Elba, Italy: Travel guide to the island where Napoleon was exiled

However Napoleon passed his time on Elba, he was never hoisted up its highest peak in a metal basket. The cabinovia didn't exist then, of course. Anyway, it would surely have been beyond the little Corsican dictator's dignity to take the running hop required to scramble onto the constantly moving contraption. As an attendant clangs the safety gate shut, you're imprisoned like a chicken in a swinging coop. Napoleon would have been frustrated too at the summit, as he gazed over his greatly shrunken empire. On Monte Capanne you can see the entirety of Elba, the island-prison that pinned Napoleon down until his escape that led to Waterloo.

Our ascent of Monte Capanne is a daring shore excursion. It's not often cruise passengers are invited to dangle in a cage on a metal rope. Huge boulders on plunging hillsides below look as if they're about to tumble into the sea. The passengers on Star Flyer aren't the shuffle-and-stare types found on some cruise ships, however. Some cling to the cabinovia with white knuckles, but there's plenty of giddy enjoyment, too. The scenery gets ever more glorious as we lurch skywards. Elba is a crumpled green jewel on a satin sea. At the summit, we scramble across rocks and dangle our legs over the edge like teenagers.

Later in the day we stop at Marciana Marina, a fishing-turned-tourist town framed in breakwaters. Did Napoleon ever perambulate along this waterfront, sniffing the oleanders and salt sea? Did he wander into the back streets and smile at the sight of washing hanging overhead like knights' banners? Maybe he peeked into the church where pensioners genuflect amid the candles; or paused at one of the waterfront cafes for a glass of sweet red Aleatico wine.

I'm obsessed with Napoleon on Elba. He was only exiled to this Tuscan island for 300 days in 1814-15, but everywhere he stares from under his bicorn hat on souvenir plates and postcards. Bonaparte was given rule over the island and busied himself with economic reforms and road building. He lived in two mansions, had a Polish mistress and carried on with a local lass named Sbarra. Life was a round of adulation, famous visitors and balls organised by his party-loving sister Pauline. 

We pass Napoleon's country villa, San Martino, on our return from Marciana Marina to Portoferraio, where Star Flyer is docked. The road twists like the plotline of Napoleon's life. Elba is an island of cliffs and squeezed-up mountains covered in olive and chestnut trees. Village houses are hooked together by terraces and steps to prevent them sliding into the Mediterranean, and every hairpin bend provides another panorama.

Like mainland Tuscany, Elba has been tussled over by European powers ever since the time of the Etruscans and ancient Greeks. Portoferraio is a creation of the Medicis, who built Renaissance harbour fortifications that look designed to repel giants. It was mostly in Portoferraio that Napoleon lived his diminished life. That afternoon I clamber up to his Palazzina dei Mulini high above the town's red roof tiles. Hardly bigger than a western Sydney mansion, it's crammed with empire furniture, peculiar-looking in this setting. The windowsills are dusty, the courtyard sprouts weeds, and a museum attendant is mummified in a corner of the Grand Salon where the conqueror of Europe once conversed.

Down below, Portoferraio's churches and houses slide towards the harbour where Star Flyer sits like a period piece. As we sail away in late afternoon, past battered fishing boats and grand fortifications, its sails are hoisted and Star Flyer leaps forward on waves that dance in sunlight. Maybe this is the same exhilaration and sweet-smelling Mediterranean breeze that Napoleon felt, sailing away on his brig and back to France and destiny in February 1815.

Big mistake, Napoleon. Ambition was your downfall, and you ended your days on a windswept rock in the Atlantic Ocean. You could have been here on Elba, enjoying the sunsets and eating cherries with Sbarra. You could have sat, enveloped in the perfume of lavender, in the terraced gardens at Palazzina dei Mulini, gazing over starry seas. If I lived on an island this beautiful, I'd never want to leave.

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CRUISE

Star Clippers' next Elba visits are on seven-night "Cannes to Rome" cruises departing on June 3 and August 26, 2017 on Royal Clipper. There are numerous other western Mediterranean sailings to small ports in Italy and France. Prices from $2990 per person. Phone 1300 295 161. See starclippers.com

FLY

Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai (14.5hr) with onward connections to both Rome (6hr) and Nice (6.5hr). Phone 1300 303 777, see emirates.com/au

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Star Clippers but paid for his own flights.

See also: Move over, Mykonos: Europe's most beautiful, underrated islands

See also: 20 things that will surprise first time visitors to Italy

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