On my first visit to Calabria, five years ago, I'd arranged to stay at a farmhouse ringed by bergamot orchards and hills. When I saw how isolated the place was, I wondered if I might get lonely. Needless worry. The first night at dinner, served family style at long wooden tables, I met the other guests: ten members of an Italian hiking group who unabashedly adopted me. For the next four days, we packed sack lunches and headed out on footpaths or forged trails through brambles and over stone walls.
When it was time to leave, the owners implored me to stay, and the hikers invited me to continue on with them. Such was my introduction to the region long regarded as Italy's scruffiest, in part because of its mafia ties.
What Calabria lacks in polishItaly's slender toe, south of Basilicata and Puglia, is one of the country's least populated regionsit more than makes up for with a wild countryside. The southern Apennine ridge and the Sila massif, a 650-square-mile plateau with some of Europe's thickest forests, cover half the province. Albanians who crossed the sea to escape the Turks five centuries ago inhabit hillside towns that also house the occasional stronghold of the 'Ndrangheta, the local mafia. Jasmine and citrus scent Calabria's narrow coastal area, stretching between the Gulf of Policastro, on the Tyrrhenian, and the Gulf of Taranto, on the Ionian.
Adventures: Go grotto-diving around Dino Island (Subaqua Diving Club, www.subaquadivingclub.it) in the Tyrrhenian. Just south, Diamante's historical center has fantastical murals by local artists and the Museo del Peperoncino, showcasing the ubiquitous fiery pepper. Camigliatello and Morano Calabro, a mountain village with Norman castle ruins, are gateway towns for hiking in Pollino National Park and the Sila, including the three-mile climb up 5,784-foot Mount Botte Donato for ocean views, and there's Class IIIV rafting in the Lao Valley (Lao Rafting; 011-39-0981-82707, www.laosrl.it).
Meals: Calabria's waters teem with swordfishorder the daily catch at Taverna del Pescatore, in Diamante, and follow it with chestnut granita from Bar Italia, in Bonifati's tiny hilltop piazza. In the mountains, Ristorante Aquila Edelweiss (in Camigliatello) and La Locanda di Alia (in Castrovillari) serve typical Calabrese cuisinethe Sila massif is known for Caciocavallo Silano, a cheese made from the milk of cows grazing in mountain pastures, and cured meats, like sausage flavored with hot peppers.
Lodging: The family-run Grand Hotel San Michele (doubles, $146$239; 011-39-0982-91012, www.sanmichele.it), in Cetraro, is on a 140-acre organic farm; about two-thirds of what is producedincluding mandarin oranges, house-cured salamis, and grapes that yield three kinds of villa-bottled wineturns up in the restaurant. (At the cooking school, learn to make red-pepper preserves and olive pâé in the fall.) There's a gray-pebble beach with kayaks and guide-led snorkeling, and Andrea, the owner's marine-zoologist son, will help organize hiking excursions, rafting, and diving. Once the home of the Dukes of De Aloe, the melon-hued 12th-century Palazzo del Capo (doubles from $305; 011-39-0982-95676, www.palazzodelcapo.it) has a prominent spot in tiny Cittadella del Capo with 16 breezy, sea- or pool-facing rooms and a prime snorkeling beach.