So close to Sicily, so far from the crowds

For years I had heard about the island of Pantelleria, the craggy, hard-to-reach Eden of middle-of-nowhere tranquility that lies 89 miles southwest of the island of Sicily and about 50 miles east of Tunisia. Luca Guadagnino's 2015 film “A Bigger Splash” painted a seductive idyll of mud baths, romantic ruins and secluded coves. Celebrities such as Madonna, Sting and Julia Roberts have visited, attracted by the evocative atmosphere, where Africa meets Italy, together with Giorgio Armani, a part-time resident since 1980. The fact that no one was impressed added to the charm.

“We always tell newbies that you will love it or hate it,” said designer Sciascia Gambaccini, who has owned a vacation home on the island for 33 years. “This is not Capri. We don't have Chanel. There are no luxury resorts. There is constant wind. The beauty lies in the slow pace and wild landscape.”

The absence of white sand beaches is worn like a badge of honor. Locals load their gear onto the jagged perches of lava rock that line the coast and launch cannonballs into the turquoise sea. The old-fashioned patisserie and seedy olive stalls in the town of Pantelleria give it a “Godfather” charm.

And wind, well, it's part of the package. As the locals will tell you, nature is in charge here and when the sirocco arrives, you have to go with the flow.

Thousands of years ago, farmers on rocky, windswept, freshwater-free Pantelleria figured out how to grow crops.

They built terraced walls of porous lava rock that blocked the wind and watered fruits and vegetables with dew. These steep terraces undulate the entire island, giving a primordial consistency to the lava rock cliffs. Even the ubiquitous lava stone dwellings called dammusi lend themselves to the otherworldly landscape.

The topography of Pantelleria changes completely as you move from one side of the 32-square-mile island to another. As I whizzed along the narrow main road and unpaved side roads, the scenery shifted from lush caldera valleys to barren scrub-covered plateaus, to hillside villages festooned with pink bougainvillea, and up to forested mountains. Flowering cacti and caper bushes with purple stamens grow with abandon, as do herbs. When the wind blows it smells of wild oregano.

Evidence of the ancient roots of Pantelleria can be found everywhere.

In Mursia, the Sesiventi bar overlooks the Bronze Age sepulchral monuments. In Nikà I thought of the Romans as I dived into the bubbling spas carved into the stone. The town of Pantelleria is dominated by a castle begun in the Byzantine era, Norman additions and a bell tower built later by Spanish.

The island is not easy to reach. The Danish airline DAT, the Spanish airline Volotea and the Italian ITA Airways fly there from Italy, but only on certain days. After the high season, which runs from late May to late September, it gets busier with one-off flights or an overnight ferry option from Trapani on Sicily's main island. (Pantelleria is part of the province of Sicily.)

I flew from Palermo last June and, after the jolt of landing on a volcanic speck in the sea, I heard the slacker's siren song. It was hot. And the wind/cicada combination was like an island lullaby. My arrival in the late afternoon coincided with aperitif time, which has its own format in Pantelleria. People climb onto the roofs and sit on cushions to watch the sun slide into the sea. I experienced this quiet rooftop scene, or anti-scene, at several restaurants, hotels and homes during my week on the island.

Of note, there was no loud music. Nature was the main event and was treated with reverence. Tesla? Mercedes? Land Rover? Not a chance. Everyone drives beat-up cars, the Fiat Panda being the most popular. When a friend caught me with this toy-like contraption, I understood why. Their small size and light weight make it easy to wedge into tight parking spaces and navigate oncoming traffic on single-lane roads, a maneuver that often involves pulling into bushes or over a narrow cliff.

While there may not be beach days, there are definitely swimming days that take place on the lava outcrops. Balata dei Turchi was my favorite, partly because it was such an adventure to reach this bay beneath lava cliffs about 800 feet high. It involved tackling steep, unpaved terrain in my friend's decrepit Panda, bouncing over boulders as plumes of dust obscured the windshield. After parking, the walk down the rocks took 10 minutes. We placed our towels on the black rocks and dove into the sea. A thick rope attached to the rocks helped the swimmers get up.

Some days, the swim was spontaneous. After a wine-filled lunch at La Vela in the port of Scauri, I took off my clothes (I learned to stuff my swimsuit in my bag) and walked among the sea urchins in the crystal-clear sea. Around me beachgoers were reading (real books) and children were snorkeling and playing (real) games. It felt like 1985.

