TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
ISCHIA, AND HOME
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his stay in Ischia and his trip home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s 7:30AM at Rome’s Fiumicino airport and we have just landed bleary-eyed, bleary-haired, bleary-breathed from Tel Aviv. An Alitalia flight from Tel Aviv at 5AM means leaving for the airport at 1:30AM, checking-in at 2:30AM. Hideous.
I had fallen asleep before the Airbus took to the air. I awake somewhere over Greece to find a saran-wrapped eggplant sandwich resting on my crotch. Presumably, the flight attendant had placed it with such gentleness and precision that it didn’t wake me. I ate half. It was rather nasty.
This was my third flight from Tel Aviv to Rome. The first, when I was twelve, was aboard an El Al Britannia, jet-prop throbbing my parents and me home to London, with an en-route stop in Rome. It had been a bumpy takeoff, and I had delicately puked in the paper bag and fallen asleep. I awoke an hour later to see my parents scarfing giant mounds of scrambled eggs (in those days, real scrambled eggs cooked on board). I puked again and slept again. Compared with the nissen-hut terminal at Heathrow, and the art deco terminal at Tel Aviv, the Leonardo da Vinci terminal at Fiumicino was brand new: vast, soaring, futuristic: acres of marble and glass.
The second time was twenty years later aboard an El Al 707. My wife’s suitcase arrived. Mine didn’t: inexplicably, it did not appear until a month later, quite intact, at my office in New York. How it could go missing for four weeks after a direct flight remains a mystery. Although, to be candid, it was Louis Vuitton and perhaps a baggage handler somewhere thought it might contain treasures, instead of soiled laundry and fraying espadrilles.
The immigration officer in Rome glances at the sheaf of forms we had been required to complete before departure, in which we attested to our lack of breathing problems, fever, coughing, “tickles of the throat,” “unusual diarrhea” and such, and to the fact that we have been vaccinated. He places them in a messy pile which, I wouldn’t be surprised, he throws in the trash at the end of his shift. But perhaps not, because the forms also include details of where we can be reached in Italy should our flight have turned out to be a COVID superspreader.
There are thirteen of us: nine members of my wife’s Israeli family, my wife, our two children and I; and all fifteen bags have made it. Our destination is Ischia where we plan to celebrate the 50th birthday of my wife, Noa. On previous jaunts from Israel to Ischia, we’ve flown El Al directly from Tel Aviv to Naples – but COVID has fractured the schedules. So, here in Roma, we wheel our luggage out and are met by Daniele and Giuseppe, there to drive us from Fiumicino to Naples to catch the boat to Ischia.
The morning is quite cool after the heat and mugginess of Israel. We board minivans and are soon on the autostrada. Halfway into our journey we pause at a rest-stop where buying a sandwich and a cappuccino involves lining up to prepay, lining up to order, lining up to receive the order. Then if, at stage three of the process you happen to spot an appealing little pastry that cannot be resisted, the whole line-up-prepay-line-up-order rigmarole has to be repeated. If I wasn’t already exhausted, I am now.
We whoosh past farms and fields and sheep and cows and those gorgeous tall Italian pine trees that spread wide like umbrellas. On the left, up on an Apennine peak, we see the monastery of Monte Cassino, now meticulously rebuilt after being blasted to bits by allied bombers in 1943, successfully ousting the Germans from their redoubt.
Naples is actually a quite beautiful city of wide boulevards and tall fin-de-siècle apartment buildings whose homes I imagine to be gracious, high-ceilinged and massive. Up side streets we spy bits of Naples that aren’t quite as lovely: laundry strung between both sides of steep narrow alleys, small boys causing havoc on the steps, shrieking grandmothers – all very Elena Ferrante.
The waterfront promenade is lined with more grand, Edwardian apartments and large restaurants. Soon we pass through the electronic gate of the private yacht harbor. It’s about a mile distant from the ocean terminal where more than a half century ago, throngs of American tourists would disembark from New York aboard the Raffaelo, the Michelangelo, the Constitution and the Independence. But those elegant ships are long gone. The port of Naples is now home to vast container-bearing freighters, and humongous 21st-century cruise ships that resemble floating housing projects rather than graceful liners. Indeed, it wasn’t just the ships. In the early 1950’s when the DC-6’s of LAI (precursor of the shockingly soon-to-be-defunct Alitalia), would fly via Gander and Shannon first to Naples, and only then, onward to the apparently less important Rome or Milan!
The yachts at the harbor range from ‘super-rich,’ ‘to mega-rich,’ to ‘Bond villain,’ to ‘oligarch,’ the latter two-Manhattan-blocks in length, with picture windows on several decks, pools, a helicopter pad, and enough communications towers and domes to guide the space shuttle or launch a nuclear strike. Our yacht is on the more modest end of the luxury scale, with comfortable seating and sunbathing mattresses for about ten. It is owned by Ischia’s Hotel Regina Isabella, to which we are bound. Luigi, a smiling, suntanned bear of a man in white shirt and white shorts, excitedly exclaims “Signor Weill” when he sees me. I’ve known Luigi for years and at the press of a button, a powered gangway glides out of the hull. Luigi’s teenage nephew guides us aboard, into Luigi’s embrace. The well-tipped Daniele, Giuseppe, along with a couple of helpers, develop hefty hernias as they heave our baggage aboard.
