After a wonderful stay in the Republic of San Marino, we were so excited to head back to Florence for a visit to the villa where we got married. With our 2nd anniversary right around the corner, a reunion with our Italian family in Tuscany and a few days spent reminiscing about our beautiful wedding week were just what we needed!
The villa was even more magical than we remembered and we could have stayed for a month but, alas, after a few days it was time to move on to the next stop on our Italian tour, the island of Elba. So, after reluctant farewells to our villa family, we hopped back in the car for the drive to the coast.
Elba Island is the largest of the 7 islands in the Tuscan archipelago and the third largest in Italy, after Sardinia and Sicily. But aside from its popularity as a holiday destination, Elba is perhaps most famous for harboring French Emperor Napoleon during his exile in 1814-15.
But aside from the island’s rich Napoleonic history, most visitors flock to Elba Island for clear blue seas and magnificent beaches that could rival those in the Caribbean.
How to get to Elba Island
From Florence, we drove west for two hours toward the coastal town of Piombino. Ferries to Elba Island depart from the port of Piombino on the mainland and run approximately every 30 minutes during the summer season. There are three ferry companies that service the route: Toremar, Moby and Blu Navy.
We chose Toremar and later learned that Toremar and Moby are the same company and tickets are interchangeable between the two. We also learned that you can easily take an earlier ferry than the one you had booked if you get to the terminal ahead of schedule. We booked in advance because our hotel offered a discounted rate code on ferry tickets that saved us nearly 20 euro each way.
Because we weren’t sure exactly how long the drive would take us from the villa, I booked the 1:30pm ferry. We ended up arriving at the port at 12:25pm and rolled right onto the 12:30pm ferry departure with no issues at all. (On the return, we had booked a 12:30pm Moby ferry and ended up taking a 10am Toremar with our tickets. Again, no issues at all.)
The Moby tickets cost a few euro more each way than the Toremar tickets so in the future I would just book all Toremar tickets to save a few euro. Especially since the ferries are not cheap, the regular price for 2 people and a car was around 90 euro each way. With the discount code from our hotel, we paid between 69 (Toremar) and 73 (Moby).
Though we never actually took a Moby ferry, we were extremely impressed with the Toremar ferries. Lots of room to relax in air-conditioned comfort or enjoy the view from the deck. There was also a full-service café so we made use of the 1-hour ride to have lunch on the ride over.
First view of Elba Island – Portoferraio
An hour after sailing away from Piombino, we arrived in the gorgeous port of Portoferraio. The colorful buildings and yacht-lined marina reminded me a lot of Italy’s Maddalena Islands and I couldn’t wait to get ashore. But we would have time to explore the island’s largest town later.
For now, the first order of business was finding our hotel.
Where to Stay on Elba Island
For our stay on the island, we chose the Grand Hotel Elba International. Located on a hillside overlooking the charming town of Porto Azzurro, the hotel offered tremendous sea views at a very reasonable rate and it also had free parking. Since having a car on Elba Island is practically a necessity to properly explore the island, that was a big plus. We stayed in late May and paid a rate of $134 US, I’m sure those rates increase as the height of summer season begins.
Budget was important to us since we’re currently traveling for a month. However, if you’re looking for a splurge in an incredible beachfront location, there’s no better choice than the Hotel Hermitage on Biodola Beach. The resort is made up of beachfront villas that come with their own private patios or balconies. The Hermitage also has a private jetty where guests can hire boats or go snorkeling.
Elba’s best beaches
After settling into our room at the Grand Hotel Elba International and spending a few minutes enjoying the view of Porto Azzurro from our balcony, we headed out to explore the island. I’d read that Elba had some of the best beaches in all of Italy and I was looking forward to checking them out for myself!
We stopped first in the main town of Portoferraio for a gelato and to walk the streets along the yacht-lined marina. I couldn’t help but dream of a day when we can come back to this island on our own boat. Like Procida, I could easily see spending several weeks here enjoying every sandy cove and beachside trattoria the island has to offer.
From Portoferraio, we headed to two of the most popular beaches on the island, Biodola and Scaglieri. Biodola is just 3 kilometers from Procchio and is the largest beach in the Biodola Bay. Unlike most beaches on Elba, it has fine white sand (instead of pebbles).
Both Biodola and Scaglieri are surrounded by restaurants, cafes and hotels (like the lovely Hotel Hermitage) so plenty of services are available for families and other sunbathers. The entire area has a very Mediterranean-beach-resort feel and these two beaches also offer some of the best sunset views on the island.
