Is Panarea the new Capri?

Formed by volcanic eruption, the Aeolian archipelago, made up of seven islands, shimmers like black pearls in the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Greeks arrived around 580 B.C. and gave the islands, off the north east coast of Sicily, the name Aeolus, after a mythical demigod who kept wind bottled in a cave. Homer writes that Odysseus sailed by the islands, and Aeolus gave Odysseus favorable wind for his voyage home.

The two westernmost and thus remote islands in the archipelago are Alicudi and Filicudi, both sparsely populated with little indigenous industry other than what the sea provides. Previously undeveloped, Filicudi has seen a sprouting of luxury hotels in the last decade.

Lipari, the largest and most tourist-friendly island in the archipelago, offers a wide range of hotels and lively nightlife. It also boasts one of the best archaeological museums in all of Europe. Houses painted in charming pastels and white sand beaches make Lipari a popular place to stay. It's also a good starting point from which to visit the other islands.

Vulcano, is noted for its thermal springs, mud baths and volcanic black sand beaches. Day-long hikes up the side of a dormant volcano are a popular activity on the island. Salina is outrageously lush, and dotted with remote villages, such as Pollara, where the phrase “absolutely nothing to do” takes on new meaning. The popular film, Il Postino, (The Postman) was shot on here. Stromboli is famous for its active volcano that appears to rise up out of the sea. The hamlet of Ginostra on the northeast flank of the volcano now has electricity for the first time.

Panarea is perhaps the most dramatically beautiful of all the islands. Its crystal clear water, abundant sea-life and fantastic flora have made it a popular destination for Italy's elegant, fashionably dressed, but understated elite.There is little to do on Panarea except relax at the hotel pool with a book, take a passegiatta (stroll), and sample exquisite Aeolian cuisine. Sicilian specialties rule the island: dishes like Penne alla Norma, in a sauce of fresh tomato, garlic, eggplant, basil and ricotta salata, and freshly caught tuna can be found on every menu in town, without care or concern about sustainability or mercury levels. Capers grown on nearby Salina have a subtle sweetness and are oblong, unlike the salt preserved nuggets that pass for capers on mainland Italian menus.
There are fewer than one thousand year-round inhabitants on Panarea, although the summertime population swells to around seven thousand, which takes into account summer renters, hotel guests, day trippers and the rich and beautiful who seem content to have discovered what might be Italy's last true paradise. I spent my first day on Panarea enjoying the spectacular panorama from the terrace of my room at the seaside Hotel Cincotta. The Cincotta is stylishly Mediterranean: lemon trees, bougainvillea spilling over white stucco walls, Balinese wood beams, decorative tile from Caltagirone in southeastern Sicily, and fragrant herbs wafting in from the kitchen.

Later that evening, I took a stroll to Calcara beach pausing to chat with shopkeepers and to sample a blood orange granita paired with a miniature cannoli. From Calcara, I watched plumes of smoke rising from Stromboli's volcano crater, followed by lava, but the volcano puts on its best show at nightfall when it spews streams of molten-red lava that flow into the sea.

The perfect way to experience Panarea's spectacular natural beauty is a hike to Punta Milazzese in the a.m., after the obligatory granita inside a brioche Sicilian breakfast and before the heat leaves your skin crispy and seared. Ten minutes into the walk, the sanctuary of San Pietrino stands out like a yellow wedding cake. The interior is kitschy and can be skipped, but the view from the terrace of the distinctively shaped rock outcroppings Basiluzzo, Dattilo and Liscia Bianca is well-worth a pause. The Milazzese trail is the most scenic on the island, with sweeping vistas of neighboring Salina and a silhouetted Lipari. Punta Milazzese covered with stone ringlets that were once the huts of Stone Age settlers, is breathtaking. More experienced hikers can descend a rocky footpath to the cove pictured below. On the other side of the promontory is a more accessible beach where families can relax, skip stones, or have a picnic.

Staying and dining on Panarea

The Cincotta is the best deal on the island. The price for a spacious single room with an ocean view terrace is around 80 euro per night. The hotel restaurant is airy and relaxing, a destination for locals and hotel guests. Try the pesce azzurro con capperi di Salina, a freshly caught bluefish with capers harvested from nearby Salina. The best choice for pasta is the penne bianca, in a “white” sauce of olive oil, garlic, zucchini, and ricotta infornata, an aged, oven-baked and finely-grated ricotta cheese. EntrĂ©e prices range from 10 to 22 euro. Hotel Cincotta http://www.netnet.it/cincotta/

Hotel RayaThis is the swankiest hotel on Panarea, with thirty rooms each offering an ocean view terrace, hybrid Mediterranean-Balinese decor, antique carpets and lush bedspreads, with the requisite high-thread count. The maincompound where guests stay is a fifteen minute walk from the port, along Via San Pietro. The Raya also has the only nightclub on the island, a spectacular open air discotheque overlooking the sea. The nightclub is open only in July and August, when Panarea is jam-packed with Northern Italians showing off there fabulous tans. The restaurant, connected to the nightclub, makes a lovely grilled tuna steak (16 euro), rubbed with sea salt, crushed mint and garlic. If you are on a budget, order a prosecco and sample the complimentary antipasti in the hotel bar. Pretend you are a guest and share a couch with the hotel’s chatty and elegant proprietor, who enjoys making the scene. Hotel Raya Via S.Pietro98050 Panarea(011) 39-090-983013 phone (011) 39-090-983103 fax
info@hotelraya.it http://www.raya.it/Rates: 92-278 euro

Budget hotel options

Liscia Bianca(011) 39-090-983004

Tesoriero(011) 39-090-983098

Getting to Sicily

There are direct flights from New York JFK to Palermo, but there are more choices and better prices if transferring from Milan, Rome or Naples. All major mainland Italy airports fly to Palermo, Catania, and Reggio Calabria. Alitalia, AirOne, and Meridiana have the most frequent flights and best rates.

Getting to PanareaFrom the mainland of Sicily, aliscafi (hydrofoils) and traghetti (ferries) leave from the port of Milazzo several times daily to the Aeolians, even in low season. In high season, there are three departures daily from Palermo, which takes about three hours. Private helicopter rides are available from the mainland port of Reggio Calabria. Prices vary but average about 60 euros each way during low season, and 80 to 100 euro each way during high season.

From the port of Reggio Calabria, there are three hydrofoils daily to Panarea during the high season, and one per day during low season. It makes stops at the other islands first, making Panarea the second to last stop before Stromboli. The journey takes about two hours. Traghetti take at least an hour longer. Be warned that during low season, there is only one aliscafo per day from Reggio Calabria. If you literally miss that boat as I did, Reggio Calabria merits a visit to the Museo Nazionale della Magna Graecia for a peak at the famous Riace bronzes, two statues dating back to the 5th century B.C. and fished out of the Ionian sea in 1972.

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