Waiting to be DISCOVERED

Ignore for a moment the lapping Mediterranean, the sleepy hotel on stilts in the shallows across the harbor, the leather-faced fishermen fingering their red nets in the marina, and the sidewalk eatery that still serves pizzas the old way, folded over like tacos in brown butcher paper. Ignore all that and listen to the lament of Adele Feola.

"We've only got one discotheque. We haven't got a cinema. We have nothing," says Feola, gazing down at the waterfront from her family's hilltop Arcobaleno inn and restaurant. Beneath the window, a lone cat lazes in the sun-splashed alley.

"If we had all these things, tourists would come," Feola continues. "Even in winter."

You can listen to Adele Feola--in fact, she's one of just three Ponzese I met in three days who spoke English--but do not grieve for her. The fair isle of Ponza and its roughly 3,000 full-time residents have plenty going for them.

When I set out in search of an untrampled, underappreciated Italian isle, the sort of place that might stand in for the film location of "Il Postino," the sort of place that could provide counterpoint to the heavy traffic and big money of Capri, Italy's most celebrated island, 75 miles to the southeast--this is where Italians sent me. And sure enough, Ponza is intriguing, unself-conscious and virtually unknown to foreigners.

In other words, if you're ready to be lazy in a handsome, genuine place, to appreciate the way the sea slaps against the rocks and the homes cling to the slopes, to do without the mass-market conveniences that have overtaken most of tourist-friendly Europe, Ponza awaits with sun, shoreline, pasta and folded-over mini-pizza--which, by the way, is a tasty bargain at $5.

If you come in July or August, you will have plenty of Italians for company. The island gets a lot of fair-weather visitors from Rome and Milan and other Italians. But outside of those two months (and June 20, when islanders drop all else to celebrate the feast of San Silverio, their patron saint) business is slow. Prowling the island in late April, as I did, you find a destination just stirring to life. The fanciest hotel is still closed, and restaurant proprietors are watching the nightly news in their almost-empty dining rooms. In a year, tourism officials estimate, the island gets just 30,000 visitors, almost all of them Italian.

Where is Ponza? Look closely at the boot of Italy, and you'll see a speck just west of the knee. Ponza lies 20 miles off the coast, between Rome and Naples; Capri is 75 miles to the southeast. A tiny island--about 7 miles long and 2 miles wide--it has a handful of even tinier archipelago neighbors. (Only one of them, Ventotene, is inhabited, although the sea caves and ruins on the others are said to make for interesting exploring.) The ride out to Ponza from the mainland port town of Formia, about 80 miles south of Rome, takes about 2 1/2 hours by ferry, half that time via hydrofoil (there's also less frequent service from Anzio, Circeo and Terracina).

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Ponza's harbor, where the ferries arrive, is cozy and cat-patrolled. The town that huddles around the harbor is dominated by white and pastel hues and simple Mediterranean architecture--some of the austere, whitewashed homes could have been plucked right off Mykonos--and cars are outnumbered by pedestrians.

You can rent a car (about $50 a day), but many prefer to take local buses or rent a scooter for about $10 an hour (or $35 a day). I spent a day zipping around the island on a blue scooter, stopping for a snack in the secondary town of Le Forna, peering down at the emerald inlet that locals call le piscine (the pools), and sharing the road with the occasional farmer and donkey.

Terraced vineyards and orchards cling to the hills. A footpath leads from town to the top of Monte Guardia, which is the island's high point, at about 920 feet above sea level. Back down below, a beach of startling drama, Chiaia di Luna, lies a 15-minute walk from the ferry landing. To get there, you stroll through a stone tunnel first carved by ancient Romans--or maybe the Greeks before them--and emerge, in a sudden gust of salt air, at the foot of a 300-foot cliff of cleaved volcanic rock, its face curling around the sandy shore in a protective crescent. Suspended netting, scarcely visible from a distance, keeps falling rocks from reaching the beach. (A good Italian word to know is spiaggia--beach.)

