Island escapes

From the Italian isola of Pantelleria to Thailand's lesser-known islands and closer to home Shetland Islands, we've selected the planet's best islands.

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 7 Aug 2012, 09:02 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 09:50 BST

Pantelleria, Italy: Some kind of wonderful
Words by Mark C.O'Flaherty

In a sense, a beach is just a beach — gleaming sand, bath-temperature water and palm trees. You could be in the Maldives or the Caribbean. When I travel, I like something weirder. And Pantelleria is weird indeed. A black, gnarled volcanic island — with little in the way of vegetation apart from the native Zibibbo grape vines and some olive trees — it's technically Italian, and reached via a short ferry ride from the port of Trapani. But it's closer to the coast of Africa than it is to Sicily.

When I checked in to my rental dammuso — a typically Pantellerian, single-storey, white domed villa that wouldn't look out of place in Star Wars' Tatooine — I couldn't see much of the living room because a heavy, haunted sea mist was making its way through the building, from the private pool in the back to the cliffs at the front. It was unnerving but quite dramatic.

I'd missed lunch and arrived hungry during afternoon siesta time, so my first and most urgent holiday mission felt akin to searching for a Pret A Manger on the Moon. There was no sign of life. Unexpectedly, I found a sushi bar that was open in Tracino, just up the road. This being Pantelleria, it was a strange establishment, manned by a group of men in stonewashed denim and heavy-metal vests with extreme mullet haircuts but not an awful lot in the way of raw fish on offer. A few entirely un-Japanese balls of arancini and a gargantuan beer later, I set off on a tour of the area, stopping near Giorgio Armani's vast holiday home, overlooking the tiny fishing port of Gadir, with its rows and rows of palm trees.

Pantelleria's hamlets seem borderline comatose, even when they splutter to life in the early evening, with their tiny grocery stores selling delicious, locally grown doughnut peaches. The island is a huge draw for the kind of celebrities most often seen in the paparazzi flares of Milan or New York, perhaps seeking its unequivocal solitude. Many stay with Armani; others hang around in the chic seafood restaurants, or eat couscous and involtini (thin rolls of meat or fish cooked with stuffing) in the secret walled garden at La Nicchia restaurant.

For most of my time on the island, it was either shrouded in sea mist or scorched by a fierce sun. The landscape is equally dramatic: most of the island's perimeter is sculptural, wind-blasted, black and rocky. But there are respites. In the centre are verdant volcanic hills. Then there's the Lake of the Mirror of the Venus. Although I'd been told about its beauty, I wasn't prepared for just how striking it is. As I round a hairpin bend in the coastal road, I'm faced with the most luminescent blue water and bright, white sand I've ever seen. A beach may just be a beach, but this was the most ravishing of all.

I spent the afternoon swimming in the warm, sparkling water, and — like everyone else there — covered myself in the rich, thick, volcanic mud from the bottom of the lake. Like a peculiar — and sleepy — tribe, 30 or so people all lay on their backs on the sand, every inch of their bodies caked in the drying, cracking, beautifying mud. It felt primal and sexy and, of course, quite, quite weird.


1. Ponza, Italy
Come for the secret coves, sleepy, timeless vibe and the beautiful beach of Chiaia di Luna. Flanked by cliffs and only accessible by a Roman tunnel, its bar is ideal for a sunset aperitivo.

2. Vis, Croatia
Each cove and headland seems to have its own ramshackle restaurant serving octopus or gurnard cooked under a peka (cast-iron bell).

3. Santorini, Greece
Plenty of whitewashed, blue-domed buildings create the perfect postcard Greek island backdrop.

4. La Maddalena, Italy
An archipelago off the northeast coast of Sardinia, where only Caprera is inhabited. The beautiful lagoon at Porto Madonna is a highlight.

5. Farnmakonisi, Greece
You'll need to charter a boat to reach it, but with fewer than 100 residents, its isolation is splendid. Folklore has it Julius Caesar was kidnapped by pirates and held here for 38 days.

Read more in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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