GUIDE: PANAREA, ITALY

The smallest of the inhabited Aeolian islands (an Italian archipelago off the coast of Sicily), Panarea is a study in contrasts: clear seas lapping against dark cliffs, beloved by a tony crowd despite its stubbornly un-tony accommodations and home to sunny laid back vibes even while perched under an active volcano's shadow (Panarea boasts the best view of nearby Stromboli). It's precisely these contradictions, however, that makes Panarea so seductively appealing--civilized yet wild, beautiful yet tough, unassuming yet full of vitality. I've written a long guide for this one because there simply is not a lot of info out there...it's the resource I wish I'd had before our trip!

THE BEAUTIFUL

THE USEFUL

When to go: The island is only operative from mid-May through mid-October. It's best to go in the "low" part of that season (June and September), avoiding July and August when prices soar and the temperatures do too. Skipping the crowds means enjoying the island's other-worldliness without the overwhelm of yachters, daytrippers and partiers (Panarea in August, unfortunately, has the reputation of a disco). All that noise fades away as quickly as it came however--the island otherwise has a small town vibe, reservations are easy to come by and you'll find plenty of nooks at sea and on land to enjoy by yourself. If you must pick July or August, opt for the former.

How to go: It's not easy, especially for those following the advice above. Ferry services are less frequent during "low" months and the ports that are operational aren't near any airports. For our mid-September trip, we chose a flight into Catania, Sicily. From there, it's possible to take a bus or van service (or rent a car) for the 1 1/2 hour trip to the port of Milazzo. Hop a hydrofoil for another 1 1/2 hours and you'll finally arrive at Panarea. OK Ferry is a helpful resource for determining timetables and buying tickets in advance. Other possible ports of departure (with more frequent boats during the high months), are Palermo, Naples and Reggio Calabria.

What to do: Try your hardest, actually, not to do much of anything. Make time, at all hours, to savor the view. Divide your days between the beach, the boat and wandering through picturesque streets. At Cala Zimmari (Panarea's one sandy beach), you can rent an umbrella and chaise. Float in the sea and ponder the yachts offshore, climbing the hill to observe Cala Junco from above, along with a smattering of Bronze Age ruins. On a boat day, circle the island stopping at whatever coves and scenery suit your mood (the aforementioned Cala Junco and La Nave are both stunners). For a second day at sea be braver, taking a tour of the islets offshore. Snorkel (but watch out for jellyfish); picture (but don't imitate) L'Avventura. Swim under Lisca Bianca's Lover's Arch. Nap. Read. Play cards. Have a picnic. Don't hesitate to jump in the water whenever you can. By all means, avoid dropping anchor near rocks where it could get stuck (a frequent occurrence). And no matter how you spend your day, be ready for sunset and the hour of aperitifs. Enjoy your drink with a side of antipasti and people watching. Then segue effortlessly into a dinner of seafood, pasta and Sicilian wine. After dark, dance at Hotel Raya--also the perfect place to watch out for Stromboli explosions across the water. At night, leave the windows open for sounds of the sea. And by all means turn your gaze upwards for an unbelievable star show and a glimpse of the milky way.

Where to stay: Above all else, choose a room with a sea view. For honeymooners, you might splurge on one at Hotel Raya, the spot that made Panarea famous. It's known for its bar with magnificent views, a well-heeled crowd and an owner who practically invented bohemian chic. For others, do what we did: check into Hotel Cincotta, a pro tip for those in the know. With an enviable spot in town, Cincotta is located next to the Raya and actually closer to its celebrated bar than Raya's own rooms, which are located a ways up the hill. It's half the price but no less romantic, with quintessential Mediterranean architecture, flowers everywhere, an upscale restaurant, a seaside pool and, yes, a lovely bar that rivals its neighbor's. While the yellow and blue striped rooms are perhaps a bit frozen in time, nothing on Panarea can truly be called luxurious. Embrace the old school European aesthetic (and stunning tiles!)--you'll see there's charm here in spades. A private balcony over the water will be well-used and a complimentary breakfast is served with a view of Stromboli. The staff is delightfully helpful with ferries, airport transport and island activities. For families, however, consider skipping a hotel altogether and instead renting a villa. There are some gorgeous properties available for reasonable prices on sites like vrbo and airbnb. Opt for one in San Pietro or else between town and the beach (that's likely where the kids will spend most of their time).

Where to drink: Aperitifs are as much a part of Italian culture as any meal, so embrace the sunset hour with a Campari or Aperol spritz (the island's pre-dinner drink of choice). Most nights, you can't beat the scene at Il Bar del Porto. Right on the town's dock, it's the perfect place for people watching and a glimpse of the ferries rolling in. Enjoy the parade of gauzy dresses, tan skin and piled-on accessories, but be forewarned about the sheer volume of antipasti that comes (free of charge) with every round you order. This is true anywhere you get an aperitif, but the spread is particularly noteworthy at Bar del Porto. For a change of pace, evening at The Bridge (a sushi bar overlooking the port with, yes, more beautifully tiled floors) is a scene. But the real glamour is at the Raya, where picture-perfect views of Stromboli are complemented by picture-perfect-people. While it's romance incarnate to watch the sun go down there, after dinner is when the party heats up. The nightclub is active solely in August (an experience not for everyone), but the more laid back bar stays open through the season. At this time of year, you'll find some nights quiet and others more crowded, but getting a seat will never be a problem. It's still possible for a spontaneous dance party to break out on Saturday nights, so if that happens just go with it: Kick off your shoes (the waitstaff goes barefoot anyway) and allow yourself a very late night.

