Tremiti Islands, what to see: 7 places not to miss

What to see in the Tremiti Islands: not only sea, but also art and history in a 7-step itinerary.

The Tremiti Islands are a corner of paradise bathed by the waters of theAdriatic Sea. The Tremiti Islands are located off the coast of Gargano, and among enchanted coves, crystal clear waters and unspoiled nature they preserve the traces of an important past. Castles, monasteries, and abbeys are the legacy that a centuries-long history, and whose origins are lost in myth, have left to the Tremiti Islands. The Tremiti Islands archipelago, the only Italian one in the Adriatic Sea, consists of five islands-San Domino, San Nicola, Capraia, Cretaccio and Pianosa-and can be reached from the coasts of three regions (Abruzzo, Molise and Puglia) with regular connections from Vasto, Termoli, Rodi Garganico, Peschici and Vieste. According to legend, the origin of the Tremiti Islands goes back to Diomedes, the Greek hero whose exploits were recounted by Homer and who is still said to be buried on the very archipelago. What were once also known as the Diomedes Islands are said to have come into being when the king of the city of Argos, and companion of Odysseus, after fleeing his homeland to escape a conspiracy hatched by his wife against him arrived on the Gargano and married the daughter of King Dauno. Here, using stones brought from his homeland, he set about to mark the boundaries of Daunia, his new kingdom. Three large boulders remained unused from the cargo, which Diomedes threw into the sea, and these, emerging from the water, gave rise precisely to the islands of San Domino, San Nicola and Capraia. Diomedes would later die during a duel, and Venus, still angry at the defeat of Troy, transformed Diomedes’ fellow adventurers into birds, called diomedee, destined to mourn his lost friend forever and watch over his grave. The origins of this myth can still be sought today in the Tremiti Islands among paths that wind through forests and meadows with the blue sea as an inseparable backdrop, caves, bays and coves where you can go to discover the wonders of the Adriatic, and then again abbeys, monasteries and castles that bear witness to the long vicissitudes of the archipelago. Here are seven things not to miss on your trip to the Tremiti Islands.

1. The abbey of Santa Maria a Mare

Imposing, majestic, austere, for nearly a thousand years the Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria a Mare has stood out against the deep blue waters of the Tremiti Islands. The absolute jewel of the island of San Nicola, it is reached by passing through the harbor and, in this case, the first thing to strike one is the large well that served as the monks’ refectory. Century after century, the shrine has always been the center of religious life on the archipelago and has always been a destination for the faithful and pilgrims. Inside, the abbey of Santa Maria a Mare still retains its original layout with its three naves that preserve authentic masterpieces. Notable among these is certainly the wooden statue of Santa Maria a Mare, carved and painted entirely by hand and representing the Virgin and Child whose faces are depicted with dark skin and who is particularly dear to the islands’ population. The aisles, on the other hand, run lengthwise from the entrance to the high altar, while the aisle, set around the choir and apse, preserves a striking set of images that stand out beautifully in the background.

The Abbey of Santa Maria a Mare
The abbey of Santa Maria a Mare. Photo by Giorgio Galeotti

2. San Domino

Almost 3 kilometers long and just under two kilometers wide, the island of San Domino is the largest of the Tremiti Islands archipelago. The blue of the sea, the white of the beaches and the green of the woods are the dominant colors on this little corner of paradise that rises from the Adriatic to the 116-meter altitude of the hill of the Hermit. The great protagonist of the island of San Domino is definitely the Aleppo pine, which covers with a characteristic pine forest a good part of the available surface and is accompanied by a rich undergrowth of Mediterranean scrub. San Domino is also the best organized Tremiti island with numerous hotels, residences and resorts. Above all, however, San Domino is the ideal place for anyone looking for a vacation in contact with nature. Here there is no shortage of well-equipped footpaths that wander up and down the slopes of the island, but the most sought-after attractions are beaches, caves, rocks and coves where it is possible to enjoy all the beauty of the Tremiti Islands’ sea.

The port of San Domino with, in the background, the abbey of Santa Maria a Mare
The port of San Domino with, in the background, the abbey of Santa Maria a Mare

3. San Nicola

San Nicola is the heart of the Tremiti Islands; it has always been the politically and artistically most important center and, not coincidentally, this is where the municipality is located. Severe in appearance, San Nicola has a high jagged coastline and is defended by two large cliffs overlooking the sea. On its summit then towers, with its unmistakable profile, the great abbey of Santa Maria a Mare, also known as the Montecassino in the middle of the sea. Apart from the abbey, however, it is the whole island that presents itself as a great open-air monument emerging from the waters of the Adriatic. Silent evidence of the Tremiti islands’ importance over the centuries still remains of the imposing fortifications that start from the marina and spread to the Abbey of Santa Maria a Mare and beyond, with towers, walls and cloisters. Near the marina, on the other hand, is the only beach, but more importantly from here starts the “Salizata,” a climb that leads to the island’s entrance gate. Immediately outside the small town, on the other hand, stretches the archaeological area of Pianoro where the alleged tomb of Diomede is located.

