The Astonishing Dolphin-Shaped Rocky Outcrop: A Natural Wonder Amidst an Ocean of Man-Made Islands

It’s hard to believe that this rocky outcrop, which resembles a dolphin in mid-leap from the perfectly sculpted head down to the curving tail, is indeed genuine in a world full of man-made islands (not to mention Photoshop).

Yet it’s for real, and that’s not all the magic I’m talking about.

Another angle of Isola Lunga, looking toward the Sorrento Peninsula | Atlantide Phototravel/Getty Images

Isola Lunga—the geographical doppelganger to everyone’s favorite sea mammal—is located in one of the most magical spots on earth: just off Italy’s enchanting Amalfi Coast, between Positano and Capri.

The dolphin-shaped isle is in fact part of tiny archipelago of three islands known as Li Galli. (The other two, considerably smaller islands are La Castelluccia and the nearly perfectly circular La Rotonda.)

La Rotonda and Isola Lungo Islands | Angelafoto/Getty Images

The trio of islands is also known as Les Sirenuse, which refers to the long-held belief that these rocky outposts were home to the sirens of mythology—those creatures who lured sailors to their doom through beguiling songs and other provocative behaviors (although strong currents around the islands may also have played a role in maritime disaster).

Ancient versions of the story depicted these sirens as having bodies of birds and heads of women, and the moniker “Li Galli”—which means cocks or roosters in Italian—speaks to the birdlike appearance of the legendary residents.

The stone watchtower on Isola Lunga | Alexandr Purcel/Getty Images

Used by the ancient Romans as an anchorage and later developed as a medieval place of defense with a stone watchtower, Isola Lunga entered a new phase of wonderment (and development) when famed Russian choreographer and dancer Léonide Massine purchased Li Galli in 1922, having spied it while staying with friends in Positano several years prior.

Massine slowly and lovingly tamed this wild place, famously converting the 14th-century tower on Isola Lunga into a dance studio (installing floors of Siberian pine that remain to this day) with six small bedrooms above for visiting dancers. Massine, with the counsel of renowned French architect Le Corbusier, also went on to design and erect a main villa, create four gemlike beaches, and convert an ancient vineyard into a large terraced garden.

Isola Lunga, looking to the east | Vito Fusco/Getty Images
Isola Lunga and the stone watchtower | Ary6/Getty Images

Massine’s dreams of turning his beloved island residence into an arts center were never realized by the time of his death in 1979, but another ballet giant took over patronage of the magical little island. The great Rudolf Nureyev, Massine’s countryman, purchased Li Galli in 1988 and poured his own vision into the isles, including a stunning Moorish renovation of the villa in 1991.

With Nureyev’s death in 1993, the islands traded owners, and remain in private hands. Currently, the best way to experience the centuries of magic on Italy’s little dolphin-shaped island is to join one of the many local boat charters that run excursions along the Amalfi Coast, and pass beneath the rocky outlines of Isola Lunga and her siren sisters. And that’s a magical, dolphin-like leap unto itself.

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