Where to lunch: We skipped breakfast (but mornings at Il Bar del Porto are the place to be) and never sat down for lunch once, finding ourselves always at the beach or on a boat. Instead, we gathered up a daily picnic--a routine that became one of our favorites. To do the same, head to Panarea in Forno, a small bakery on the street you take to the beach. There, choose from freshly baked bread, homemade slices of pizza (think focaccia, with thick crust cut in squares), Sicilian salad and our personal favorite: the pepita. Essentially fried dough stuffed with local vegetables and cheese, the item is to die for and the bakery's specialty. They say it holds the taste of Panarea, and I agree. Stop in at the small market next door for any other needed essentials: water, wine, cold beer, cheese, good fruit and crackers. Under no circumstances should you skip buying some olives from behind the counter. They are the tastiest we've ever encountered.

Where to dine: There's no shortage of options on the island, but these were our highlights. At Da Adelina, a former chef from the Raya turns out elevated versions of Italian staples and seafood. With a location overlooking the port and Stromboli, the candlelit ambiance is pretty magical. Ask for a table by the window and accept your host's help when ordering--the menu changes daily, depending on what they've foraged and what's come in at sea. Fresh arugula from Panarea's hillside, figs straight from the chef's own garden, homemade pasta, simply grilled fish cooked to mouthwatering perfection. Don't skip dessert either--the biscotti (paired with the Sicilian sweet wine Malavasia) is like none you've ever had. Da Pina, set away from the port on a vine and lemon covered terrace, may just serve some of the best seafood of your life. Don't let the lack of tablecloths fool you--this was perhaps the most upscale (and expensive) dining experience we had on the island. And well worth it. Seafood soup came out in a splatterware dish half the size of our table, overflowing with mussels and toasted bread. The sole, baked in paper with herbs and spices, was the most incredible I've ever had anywhere. This is the type of cuisine you dream about once you're home again. With all the fresh fish that abounds, however, it may sound odd (or great) to cut into a steak one night instead. The upstairs room at Da Antonio il Macellaio is cozy with dark woods, golden tiles and bottles lining the walls. Non meat-eaters will not be disappointed either, as salads and pastas here are some of the island's best. In the "high" season of summer, delicious pizza is also served on a terrace below, straight from an outdoor oven. It's a more casual vibe to dine under the stars--a different yet lovely experience in its own right. For a slight reprieve price-wise from some of Panarea's other dining options, the fun and lively Da Francesco overlooks the port, seemingly always full. That's because lower prices don't mean lesser food or views--both stand on their own, especially the seafood pastas. A great casual spot to tuck into after a long day in the sun. At Hycesia the lantern-filled, whitewashed terrace is probably exactly what you pictured when coming to Panarea. It's got a Euro seaside vibe, bossa nova soundtrack, oversize wine goblets and a warm hostess flitting about in a boho gown. Go for good seafood and equally good people watching. Lastly, restaurants at both Hotel Cincotta and Hotel Raya have gorgeous terraces overlooking the water. L'Elica has tasty gelato, perfect for an evening stroll. And the best granita can be found at Il Bar del Porto.

What to buy: The absolute must-shop places are twofold: First, at Moda Mare, you can design your own leather, suede or beaded sandals, which are custom-fit to your feet. Prices range from 60 EUR up, by no means exorbitant for the service supplied. Best of all? They're ready to pick up day-of. Second, Boutique Raya is a requirement for those looking to bring the hot spot's bohemian aesthetic home. While much of the imports are from Bali (where owner Miriam Beltram spends her winters), the best token is a necklace or handbag sporting the hotel's signature silver stingray. Beyond this, tourist-driven shops abound, filled with sarongs and straw baskets. Prices on an island can typically be overblown, but at 10 EUR for a gauzy beach wrap, I don't think you can go very wrong. Straw bags weren't a bargain, but they weren't out of the norm either--and there were some lovely options. Caftans and hippie dresses are everywhere, but they come at a price. Sicilian ceramics may not be the easiest to transport, but they are hard to find outside the area. Opt for a Teste di Moro (Moor's head), since you've seen them all over the island and ask for the full story--it's a dark one. More cheery options may be a pine cone (the Sicilian symbol of hospitality) or cacti (a familiar sight on the hillsides of Panarea). The funniest establishments were the few stores selling sequined gowns--perhaps for the occasional yachter who forgot her party dress? Other places of note: Last year, the Ibizan espadrille company Manebi set up a corner store here. Featuring tie dyed leather, fashionable colors and platform soles, these are some of the most interesting espadrilles being sold today. Additionally, the well known Italian brand O-Bag also has a storefront. Molded plastic and rope beach bags may or may not be your thing, but they're on the arm of practically every Italian who steps off the ferry.

