The aristo-chic, VIP retreat of Panarea, the Aeolian Islands
Tiny Panarea, the smallest of the inhabited Aeolian Islands, measures just 2.5km by 1.8km. This diminutive size, however, belies its status as the archipelago’s “VIP island”.
In the summer, the island’s 300 permanent residents are joined by Italy and Europe’s elite (think members of the Bulgari, Visconti and Borghese families, Prince Laurent of Belgium and many others) who own houses there. With them arrive a Hollywoodian list of all-star guests which, in recent years, has included Uma Thurman, Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith, Beyoncé and Jay Z, Princess Caroline, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss. Then there’s the flotilla of mega yachts that come and go, bringing their billionaire owners, such as Roman Abramovic, Giorgio Armani and Dolce & Gabbana, to experience a little of the island’s bohemian-aristocratic chic.
Despite this influx of the rich and famous, however, those who know the island best eschew its glamorous image, preferring to describe it as a secretive, down-to-earth place, a hideaway where little happens and simple pleasures reign supreme. As Verde Visconti, Prada’s director of public relations and celebrities told W Magazine, “A lot of people come to Panarea for the VIP social scene, but then they get here and see that nothing is going on, and chances are they don’t come back again.”
Panarea’s unique atmosphere and enchanting isolation started attracting a few adventurous tourists in the 1950s and with the opening of the unashamedly not-luxury-yet-trendy Hotel Raya in the 1960s, the island became renowned as a place where you could party hard, an alternative to the more traditional Capri. Still today at the Raya, one may dance the night away at the hotel’s open-air disco overlooking the sea. Those who prefer a little peace and quiet, meanwhile, head north or south from San Pietro to the island’s other two villages of Ditella and Drauto. There, as the tranquil evening dusks to dark, fortunate residents gaze out across the water and watch Stromboli spray incandescent magma into the night’s sky.
...those who know the island best eschew its glamourous image, preferring to describe it as a secretive, down-to-earth place, a hideaway where little happens and simple pleasures reign supreme...
The eastern third of Panarea is given over to (sparsely) inhabited areas, while the other two thirds consist of green hills, terraced agricultural land and volcanic formations. The central port of San Pietro is a picturesque web of white-washed streets and home to most of the island’s restaurants, bars and shops. It is here, also, where you might rent a boat for a trip around the island or hail a ride on one of the golf carts that shuttle people from place to place (Panarea is a strictly car-free island). Alternatively, considering the island’s reduced dimensions, one may walk pretty much anywhere. A hike up to the top of Punta del Corvo, the island’s highest point at 421m, is well worth the effort for the superb views over the entire Aeolian archipelago.
Most of Panarea’s beaches are also fairly easy to walk to, though make sure you take provisions, as lidos are practically non-existent. At the southernmost point of the island is Cala Junco, a pebbly inlet with crystalline transparent waters. To the east of this is Punta Milazzese, home both to a lovely pebbly beach and a little promontory with the remains of a Bronze Age village. Heading north a little, one soon comes to Cala dei Zimmari, the island’s only sandy beach. Meanwhile, in the northeast of Panarea, just below the little hamlet of Ditella, is the Spiaggia della Calcara, a unique beach thanks to its smoking, sulphurous fumaroles, boiling underwater springs and magical views of Stromboli. The west of the island, reachable only on foot or by boat, is characterized by cliffs and the remains of a collapsed volcanic crater, now the site of a small beach, Cala Bianca.
Apart from taking a boat trip around the island - the best way to find your own deserted cove - one may also be to head out to the five inlets just off Panarea’s east coast: Dattilo, Lisca Bianca, Basiluzzo, Lisca Nera and Bottaro. All are excellent for snorkelling and scuba-diving.
Lastly, anyone staying at the end of June must not miss the Festival of San Pietro, the island’s patron saint. Celebrations begin on 28th June with a night of music, dancing, eating and drinking followed, on 29th June, by a sea-borne procession of the statue of San Pietro. Once a fisherman, like so many of the islanders used to be, Saint Peter is celebrated with a passion that the locals usually only reserve for their little island.