The yacht slowly glides out of its berth and we admire not only the range of super-yachts, but also the panorama of Naples with its ancient Castel dell’Ovo and, as its backdrop, Vesuvius indolently releasing the occasional benign puff of smoke. Luigi captains us out of the harbor into the open sea, and opens the throttle to supersonic. This is my daughter, Zoë’s, favorite moment of the 40-minute journey, indeed possibly of our entire six-week vacation. She stands at the boat’s starboard flank, grabs the handrail with both hands, and leans into the wind. Her long hair flies backward, her face glistens with sea-foam, and she whoops with joy whenever we bounce through the wake of other vessels.
The ride is picture-perfect. We coast past the affluent northwestern neighborhoods of suburban Naples and then we pass the quaint island of Procida. It was on Procida that the ominous ‘southern Italy’ scenes of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” were filmed, while its stars, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Matt Damon were billeted in suites at our destination, the Regina Isabella Hotel & Spa. More open sea, and then to our left, the first rocks of Ischia appear. Ischia is green, dominated by the 2,600-feet-high Mount Epomeo, whose slopes are carpeted with forests, meadows, and terrace of vineyards. We whoosh onward past the small houses, hotels, shops, beaches of Lacco Ameno and then straight ahead of us, framed by a small mountain, is the Regina Isabella. Zoë, my son, Liam, and their cousins peer excitedly. Luigi slows and we glide alongside the Regina Isabella’s dock. Porters help us ashore and we are met by manager Davide Maestripieri. The perspiring porters are, like Daniele and Giuseppe, developing hernias as they heft our suitcases. Davide walks us past one of the hotel’s pools and the Sporting Restaurant, up through the Dolce Vita dining room, and into the lobby. We’re home.
The Regina Isabella dates from 1956. It was built by the Rizzoli family - of publishing fame - and quickly became THE destination for the celebrated seeking recluse from the paparazzi or the clamor of Capri, 21 miles to the southeast…or from both. In the early years, it was the haunt of Clark Gable, Maria Callas, Charles Boyer, William Holden and Claudia Cardinale. In 1962, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton escaped here as their romance bloomed during breaks in the filming of Cleopatra at Cinecittà in Rome. Stefano, the now-retired maître-d’, was the pool-boy back then, and he once told me of Signora Taylor’s and Signor Burton’s frequent and flamboyant fights. During one of these, Signora Taylor, threw all of Signor Burton’s clothes from their suite’s balcony into the Tyrrhenian Sea, as this niche of the Mediterranean is known. Cleopatra turned out to be a monumental $31 million bore (that’s $265 million in 2021 dollars), running a paralyzing five hours and twenty minutes. The best press for the movie had to do with the romance between two of its stars that was apparently supercharged in suite 370 of the Regina Isabella.
The Regina Isabella sits atop hot springs discovered by the Greeks two-and-a-half millennia ago. It was named for Queen Isabella of Bourbon (1789-1848) who took the waters here and who, aged 13, was married to her cousin Francis of Bourbon. In the 1950’s the small spa was enlarged into the large, Ionic-columned complex of today, where people flock from all over Italy and the world for treatments clinical, medicinal, cosmetic and beautifying.
The original yellow and white four-story hotel has been expanded over the decades with the addition of the Sporting wing and, in the 1980’s, the Royal wing that climbs up a mountain and whose palatial suites, complete with outdoor mineral water whirlpools, and each named for a celebrity who has stayed here, are reached by a series of elevators.
In addition to the almost hidden temperature detector at the main entrance, there are temperature readers atop white stands throughout the Regina Isabella. Indeed, to gain access to various public parts of the hotel one must stare at the reader’s mirror, the temperature read-out flashes, a female voice says “authenticato,” and doors slide open. Actually, it’s very reassuring. Although I am not sure what happens if one alarmingly IS running a fever: whirling red lights? Sirens? Medics charging down corridors bearing a stretcher?
The business of checking-in completed, we realize that we’ve been up for about 200 hours and we’re starving. So instead of making for our rooms, we make for the waterside Sporting restaurant. The tablecloths are white, the chairs are white and nautical, the ceiling is white and one entire wall is floor-to-ceiling windows, most of which are open, facing the water and the jetties where guests relax beneath straw umbrellas. There’s an energy, a buzz here. Waiters in sailor-white carry large trays of dishes at chest level. Others display grilled branzinos to hungry guests, then deftly bone them at white-napped side tables. Sommeliers haul silver ice buckets containing bottles of Pinot Grigio and delicious Ischian Cala della Mare. The bustle here always reminds me of a 21st-century version of the scenes in Visconti’s Death in Venice, where turn-of-the-century families in turn-of-the-century finery at the Lido’s Grand Hotel des Bains, gossip and people watch and gossip some more. Except instead of floor length gowns and crinkled white linen suits, here guests are in tee-shirts and shorts, swimsuits and chic cover-ups.