What to pack: Less is most definitely more, especially when you're going through multiple layovers and modes of transportation to get here. Leave the expensive jewelry and stilettos (a particular no-no) at home, remembering that this island is all about understated, relaxed elegance. Luckily, bathing suits and a few cover-ups don't take up too much room. A few breezy dresses, a pair of sandals and you're set. For guys, shorts paired with button-downs rule. Beyond the wardrobe, bring books! Lots and lots, since you'll have plenty of time time to do nothing but read. A pack of cards is equally essential for late night or boat deck playing. As for any pharmacy or drugstore-related items, make sure you have plenty of them too. There's no real place to purchase these on the island and what you can find (products like sunscreen and bug spray, BOTH of which are essential) come with a price. Yes, sad to say there are mosquitoes that come out at night. Their bites look worse than they feel, but anyway be prepared. If you have snorkel gear--and can fit it in your suitcase--might as well bring it. Otherwise you'll be buying or renting, because the rock formations and crystal clear waters mean you're going to want a better view.

If you have one day: Wake up for a pastry and cappuccino at Il Bar del Porto, idling as you watch the morning ferries come in. Eventually, start to gather your snorkel gear and sunscreen. With only a day, I'd skip the beach because--while it is lovely--there are more impressive Mediterranean beaches to behold. The most dramatic scenery here is what you see offshore. Before heading out, make sure to swing by Panarea il Forno and its neighboring market for picnic supplies. Then head down to the port to Diego's kiosk. He's a Panarea native with (comparatively) fair prices. Ask the price for half day, being aware that he will charge you for gas when you get back (that's where a bit of negotiating may come in, but save it for post-excursion). Take the least fancy of the boats, as they're really all you need and have a nice canopy for shade. Then head offshore to the islets of Lisca Bianca (made famous by Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura), Dattilo and Basiluzzo. Stop at Dattilo first--the morning light and shadow play against its sheer cliffs creates a feeling that is positively cathedral-esque. Take a dip, have a snack, play some cards, then boat again. Visit Lisca Bianca and its small neighbor Bottaro--the strait created in between these two formations is a swimmer's paradise. Crystal clear, calm waters, schools of fish, plus neat rocks and fumaroles you can spot on the sea floor. Splash over to Lisca Bianca's small beach, then repeat your snack and card playing (boating is really just about finding different coves in which to swim and sun yourself). You could easily spend an entire afternoon here, endlessly repeating the above. But adventurers will head into the distance towards Basiluzzo, the furthest and most mammoth of all the islets. Despite a slight anxiety factor, there's nothing that compares to boating amidst crazy volcanic shapes in an almost empty sea. You'll find even fewer boats at Basiluzzo, the distance and increased choppiness making it more queasy for some. Opt for the side facing Panarea, where there are smoother waters and the most extraordinary lava patterns around. This is also your closest view of Stromboli--you'll see that it was worth the trek. When you're ready, head home, perhaps swinging by Lisca Bianca again for a dip under Lover's Arch. The afternoon light is perfect for this now, just make sure you hold your beloved's hand as you swim--legend has it that pairs who do so will be together forever. Back at Panarea, it's time for a shower and a nap (preferably with the windows open, as the sound of waves lapping below couldn't be more soothing). Now refreshed, dress for the evening and head out to explore San Pietro's streets. First stop is Moda Mare, where you'll have custom sandals made. They're open until 9 PM, so you can come back before dinner to pick up your finished product. Across the way is Boutique Raya, where you might admire a stingray souvenir. Don't hesitate to wander further down the back streets in order to get a sense of residential life here. Each villa is architecturally unique (and utterly Instagrammable). Then collect your new shoes and head down to Il Bar del Porto again, where it's time for an aperitif. People-watching is a sport here, so enjoy your vantage point as the sun-kissed dinner crowd files in. When you're ready, head next door and upstairs to a window table (or the terrace, if it's open) at Da Adelina. For food, ambiance, romance and a Stromboli view all combined, this restaurant pick can't be beat. Split a Sicilian white wine and a pasta. Order fish, finishing with biscotti and malavasia. Maybe an espresso too, if you plan on staying out. The stars should be shining by the time you're walking back along the promenade and up the steps to Hotel Raya. Snag a seat looking towards Stromboli in hopes you can catch a fireworks show. Then, whether or not there's a dance party going, order a prosecco, kick off your sandals and sway to your own beat. Completely relaxed by now, you'll feel utterly far away from the "real" world. Enjoy it. Appreciate it. You're dancing within view of a volcano on the Mediterranean. Life doesn't get better than this.

Click through the images above for more tips and a tour of the island.