If you’re looking for a beautiful island in Italy where you can relax, enjoy the sun, sea, and natural mineral hot springs, then consider a trip to Pantelleria. Most visitors are vacationers from Europe, but I also had the rare treat a few years back, when an Italian friend who owns a hotel here insisted I come to stay a few days with a traveling companion.
Pantelleria, part of the province of Trapani, is one of the southernmost spots in Europe, just thirty miles from Africa. Like so many Sicilian islands, it was formed by two volcanic eruptions. You get there either by plane from Palermo or by boat from Trapani (about four hours). When arriving by boat, you come into the port where the town of Pantelleria is located. Most of the buildings are not very old, having been re-built after World War II bombings. The castle of Barbacane is probably the only pre-World War II building left. There are eleven villages and many scattered houses – most of them sporting the thick square walls and domed roofs left behind by the Moors who ruled here for 400 years and gave the island its name. But few people come here to admire art and architecture. It is the wild beauty, the dramatic coastline, the incredibly pristine water, the abundance of caves, coves, grottos and inlets, that draw a small but intensely loyal group of visitors to this quiet outpost.
Although this is the largest of Sicily’s islands, its circumference can be driven in an hour. On our tour we started at the Lago di Venere, a lake of volcanic origin with thermal springs draining into it. Next we stopped at another area where the spring water flowed into the sea. There was a small grotto with a place for people to sit and enjoy the thermal springs and look out to sea. We also thrilled to a natural sauna inside a partially enclosed cleft in the hill.
Continuing on our drive we paused near the town of Mursia to visit a group of sesi. These tombs, actually mounds made from evenly sized stone blocks, were left by a mysterious tribe of hunters, fishermen and gatherers who came here during the Neolithic age, probably from Sicily. The sesi are similar to Sardinia’s nuraghe, and their location on a windswept deserted hillside makes them all the more haunting.
The best views are from the 2743-foot summit of Montagna Grande, the highest point on the island. On clear days you can easily see Africa (which is, after all, closer than Sicily!). The mountain is a natural forest with all kinds of different plants and species. The rock formation that leads from the town of Tracino towards the sea looks like an elephant’s trunk, and they call it elephant trunk arch.
There are many other things to see and do on Pantelleria, like take a boat ride around the island, or visit the natural marine caves, sun on the calm beaches, snorkel or dive in the coves, or take a walk through the fields of zibibbo grapes. Along the way, most of the houses you’ll see blend in with the colors of the island, but there are some buildings that are whitewashed, similar to what you might see in Greece.
If you do plan to go to Pantelleria, I have two suggestions. First, don’t plan to leave the day before your flight home. The wind can often be strong here (indeed, the name means daughter of the wind), and you should be prepared to be grounded for a day or two. Second, I recommend you stay at the Mursia Hotel. It is less than two miles from the port at Pantelleria, right on the shore. They have swimming pools, a tennis court, a bar and lounge, and a wonderful dining room where you can enjoy the views of the sea while tasting the local catch of the day. Each room has a terrace where you can watch the sun set over the island.