Elba: the majestic Little Tuscany

IN THE summer, the British head for Tuscany, lured by the classic Italian combination of sun, scenery, fine food and wine. But the Italians themselves head for sleepy Elba, "Tuscany's island", with its 150 spotless beaches, romantic villages and breathtaking mountains. Although is a National Park of outstanding natural beauty, tiny Elba is perhaps best known for being the place of Napoleon's exile. Now it is gearing itself for the crowds who are expected here in 2014, when the 200th anniversary of this event will be celebrated.

Deciding to find out for myself what the Little Emperor had to put up with before the tourists arrive en masse, I have made my way to Elba via Pisa airport where I pick up a chubby retro Fiat Cinquecento hire car. Driving off the ferry, I make my arrival in Elba's capital Portoferraio, where today Napoleon's former city house is a museum undergoing repair in time for 2014.

Although 19th century cartoonists portrayed Boney perched on an Elban cliff looking sulkily out to sea, it seems he actually had quite a good time here. He was given the title Emperor of Elba and allowed to rule its 110,000 people, as well as live in some rather smart houses. I found his country villa at San Martino still standing grand and secluded behind its wrought iron gates, set in pine filled grounds and, these days, overlooking an exclusive hotel.

It is said that he often left the heat of the capital to enjoy trysts with a Polish girlfriend at the picturesque chapel of Madonna Del Monte, close to the town of Marciano. He even favoured the healing waters to be found in this part of the island and insisted they be served it at his every meal. I locate the so called Fonte Napoleon pure spring at the foot of the Monte del Capanne near the pretty medieval town of Poggio, one of my favourite places on Elba. Poggio is pedestrian and so, abandoning the Cinquecento, I walk the winding cobbled streets with houses painted the colours of pink and yellow gelato. Stopping for a fresh seafood salad and a cold glass of Tuscan wine for lunch at the aptly named bar la Dolce Vita, I conclude there are worse places to be exiled to.

Popggio and Marciano are a short drive from my Elba base, the 20 room Hotel Ilio. The new boutique hotel is in Capo Sant'Andrea, a seaside hamlet and one of the most fashionable retreats in Elba, located on the northwest coast of the island. Hotel Ilio was founded by Guiseppe Testa in 1959 and is still family run, now being owned by his son Maurizio. Though the main building is 150 years old, the hotel is modern and sophisticated. Maurizio, a tourism specialist who lectures in the off-season, is an enthusiastic host. Meals are glorious affairs here on the open terrace overlooking Capo Sant'Andrea, with the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks below. Chef Giancarlo Pollidini cooks dinner to a standard that has been widely praised by Italian food critics. A risotto with apple, cinnamon and saffron followed by fresh sea bass and finally a chocolate crème brûlée washed down with Tuscan wines from the Ilio's own cellar proves a dinner fit for an Emperor.

Down at the harbour, a group of weekend divers from Florence are gesticulating around the Il Careno dive centre whose dive master Andreas is taking us out on a short boat journey to investigate the steep drop offs and wrecks close to the shore. Some of the clearest Mediterranean waters are to be found around Elba, so it's a top destination for snorkelers and scuba divers, and smart weekenders from the Tuscan mainland make this one of their favourite spots.

Away from Sant'Andrea, the tiny Fiat battles valiantly up and down the challenging twists and turns of Elba's mountainous terrain, taking me from the dizzy heights of Monte Capanne where I pass energetic hikers and cyclists, to the St Tropez-like elegance of Porto Azzuro with its yachts and ritzy restaurants. Elba proves an affordable alternative to Sardinia or Corsica, with all of the same attractions (great beaches, climate & food), as well as history but a visit here reveals a slightly old fashioned, slower pace, ideal for those who enjoy the simpler pleasures in life. Which is probably why Napoleon couldn't wait to escape.

Hotel Ilio (www.hotelilio.com) is open from April through October, rates start from €110 (approx £90) for two people sharing a double room on a half-board basis.

EasyJet flies to Pisa from London Gatwick.
Prices one ways start from £21.99 www.easyJet.com.

For more information on Elba, to book taxi transfers, ferry tickets and car rentals, www.visitelba.com.

Capo Nord (tel: +39 (0) 565 996983), on a pebbled beach in Marciana Marina, has an excellent selection of seafood.

Ristorante Publius (tel: +39 (0) 565 99208), Poggio, offers superb local wines, and views to die for Ristorante Emanuel (tel: +39 (0) 565 939003), Portoferraio, claims it cooks the world's best mussels and serves other delicious local fare