Alex Polizzi first set eyes on Italy’s islands as a child. Every summer, she and her sister would swap their London home for their grandfather’s motorboat and the cobalt-blue Tyrrhenian Sea.
“Because of our Italian heritage, it was taken entirely for granted that both sets of grandparents would take us for large swathes of the holidays while Mum was working,” says Polizzi.
The island of Capri lies in the Bay of Naples with Procida and Ischia
Best known as the no-nonsense Hotel Inspector, she airs a sunnier side in her Channel 5 travelogue exploring Sardinia, Sicily, the Bay of Naples and the lesser-known Aeolian Islands. “Because my sister and I were the first two grandchildren who came along, there was still room for us on the boat!” she says.
This was before the age of electronics, so young Alex would while away the weeks on board reading, fishing, making dens, diving off the side, learning to waterski and – the focal point of the day – eating leisurely family meals.
“My grandmother used to go off every two or three days with a cook in a speedboat to the local market. And as I was the eldest grandchild, I usually went with her. I’ve got amazing memo- ries of the great big trestle tables piled high with fruit and veg, and the enormous quantities we’d have to buy because there were so many of us.
“My grandfather hated going into port. He liked us mooring up in beautiful coves. He didn’t see the point of then going out to eat in a restaurant. ‘Nonno,’ we used to say, ‘please, please let’s go in and get an ice cream!’”
When it came to Sardinia – birthplace of Polizzi’s paternal grandmother – Nonno had a good reason for steering clear. As the hotel magnate Lord Forte, he worried that the bandits active on the island in the 1970s would kidnap his granddaughter.
These days Polizzi describes herself as an “Italian mongrel” because her grandparents were all born in different regions. “When I was younger, I always felt very Italian here and very English in Italy. That’s resolved itself somewhat.”
She wasn’t always as enthusiastic about her second home as she is now. “Italian food has only become achingly trendy in the past 30 years. It certainly wasn’t when I was a child. Nobody else cooked like my grandmothers. And we used to laugh at Italians for not obeying traffic laws, at their government for being corrupt… As I’ve got older, I grow more and more proud of being Italian.”
Returning to film her islands series, she soon discovered that one thing hadn’t changed: Capri, in the Bay of Naples, is still the main draw in the high season. This is partly because the island is easy to reach by ferry – only an hour from Naples and 30 minutes from Sorrento – but mostly thanks to its reputation for glamour, a hangover from the 1950s when it represented la dolce vita for the jet set.
The Aeolian Islands are the final frontier of Italy; volcanic Vulcano, photographed from Lipari
Jackie Onassis, Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, Clark Gable and Audrey Hepburn all strolled its boulevards. “I remember my mum and aunts all longing to go there – begging my grandfather to moor for a night in Capri. But I was too young to be impressed by any of that at the time.”
A century before, Charles Dickens was also smitten with Capri. “In no place on earth are there so many opportunities for delicious peace and quiet,” he wrote. To enjoy the island Dickens knew, you’ll need to climb up from the harbour along the island’s winding roads, says Polizzi.
Alternatively, strike out for the Aeolian Islands. This Unesco-protected volcanic archipelago is reached by ferry from Sicily. Polizzi first holidayed there when she was living in Rome, and bought a house on sleepy Filicudi with her then boyfriend.
“The Aeolian Islands are the mysterious ones. Salina is covered in vineyards producing the most wonderful wine. Stromboli has a volcano that’s still active and stunning black beaches, while Vulcano is famous for hot springs, mud baths and smelling of sulphur!
A favourite restaurant at Pecorini Mare on Filicudi
“Go to Panarea for glamorous hotels and to Lipari for a proper town where you can sit in the square and eat ice cream. On Filicudi, there is only a tiny supermarket, but I’ve eaten the best seafood at its fishing hamlet Pecorini Mare.
“And then you get remote Alicudi, which until a year ago had no electricity. So you have to pick quite carefully. Do you want nature or do you want luxury?” Whichever island you visit, Polizzi can vouch for the glorious summers: “It’s amazing how beautiful the sea is round there and the sunsets are the best I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Alex Polizzi’s Italian Islands is repeated on Channel 5 on Fridays at 7pm