A boat tour offers the best perspective of the island. But with the wind, it had been difficult to plan the departure. Eventually, the gusts receded and I set off with a nimble speedo-clad skipper to explore lava caves accessible only by sea. We entered the Mermaids' Cave and then into Sataria, the cave covered in sponges where legend has it that Ulysses was bewitched by the sea nymph Calypso. We approached the Elephant Arch, a lava arch that resembles an elephant drinking water. Then we anchored in front of the caves of Punta Spadillo for a lunch of sandwiches before diving into the blue-green sea full of parrot fish. We only saw one other boat, which left as we arrived.

If people know about Pantelleria, they're likely to mention its two most famous exports: passito, a sweet wine made from the zibibbo grape, and capers. It is no easy feat to produce wine on an arid island with no fresh water. The vines were bred to grow horizontally to avoid wind. To self-water, they were planted in cavities so that dew could drip into the roots overnight. This centuries-old practice is recognized by UNESCO as “intangible cultural heritage”.

All 22 of the island's winemakers produce their own version of the amber-hued passito, and each winemaker speaks poetically of how the harsh conditions produce this “vino de meditation,” best sipped slowly after dinner. “When you drink it, you can feel the people and the land behind the flavor,” said Antonio Rallo, fifth-generation co-owner of Donnafugata vineyards and president of the Sicilia DOC wine consortium. “It could never be accomplished anywhere else other than this island.”

Sun, wind and volcanic soil rich in minerals are also the secret of Pantelleria capers, whose exceptional sweetness makes them appreciated throughout the gastronomic world. Since most vineyards grow grapes and capers, wine tastings include foods that highlight both flavors.

Emanuela Bonomo, a rare winemaker here, explained how the wind created a concentrated flavor of lava minerality and salt in both her products and small-batch wines. In the vineyard he served fried courgettes with mint and oregano; caponata; and cheese topped with dried zibibbo grapes along with fig jam and huge lemons sliced ​​and drizzled with oil. Everything was covered in aromatic capers. Mrs. Bonomo also wanted to make sure I understood that everything was “handmade”: she and every other farmer still harvests by hand.

At Mr. Rallo's vineyard, guests can stroll among centuries-old olive trees and gardens and through a natural amphitheater of stone walls to examine the gnarled, low-hanging vines and caper bushes. There are multiple tasting options, the most exciting is a dinner under the stars that pairs wines with classic Pantesca dishes.

In addition to inspiring rugged terrain, geothermal activity has transformed the island into a thermal playground with hot springs and natural saunas. Near Mr. Armani's compound, in the fishing village of Gadír, there is a small marina with pools carved into the stone. I followed the locals' lead and soaked in a slightly slimy tub (the water is between 104 and 131 degrees Fahrenheit) for about six minutes, then cooled off in the adjacent port. The smell of the eggs doesn't matter. The sulfur and mineral content is why the waters are effective at relieving aches and pains.

During my day on the boat, I swam to the Sataria cave, which has three algae-rich hot springs with water temperatures ranging from warm to medium hot. The largest hot spring on the island, Specchio di Venere, is an aquamarine lake that sits in a volcanic crater bordered by mountains and vineyards. Plus the gurgling of 104 degree water, the attraction is a therapeutic (and smelly) mud that bathers rub all over their bodies. Works? Well, the rash on my arms and chest stopped itching and my travel-tight back relaxed.

The springs were lovely, but I was most excited to detox in a natural stone sauna hidden in a mountain cave. I walked along the western slope of Big Mountain for about 10 minutes and knew that I had arrived at Benikulá Cave, or Dry Bath, when I saw puffs of steam seep from a crack in the rocks, and then an older man emerge in a very curvy Speedo. Inside, nine people sat on hot rocks and the ground (bring a towel!), shvitzing in vapors that can reach 104 degrees. Afterwards everyone relaxed on shaded benches with a wide view of the Piana di Monastero valley.

Thanks to the volcanic cliffs and verdant valleys, there are great hikes to counteract the effects of the pasta and wine: 80% of the island is a national park, the Pantelleria Island National Park, with 63 miles of trails through the Mediterranean scrub, and up to the woods of Monte Gibele and Montagna Grande.

At every corner I kept expecting the crowds of tourists I'd seen in Rome earlier in the month. But it never happened. Not at Dispensa Pantesca, a hot spot for an aperitif; not at La Nicchia or Il Principe e il Pirata, the “it” restaurants; and not at Allevolte, a fashion boutique stocked with silk caftans and freshly cut linen trousers that travelers dream of snapping up on an Italian vacation.

If Sikelia, my chic 20-room hotel, had been in Amalfi, the dressed-up guests would have competed to take selfies amid the fiery sunsets. Not here. “This island is enchanting. But it's not for everyone,” explains the hotel owner, Giulia Pazienza Gelmetti. “Getting here is challenging. Reaching the sea is challenging. It attracts a specific type of person. For those who get it, the gain is enormous.”

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