Island of hidden treasures

An African desert island owned by Italy, Pantelleria boasts Armani designer villages, Moorish architecture and organic saunas - and there's no need to lock the car

Winter is the ideal time to visit the strangest fragment of Africa. When the wind roars in from the empty furnace of the Sahara - hot, dry air rolling north over the Mediterranean - the first land to challenge it is Pantelleria. In summer, the fierce temperature causes the temporarily resident glitterati of this desert island to panic a little - the wind is prone to cause a nervous disorder in people that resembles madness. But in winter, these gusts of Saharan air are as pleasing as the feeling of walking along a cold, damp British high street suddenly to be warmed by a waft of hot air from a shop doorway.

Winter is the ideal time to visit the strangest fragment of Africa. When the wind roars in from the empty furnace of the Sahara - hot, dry air rolling north over the Mediterranean - the first land to challenge it is Pantelleria. In summer, the fierce temperature causes the temporarily resident glitterati of this desert island to panic a little - the wind is prone to cause a nervous disorder in people that resembles madness. But in winter, these gusts of Saharan air are as pleasing as the feeling of walking along a cold, damp British high street suddenly to be warmed by a waft of hot air from a shop doorway.

A desert island in sight of Tunisia, yet owned by distant Italy, Pantelleria is defiantly contrary. It was an island of the Moors for four hundred years. Their name for the island, Bent el-Rhia, means daughter of the winds. The sirocco, like the gusting mistral from the south of France, the dusty Libeccio from Algeria and the chill Tramontana from the Alps, is only an occasional visitor to the island.

More permanent are the restless breezes that blow around the island's rocky shores. For most of the year Pantelleria is warm, dry and sunny, so good weather and bad weather are purely determined by the winds. On good days, and there are plenty of them, with its sensationally clear sea, intriguing Moorish architecture, dramatic volcanic, mountainous interior and lack of mass tourism, Pantelleria is one of the most exotic destinations in Europe. On bad days people stay indoors.

Strict building controls have helped preserve Pantelleria's Arabic past. Away from the island's harbour capital, which was flattened by Allied bombing during the war, the majority of houses are dammusi. These are built with thick walls of black volcanic stone and whitewashed domed roofs, designed to be naturally cool in the hot climate, and to collect every drop of rain-water possible by channelling it down to the lowest tier of roof into a storage tank.

Some of these dammusi have been converted into very impressive designer villas, by the likes of Giorgio Armani and Fabritzio Ferri, others with more modest conversions are rented out to tourists. My wife and I stayed in one of these on the north-east coast.

At first sight Pantelleria is an unattractive island dominated by black jagged rock without a single sandy beach, and the town is an unattractive sprawl of low-rise modern concrete. However, Pantelleria has hidden treasures, and half the fun of being there is finding them. The island is the antithesis of the archetypal overcrowded Mediterranean isle. With such an undeveloped tourist industry there is nothing contrived about the island's attractions. There are no signposts, car parks, entry charges or souvenir shops. With such a small population, and insular society, there is little need to lock cars or worry about theft. There are no traffic jams or parking problems - the locals must have kittens when driving in mainland Italy.

We hired a car for the lowest rate I have ever heard of in Italy. No need for deposits or credit cards, just a bunch of keys in exchange for a fistful of lire and a polite request that we leave the car at the airport on our last day with roughly the same amount of petrol in the tank and the keys in the ignition. It was the sort of friendly casual exchange that set the mood for our whole experience of the island.

The legacy of Pantelleria's violent volcanic past provides several natural attractions. There hasn't been an eruption for just over a hundred years, so driving up to the 840m peak of Montagna Grande for views over to Africa and all around the island is quite safe. The volcano is not extinct though. On the way down near the village of Siba, we left the car and walked along the hillside. At an outcrop of rock there are caves which, due to escaping vapour, are filled with steam to create an organic sauna. We stripped off and let the steam into our pores, very relaxing and cleansing. Stepping back into the daylight, the day that had seemed so warm became refreshingly cool.

Near Rekale we took more of a hike into the wilderness to find the favare, huge geysers of boiling watery steam expelled thunderously from crevices in the boulders. On the way we saw plenty of groves of dwarf olive trees. The locals place heavy rocks on the growing trunks to encourage growth near to the ground as protection from the salty winds. Vines of zibbibo grapes which grow in protected ridges are used to produce fruity local pantescho white wine, or dried to raisins to make a stronger golden passito wine. At this time of the year the hills were alive with farming families collecting the autumn harvest. Near the farm houses, circular high walled gardens, called giardini arabi, are built to protect lemon and orange trees and vegetable patches.