Next up, two of the island’s most famous beaches near Portoferraio, Sansone and Capo Bianco.
Sansone is located after Acquaviva and before the Enfola headland (the sign for the turnoff to the beach is small so these landmarks are helpful). Reaching the beach turned out to be quite a walk. There’s no official parking lot so parking is along the side of the main road near the Tre Colonne restaurant. From there, it’s a 15-minute walk down through a residential neighborhood and then on to a rocky path that winds down to the beach.
It was indeed a lovely beach, all white pebbles and sparkling azure waters. However, the water seemed a little rough for swimming and the walk back up to the top could be a bit strenuous on a hot day.
From there, we drove down the road back toward Portoferraio about 10 minutes to Capo Bianco. This beach had a convenient pay parking lot within just a few steps from a short flight of stairs down to the beach. Parking was 6 euro but was free after 4:30pm and, luckily, we arrived at 4:35pm!
There’s a small waterfront café just off the parking lot and from there stairs descend down to a perfectly white stretch of beach lapped by calm, translucent turquoise waters. The limestone cliffs also made for a stunning backdrop.
Capo Bianco was my definitely my favorite of the four beaches we saw today. Not just for its ease of access but also because of its quiet, natural beauty. There were no hotels nearby, just one small café to provide anything you might need on your day at the beach. It seemed like the perfect place to relax for a few hours under a brightly-colored parasol. And (as a bonus), if you’re staying in Portoferraio, you can walk there.
After spending the afternoon beach-hopping around the island, we headed back toward Porto Azzurro for dinner since it was just a short drive from our hotel.
We parked in town in a lot that said free 1-hour parking. It was the typical type of European lot where you have the blue “P” parking pass and you set it for the time you arrived so they’ll know how long you stayed. Unfortunately, our rental car didn’t come with one of those passes (many do). We decided to take the chance since we didn’t plan to be in town long and we didn’t see any other options for parking.
Well, we hadn’t been there 15 minutes before we got a ticket…for 41 euro! Ugh. We later realized that there was a “pay & display” lot just a little further up the road so we moved the car there to avoid it being towed.
After getting the car safely parked, we walked back into town to take some pictures and find a nice place for dinner. The town of Porto Azzurro is just beautiful and I preferred it even to Portoferraio. It was smaller and more charming with yachts and sailboats lining the small marina and fragrant flower arches over every shop and café. Absolutely adorable.
We had a terrific dinner along the waterfront at a restaurant called Delfino Verde and then headed back to the hotel for the night. When we arrived at the hotel, I inquired at the front desk about how we could pay the parking ticket. It was entirely in Italian so we couldn’t decipher the instructions, just the amount.
The front desk agent was visibly dismayed that we had received a ticket and apologized profusely (which was very kind since it obviously wasn’t her fault!). She said that the parking enforcement people are terrible and they say that tourists without the blue “P” passes should just write the time they arrived on a piece of paper and leave it on the dashboard (which is actually a brilliant idea and I wish we had thought of that).
The instructions on the ticket said that the only way to pay it was by bank transfer so we would have to go to an Italian bank and make the payment. Since we were leaving Elba the next morning (and it was a Saturday) the local bank would not be open before we left.
Amazingly, the front desk agent then offered to take the ticket and our money and pay the ticket for us at the bank on Monday morning. She said that if we paid the ticket within 10 days it would only be 28 euro so we gave her that plus the anticipated few extra euro for the bank fee. A few days later, she emailed me a scanned receipt of the paid ticket. How about that for incredible hotel service? Thank you Grand Hotel Elba International!
Once back in our room, we caught the end of another brilliant sunset from our balcony before crashing into bed for the night. We had originally planned on spending two nights on Elba but thanks to a last-minute change in Dave’s arrival date in Germany (for work), we had to cut it down to one night. It was the only way to keep to our 3-day plan for our last stop in the Italian Riviera.
After spending the day driving around Elba Island, we were definitely able to cover a lot of ground but there was still so much more of the large island to see. I suppose the silver lining is that, like Ischia, we saved a few things to see when we come back on our own boat someday!
The next day, we had originally planned on a noon ferry but we awoke earlier than anticipated so we decided to head to the ferry terminal earlier and get on the road to our final stop, Santa Margherita. I am beyond excited to end this amazing trip savoring our final few days in one of Italy’s most exclusive regions.
Next stop, the Italian Riviera!