Aeolian Islands—A few days in Panarea with Emily Ellis Fox from Materia

Los Angeles native, Emily Ellis Fox is the force behind Materia, an online Mexi / Cali concept store featuring beautiful handmade and vintage products from both sides of the border. (Plans are in the works for a brick and mortar LA location.) Emily believes,” the spaces we inhabit are a reflection of our values, our adventures and ourselves. That what we surround ourselves with has spirit. And that, through seemingly small gestures, we can elevate our everyday.” She brings that same philosophy to her travels, immersing herself in a place, a culture. Last fall she spent a week just off the coast of Sicily in Panarea, the smallest and most well known of the Aeolian Islands. Here she shares all her discoveries, so you too can have a perfect day, weekend or week in picturesque, dreamy Panarea. 

Tripper Tips:

Panarea is only operative from mid-May through mid-October. Aim for the “low” part of that season (June and September), avoiding July and August when crowds, prices, partying and temperatures soar.

There are no cars on Panarea, so make sure to arrange luggage transport with your hotel or rental host ahead of time. Golf carts can be hired for rides to the beach or elsewhere, should you not wish to walk.

Also missing from the island? Pharmacies. Make sure you pack essentials such as sunscreen and bug spray. Mosquitoes do come out at night, although their bites look worse than they feel.

Snorkel gear can be bought or rented in town and is a must for boating days. It also helps in avoiding jellyfish, as they abound. Their stings seemed mild, but caution is advised nonetheless.

For those hoping to hike Stromboli via Panarea, note that it requires spending one night away from the island. Sunset treks are guided and not for the faint of heart, so reach out to hiking companies for advice on necessary gear and whether the volcano is active during your travel time.

Why Go: Panarea is a study in contrasts: clear seas lapping against dark cliffs, beloved by a tony crowd despite its stubbornly un-tony accommodations and home to sunny laid back vibes even while perched under an active volcano's shadow (Panarea boasts the best view of nearby Stromboli’s smoke show). It's precisely these contradictions, however, that make Panarea so seductively appealing--civilized yet wild, beautiful yet tough, unassuming yet full of vitality.

Logistics: Panarea is accessible only by boat, with ports of departure in Sicily (Milazzo, Palermo) and mainland Italy (Naples, Reggio Calabria). Ferry schedules vary depending on time of year making OK Ferry a vital resource for determining timetables and buying tickets in advance. For our mid-September trip we flew into Catania, Sicily. From there, it’s a bus or van service for the hour and a half trip to Milazzo’s port. Another 90 minute hydrofoil ride and you’re finally in Panarea.

Stay: We checked into Hotel Cincotta, a pro tip for those in the know. Located next to the infamous Raya (see below), it’s half the price but no less romantic--with classic Mediterranean architecture, sea views and a private balcony in every room. Nothing in Panarea can truly be called luxurious, so embrace the slightly old school aesthetic: there’s charm here in spades. A delightfully helpful staff, plus an enviable spot in town, upscale restaurant, seaside pool, great bar and a complimentary breakfast overlooking Stromboli add up to true value that can’t be beat. 

More Options: Hotel Raya is the spot that made Panarea famous--and still the top pick for honeymooners looking to splurge. It's known for their bar with magnificent views, a well-heeled crowd and an owner who practically invented bohemian chic. That said, be advised that they take the “bohemian” part seriously and have refused to make upgrades that would alter its three star rating. For families, consider skipping a hotel altogether and rent a villa instead through vrbo or airbnb. Opt for one in San Pietro or between town and the beach (that's likely where the kids will spend most of their time.)

Beach: Cala Zimmari is Panarea's sole sandy beach, flanked by hills of cacti and in view of yachts offshore. A half hour walk from town, it’s located in a decently sized cove where you can rent an umbrella and chaise. At the end of the beach, climb a hill to visit neighboring Cala Junco (or just observe its picturesque qualities from below). At the top is a smattering of Bronze Age ruins, while below is a quieter rock “beach” without amenities.

Boat: Boat rental kiosks dot San Pietro’s port and we favored Diego, a Panarea native with comparatively fair prices. While there are multiple models to choose from, you only need a basic motorboat: it’s spacious, comes with a cooler and has an ample canopy for shade. Test your sea legs by circling the island first, stopping at whatever coves and scenery suit your mood (Cala Junco at one end and La Nave at the other are both stunners). But the real draw is the islets offshore: Lisca Bianca (made famous by Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura), Dattilo and Basiluzzo. If you have time, allot a day for each of these two routes. There’s plenty to explore.

