Pantelleria: Italy's secret island
Although it’s about to be immortalised on our cinema screens as the location of A Bigger Splash, starring Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes, the island of Pantelleria is one of the Mediterranean’s least-known holiday spots. Little more than a black speck in the sea between Sicily and Tunisia – the ‘black pearl of the Mediterranean’ – this rugged and sparsely populated volcanic outcrop, with terraced slopes giving way to wild, herby scrub, is the hideaway of a few shy celebrities such as Giorgio Armani and Luca Zingarelli (alias Inspector Montalbano), who both own villas here. However, it has never attracted a mass market.
No doubt this is largely because Pantelleria is not a destination for beach-lovers. Swimming is mostly off rocks; the island’s only “beach” is inland, and it’s made of mud.
But if that doesn’t sound too appealing, think again, as the Specchio di Venere (“Mirror of Venus”) – a heart-shaped lake in a volcanic crater, fed by rainwater and hot springs, and of a colour that modulates from emerald to aquamarine to turquoise to deep blue – is both luxuriously self-indulgent and gratifyingly therapeutic. Slather on the mineral-rich mud, rinse off with a swim to the centre, and emerge, regenerated, with skin like velvet. Bring some water with you, and be aware that there’s no shade. Early mornings and evenings are the most atmospheric times (and the locals recommend a nocturnal dip under the full moon).
Pantelleria also has a natural hot sauna, in a grotto on the side of Montagna Grande, the island’s highest peak (2,740ft). Otherwise the pleasures of the island mainly consist of mooching around Pantelleria town (where nearly all the shops are), and exploring farther afield, best done on a rented moped or bike. The indented coast shelters some choice swimming spots off the black rocks as well as marine grottos, while in the Mursia neighbourhood you’ll come across prehistoric sesi, stone-piled tombs 4,000 years old. More ubiquitous are the island’s celebrated dammuso dwellings: small, shallow-domed structures designed to collect water and keep their occupants cool. Some of these may have giardini panteschi attached – vegetable plots with surrounding walls to protect them from the fierce sirocco winds that assail the island every winter.
Cafés and some of the best restaurants can be found in remote nooks scattered around the island, but if you don’t feel like travelling there’s plenty in Pantelleria town.
Restaurant menus mainly consist of fish (mostly imported from the Sicilian mainland), though the locally grown and highly prized capers feature prominently in many dishes. The island’s deliciously sweet passito wine, made from Zibibbo grapes dried in the sun to raise the sugar levels, is usually taken before or after your meal, but also goes down a treat with a plate of cold meats.
Incidentally, unlike its sister isle Lampedusa, Pantelleria is not a major landing point for migrants from the North African coast, just 37 miles to the west, though Pantelleria town does possess something of a garrison feel – not so surprising, perhaps, for a place that has survived for centuries in an almost permanent state of siege. But most of the accommodation is here, and enough activity to give the place a bit of a buzz.
Nights on the island are especially magical, with some of the starriest skies you’ll ever see.
May and June are the ideal months for visiting Pantelleria. Siremar (siremar.it) and Traghetti delle Isole (traghettidelleisole.it) operate ferries from Trapani, on Sicily’s west coast, making the journey in 6-8hr, with return tickets from £45 per person (more for cabin accommodation). Between June-September, hydrofoils operated by Ustica Lines (usticalines.it) ply the same route in 2hr 30min; return tickets around £64. Alitalia (alitalia.com) flies daily to Pantelleria from Palermo or Trapani – with tickets around £88-£110 each way – in around 40 minutes, and there are additional flights in summer from Rome and Milan.
Stay in a traditional, stone-built, self-catering dammuso (traditional local house) if you can, available for weekly stays (or less outside high season). Agencies offering dammusi include Travel Sicilia (sicilyluxuryvillas.com), whose list includes the property where scenes from A Bigger Splash were filmed, Il Dammuso D’Autore (sleeping 6-8; £3,000-£3,800 per week), and a smaller property, Le Palme (sleeps four; £1,295 per week); located in the southern part of the island, 2.5 miles from the village of Scauri, both were restored by the architect responsible for Giorgio Armani’s villa, and both have pools. Closer to Pantelleria town and the sea, and within walking distance of the Specchio di Venere, more affordable dammusi are available from Le Case del Principe (dammusi-principe-pantelleria.com; £23-£30 per person per night). Cleaning charges are additional, and you’ll need your own transport.
Alternatively, Pantelleria town has a few good hotel options, notably the three-star Blue Moon, directly overlooking the marina (bluemoon-hotel.com; double rooms from £53), though better equipped for families, with an enormous pool and striking sea views, is the Suvaki hotel complex (hotelsuvaki.it; doubles £84), near the coast south of town. Both hotels offer airport pick-ups and can arrange island tours.
In town, try the food at Franco Castiglione, Via Borgo Italia 81 (0039 0923 912618), a traditional setting for some modern-looking dishes or a crusty pizza at moderate prices.
For the finest ice creams, almond granitas and cannoli, head for Pasticceria Katia, Lungomare Borsellino (0039 0923 911832).
Outside Pantelleria town, Altamarea, at Scauri (0039 0923 918115,altamareapantelleria.it), provides a superb seafood couscous among other princely dishes on its panoramic, candlelit terrace for around £38 for two courses and wine – there’s dancing too. At Punta Karace, between Gadir and Tracino, Il Principe e il Pirata (0039 0923 691108,principeepirata.it) is one of the island’s top dining venues, with a spectacular terrace (ideal for sunsets). Leave room for the signature dessert, baci panteschi.