This section covers the "stragglers" off Sicily: Pantelleria, Lampedusa, Linosa, and Ustica. These four islands are the loners among the Italian islands, not members of any cohesive archipelago. Flung far out at sea, they are remote worlds unto themselves. Both in terms of landscape and atmosphere, they have little in common with each other beyond the geographic distinction of being very isolated outcrops of land in the southern Mediterranean. Each is seductive in its own way, with diversely compelling assets for the traveler looking for something a bit more "out there."
Pantelleria (110km/68 miles southwest of Mazara del Vallo, Sicily) is the darling among these four. Dubbed the "Black Pearl of the Mediterranean," it's an exotic island with a strong Arabic feel and a forbidding terrain of rough black lava. Despite the fact that Pantelleria has no sandy beaches, the island has nevertheless risen in popularity as a summer retreat among chic and moneyed Europeans who cherish its very otherness -- and its exclusivity. Flights to Pantelleria aren't cheap, and decent accommodations -- most common is the Arab-style dammuso stone house, converted into boutique guesthouses and villas all over the island -- are expensive. Yet there is striking beauty in the black lava, especially where it meets the cobalt sea, and unexpected charms like a neon-blue volcanic lake where you can take a mud bath. Food and wine lovers will find a surprisingly sophisticated gourmet scene. Pantelleria town is the contrast to all of this -- the impoverished burg where local kids walk down sidewalks barefoot while tourists toast the sunset at harborside bars. Put all of this together, and few islands can deliver such a profound sense of escape.
Lampedusa and Linosa are grouped together as the isole Pelagie (Pelagic, or "High-Sea" islands), although they're quite different from each other and 40km/25 miles, 1 1/2 hours by ferry apart. Suspended about halfway between Pantelleria and the island nation of Malta, the Pelagie are the southernmost islands in Italy. Lampedusa, in fact, is closer to Africa than to Italy. Lampedusa is not the most initially welcoming place: It's dry and flat, with a mostly raggedy port town. But tourists don't come for the charms of the village. They come for Lampedusa's coastline, where shelves of soft tufa dramatically meet the sea, making for paradisiacal swimming beaches and coves. Nowhere is this more spectacularly demonstrated than at Isola dei Conigli beach. Lampedusa used to be a very offbeat choice for a holiday, but as more money has been invested in tourism here in the past several years, and there are now smart accommodations and hip bars. Lampedusa, in high summer anyway, has become a bit more mainstream.
Mainstream isn't the word you'd use to describe Linosa. Tidy, tiny, lush Linosa is a fertile volcanic island with immaculately maintained streets (all six of them), good hiking, a few beaches, and that's about it. Linosa has proudly stayed off the radar of mass tourism, and because of its size and remoteness, probably always will. Come here for a few days of summer-camp-like relaxation, free of stress and technology.
Ustica, a 2 1/2-hour ferry ride north of Palermo, is small and volcanic (read: no beaches), but it has a pleasant, village-y atmosphere, and for scuba enthusiasts, there is no better diving in the Italian Islands. Famous dive sites include the Scoglio del Medico, an offshore basalt outcrop with an undersea maze of grottoes, tunnels, and canyons, and the Underwater Archaeological Museum, where ancient Roman artifacts lie undisturbed on the seafloor. Non-divers can take a boat tour around Ustica to discover the island's many fascinating sea caves. If you've got an extra day in Palermo, a side trip to Ustica will definitely be memorable.