Drink: Aperitifs are as much a part of the culture here as any meal. Embrace the ritual with an Aperol spritz (the island's pre-dinner drink of choice) and accompanying antipasti. Il Bar del Porto is the island’s unofficial gathering spot: Located on San Pietro's dock, it's the ideal place for people watching and a glimpse of ferries rolling in. Nearby at the Raya, a picture-perfect crowd equally matches the picture-perfect views of Stromboli. Sunset may be molto romantico here, but after dinner is when the party really heats up. While its sceney nightclub is active solely in August, the more laid back bar stays open all season.

Eat: Snag a window seat at Da Adelina, where a changing menu is determined by what the fishermen and foraging chef have found fresh that day. With a location overlooking the port and Stromboli, its candlelit ambiance is magical. Da Pina, on a vine and lemon covered terrace, serves the type of cuisine you dream about once home. Perhaps the most expensive dining experience we had, the perfectly prepared seafood was well worth it. For a change of palate, Da Antonio il Macellaio is known for its steak and cozy wine-bottle lined dining room. Non meat-eaters will find its salads and pastas to be some of the islands best. In "high" season, pizza is served on the terrace, straight from an outdoor oven. For an affordable option, fun and lively Da Francesco overlooks the port, seemingly always full. Lower prices don't mean lesser food or views--both stand on their own, especially the seafood pastas. Sweet lovers will enjoy L’Elica’s gelato offerings, while the best granita can be found at Il Bar del Porto.

Provisions: For beach days and boating excursions, we put together a picnic from Panarea in Forno, a small bakery in San Pietro. Choose from freshly baked bread, homemade slices of pizza, Sicilian salad and their specialty: the pepita (fried dough stuffed with local veggies and cheese). A small market next door carries all other needed essentials: water, wine, cold beer, cheese, fruit and crackers. Don’t miss the olives behind the counter here, as they’re the tastiest we've ever encountered.

Shop: Plenty of tourist-driven shops abound, filled with sarongs, straw baskets, caftans and Sicilian ceramics. But a few spots stand out from the crowd. At Moda Mare, design your own leather, suede or beaded sandals, custom-fit to your feet. Best of all, they're ready to pick up day-of. Across the way, Boutique Raya is the spot for those hoping to bring the hotel's bohemian aesthetic home. Opt for a necklace or handbag sporting the hotel's signature silver stingray. Down the hill, the Ibizan espadrille company, Manebi, set up a pop-up store last year filled with fashion-forward styles. And while molded plastic and rope beach bags may or may not be your thing, they're on the arm of every Italian who steps off the ferry. Get your fix at O-bag, the island’s outpost of this well-known brand. DT365 note - our friend Julie stopped in Panarea last summer and raved about Buganville, it was her favorite shop on the island!

Just One Day: Many people visit Panarea as a day trip from Sicily or in combination with some of the other Aeolian Islands. With only a day, skip the beach. It’s lovely, but the most dramatic scenery is found offshore. Gather snorkel gear and picnic supplies early, then head down to San Pietro’s dock. Once on your boat, steer towards Datillo—the morning light against its sheer cliffs is positively cathedral-esque. Next visit Lisca Bianca and its small neighbor Bottaro. The strait created between these two is a swimmer's paradise and perfect for lunch. You could easily spend an afternoon here, but intrepid adventurers will head towards Basiluzzo, the furthest and largest of the islets where choppier waters mean fewer boats. The reward is a close up view of Stromboli and the most extraordinary lava patterns around. Back at Panarea, wash up, and then explore San Pietro, pausing at Moda Mare to have custom sandals made. After wandering the streets, pick up your new shoes and head to Il Bar del Porto, where it's time for an aperitif. People watching is a sport here, so enjoy your vantage point as the sun-kissed dinner crowd files in. For food, you’ll want a reservation next door at Da Adelina. Then make your way to Hotel Raya and perch yourself towards Stromboli, in hopes of a fireworks show. Whether or not there's a dance party underway, grab a prosecco, go barefoot and sway to your own beat. Completely relaxed by now, you'll feel utterly far from the "real" world. Enjoy it. Appreciate it. You're dancing within view of a volcano on the Mediterranean. Life doesn't get better than this.

Note: To get the best sense of the island, it's worth staying at least a weekend. For its full charm (and ultimate relaxation), stay longer; we enjoyed six days without budging.