Searching for Italy's Last Unspoiled Island

PANAREA, Italy (TheStreet) -- Just around now through the end of August, summer high season sets in across much of coastal Europe.

If not already there, the yachts are well on their way. On the beach clubs of Porto Cervo, there's almost nonstop popping of Champagne corks. The cafes of Capri, even the mediocre ones, begin to overflow onto the street. The harbors of Hvar and Bodrum fill with glossy 150-foot yachts.

But before it begins to seem the entire Mediterranean is indulging in some sort real-life hip-hop video, travelers must be assured an island remains just beyond the grip of this Dom Perignon lifestyle where they aren't judged by Champagne bottles or yachts. That island is called Panarea.

One way or another you'll likely arrive to Panarea by boat. Preferably it's on the cushioned bow of a glamorous motorboat that sped through most of the night from Capri. More likely it's in the belly of an age-old ferry from the Sicilian mainland that puffs and coughs its way to the numerous islands of the Aeolian chain, stopping most likely at each before arriving at Panarea, the next to last in the chain. At each island the ferry gets more and more comfortable as campers, backpackers and island residents disembark.

You couldn't see through the soot-covered windows inside the ferry, but as you dock and duck your head into the gentile Aeolian wind you get a glimpse of a mythic-looking volcano smoking in the distance and jagged rock outcroppings that humble even your memories of Capri. At the port, rather than endless buildings emblazoned with Rolex or Moet labels, there is a supermarket and a row of scattered restaurants that laze through the day watching sea traffic and hearing the occasional rumble of that volcano on nearby Stromboli. This, at least for now, is the Italy people have been seeking: the Italy of yesterday.

One way to enjoy Panarea is by booking through Think Sicily, which specializes in an elite collection of villa rentals throughout the Aeolians, Puglia and greater Sicily. Located along the residential walking streets that fill the small village of Panarea, villas such as the company's Aphrodite offer three bedrooms of whitewashed walls and stylish, handpainted tile floors, open kitchens with terraces and postcard-perfect pools with equally good sea views. If a three-bedroom home is two bedrooms too large, a room at the Hotel Raya is in order.

Your arrival to Raya comes at the port itself as a crew arrives in a golf cart to zip you the kilometer back to the hotel, a dramatic all-white property presiding over the harbor. The first glimpse comes almost in slow motion -- one of those ethereal vacation moments that last a lifetime. A staircase of perfectly white plaster leads to an open-air lobby lined in white tiles and framed by a beam ceiling. There's a 220-degree view of a rugged seascape capped by architectural rock formations that look like they were molded by Giacometti. A terrace of steamer chairs and loungers are vacant except for a single man sitting, having a similar heavenly moment.

Hotel Raya is the brainchild of owner Miriam Beltrami, who arrived on this seaside sliver of real estate in 1960 and built a guest house. Over the years the property has expanded to include two outlying buildings holding the bulk of the guest rooms, as well as a village boutique and a pool that debuted in 2005. Our room is in the Raya Alto, where the village of Panarea meets the steep hillside some 10 minutes' walk away. It's a journey visitors will take many times during afternoon heat and 2 a.m. starlight, but for the first time it's in a golf cart.

Through a private gate and past the pool to the courtyard entrance of Raya Alto, two women in all-white uniforms prepare appetizers and bake pastries as your entourage makes its way upstairs with the bags. Halfway up the staircase, the reason for the room's location becomes obvious as Stromboli blows a plume "hello" above the horizon of endless sea. A large terrace with white floor and thatched roof opens to a stylish room of blue hand-painted tiles, eccentric tables and chairs and simple platform bed with tucked-in linens washed by hand and dried in the Aeolian wind. Their smell is unforgettable. An even more romantic bathroom is lined in even bolder hand-painted tiles. There are homemade toiletries in pottery vases from which drift scents destined to be bottled. As the porters leave, there is no beat of lounge music or thump of trance. There is just silence.

Panarea is a very small town. Days are spent walking the endless pedestrian streets where motorbikes drive like killer bees past terraced eateries, mama-and-papa delicatessens and onto private beaches where not a single champagne bottle or even person can be found. An archeological site with ruins allows for do-it-yourself Dora the Explorer moments before hitting the rocky beach with its perfect swimming cove and crystal-clear waters. In lieu of beach clubs, Panarea has a handful of good and better restaurants hidden along its narrow streets.

Hycesia has been around since the early 1970s, when a mainland school teacher followed her dream to build a house on Panerea. It eventually became a one-room eatery for friends, then opened to the public -- at least, when there were any members of the public on this then-unknown island. On a terrace where endless passers-by wave to working staff and management (all in jackets despite the heat), a series of interconnected white houses contain an interior dining room and outdoor space with summer tables. The menu is much as it was decades ago, defined by local fisherman who bring market-fresh fish for raw, smoked, grilled and fired presentations of lobster salads with garden-grown tomatoes, fried sardines, spaghetti with sea urchins and homemade raviolis stuffed full of sea bass and topped with parmesan.

After diner, guests make their way to the port, where an early evening drinking scene unfolds. Pedestrians in slinky dresses and linen suits make their way into a pink staircase with the word sushi bar scribbled down the side. Called Bridge, it consists of a rooftop terrace facing the sea, a decorated all-white lounge with cocktail tables and open-air atmosphere where patrons can take in sunset -- one of the few spots in Panarea where champagne culture exists with a hip-hop backbeat. Afterward, it's back to the Raya for Raya Discotheque. In August only, this summertime lounge goes on nightly on an oceanfront dance deck. The stars act as disco lights and fashionista yacht culture comes in for an evening of Prosecco and electronic dance beats on Italy's last (otherwise) unspoiled island.

RELATED STORIES:



Follow TheStreet.com on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.

Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com -- a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in In Style, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine, ITV and BBC.

More from Personal Finance

Best Real Estate Markets for Homeowners in the U.S.

Best Real Estate Markets for Homeowners in the U.S.

How to Be a Winner Like Legendary Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch

How to Be a Winner Like Legendary Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch

Best U.S. Cities for New College Grads

Best U.S. Cities for New College Grads

33 Pictures of the Drastic and Deadly Impacts of Climate Change

33 Pictures of the Drastic and Deadly Impacts of Climate Change

30 Mind-Blowing Concept Cars and Cars of the Future We Want to See Built

30 Mind-Blowing Concept Cars and Cars of the Future We Want to See Built