Welcome to Panarea—where the jetset goes to escape the rest of the jetset. Julia Chaplin takes a turn through an invitation-only paradise.
Princess Alessandra Borghese lives in a stately converted army barracks overlooking the violet-hued Mediterranean on Panarea’s Via Vincenzella, a narrow cobblestone footpath overgrown with frangipani and wild cacti. A list of her neighbors, all slumming it in simple bougainvillea-shaded limestone retreats, includes a Bulgari and a Visconti, while just a bit farther down the road is Prince Laurent of Belgium. Days in Panarea are lolled barefoot, often on wooden boats anchored for lazy, late-afternoon swims beneath secluded rocky coves—or on jagged Lisca Bianca, where Michelangelo Antonioni filmed his 1960 classic, L’Avventura.
This tiny island off the north coast of Sicily—the smallest of the seven-island Aeolian chain—has quietly become the epicenter of the chicest summer scene in the Mediterranean. Gaining admission, however, takes a bit more finesse than simply writing a seven-figure check: If you wish to possess one of the few, highly coveted homes here, you need to know someone who knows someone. And while a famous last name and a loaded bank account may be a given, if you’re not charming, forget it. “It’s all word of mouth,” Borghese says, “so the wrong people are simply not allowed.”
As formerly Edenic refuges like Capri and Sardinia have been transformed by the kind of overdevelopment that has spawned flotillas of nouveaux riches looking for bottle-service nightclubs, Panarea remains one of the last safe havens for the understated pedigreed set. The atmosphere still feels like the Sixties, before discount air travel and regularly scheduled helicopter service clogged wealthy vacation enclaves with weekend interlopers. It’s still the kind of place where neighbors are invited over simply because there are so few of them around. (Although since there are no cars on the island and no streetlights, night crawlers must make do with small torches or moonlight to find their way around.) No one bothers with formalities like proper invitations, much less RSVPs: Just stroll down to the dock at Bar Del Porto and wait for friends to invite you up to their tiled terrace for a dinner of spaghetti with garden lemons and a bottle or two of the local Malvasia sweet wine. You won’t be alone—Panarea’s professional guests include Anish Kapoor, Jacopo Etro, and a Brandolini or two, along with a Niarchos or a Casiraghi. Princess Caroline and her familial entourage are also known to putter up to the island on her yacht, the Pacha III.
While Panarea may be populated by extreme “haves,” its charm comes largely from what it has not. “You don’t have to have Baccarat glasses,” says Irene Bulgari, whose mother bought a house up the path from Borghese 26 years ago rather than a bolt-hole in Capri and Porto Ecole, where Bulgari used to vacation. “When I first arrived in 1980, I was like, Oh, my God, what is this? The view is so beautiful, and the terrace and the wine…that’s it. You don’t need more.”
“You don’t have to worry about putting on a show with the latest dress or the latest bag,” says recent convert Kiera Chaplin, a model-actress from Northern Ireland and Charlie’s granddaughter (no relation to this writer). Chaplin came to the island for the second time last August with her boyfriend, Swiss-Venezuelan banker Attilio Brillembourg, for the 50th-birthday party of Gerard Faggionato, a London-based art dealer. Faggionato, who used to rent Borghese’s home, bought his own villa five years ago and last year invited 300 guests—including Uma Thurman, Mark Getty, and Princess Caroline—for the three-day-long celebration.
Panarea hasn’t changed much over the years. Electricity and running water arrived in the Eighties, but there are still only about 300 year-round residents. Paparazzi are at a minimum, mostly because they can’t find a place to stay, and the island’s only true beach, a swatch of dark gold sand called Zimmari, is a 40-minute trudge under a scalding sun and over a pedicure-decimating earthen terrain. Despite an increasing amount of electric golf carts whizzing past, walking is still the prime mode of transport—though in a place like this, that’s more gift than inconvenience. Walking, after all, lets you enjoy the hibiscus flowers and caper bushes and micro vineyards that lie behind the whitewashed adobe cottages.
Chalk up the island’s pristine state largely to its geography: The rocky patch is about the size of Central Park, with much of the terrain comprising steep, unforgiving cliffs. Best of all, Panarea is a migraine to reach, necessitating a long, motion sickness–inducing hydrofoil ride from either Naples or one of several Sicilian ports. (Even the helicopter service introduced a few years ago, Air Panarea, requires a tag team of planes and cars.)
Of course, if you’re arriving via tank-size yacht, all this hardly matters. Every August the usual flotsam of Mediterranean-hopping megacrafts piloted by Russian oligarchs (Roman Abramovich), tech billionaires (Paul Allen), entertainment moguls (Barry Diller), and European playboys (Johnny Pigozzi) drop anchor here. Even Giorgio Armani—though his home is kept on Pantelleria, halfway between Sicily and Tunisia—makes a point of swinging by aboard his 250-foot, military-green Codecasa yacht, Maìn.
While the cast of characters may err on the side of gossip-column denizens, if not outright movers and shakers, it’s precisely the island’s antiscene quality—no velvet ropes, no guest lists—that makes the place so appealing to overscheduled machers. There’s also usually only one party going on every night, and it always follows the same ebb and flow.