McDonald's, KFC and American Express are absent on Ponza. So is gourmet dining, although several restaurants can give you pleasant versions of local specialties: spaghetti with mussels, lentil soup and seafood risotto, in particular.

In pre-Christian times, and again under Mussolini in the 1930s, the island was used as a place of banishment. In between, for centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire, the island was first largely unoccupied because of its vulnerability to pirates. In 1734, in the course of widening their territory, the Bourbons, the ruling family of Naples, gained control of the island and commissioned many public works that endure today, including the semicircular port, which was laid out in the late 1700s.

The port was my first outdoors view each morning, from the balcony of my hotel, Gennarino a Mare. With only 12 rooms, it stands on pilings, fronted by a restaurant with a large patio, at the end of San Antonio beach. English is not spoken, and service is languid. From my window and balcony I had a classic sleepy Italian waterfront view, and I suspect everyone performs a bit more smartly once summer is in swing.

High-season prices at hotels similar to Gennarino a Mare, government rated with three stars, range from $90 to $180 a night. Rates are higher at the luxury Grand Hotel Chiaia di Luna (four stars, and where dinner is included in the tab), lower at the island's handful of two- and one-star lodgings, including the central Hotel Mari and Adele Feola's hilltop Arcobaleno pensione. (Next time, I think I'd either live high at the Chiaia di Luna or go frugal at the Arcobaleno.) Rental homes are also available, and mainland Italians have been buying up so many vacation homes here, islanders say, that real estate prices are jumping.

Beyond Ponza town, the rest of the island's coastline is dominated by a succession of cliffs, seacaves and rocky outcroppings and, tucked away under a cliff face near the harbor, a set of fish-farming "tanks" carved into rock at Grotte di Pilato about 1,900 years ago by the Romans. All of this makes a round-the-island boat ride (about $30 per person) highly advisable. Or maybe you'd prefer a more direct marine encounter: offshore shipwrecks from two world wars have made Ponza and its neighbor islands a growing dive destination, and there's a dive shop just across the street from the ferry landing.

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In fact, Ponza has a Blue Grotto of its own to rival the famous one on Capri. For that matter, Ponza also has a Grotta del Fortino, Grotta degli Smeraldi, Grotta del Corallo and more than a dozen others, some narrow and labyrinthine, some broad and deep, some tinged with fantastic colors from sunbeams reflected through water off the surrounding volcanic rock.

But Ponza is not Capri. Notwithstanding the claim of one Coast Guard officer of a recent Bruce-and-Demi sighting, this island makes no celebrity traffic reports. It has about a dozen restaurants, rather than the ten dozen of Capri. Also unlike Capri, which is less than an hour's ride from Naples or Sorrento and gets 2 million day-trippers per year, Ponza is more than 50 miles from the nearest major city and only makes sense as an overnight visit. If you're crossing the Atlantic to reach Italy, Ponza fits in as a two- or three-day respite from the ardors of the Rome-Florence-Venice -Naples-Pompeii-Capri circuit.

"On Capri, they started doing tourism in the 1800s. We started here in the 1970s," says Maria Pia Zella, 23, who runs the American Beauty salon along the marina.

Her family history says a lot about Ponza and its changing fortunes. Zella's father was a fisherman in the days when the island's tourism industry was little more than the Tripoli bar (still open on Corso Pisacane). Looking for a leg up, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1969 and settled in the Bronx, where many fresh Ponzese arrivals started out. So many Ponzese have settled in New York over the years that they've joined to build a San Silverio Shrine in Dover Plains, N.Y. When it comes time to celebrate the feast of San Silverio and you can't make it back to the old country, you head for Dover Plains instead.

After a dozen years of work in construction and the birth of a daughter, the senior Zella and his wife returned to the island in 1981 and opened a pizzeria, which remains in business just upstairs from American Beauty. When she started talking about how much she wanted to go back to New York, says Maria Pia, her dad quickly counterproposed the beauty parlor venture and helped set her up. For now she's here, but the old-fashioned ways sometimes leave her a little impatient.

"The colors of the island are yellow, pink, white and light blue," she says. "You can't do a house in another color."