There are some charming trattoria and bars in the prettier villages such as Sca-uri, Khamma and Cala Levante. Around Pantelleria harbour there are some well-positioned cafés with terraces on the quay, good for breakfast or a sunset glass of cool sparkling wine with complimentary nibbles. There are also a handful of restaurants good enough for an evening meal - and the town looks better by night. Most serve a combination of local specialities, fish dishes and pizza; just out of town to the east there is a large restaurant with a north African flavour serving couscous dishes.

The island's most famous crop is capers. These are served as a delicious pesto, blended with fresh herbs and olive oil, and sold salted along with other island produce such as honey and wine from several co-operatives - signposted as azienda agricola - along the roadside.

There is more volcanic activity along the coast. Caldarelle hot springs bubble up in natural rock pools right next to the sea at Gadir and even under water in the sea at Punto Nika. There may not be any beaches on Pantelleria, but there are some excellent swimming spots that the hardy may brave even in December or January. Many can be reached by road and sometimes a little walking.

At Cala dei Cinque Denti, just below our dammuso, we could park up right next to a long line of flat rocks, which made a good spot for a picnic on the seashore. We copied other picnickers who poured olive oil into tiny bowl shaped holes in the rock lined with dried sea salt, then dipped fresh bread in. A little further down the coast a dirt track led out onto Punta Spadillo. Here, large natural pools of clear water big enough to swim in lie trapped by strange rock formations right next to the sea.

We were lucky enough to make friends with the residents of our neighbouring dammuso, They were veteran fans of Pantelleria, who had flown there in their own aeroplane. They invited us on a boat ride around the island. This took all day. We stopped frequently in isolated coves to swim into sea caves and grottoes in the towering cliffs.

At the far south of the island around Dietro lsola we anchored up for a long lunch of local tumma, ricotta-like cheese, Parma ham and caper pesto on bread that we had bought warm from the bakers in the harbour before we set off - all washed down with plenty of chilled vino pantescho.

The wine helped cement our new friendship; by the time we returned to Pantelleria harbour we had been invited to accompany our neighbours to a dinner party that evening at the grand dammuso of some of their jet set friends, also temporally resident on the island. So began a social whirl. Having slipped in by chance, we soon found ourselves established on the Pantelleria dinner party circuit. It may have been the novelty of being British, or maybe it's just the way things are on the island, we hardly had another chance to self-cater.

Not speaking fluent Italian was never a problem at these cosmopolitan social occasions. Out and about on the island it's of little relevance as most islanders speak such a regional variation of Italian that not even Sicilians have much of a clue what is being said. We saw some amazing houses and met many interesting people from all over Europe - but not once did we come across anyone else from Britain.

Getting there: Allow plenty of time. From June to September there are direct charters from Rome and Milan, but in winter, Pantelleria is impossible to reach from the UK without at least two changes of plane. From London, Birmingham or Manchester you can fly to Rome or Milan and transfer to Palermo. From the Sicilian capital, Air Sicilia will take you the last 40 minutes. The overall fare will not be cheap - expect to pay around £400 return - but you should be entitled to stopovers in the en route cities. You could route yourself via Milan outbound and Rome inbound, adding a stay in Palermo.

Staying there: The hotels of Pantelleria town are nothing to write home about. At this time of year, your choice is likely to be restricted to the Port Hotel (00 39 0923 912 257), a three-star place which charges around £70 per night for two people, full board. Airport pickups are a modest £1.60 per person. The island's most upmarket hotel is at Punta Fram, the Club Village (00 39 0923 918 075), with a swimming pool, tennis court and access to the sea, but it is now closed until April. The same applies to the adjacent (and extraordinarily ugly) Cossyra (00 39 0923 911 154), which also has a pool.

Getting around: Chris Caldicott rented a car from Autonoleggio (00 39 0923 912 844) for about £14 a day all-in; scooters and bicycles are even cheaper.Hiring boats in Pantelleria town is easy, and usually includes a boatman, which with unpredictable seas is a good idea. Some of them will catch and cook lunch for you.

The Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes St, London W1R 8AY (020-7408 1254) may be able to offer some information - but don't bank on it. The Touring Club of Italy's guide to Sicily (£10.99) devotes a single page to Pantelleria, with a thumb-sized map. The website www.pantelleria.it/english is more use.

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