elba’s many beaches are varied, from tiny coves like Punta Nera, best accessed by boat, to the lengthy sands of Lacona. In high season, Cavoli draws a youthful party crowd, Fetovaia is a glorious natural haven, while Procchio is child-friendly, with shallow waters and plenty of facilities. If you’re sightseeing in Portoferraio, end the day at Le Ghiaie: with its bright white shingle and lido-blue water, it’s serenity itself. The adjacent cove to my beloved Sant’Andrea is tiny Cotoncello; take the rock-cut footpath or, better still, swim around the cliffs.

Hotel Gallo Nero in Sant’Andrea is a luscious spot. Guests congregate on the terrace at dusk for sunset-coloured aperitivos and antipasti. I still dream of the nightly pasta course, where waiters circulate with vast bowls of vongole and arrabbiata, urging you to take seconds.

Marciana Marina, on Elba’s north coast

Marciana Marina, on Elba’s north coast Photograph: Marco Saracco/Getty Images

Marciana Marina, a north-coast gem, lies at the foot of the mountains, its crescent bay lined with tamarisks. Try homemade pistachio ice-cream from Gelateria La Svolta, and delectable tagliatelle with scallops and almonds, while overlooking the water, at the elegant Borgo al Cotone. I had my first taste of the classic torta della nonna – a custard tart scattered with pine nuts – while staying at the Hotel La Primula. And I settled in with my notebook at Gran Bar La Perla on Piazza della Vittoria. The words flowed happily, just as life does on Elba.

Emylia Hall’s latest novel, The Thousand Lights Hotel, is out on 13 July, £8.99. To order a copy for £7.64, visit the guardian bookshop

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