The island of St. Nicholas. Wikimedia/Raboe photo
The island of St. Nicholas. Photo Wikimedia/Raboe

4. Sea Ox Cave

Crystal-clear waters, breathtaking views, and secluded corners where you can relax away from the crowds. One of the many reasons for the great charm of the Tremiti Islands is certainly that it is a well-known and popular tourist destination, but still manages to preserve, precisely because of its wild nature, still intact many corners in which it is possible to enjoy the spectacle offered by nature in complete autonomy. In addition to the most popular beaches, the Tremiti are a succession of rocks, bays and coves that can be reached on foot or by boat and that offer absolutely unique experiences. Also of great fascination are the many caves that dot the archipelago, and among them one of the most enchanting is definitely that of the Bue Marino. For centuries, this cave located on the island of San Domino, at the foot of the imposing cliff known as Ripa dei Falconi, was home to a colony of seals and today it is one of the most evocative places you will ever visit in the Tremiti. The cave winds for a full 70 meters and reaches a maximum width of 14. What makes the Bue Marino cave special, however, is a natural phenomenon that causes sunlight, after passing through the shallow waters of the cavity, to dye the walls themselves blue.

Sea Ox Cave
Sea Ox C

5. Cove of the Arenas

Not only rocks, masks, snorkels and boat passages. There is certainly no shortage of opportunities in the Tremiti for those seeking a more relaxing vacation who simply want to lie on a deck chair and sunbed in front of the turquoise waters of this extraordinary archipelago. For beach and white sand lovers, then, Cove of the Arenas, the main beach in the entire archipelago, is not to be missed. Cove of the Arenas is a thin strip of white sand located on the east coast of the island of San Domino. The beach opens little by little among the island’s sharp rocks and slopes gently toward a heavenly sea. It is ideal for a relaxing swim and, thanks in part to its shallow waters, is a favorite half for families. Being the main sandy beach of the archipelago, it is also the most frequented and can also count on numerous accommodation facilities. Not only is it possible here to take advantage of the services of the equipped lidos, but there are also numerous bars and restaurants overlooking the sea.

Cove of the Arenas
Cove of the Arenas

6. The castle of the Badiali

Just as the Abbey of Santa Maria a Mare has always been the spiritual center of the Tremiti Islands, the Badiali Castle has been its political and military center. Also located on the island of San Nicola, its construction is traced back to the 13th century at the behest of Charles I D’Anjou. A fortress and the last defensive bulwark of the archipelago in case of invasions and raids from the sea, what characterizes the castle of the Badiali is first and foremost the impressiveness of the walls that flank its main entrance. Also of great significance are the numerous defensive works built at the time of the Cistercian monks. At the entrance to the fortress then stands out the Angevin watchtower characterized by its unmistakable circular plan and a large loggia with a very deep well in the center that was used to collect rainwater. It is a true engineering masterpiece that in the past also had the function of marking the time through the inclination of the sun’s rays.

The castle of the Badiali
Badiali Castle. Photo FAI Fondo Ambiente Italiano

7. Beaches

Cove of the Arenas cove, Uncle Cesare cove, Bue marino grotto, Marinella beach, Spido cove, Sorrentino cove, Devil’s cove, Cretaccio cove, Faro cove, Matano cove and many more. These are the names of some of the best beaches in the Tremiti Islands. The archipelago is, moreover, within aprotected marine area that is part of the Gargano National Park, and virtually every corner of these islands hides a magical place to enjoy the beauty of nature. If cala delle Arene on San Domino is certainly the most frequented and the best equipped one, for sand lovers it is also worth a visit, in San Nicola, to Marinella beach, which can be reached by land thanks to a fairly challenging path or directly by boat from the sea. There are numerous, on the other hand, boats available to tourists always ready to accompany them to discover the best places to relax. A special mention among them deserves, for sure, Cala di Sorrentino, in Capraia, also known as the Cave of Love, a hidden cove overlooking the turquoise waters. Perfect, on the other hand, for those who love canoeing or swimming is the Cretaccio cove, on the island of the same name, a still wild corner where you can relax in the midst of nature.

Tremiti beaches. Photo by Frank Immisch
Tremiti beaches. Photo by Frank Immisch

Tremiti Islands, what to see: 7 places not to miss
Tremiti Islands, what to see: 7 places not to miss

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