It’s about to be August on Panarea, and a boatload of teenagers is getting off the ferry from Naples, armed with Airbnb reservations, their parents’ credit cards, and stashed-away bottles of tequila, nabbed from their home liquor cabinets.
Panarea is the smallest and snootiest island in Italy’s Aeolian archipelago. It’s where the husband-and-wife pair Paolo Tilche and Myriam Beltrami opened the first guesthouses, in the 60s, and where the likes of Gianni Agnelli and Francis Bacon were regulars.
Above the harbor, pink bougainvilleas meander over flat-roofed houses in white stucco. The black streets mirror the island’s volcanic landscape, and, in the distance, the rock formations of Dattilo and Basiluzzo jut out majestically from the Mediterranean.
Tilche and Beltrami’s guesthouses were later converted into the picturesque white-and-pink Hotel Raya, and today everyone from the Viscontis to the Belgian royal family still crosses the port barefoot to have drinks there throughout the summer.
Giorgio Armani, Jeff Bezos, Orlando Bloom and Katy Perry, Bradley Cooper, Rihanna, and Oprah Winfrey are all reported to have visited the island in recent years. Describing the crowd, Princess Alessandra Borghese has said, “It’s all word of mouth, so the wrong people are simply not allowed.”
That list includes flashy Italian businessman Flavio Briatore, who was rumored to have tried to buy Raya with the hope of transforming it into one of his Billionaire clubs. Word has it that Beltrami, who still owns the hotel (Tilche died in 2002), didn’t even grant him an audience.
And yet, somehow, rowdy teens in the hundreds are allowed. At least for the first two weeks of August, when young people are known to effectively take over Panarea. Its quaintness—the island doesn’t even have cars—means parents in old families from Venice, Greece, and Rome feel safe sending their children there for two weeks, often marking the kids’ first taste of unsupervised freedom.
It’s the young European upper class’s version of spring break in Cabo. And it gets wild.
In the evenings, kids meet up in huge groups for tequila shots at the Bridge and Banacalii bars. “They get into fights,” a waitress from a local bar says. “They drink too much, and sometimes you see them passed out here in the mornings.”
Panarea’s quaintness means parents feel safe sending their children there for two weeks, often marking the kids’ first taste of unsupervised freedom.
“Last year, some really drunk girls started hitting each other,” Giulia, a 16-year-old Panarea regular, tells me. “The taxi driver had to get involved.”
“There’s this beach on the edge of the island called Zimmari,” Sofi, a 17-year-old who used to visit Panarea every year, says. “Two years ago, during COVID, everyone used to have parties there. One night, two 16-year-olds were having sex in a canoe, and the police arrived and escorted them back … in their underwear. They were fined €10,000 [roughly $10,000] each.”
Now that Raya is open again—the hotel closed for much of the pandemic—the teens have abandoned Zimmari beach. And while Uma Thurman and Heidi Klum are often seen lounging at the nightclub on Raya’s rooftop, in early August the scene is sweaty adolescents crowding the entrance at two A.M. Some pay up to $150 for admission, while others opt to climb over the dividing gate or sneak into the club through one of the hotel rooms. Bouncers do little more than roll their eyes.
“I’ve seen a kid trying to climb over the fence, falling, and getting his leg impaled,” Ludovico, a 31-year-old former Panarea regular, says. (The island doesn’t have a proper hospital, just a forlorn clinic, which means that anytime a kid gets into any sort of accident, they have to be helicoptered to nearby Lipari or Milazzo for treatment.)
When “Infinito,” the hit song by Italian singer Raf, plays, time’s up. The nightclub shuts at four A.M. sharp, at which point the crowd just moves on to parties at their rental houses or at local beaches.
“My friend walked from Drauto [on Panarea’s southeastern coast] to the opposite side of the island without her top on,” Elena, 17, says. “She was so drunk she lost her shoes.”
Bedtime, usually preceded by an espresso and a croissant, is just after sunrise.
“I’ve seen a kid trying to climb over the fence, falling, and getting his leg impaled.”
To say that the locals dislike this informal tradition of teenage debauchery would be an understatement. “I stopped renting out my house to them,” Maria, a 68-year-old homeowner on Panarea, says. “They trash the houses they stay in, and their parents foot the bill.”
Yet, when the bills arrive, parents tend to turn a blind eye. It’s a small island, and they know the parents of the other teens. Plus, they once did the same—went to Myriam’s club, drank too much, had their first kisses. It’s tradition.
“I know friends are keeping an eye on them,” Isabella, a mother of three who sent her children to the island, says. “I wouldn’t send them anywhere else, but it’s Panarea.”
Departure day, on August 15, is tough, with nauseous, bleary-eyed teens catching the 8:30 A.M. ferry back to Naples. Most haven’t slept the previous night, and a few are still drunk on piña coladas. “They were in a disgusting state when they got back,” Isabella says of her kids in past years.
The island eventually winds back down to normality. The square is quiet again in the evenings, and the regulars go back to the Bridge Bar and Raya to sip on their favorite cocktails in peace, taking solace in the fact that the raucous teens won’t be back until next year. And the year after that.
Elena Clavarino is an Associate Editor for Air Mail