Pantelleria town is a working port that isn't love at first sight for those who vacation here, thinking Pantelleria is a chic insiders' getaway. There are delivery trucks belching fumes as they idle on the harborside streets, poor local children shuffling along in rubber sport sandals, and block after block of apartment buildings in that unattractive, utilitarian postwar style so common in southern Italy. What Pantelleria town lacks in glamour, it makes up for in authenticity -- which makes it the polar opposite of more obviously posh Italian islands like Capri and Panarea -- and if you're the type of traveler who's always in search of real local culture, you'll love Pantelleria town. Even the elite habitués of the island who own lavish dammuso compounds in the countryside never miss morning coffee and evening drinks at one of the unassuming bars of Pantelleria town. The town, which is built along the crescent-shaped harbor and continues inland for a few hundred meters, has all the services you need -- supermarkets and delis, marine hardware stores, laundries, even a 99-cent store -- and exactly one historical monument, the ancient Castello Barbacane (not open to the public), which dominates the harbor with its imposing, windowless walls in black lava.
Outside town, the best introduction to Pantelleria's striking landscape is a drive along the coastal road (the strada provinciale or strada litoranea) that hugs the shore all the way around the island, passing through a few of the larger villages. It's a journey of about 60km (37 miles) that takes roughly 2 1/2 hours, if you only make a few quick stops along the way. Stopping for a swim anywhere along the route will add at least an hour, and probably more. Along the way you'll get to know the many facets of Pantelleria -- the fancy dammusi and sparking sea are clearly visible through the low vegetation, yet so are ratty yards and power lines.
The Coastal Road & Swimming Coves
Pantelleria's best swimming spots are concentrated on the northeast coast, from Pantelleria town to the Arco dell'Elefante. Though the coves here are, as elsewhere on the island, either rocky or pebbly (aqua socks are a must!), they're relatively easy to access from the paved strada litoranea (coastal road). Heading out clockwise (east) from Pantelleria town, one of the first enticing inlets is Cala del Bue Marino, where centuries of wind and water have sculpted sinuous reliefs into the lava rock walls. Next up, Karuscia is a wide and shallow bay accessed by a gently sloping but bumpy deposit of lava rocks. A bit farther east is Punta Spadillo; park where you see signs pointing to Laghetto delle Ondine. At the end of a 10-minute trail is this seaside "infinity pool" formed when sea water in high tide washes over the rock wall into a smooth basin. Continuing south on the coastal road, follow the signs to Gadir, where there are ancient thermal pools, reinforced in concrete, at water's edge. Beyond Gadir is the bathing mecca that consists of three promontories, two gorgeous bays (Cala Tramontana and Cala Levante), and one awesome natural rock formation -- the Arco dell'Elefante. The "Arch of the Elephant" is the visual calling card of Pantelleria and every bit as impressive in real life as in the postcards and Web images. Here, at the southern tip of Cala Levante, the sloping lava, with a natural arch forming a "trunk" where it meets the water, looks exactly -- I mean, exactly -- like an elephant kneeling in the Med for a drink of water. From the big flat ears to the oblong eye sockets, this rock is pachyderm all the way. (Drive through Tracino, then park at the end of the road marked Cala Levante; this is the north side of the bay and 300m/984 ft., by sea or rocky shore, from the "elephant." A swim under the arch is a must, while some more adventurous local kids are known to cliff-dive from the top of the elephant's nose.)
Given the time involved in getting to most of these swimming spots, packing a picnic is a good idea. Near water's edge, you can usually find some flat rocks suitable for lounging on. If you're bringing food, a fun local custom is pouring a bit of olive oil into small bowl-shaped divots in the rock, which is already perfumed with sea salt, and dipping fresh bread in.
