In May, Marco charged me with finding our fall vacation destination. He knows that there are few things I love more than playing travel agent, and I quickly set out to research three options to present for his perusal. Vacation is important to me – very important. From a young age, my parents instilled in me not only an unquenchable desire for travel, but a true need for it. From Winter Park, CO to Cocoa Beach, FL to Killington, VT, each year we journeyed to a different location by car. We weren’t a wealthy family, by any means, but vacation was always a priority. Typically a week or two before school started back in August, we’d all five pile into the car and head north, south, east, or west. We weren’t allowed to bring friends or request bathroom breaks, but we were allowed to play games, eat loads of Twizzlers and gummy bears, and occasionally have the very back row to ourselves to sprawl out and nap.
My idea of vacation has evolved over the years, but it’s still my number one priority. I admit that I spare no expense when it comes to travel, but it’s pretty much the best feeling in the world to find an amazing hotel or location that’s also inexpensive. Considering we’d be traveling in shoulder season when the weather in much of Europe is cooling down, I wanted to extend summer as long as possible, so I only researched warm locations. I gave Marco three options complete with budget and timeline: Cape Verde off the coast of Africa, the islands of Naxos and Koufonisia in Greece, or Sicily. He chose Sicily.
I quickly booked the trip planning to stop in three locations in Sicily over 10 days/9 nights. Our first stop would be on the small but stunning island of Panarea in the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Northern Sicily in the Tyrrhenian Sea. In the summer, Panarea is a hotspot for the posh Italian jetset. In the off-season, it’s a quiet, car and tourist-free paradise.
We flew into Catania directly from Amsterdam; a snappy two-hour flight and we found ourselves in the slow-moving land of incredible food, delectable wine, winding roads and charming villages. We had booked a shuttle between Catania and Milazzo, where we would catch the high-speed hydrofoil to Panarea. Our shuttle was a black van with the most insanely reckless driver you could possibly imagine. Of course being my anxious self, I had been terribly afraid we’d miss the hydrofoil and have to find alternative accommodations in the grubby, industrial town of Milazzo. However, those fears were soon usurped by a more immediate fear for my life. Our driver raced the entire 1.5-hour drive to Milazzo between 20 – 30 km/h over the speed limit. And most of the time he spent straddling the middle line of the road. I guess choosing a lane was out of the question. Worst of all, he spent much of the ride pecking out text messages on his ancient, little Nokia cellphone. I’ve never needed a Xanax so badly in my entire life.
Despite all odds, we made it safely (and quite expediently) to the port of Milazzo. We caught the hydrofoil in plenty of time and headed to our home for the next four nights, Panarea.
Hotel Cincotta, our splendidly small hotel, was nestled slightly up the hill, overlooking the tiny, sleepy port of Panarea. The hotel itself was styled like a Mediterranean villa with white stucco and bright blue accents. Vine-covered arbors and bright white umbrellas dotted the property. The restaurant was a beautiful, twinkly-lit terrace overlooking the pool and sea beyond. And our terrace was less than spitting distance from the sea. We kept our terrace door open during our entire stay. The lapping sea was our constant soundtrack.
The clerk at the front desk was also a fantastic concierge. He gave us stellar food and sightseeing recommendations and even lined up a little boat rental for us one day. The breakfast was delicious. Fresh ham, cheese, breads, cakes, fruits, pastries, juices and coffee. Italian coffee. There’s really nothing like it. Each day we’d load up our plates and sit on the front hotel terrace looking out over the port and the perpetually-smoking volcano of Stromboli beyond. We’d leisurely eat while watching fishing boats and the occasional ferry from the mainland come and go. I think it was Marco’s very favorite part of our time in Panarea.
We were blessed with perfect weather during our entire stay in Sicily, which really allowed us to see and do everything. Everyday was warm and sunny with a light breeze. Basically perfect. The first day we hiked south on the island to a special little cove called Cala Junco. The cliff overlooking the sea is home to ruins of a prehistoric Bronze Age village. After perusing the ruins, we hiked down to a small, rocky beach and took a dip in the sea. The sun was nice and hot, and the water was clear and icy cold.
The second day we rented our own small boat and gave ourselves a tour in the waters surrounding the island. This was by far my favorite thing we did in Panarea. Marco was a fantastic boat captain. We spent much of the afternoon lazing in the sun, drinking red wine and snacking on the most delicious Sicilian snacks – arancini (fried rice balls filled with cheese, sauce, meats, etc.) and pepitas (dough balls filled with vegetables, cheese and sauce) with the boat gently rocking to and fro. The scenery of the island was absolutely stunning from offshore – rocky cliffs and gigantic rock walls plunging down to crashing waves.
The third day we decided to hike to the tallest peak of the island, Punta del Corvo (421 m / 1381 ft.). The island is an inactive volcano – only 3.4 km squared in total, so surely it couldn’t be too bad. We’d been assured by a brochure from our hotel that the hike would be ‘easy to moderate’ and only take about 3-4 hours altogether. We set out around 10am with plenty of water, sunscreen and snacks. About 1 hour into the hike, we realized that our map wasn’t completely accurate, so we followed some old, wooden signs that presumably pointed the way. Soon we were on a very narrow, winding, overgrown trail. The weeds and bushes were swatting our legs as we sharply ascended the hill. Soon we found that we were literally on the edge of the mountain, and just to our immediate right was one of the many soaring rock walls we’d admired the day before from our boat. One wrong step to the right, and we’d plunge to the rocky base of the island. And our deaths. It was around this time that we realized we’d somehow taken a wrong turn. We hadn’t seen even one single hiker on the trail, which only served to make me all the more nervous. But we soon found ourselves at the peak, enjoying amazing, 360 degree views of the island and sea. Not too shabby. The descent was much less treacherous, and we made it down just in time for a much-deserved late lunch and poolside siesta.
The island, despite its summer reputation as playground of the rich and famous, is completely unpretentious and unassuming. There isn’t much of a luxury feel to the island, but that’s what we loved about it. It was almost impossible to find someone who could speak English, much less a menu in English. But the service was friendly and authentic, and the food was fresh and delicious. The restaurant options were limited, much more so than they would’ve been a month prior. The night we ventured to the popular, chic Hotel Raya for dinner, we were only given two options for a main course from the whole menu: seafood pasta and a whole grilled seabass. Thankfully both were very tasty.
We were up bright and early on Monday morning to catch the 8am hydrofoil back to Milazzo and on to our next destination, Masseria Susafa, an agriturismo dream of a hotel in the mountainous interior of Sicily. We were incredibly sad to leave Panarea and its quiet, rustic, seaside charm. Little did we know we were heading for something even better….
To be continued.