One of the results of the pandemic is that the massive, orgiastic lunchtime buffet in the hotel’s Sporting Restaurant is no more. Everything is now ordered from the menu. And after salads, platters of prosciutto and melon, piles of pasta, veal Milanese, whole grilled fishes and a few dozen liters of San Pellegrino and Cala della Mare, the tiredness finally hits, and we crawl upstairs for the nap of the millennium. Our rooms are vast, the balcony inviting, the view of sea and a distant Vesuvius enchanting, the bathroom spacious – but we aim for the beds which are made up with the crispest and most perfect linen on earth. There are two other 5-Star hotels nearby, the Mezzatorre and the San Montano, both up in the hills with splendid views, but it is only the Regina Isabella that has the 5-Star L (luxury) rating.
And so begins a restful week-long rhythm of breakfast (here there is still a buffet, but you point at what you’d like and it’s served by a waiter), mornings at the pool or beach, lunch at the “Sporting,” naps, a late afternoon passagiata into town to shop, spa treatments, watching the sunset back at the pool, dressing for dinner and then descending to the Dolce Vita restaurant to eat again. Here too there is another scene of bustle and buzz, but now we are in pressed linen shirts and elegant dresses. The waiters are in black jackets. The maître d’ wears cream, and Natale, our charming and suave host who, after many visits, is our confidant in addition to waiter, is in burgundy. Natale remembers our favorite rosé from our last visit two years ago. The restaurant faces the water, and altogether it’s a spectacle that somehow combines the bonhomie of a cruise ship with the clamor of an Italianate Grossinger’s.
After dinner, we sit in the indoor-outdoor lounge, with its velvet upholstered mid-century furniture, drinks shaken not stirred by the handsome and ramrod-tall Mariano, and after dinner music that ranges from soft piano, to a buxom beauty singing sultry blues, to the modern jazz that is a passion of the hotel’s owner, Giancarlo Corriero.
As our week progresses, members of my family venture by taxi to the stores and cafés of Ischia town, but I am content secreted within the confines of the Regina Isabella. Some of the family embark on a day trip to Capri – the children and I beg out – and they leave at 8AM for what turns out to be a violently seasick-inducing two-hour crossing, a delicious lunch in a garden in Anacapri, strolls past the inevitable Pradas and Guccis and Ferragamos, and an even rougher ride back to Ischia.
It’s incredible how restorative is a week of doing little but eat, sleep, swim, nap and eat. Especially after almost eighteen months of the exhaustion, tension and unspoken worry of living through a global pandemic. During an afternoon chat with hotel owner, Giancarlo Corriero, I learn that the hotel has become a favored haunt of Italians, but that now the Americans and French and Russians are beginning to come back. And I learn of another trenchant reason to favor Ischia over Capri for one’s summer vacation in the Time of Corona. Because while Ischia has a hospital with a state-of-the-art ICU, Capri has none. Should you develop COVID while on Capri and require hospitalization, it’s a ride in a hazmat suit inside an ambulance that slides onto a quarantine ferry for a voyage to Naples. Ah, you say, but the rich and celebrated that have chosen Capri would be whisked to a mainland hospital by helicopter. That would be a no: helicopter crews do not endanger themselves by agreeing to transport COVID patients.
Two days before our Ischian idyll ends, we troop to the spa for the COVID tests that will permit us back into America. If you have only previously visited the spa for a massage or a pedicure you don’t realize how massive it is. One by one, we are escorted along clinical tiled corridors to the testing room. Here it is one of the up-the-nose-and-over-the-cerebral-cortex-and-into-the-brain-stem intrusions that leaves you gasping. But we all turn out to be negative and Noa, the kids and I set to packing our six suitcases for the flight home.
Our final dinner is at the hotel’s Michelin-starred Indaco restaurant, where a table for thirteen has been laid out on the waterside patio. It’s five courses, each more exquisitely crafted than the last. Every dish is a work of art – designed to please the palate and wow the eye. It’s the perfect finale to our six-week mid-pandemic odyssey.
Our flight home was originally to be nonstop from Naples to Newark aboard United. But in the Time of Corona, demand for the routing has shriveled, the flight is withdrawn and we are shunted onto United’s Star Alliance partner, Lufthansa. In reality, leaving Naples at 1PM for Munich and New York is a lot more pleasant than United’s 8:55AM departure, which would have required a pre-dawn yacht ride from Ischia to Naples. Naples airport is its usual frenetic self with great snaking lines of the masked ignoring social distancing for check-in at EasyJet, Volotea and Ryanair. But the Lufthansa check-in is orderly and effortless, our COVID tests are scanned and approved, and our six cases are tagged with that electric orange priority tag that usually means they appear last at Newark.
In less than an hour from Naples, we’re navigating the vastness of Munich Airport. After a solemn and military-style rigid inspection of our COVID test results, we board the brand-new Airbus A350 for the flight home. At Newark, our Mobile Pass has us speedily through immigration. Incredibly, our luggage slides down first on the carousel and within an hour we are home.
We’ve been away for more than six weeks in four countries. Yet, somehow it doesn’t seem quite long enough.