Written by Missy Johnston
Ponza “Porto” Town and Harbor
Located along one of the most beautiful coastlines on the Mediterranean, between the Gulf of Gaeta and Circeo Point, Ponza Island, part of the Pontine Islands of Italy, is the largest of the Pontine Islands, and a “must see” island to visit on a private yacht charter. Its jagged coastline, on approach by boat, providing a mosaic of colored volcanic rock, suggests to the yachting visitor that a unique island awaits.
These islands, are only about 25-50 miles off the west coast of Italy, near Rome and are easy to reach on a yacht charter itinerary cruising from the mainland harbor town of Gaeta. And yet they are still relatively unknown and unspoiled. There are no airports and limited ferry service, making this archipelago an ideal location to visit on a crewed yacht charter to enjoy very traditional Italian fishing villages and be away from the hubbub of modern life.
Ponza, rumored to have been named after Pontius Pilate, is the main island of the Pontine Island group, and is one of only two inhabited islands in the archipelago. Located in the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Pontine Islands are known for crystal clear waters in varying shades of blue, which surround these islands created by ancient volcanic activity. Ponza is believed to be the remains of the edge of a volcanic crater.
Though there are few physical reminders of its very early history, Ponza was an ancient settlement, possibly inhabited by the Phoenicians. After, the island became a Roman colony; Tiberius exiled Nero on Ponza Island. During the reign of Rome’s Caesar Augustus, Romans were encouraged to settle Ponza and Ventotene. In ancient times it is believed that Ponza was connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus of land that eventually sunk into the sea. Modern marine archaeology is now confirming that fact. During the Middle Ages Ponza was abandoned due to constant pirate attacks until re-colonized by the Kingdom of Naples in the 1700’s. However, it is the Roman civilization that has left the strongest historic mark on this island.
The shores are mainly rocky and made up of tufa cliffs, with caves, creeks and steep offshore crags. This rocky landscape also has bays and beaches, the most famous and largest being Chiaia di Luna. Ringed by white chalk cliffs, the water in this bay is some of the clearest and most pleasurable for swimming. The town of Ponza, called Porto by the locals, rings the main harbor and is the island’s main tourist and seaside resort area. Because car traffic is limited, it is a particularly peaceful village.
Half Moon Bay and Roman Tunnel
There are many Roman ruins remaining on Ponza, including the ruins of the palace of Julia Lavilla, a sister to Caligula, who was exiled to Ponza. And a feat of Roman technology still exists; a 180-meter tunnel dug through the rock of the island from the fishing village of Ponza to Half Moon Bay. Many of the local inhabitants dig up Roman and Etruscan artifacts just while gardening.
Further along the side of the island where Half Moon Bay is located, are a series of caves washed into the cliff sides including what was thought to be the “Grotto della Maga Circe”, the home of the sorceress Circe featured in Homer’s tale, “The Odyssey”. The Sirens were thought to have lived on the nearby islands of the Pontine Archipelago. This side of the island is best visited by yacht. Also, on this side of the island are tunnels, and caves dug by Roman slaves for use by the Roman wealthy when visiting the island. Once anchored, take the ship’s tender along the cliff sides to explore the sea caves and grottos along this coast.
Caves on Ponza
What to see on Ponza Island, Pontine Islands, Italy
Roman Tunnel: 180 meters long, this tunnel was built by the Romans to connect Ponza Town on the southern side of the island to Half Moon Bay on the northern side of the island; a spectacular beach ringed by white cliffs. Take a walk through this ancient Roman tunnel from the town side of the island to Half Moon Bay to be greeted by the sun rays reflecting off the water and white cliffs when emerging on the Half Moon Bay side of the tunnel. Meanwhile your yacht will cruise from Ponza Harbor to Half Moon Bay, sending the ship’s tender ashore to collect you from the beach just below the tunnel’s end.
Bagni di Pilato: Carved into the cliffside in Roman times are a series of tunnels and caves dug perhaps to breed moray eels, a delicacy on any Roman table, or given the art work and statues found in this area, perhaps for swimming pools for the Roman wealthy to swim protected from the sun. The Pilate Grottos belonged to the rich Roman villa of Emperor Augustus’ daughter and many of the villa remains are still visible on the promontory. The Pilate Grottos presumably date back to the 1st century BC. Swim through the tunnels and enjoy the little pools carved out from the hillside.
The Roman cistern on via Dragonara: The largest of the three cisterns built on Ponza by the Romans, this cistern was dug into the soft tufa stone of the island. It has vaulted corridors placed on parallel rows that intersect with six perpendicular aisles. Water marks can be seen on the walls of the cistern left from active use during Roman times. The Romans built cisterns on this island to not only supply the locals but to supply passing ships as well.
Arco Naturale: Located on the northern side of the island, this is a natural rock formation that is a beautiful bit of nature, and fun to either swim through or ride through in the ship’s tender.
Other memorable sites on Ponza Island include the Murenaio (Moraine’s Pond), the cove of the snake (roman aqueduct). And for mythologists, Ponza Island is one of the locations where it is claimed that Odysseus met and fell in love with Circe. Ruins of a large villa built by Julia Livilla exiled to Ponza by her brother Caligula and other Roman ruins, still waiting to be excavated, litter the island.
Just circumnavigating Ponza is a lovely adventure, revealing fabulous coves, with beautiful turquoise water created by the sun’s reflection off the white chalk rock bottom. Discover today why Ponza was such a popular island in Roman times, where wealthy Romans relaxed, when on a private yacht charter cruising through the Pontine Islands.