San Pietro is the only substantially developed area of tiny Panarea, and even then, it's still very much a village where almost nothing is more than a 5-minute walk from the port. It's not flat, however, and those with luggage will want to snag a golf-cart taxi: Many hotels offer this service free of charge; otherwise, the "taxi" stand is by the pier in San Pietro. From San Pietro, you can walk to a few beaches and lookout points and the scant remains of a Bronze Age village on the south side of the island. Otherwise, the best way to get around is to rent a gozzo (small wooden boat with a sunshade and 25-hp motor). A number of operators at the port rent out these easy-to-drive, no-experience-necessary motorboats, which are the ideal way to explore the inlets on the wilder, uninhabited stretches of coastline that are inaccessible by land. The curve that makes the northwest corner of the island marks the now-sunken crater of the extinct volcano, visible from above when the water is calm. Any time you see a cove with inviting waters -- which is just about everywhere around Panarea's perimeter -- just drop anchor and dive off your gozzo. A full day's rental in high season will cost from 50€ and can double in the height of August, excluding fuel costs, which are higher here than on the mainland. Before you set out on a day's exploration, stock up on water and snacks at one of the minimarkets in town.
The largest of the three hamlets on the east coast of the island, and the site of the single-jetty port, San Pietro is home to the majority of the island's hotels, bars, restaurants, and shops. A couple of agreeable bars look over modest fishing boats toward the moored yachts of oligarchs, and the occasionally smoking hulk of Stromboli beyond. When the sun sets, San Pietro becomes a ridiculously entertaining catwalk for the Italian fashionista-turistas who think nothing of changing outfits three times (three different studiedly carefree bathing suit/pareo combinations, mind you) between 5pm and midnight as they migrate from aperitivo to dinner to clubbing at the Hotel Raya. Even if nightlife isn't your thing (but it should be, at least temporarily, while you're on Panarea), happy hour at the portside bars is de rigueur. All the day-trippers have left, and Panarea becomes an intimate, fabulous party.
Out On The Island
Heading north from the port, a flight of steps leads up past the whitewashed houses of Ditella. Terraces drip with hibiscus, bougainvillea, and jasmine. Passing the sleepy Carabinieri station, the road narrows to become a steeper footpath. Reaching the road there is a view to the right from Calcara looking over the fumaroles that give the sea occasional hot zones, and sometimes release steam. The fumaroles are accessible from the road by a very steep footpath. More serious walkers can bear left from the road above Calcara to follow a fairly rugged and steep footpath that climbs up to the Timpone del Corvo, giving glorious views across the island and east to Stromboli. The screelike nature of the path means it is best attempted in decent footwear. Go in the morning, and bring water. Following the path, one reaches the splendid Cala Junco for a cooling swim. The full circuit back to San Pietro takes a good 4 hours.
Much less demanding than the above-described hike is the route to Cala Junco (pronounced "yoon-ko") heading south from San Pietro. Leaving town, the road has views down to the sea on your left and red rocks on your right dripping with prickly pears. Passing into the cluster of low white houses at Drauto, you come to the simple Sirena bar/restaurant, which has an agreeable terrace on which to seek refreshment. The Sirena also rents rooms (www.hotelsirena-panarea.com). The road then leads to Zimmari, the only sandy beach on Panarea: Though it suffered a great deal from the storms of the winter of 2008 to 2009 and is somewhat reduced in size, it is packed in busy periods. The pleasant bar/restaurant Da Nunzio overlooks the beach. Picking your way over the large volcanic stones that make up the second part of the beach leads to a steep stepped path that gives views across the bay toward the Basiluzzo and Lisca Bianca outcrops. Best avoided by vertigo-sufferers, the path curves past a large red rock with views down to Punta Milazzese. Excavations carried out here in 1948 uncovered the remains of 23 Bronze Age huts, their circular forms clearly visible from the path. Continue down the path from the Bronze Age village to the "beach" of Cala Junco, where there is no sand but large, smooth boulders that make surprisingly comfortable (really!) lounge chairs.?The cerulean bay of Cala Junco is a favored place of the boating set, who anchor their yachts and cigarette boats here -- the cove offers shelter from the ever-present winds of Aeolus -- for lazy afternoons of sunning, swimming, and champagne-sipping. You and your gozzo are welcome, too, or just hop on one of the shuttle service boats from San Pietro.
The Islets Off Panarea
Across the water from San Pietro are the striking isolotti (mini-islands) of Dattilo (directly east), Lisca Bianca (also to the east, past Dattilo), and Basiluzzo (a long, wedge-shaped wall of rock and two adjacent rock stacks, to the northeast -- Stromboli is directly behind it). Tourist boat excursions to these islets depart all day long from San Pietro harbor, although in high season, Lisca Bianca is horrendously crowded -- you'll be fighting for a spot on the pebbles. There is, however, a tradition with the Arco degli Innamorati (Lovers' Arch) that honeymooners won't be able to resist: A swim underneath the arch, local legend has it, means that the couple will be together forever. A better option is Basiluzzo, where you can swim in the gorgeous emerald water beneath a sheer wall of striated limestone. Some vestiges of Roman ruins are visible here, and Roman artifacts nestled on the seabed below.
Diving in the Aeolians
The Aeolians are a good spot for divers of all levels of experience between late May and September. The visible islands above sea level are, so to speak, the tip of the iceberg. That means that close to the shore the rock face plunges into vast depths, and this deep cool water is home to all sorts of interesting marine life, including grouper and lobster. Furthermore, the intense human activity in these areas over recent millennia has made it a treasure-trove for archaeological finds, some of which still languish on the seabed. (There are fragments of Roman ships under the water here, but they're strictly off-limits to divers.) Just off Filicudi there is even an underwater annex of the archaeological museum (suitable for fairly experienced divers with a guide). At Panarea, explore the area around the Basiluzzo, the rocks known as the Formiche (Ants), and the bubbling fumaroles. Off Stromboli, venture out to Strombolicchio, and off Salina, explore the collapsed crater at Pollara. The following diving centers cover all of the islands except Filicudi and Alicudi, both of which can be visited as diving excursions from the larger islands.
Amphibia (tel. 335/1245332 or 335/6138529; www.amphibia.it) has two fully accredited diving centers in the archipelago. The older of the two opened in 1997 on Panarea, just by the jetty at San Pietro. The other is on Salina, by the jetty at Santa Marina, and opened in 2004. Also on Panarea, the Hotel Lisca Bianca (tel. 090/983004; www.liscabianca.it), just by the jetty at San Pietro, has a diving center. On Stromboli, Diving Club La Sirenetta (tel. 090/986025; www.lasirenettadiving.it) is at the Sirenetta Park Hotel. On Lipari, Diving Center La Gorgonia (tel. 090/9812616; www.lagorgoniadiving.it) is at the Marina Corta, on Salita S. Giuseppe. On Vulcano, Diving Center Saracen (tel. 090/9852189 or 347/7283341; www.divingcentersaracen.it) is close to the Spiagge Nere, by the Bar Saracen.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.