You might catch a glimpse of the incongruously bright turquoise water of the Specchio di Venere upon final approach at Pantelleria airport. Nestled in a verdant valley in northeast Pantelleria, "Venus's Mirror" is an extinct crater that is now a circular lake, bordered by sulfur-rich mud that is said to have healing properties for dermatological or rheumatic disorders. (Note that the sulfur of Pantelleria, like sulfur anywhere else, smells like rotten eggs -- don't say I didn't warn you.) To partake of the rite as the Pantescans do, first swim in the water so that all your skin is wet, then harvest some mud from the shallow lake bottom; cake yourself in the mud, let it dry until brittle and plastery, then go for a cleansing swim in a different part of the lake, which is kept warm year-round by sulfuric hot springs. The greyish-white mud you see on shore continues all the way under the water, accounting for the extraordinary swimming-pool color of the Specchio di Venere.
All throughout Pantelleria are villages with fewer inhabitants and services but more interesting architecture than what's in Pantelleria town. Many of these villages still bear the names the Arab settlers gave them -- Bugeber, Khamma, Bukkaram, Rekhale, Gadir. The best-equipped village is the seaside Scauri, on the west coast. Several good restaurants (including the island's only waterfront dining, at La Vela) and a busy fishing port (though no good swimming) make Scauri a lively spot and worthwhile detour on any island tour.
Several paved roads, from all directions, get close to the green parkland of Pantelleria's highest peak (836m/2,743 ft.), Montagna Grande. The easiest access is from the end of the road that continues south of Sibà. From there, it's a short hike to the summit area, where the glorious views sweep for miles and miles in every direction. Outside of the hot summer months, it's fun to spend some time up here on the hiking paths that traverse the peak.
The Pantelleria hinterland's rite of passage is going for a sweat in the Bagno Asciutto (also known and signposted as Grotta di Benikulà), a natural "dry bath" on the western slope of Montagna Grande. Follow signs from Sibà; the paved road eventually peters out so you'll have to make the final stretch, a rocky 10-minute trail, on foot. Here, steam vents in the rock grotto create a perfect sauna -- good for eliminating the toxins of too much local wine consumed the night before, perhaps. Bring a towel, as recommended practice is to lie face down on the cave floor.
On the southern side of Pantelleria, or dietro isola ("behind the island"), there's a fertile plain called the Piana della Ghirlanda. With green farm plots that present a striking contrast to the barren, lavic look of the rest of Pantelleria, this is the "garden district" of the island. Surrounding volcanic slopes protect the valley from the winds, creating favorable conditions for growing the main crop, il cappero (the caper), as well as every other fresh vegetable and herb that shows up on island menus. Also here is Pantelleria's only real archaeological site, a cluster of Byzantine tombs (always open and free) hewn into the volcanic rock. You may also see some dwarf olive trees; the Panteschi place heavy rocks on them as they grow, so their resulting low profile is less battered by the winds and ensures their survival.
Dietro Isola in general is the wild side of Pantelleria, where tenacious Aleppo and maritime pines cling to the cliffs. In one spot, called Salto della Vecchia ("Old Lady's Leap"), the cliffs drop off about 300m (984 ft.) to the sea. Near here, the best place to swim is Balata dei Turchi, a sheltered cove backed by those same towering rock walls. The access by land is admittedly difficult and time consuming, so I recommended visiting the Balata dei Turchi by sea.
As you drive around the countryside of Pantelleria, you'll see signs with grape clusters, indicating that an azienda agricola or vitivinicola, or winery where the famous passito wine is produced, is nearby. Wine producers are scattered here and there all over the island, as any south-facing, terraced volcanic earth on Pantelleria is good for growing the zibibbo white grape from which sweet passito is made. One of our favorite Sicilian winemakers, Donnafugata (Contrada Khamma; tel. 0923/915649; www.donnafugata.it), has an estate in eastern Pantelleria, not far from the Arco dell'Elefante, and welcomes visitors in summer. Tours (June 23-Sept 30, Tues-Sun at 10:30am, 5, and 7pm) of the vineyards and cellar last about 1 1/2 hours and include tastings of two or three wines. The tours are free but must be booked in advance.