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.”