This tradition does make for a handsome waterfront. And at a time when so many cultures seem threatened by homogenization, island traditions often are rarities to be savored by strangers. For instance, thanks to the island's patron saint, roughly one in three Ponzese males seems to be named Silverio. Also, after dinner and dessert in a restaurant on the island, your host is likely to produce a shot glass with something citric and frothy in it.

Do not be alarmed. This is limoncello, a zingy liqueur whose main ingredient is shaken down from the island's many lemon trees. It's also popular on Capri, where tourist shops sell it in novelty bottles in myriad shapes. Potency and refinement can vary widely, and it's intended for slow, post-prandial sipping.

On my last night on Ponza, after a fine seafood dinner, my host at Acqua Pazza restaurant on Piazza Pisacane pours me one of these shots from an unlabeled bottle. It's on the house, a way of inviting me to join the conversation at the next table, where the proprietor has joined a team of Coast Guard officers. So I do, insofar as their English and my Italian allow.

Later, a 60-proof lemon-gelato tang on my taste buds, I stroll back down the waterfront, past the fishermen's dories and around the crescent, to my perch above the Mediterranean. My step is light, my belly is glad, and my tongue is numb and yellowed--all the classic symptoms, I suppose, of a good day on Ponza.

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GUIDEBOOK

Ponza Scheme

Getting there: TWA, Delta, US Airways and Alitalia airlines have direct flights (one stop, no plane change) from LAX to Rome; restricted round-trip coach fares begin at $1,030. From Rome's Termini train station to Formia, about 80 miles south, is a two-hour ride costing about $10 for a second-class seat. From Formia's train station it's a $10, two-minute taxi ride to the ferry landing. Ferries from Formia to Ponza usually leave twice daily, take 2 1/2 hours and cost about $9 each way. Hydrofoils, which cost about the same, take half as long, but may be canceled in rough seas.

Where to stay: Hotel rates typically include breakfast, and some automatically quote half-board prices (breakfast and dinner both included). Many lodgings close in winter. The fanciest hotel, Grand Hotel Chiaia di Luna, telephone 011-39-771-80-113, fax 011-39-771-80-98-21, was still closed during my April visit, so I saw only its public rooms (well-appointed) through windows. But it has 60 rooms on a prime beach-adjacent spot plus a restaurant, bar and sea-water pool. Open May through September; rates vary seasonally from about $65 per person, half-board, in May and most of September, to about $120 per person from Aug. 8-21.

Gennarino a Mare, tel. 011-39-771-80-071, fax 011-39-771-80-140, has a restaurant and great views overlooking Ponza's port. Open all year. Rates for a double room vary seasonally from about $90 between September and April to about $180 in August.

The Hotel Mari, tel. 011-39-771-80-101, fax 011-39-771-80-239, stands in the heart of the waterfront bar-and-cafe district (might be noisy in peak season) and offers simple rooms with moderate prices. Usually opens mid-March, closes end of October. Rates for a double room with sea view vary seasonally from about $50 nightly (before June 30, after Sept. 1) to about $110 from mid-July to late August. Rooms without sea view about 20% less.

Arcobaleno Pensione and Ristorante, tel./fax 011-39-771-80-315, sits atop a hill and has 11 modest rooms next to a terrace restaurant that seats up to 150. Bathrooms are small (you could shower while on the toilet), views large. Double rooms from $40 per person per night, half-board, in May and September, to about $55 per person in August. Opens at Easter, closes around Oct. 1.

Where to eat: Most dining on Ponza is very casual. Ristorante Acqua Pazza (Piazza Pisacane 10; local tel. 80-643) gets Ponzese and visitors alike, with a romantic waterfront atmosphere and seafood emphasis. Main courses $8 to $15. Also, Gennarino a Mare (see address, phone above; main courses up to $12 and Arcbaleno Ristorante (address and phone above).

For more information: Italian Government Tourist Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Los Angeles, CA 90025; tel. (310) 820-0098, fax (310) 820-6357. On the island, a tourist information office faces the hydrofoil landing; open 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 3 p.m.-8 p.m. in summer.

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