“They say that you cry when you arrive in Pantelleria, and you cry when you leave,” the stylish Italian woman said to me wistfully. “Plenty of people get back on the plane hours after landing but those who stay don’t ever want to leave.”
We had just met and she had invited me to her dammuso – an Arabic word for the typical Pantellerian stone dwelling – along with a group of her friends who own holiday homes on the island, to drink some Passito di Pantelleria, the local sweet wine. We stood at the bottom of her garden, looking out at a vermilion sun setting over the sea. The rocky outline of north Africa was just visible on the horizon and around us wild cacti were darkening into jagged silhouettes.
It was exactly halfway through my week-long holiday on the Italian island and, as if right on cue, I began to feel pangs at the idea of packing up. The woman’s saying was apt: here I was, fantasising about the possibilities of island life, whereas my initial impressions had been distinctly mixed.
When I stepped off my flight from Rome, I was immediately struck by two somewhat disagreeable differences. First, although we were just a few miles from Africa, the temperature had plummeted by at least 10 degrees and, second, a brutal north-easterly wind was howling around the airport’s scruffy car park. We were met by Giovanni Matta, a jovial Sicilian who runs Pantelleria Collection, a new company which rents out luxury dammusi.
As he escorted us in our rented Fiat Punto to our dammuso in the south-west of the island, I asked Matta whether the wind was likely to stick around. “Ah! The mistral ... ” he said with an apologetic expression. “It is going to last for three days.” Three days out of our seven-day break – disaster! “And then ... ” he continued. “A day of calm. But then ... the sirocco will start blowing from the south, which is a warmer, sweatier wind.”
As we sped along a hazardous road past clusters of concrete houses with lines of washing wildly flapping in stone-walled gardens, and telegraph wires straining in the gale, I wondered what it was about the island that makes it such a draw for the A-list clientele who flock here every year.
This little-visited Italian outpost, south of Sicily, was “discovered” by the fashion jet set in the 1980s, and has remained an exclusive destination for the Italian cognoscenti ever since. Giorgio Armani, the island’s most famous resident, bought a cluster of dammusi and, soon after, wealthy photographers and designers were transforming the island’s Moorish dwellings into discreetly luxurious villas with infinity pools. Decor and travel magazines went mad for these conversions, with their authentic-looking domed roofs nestling respectfully into the hillside contrasting with modernist interiors and boho-chic lounge areas.
These glitzy Italian visitors came for the isolation, that exhilarating feeling of being on the edge of the world – but only an hour’s flight from the mainland. The islanders weren’t bothered by these moneyed fashionistas who were in turn left alone to enjoy the natural surroundings – a welcome change from posers’ paradises such as Capri and St Tropez.
It has previously been difficult to hire one of these villas but now, thanks to companies such as Pantelleria Collection and Think Sicily, several dammusi-owners have decided to allow their luxury boltholes to be rented out to discerning holidaymakers.
Despite an influx of celebrities such as Madonna and Sting, Pantelleria remains distinctly unspoilt compared with Sicily and its other islands. It can still only be reached from Italian airports and it is rare to hear anything spoken but Italian. Accommodation is relatively scarce: there is a notable, even refreshing, lack of large hotels. Dammusi, which have been a feature of the island since the 9th century, range from simple one-domed, one-room dwellings to palatial villas which can sleep 10 or more. Ours, “Djenna” – the holiday home of an English couple with impeccable taste and an incredible cookbook collection – was designed by the island’s most famous architect, Gabriella Giuntoli.
Our first glimpse of it was of a white multi-domed roof on the crest of a hill with a looming green mountain on one side and the indigo sea on the other. Like most dammusi, Djenna, with its walls of dark volcanic stone, is unprepossessing at eye-level but inside it is stunningly airy, almost church-like. Each white-walled room has its own high, domed ceiling, shaped a bit like a panettone box. The decor is muted, with occasional “colour accents” in the form of purple washed-silk cushions, or tasteful artwork. It can sleep up to 10, but there are enough rooms and private terraces to allow you never to have to socialise at all. The terraced garden, built to thrive in the tremendous heat of a Pantellerian summer, is dominated by sturdy cacti, barely quivering in the wind. The neighbours were just visible – their pointed ears twitching inquisitively over a wall: Djenna’s own pair of Pantellerian donkeys, Olga and Ornella.
Dammuso life struck me as pretty unbeatable, especially when we discovered Djenna’s extensive DVD collection and interconnecting iPod system. I began to understand why the celebrities were rarely spotted in “town” – a breeze-block jungle situated to the north of the island somewhat lacking in immediate charm. One shouldn’t be too harsh: Allied bombs decimated the main towns and villages in 1943, and they were hastily rebuilt on a poor budget. Pantelleria town is, nevertheless, a lively, friendly place. We were given invaluable tip-offs by Matta about the best baker and butcher, who sold us some wonderful homemade polpette (meatballs) and soft island cheese.
Matta, and Djenna’s extensive range of guide books, were at pains to tell us that the real beauty of Pantelleria lies in its flora and fauna: in its natural saunas, hot springs, sea life and lush volcanic landscapes. Fearful of missing out on all this, we drove to Lo Specchio di Venere, a beautiful thermal lagoon full of health-giving minerals, where we dipped in the bath-like water, deliciously squidgy underfoot, and observed a group of Italians intent on baking themselves in clay in the midday sun.
Our attempts to swim in the sea presented more of a challenge. One reason that Pantelleria hasn’t become a typically rammed Italian beach destination is that, well, there are no beaches. The island is essentially a volcanic rock – an extraordinarily fertile one at that: access to the sea is limited to plopping off blackish promontories that are wincingly sharp underfoot. We donned the rubber shoes and snorkels needed for the wind-whipped sea, which turned out to be wonderfully warm and clear, and as we emerged, a rubber-clad diver kindly handed us a couple of freshly shucked sea urchins to slurp – a rather salty snack after a mouthful of seawater.
The most beautiful area of the island is unquestionably its verdant interior. Once you leave the coastal paths and drive inland, signs of modern life dissipate and you are surrounded by intensely cultivated fields and hillsides, striated with stone terraces. Vineyards, cacti, olive groves and long wild grass shimmer in the sun, and every now and then, the glinting roof of a dammuso flashes by. The inland road is also the best way of reaching the south-east, the island’s chichi side, where Re Giorgio (King George) as he is affectionately known, resides in his supersized dammuso overlooking the port of Cala Gadir.
When we visited, there was no sign of the king, although an Italian couple we chatted to said they’d seen him recently. “It’s no big deal,” the woman said. “We don’t bother him, he doesn’t bother us.”
As the sirocco reached its crescendo on our last afternoon, the storm clouds gathered. We sheltered at Djenna and watched a terrific display of sheet lightning illuminate the slate-grey wall of sea. It was a frightening sight, and would almost certainly mean that our flight would be cancelled – a frequent occurrence on Pantelleria, with its crazy weather patterns and short runway. I willed the black thunder clouds to stick around. But the elements won’t be tamed, especially on this extraordinary wild island. By morning, the clouds vanished and had given way to a perfectly still summer’s day.
Rebecca Rose is the FT’s acting books editor
The dammuso Djenna, which sleeps 10, costs from €7,500 per week with Pantelleria Collection (www.pantelleriacollection.com); the company’s other dammusi cost from €1,700 per week. Think Sicily (www.thinksicily.com) rents dammusi including Roccavento, which costs from €3,750 per week. Alitalia (www.alitalia.com) flies to Pantelleria from Rome and Milan, and Blu-Express (www.blu-express.com) from Rome. For details of hydrofoils from Sicily, see www.usticalines.it