If you like having your cultural compass skewed, you'll love Pantelleria. The map says Italy, but everything about the island spells North Africa. Villages have names like Bukkuram, Bugeber, and Gadir. Dwarfed by palm trees and built of rough volcanic stone, clusters of one-story cubic dwellings with humped roofs erupt from the prickly black-brown landscape like oases. The port's architecturally challenged concrete apartment blocks and souk-like alleyways lend it the louche, scrappy allure of Tangier. The heat is the heat of the desert, with sun so strong that only crazies leave the cool of a shop awning to cross the street without first picking out a patch of shade on the other side. Citrus trees are grown in circular, high-walled giardini arabi that protect them from the wind. Locals count the days until restaurants serve the weekly special—fish couscous.
I first visited Pantelleria, which is marooned in the strait between Sicily and Tunisia and has a mere 32-mile perimeter, in 1984, when I went to do a story on the house of its most famous (part-time) resident, Giorgio Armani. This may sound ungrateful, but I have been angry with Mr. Armani ever since. He insisted I stay at his compound, causing me to only half-discover the island. Now, I know that a lot of people would sell their mother to be spoiled the way one of the world's richest fashion designers spoils houseguests such as Jodie Foster, but you cannot drape yourself on a chaise longue all day while a housekeeper irons your pool towels and expect to get the feel of a place. Also, I didn't have a car. I was a prisoner, Mr. Armani my warden.
Eighteen years is a long time to nurse a hunger. I don't recommend it. Having had a small bite of Pantelleria, I was primed to return for the banquet version. Unlike in the mid eighties, however, when even the most well-traveled people I knew looked politely dazed when I mentioned the island, on my second trip I would have to share it. For in the interval Pantelleria had acquired buzz. Sting had been and loved it. A little lady called Madonna dropped in with her family—and her yogi—for a summer holiday. Gérard Depardieu and fashion photographer Fabrizio Ferri bought property. Wolfgang Puck was filmed at the caper cooperative for a segment on the Food Network. Manhattan grocer Eli Zabar, who owns a house near mine in Provence and has his own plane, taunted me by saying he flies to Pantelleria from Avignon—for lunch. And I'd learned from Florentine beauty Sciascia Gambaccini, a fashion editor at Jane and Glamour magazines who has the most sensational house on Pantelleria, that the island finally has a couple of hotels a person would actually want to stay in.
One thing that hasn't changed is how difficult it can be to get there. A seven-hour overnight ferry from Sicily would have been below my comfort level, so I elected to fly from Palermo. But just as Gambaccini had predicted, the local carrier didn't just cancel my flight—it erased the route altogether. Stranded and gently fuming, I took a train across the island to Trapani. Rage gave way to exhilaration as beautifully framed pictures of the cerulean coast, craggy backcountry, and Sicily's famed elevated highway system clicked by like a slide show. In Trapani the only thing that stood between me and Pantelleria was a puddle-jumper. Touching down on a grilling afternoon in June with a friend whom I had been promising (and promising and promising) to bring to the island, I felt as if I'd earned a reception committee.
Since my goal this time was to experience Pantelleria the way islanders themselves do, I rented the local car of choice, a standard-issue seafoam-green Fiat Panda in the comical shape of a shoebox. Cushiness is not one of the vehicle's virtues, but the Panda was good at navigating the island's chilling switchbacks and the sheer, stony path leading to the dammuso (as traditional Pantescan houses are known) that we'd rented. Because it is the property of the same grand family that owns the Regaleali vineyards in Sicily, where I have visited them, it never occurred to me that the house wouldn't be perfect.
The views were. The cane-shaded terrace overlooked the coast, where centuries ago streams of lava formed black fingers pointing into the sea. Inside, however, we found thin beds (insanely arranged so they faced away from the water—we instantly swung them around), a shower that flooded the bathroom, and a woefully underequipped kitchen. But then, what else is new?Does anyone ever totally fall in love with his vacation rental?Although there are spectacular houses to let on Pantelleria, such as Gambaccini's, ours was like every villa I've ever had (and paid lots more money for) in the Aegean. And sucking it up wasn't all that painful, knowing that later in the week we'd be test-driving the most luxurious hotel on the island.
While every Pantescan has his own ideas about how first-timers should get to know the island ("climb the Montagna Grande," "have a bag of fig-filled mustazzoli cookies"), a drive on the ring road is a good, sweeping introduction. Circling Pantelleria at a relaxed pace took two hours and made me completely sick. You could roll the credits of a film about the early days of our planet over a shot taken on the steep southeast coast, but for sufferers of vertigo, I don't suggest lingering. From a gentler perch above casa Armani, known to any traveler worth the Hello! magazine in his beach bag, we spied the mature palms, reportedly stripped from a boulevard in Palermo, that are an endless source of island gossip and envy. (These days the designer is locked in a palm-tree war with Ferri: if one buys 200, the other buys 400.)