A little after 10 p.m., everyone squeezes into Bridge Sushi Bar for dinner. Here one can witness the unique phenomenon of power dining in island drag: flip-flops, caftans, and the particular kind of bronzed skin that only weeks of sunbathing and saltwater swims can produce. (Nota bene: Wearing stilettos on Panarea is the sartorial equivalent of driving a Hummer through an ecological preserve.) Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana are regulars here, usually motoring over from their home on Stromboli. (Can’t get a reservation? Don’t feel so bad: A couple years ago, neither could Abramovich—at least not during prime dining time. “If Diego Della Valle called, we would have figured something out,” said Bridge owner Angela Mascolo, illustrating the island’s casual social hierarchy. “But I don’t know Mr. Abramovich, and I don’t care how much money he has.”)
After dinner it’s time for a dance party on the terrace of the Hotel Raya, which generally hosts a pitch-perfect high-low Mediterranean mix—drunk teenagers from Naples, graying playboys, minor royalty from across Europe and Russia, imported models, and Thurman or Heidi Klum lounging on cream-colored daybeds. The disco overlooks the sea, and every few minutes Stromboli’s volcano lights up the night sky like a champagne bottle spewing fire. This little slab of cement has been the stage for a thousand romances, drunken alliances, and/or one-night stands, all to the soundtrack of “the same outdated house music every night,” says 16-year-old Filippa Brandolini d’Adda with a laugh, who spent part of last summer here.
It was the opening of the Raya in the Sixties that transformed Panarea into an aristo-boho retreat. The property’s owners, artists Myriam Beltrami and Paolo Tilche, had hosted scores of friends from abroad in a guesthouse next to the fisherman’s cottage they called home. Slowly, that guesthouse expanded up the hill, taking over a few caves along the way, as more rooms and terraces were built from the local limestone. Gianni Agnelli, Aristotle Onassis, and Francis Bacon became regulars. (The fact that Tilche imported young beauties as his waitresses to serve lobster and cocktails in sarongs and bare feet surely didn’t hurt.)
However, the Raya hardly compares with such Mediterranean grande-dame legends as the Hôtel du Cap or the Hotel Cala di Volpe. As the locals will tell you, this is just one more of Panarea’s calculated defenses against the jetset’s B-list.
“The Raya is for people who have too much and want to find themselves,” says Beltrami of her perennially booked lodgings. In an attempt to dissuade any more of these people from soul-searching at her establishment, Beltrami goes to some lengths to keep the hotel’s modest two-star rating—refusing to add flat-screen TVs to the rooms, for example. Instead, there are sprawling private terraces, some with trees sprouting through them, others with spectacular rocks. Trees and spectacular rocks, thankfully, don’t up your rating.
A few hours into the dancing scene on the Raya’s terraces, someone inevitably invites the late-night crowd back to his yacht for an after-party; by sunrise, communal skinny-dipping tends to ensue.
There is no marina or deep harbor here, so yachts must make do. Lipari, the biggest of the Aeolian islands, has proved much more accommodating—Abramovich is rumored to have purchased a villa there, and last summer Naomi Campbell all but started a turf war when she declared that she preferred that island’s Turmalin to the Raya’s disco. To Panarea’s Via Vincenzella set, this was fantastic news. “A lot of people come to Panarea for the VIP social scene,” says Verde Visconti, Prada’s director of public relations and celebrities. “But then they get here and see that nothing is going on, and chances are they don’t come back again.”
Late afternoon—after boating and before predinner disco naps—is a good time to peruse the few shops in San Pietro, which, along with Ditella and Drauto, makes up Panarea’s only real hamlets, all on the eastern side. The island’s custom-made leather sandals with colored straps that wrap up the leg have acquired almost totemic status when spotted on other rarefied beaches around the world. Another coveted souvenir: batik clothing from the Raya’s boutique (Beltrami spends winters on Bali and has imported the textiles for decades). Last summer Kate Moss went totally local, padding around dressed head-to-toe in the stuff, much to the approval of the seasonal regulars. There are no designer shops here, though in a strange twist, luxury brands have taken to naming things in homage to the island (as with Dior’s Panarea tote and Ferragamo’s Panarea flip-flops).
Naturally, this sort of overexposure worries the island’s stalwarts, but given that the entire Aeolian chain has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and that building rules are beyond strict, intrinsic forces of supply and demand appear to be on their side.
Still, one can’t be too careful—and in a place defined largely by what it lacks, people take some pains to talk about what they don’t do. Ramuntcho Matta lives in a breathtaking bohemian compound: a series of five small cottages overlooking Calcara Beach on the far north side of the island. His father, the late Chilean surrealist painter Roberto Matta, arrived here by chance in 1954 aboard a small boat with a case of champagne. Matta keeps the home his father bought—for $200—as a revolving-door way station for artists and intellectuals, a sort of anti-Raya. “We never go to the Raya,” says Matta. “If you want to be truly trendy, you have to be quite secret.”
Visconti agrees: During Panarea’s late-summer peak season, she goes to the grocery store in the early morning, when everyone else is still asleep, and spends her evenings dining on her terrace with friends. “I don’t know why Panarea is always talked of as the social crazy place,” she says. “It’s really not like that.” Of course, that all depends on whether you know where to be seen—or, more to the point, where to hide.