© Matteo Panno
Relaxing on the Chic Italian Island of Pantelleria
By Hideaway Report Editor
September 1, 2014
Many of my favorite islands are in the Mediterranean — Capri, Mallorca, Corsica, Paros, Hydra — and every year, I’ve tried to add another to my life list. But until now, one Italian island has eluded me for reasons of timing, accessibility and a lack of comfortable hotels. Craggy and volcanic Pantelleria lies about 60 miles southwest of Sicily and 40 miles east of Tunisia.
The name comes from an Italianized version of its Arab moniker, Bint al-Riyah, or “the daughter of the winds.” Known for its capers and wines, it has an area of 32 square miles, about the size of Manhattan. Pantelleria played a cameo role in World War II when Mussolini fortified its only port and built an airport to create what he envisaged as an Italian Gibraltar, or a sentry post on the eastern Mediterranean. Ultimately, Allied troops invaded it in June 1943.
Having learned that there are now several pleasant places to stay, I decided to spend a week on the island this past spring. (June and September are the nicest months to visit the island, which is an increasingly fashionable destination for Italian holidaymakers during July and August.) “There are few places in the world that empty your head and make you slow down better than Pantelleria,” a friend in Rome assured me.
We took the 45-minute flight from Sicily on a sunny morning. As the plane banked prior to landing, I was surprised to see that the island was so green, having half-expected it to be as sun-blasted as much of Tunisia is. After picking up our tiny Fiat rental car, we navigated a series of narrow lanes lined by stone walls ornamented by blazes of bougainvillea before arriving at the Zubebi resort. Surrounded by five acres of gardens, the hotel is a compound of dammusi, or traditional Pantellerian houses, with domed white roofs designed to keep them cool in the baking summer sun and dry during winter rains.
Initially, we found our room to be rather spare, but it grew on us as we relaxed. Simply furnished but comfortable, the space had whitewashed walls, a tile floor and a North African aesthetic, with pierced metal lanterns and colorful textiles that had been imported from Tunisia. Exploring the property, we came across a crescent-shaped swimming pool with lovely views over the surrounding countryside and the distant sea. The pool, we later learned, is a considerable luxury on an island where water is delivered by tanker truck and hence is very expensive. Like Capri, Pantelleria has only tiny, rocky beaches, so a pool is a necessity in summer.
The eight-room property is run with friendly and easygoing service. For anyone coming from a major city, it takes a day or two of relaxation to cease being impatient with the local languor. At least this was the warning offered by a couple from Geneva on our first night as we enjoyed a bottle of crisp white Pantellerian wine, lolling on cushions to watch the spectacular sunset. Later, we savored an excellent dinner of pasta with lobster, followed by tuna steaks with roasted tomatoes and boiled potatoes dressed with local olive oil and potent Pantellerian oregano.
The following morning, the front desk staff arranged for us to visit a caper farm — Pantellerian capers are reputedly the best in the world — as well as one of the island’s most respected wineries, the local outpost of the Sicilian winemaker Donnafugata. Growing on a terraced hillside, the capers looked rather like nasturtiums, with silvery green, coin-shaped leaves. The small flower buds are gathered by hand, then salted and pickled. Here and there, a bud had escaped one of the workers who harvest the caper terraces each morning and had blossomed into a feathery flower. These yield the fat, seed-filled fruit known as a caper berry.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The outstanding restaurant; the spectacular horizon pool; the lovely views over the surrounding countryside.
DISLIKE: The rather austere bedrooms, which lack reading lights.
GOOD TO KNOW: From June to September, the hotel often requires a seven-night stay.
Zubebi 87 Room, from $235. Contrada Zubebi, 91017 Pantelleria. Tel. (39) 0923-913653.
After our wine tasting, we enjoyed a fine seaside lunch of fritto misto at La Vela, the only waterside restaurant on the island. We then headed to our next port of call, the 15-room clublevante. Located near the village of Kamma on the eastern coast of the island, the hotel is set amid lush gardens. Built of lava blocks, the rooms here are also styled as dammusi, but they’re more comfortably furnished than those at Zubebi, with better lighting, including well-lit baths, and pleasant private porches fitted with white cotton curtains. This property is also closer to the sea, and a daylong circumnavigation of the island by powerboat, an expedition efficiently arranged by the hotel, was a highlight of the trip. The hotel’s infinity pool is spectacular, and tennis courts are available, but there is no gym or spa, and no room service. Although the hotel only offers light lunches and dinner on request, our favorite restaurant on Pantelleria, Osteria il Principe e il Pirata, is close by.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Stunning sea views; gorgeous gardens; friendly service.
DISLIKE: Lack of room service and a proper restaurant.
GOOD TO KNOW: Osteria il Principe et il Pirata, my favorite restaurant on Pantelleria, is just a few minutes away by car.
clublevante 88 Deluxe Dammuso, $360. C. Da Vicolo Faraglione 42, 91017 Pantelleria. Tel. (39) 0923-915246.
Our final stop was the clumsily named 46-room Pantelleria Dream resort, also near Kamma. Though not a true luxury hotel, the property provided the most comfortable accommodations we found during our visit. Our vaulted whitewashed room was simply furnished with a table and chairs and a chest of drawers, but there were good reading lamps by the comfortable bed and effective air-conditioning. The grounds are handsomely landscaped with cactus, palm trees and bougainvillea, and the infinity pool affords glorious views over the countryside and the sea. The hotel’s restaurant is also good, and we enjoyed a delicious meal of spaghetti with locally caught shrimp and crushed Sicilian pistachios, followed by grilled squid.
Deeply rested, we left Pantelleria with real regret. Essentially, it is a place in which to sleep late, to linger over indulgent lunches and to spend long hours in a hammock with a book. And it certainly provides an effective antidote to a stimulating but tiring tour on the Italian mainland.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The beautiful infinity pool; the private terraces of the individual dammusi (traditional houses).
DISLIKE: Slow housekeeping service.
GOOD TO KNOW: The hotel books up far in advance.
Pantelleria Dream 89 Superior Room, from $250 (June-September). Localita Tacino, 91017 Pantelleria. Tel. (39) 0923-915670.