If you’re not familiar with Italy’s Aeolian Islands, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
This volcanic archipelago north of Sicily is a popular summer getaway for island-hopping Europeans, but its less-then-accessible location means it’s mostly off the radar for American travelers.
Ann Cochran uncovers the multiple personalities found on these scenic islands.
“Fermate tutti. La pasta e pronto!”
At an evening reception on the island of Salina, with lights twinkling and fishing boats bobbing in the background, the mayor’s wife stopped all song, dance, and conversation with her declaration that the pasta was ready. No one seemed to mind.
All over Italy, it’s all about the food. In the Aeolian Islands (Isole Eolie in Italian) they are passionate about their local specialties: fish and capers. And pasta. For dessert, the essences of granita (a semi-frozen treat that originated in Sicily) come locally grown: fig, mint, almond, lemon and blood orange.
The food is so fresh that at noon you might be told there is no menu “because we don’t know what we’re getting in tonight.”
For people who have visited all the major Italian destinations, this spray of volcanic outcroppings can be the next great trip. In the Tyrrhenian Sea about 15-30 miles above Sicily’s northeastern corner, the islands are a protected UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to their value in vulcanology, the study of volcanoes. (The name Aeolian comes from Greek mythology: Aeolus ruled the four winds.)
“Let beauty be seen and cost forgotten,” is a classic line in The Leopard.
With the Aeolian Islands, one might say, “Let beauty be seen and logistics forgotten.”
Although it’s not the easiest place to get to, and there are no commercial airports, it’s well worth any trouble. In fact, the journey may add to their charm. Fly to Sicily or to Naples and take a three to five-hour ferry or hydrofoil to the islands. Once settled in your home base, it’s easy to explore the scenic archipelago.
The Water’s the Thing
Island-hopping is to the Aeolians as town-hopping is to Lake Como, so get thee to a boat. You will glide past volcanic arches, hand-dug caves, and mysterious ‘crazy water’ that seems to be boiling. Two well-regarded tour companies are Salina Relax Boats and Aliante. Bathing suits are mandatory: more swimming is done from boats than beaches in the Aeolians.
Islands with Distinct Personalities
All all have wild landscapes, sun and sea, fresh fish, and a cornucopia of local fruit and vegetables, but each of the seven inhabited islands has a distinct personality. Populations range from 102 (Alicudi) to 8,538 (Lipari). The largest and most developed are Salina and Lipari, while Filicudi and Alicudi are practically primitive. Stromboli has an active volcano, Vulcano bubbling thermal mud baths, and Panarea is a jet-set (more aptly yacht-set) paradise where one might run into Stromboli’s fashion designer homeowners Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, or their colleague Giorgio Armani fresh off his yacht.
Featured in director Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 film of the same name, this island has Europe’s only dependably active volcano. The landscape has a split personality: one side is rich in wildflowers, caper bushes, and bougainvillea. The “back slope,” where the lava flows, is basic black.
For another Italian islands getaway, try the Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Amalfi Coast and Capri, Italy.
Seeing this natural wonder is a must, so all manner of floating vessels cut their engines after dark. Everyone marvels at the natural golden-red fireworks that burst skyward, launching chunks of lava. Adventurous climbers set out at dusk for three-hour guided hikes up the 3,000-foot peak. Don’t skip the guide or it can be a cold, long climb down.
It makes sense that no cars are allowed on the second smallest of the islands, Panarea, which has about 300 year-round residents. Stucco buildings with blue accents remind many visitors of the Greek islands. There are no city lights; instead, hotels provide flashlights. The population explodes in July and August when beautiful young things arrive by yacht (or helicopter), dance til dawn, sleep a bit, then sunbathe and shop. Shopping on Panarea is exquisite and expensive.
In addition to lovely coves to swim in, this island has thermal springs, scuba diving and a shipwreck not far off its shoreline. Amphibia offers instruction and organizes recreational and professional diving. They say one of most interesting dives is to that shipwreck, which lies between the rocky islets of Lisca Bianca and Bottaro.
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Salina’s main street is lined with shops selling ceramics, gourmet food, jewelry, clothing and shoes. Almost every house comes with a view of the sea. There is a small salt lake, seven dormant volcanoes, and plenty of hiking trails. One of the nicest is a four-hour hike on relatively flat land covered in a kind of evergreen Italian version of English heath, from above Pollara around the island to Leni. From Pollara you can also hike down to the pebble cove featured in the 1994 movie Il Postino.
The second-largest and the greenest island is known for its sweet Malvasia dessert wine and native capers that grow on low, flowering bushes all over the island. If you love crowds and local celebrations, the Caper Festival is the first weekend of June. Go to the town of Rinella for speargun fishing. One of the best spas in the islands is at the Signum Hotel. Enjoy delicious granita, the true Italian ice, at Al Fredo’s in the village of Lingua.
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The main island and the main town, closest to Sicily, is a good base. The Regional Aeolian Archaeological Museum has a well-respected collection of prehistoric to ancient Greek artifacts; some painted pottery treasures are found nowhere else on earth. There is also an excellent vulcanology section. There are lots of shops, hotels, restaurants, and thermal waters. The clear water makes for great diving. There are three diving centers on Lipari, all of which welcome visitors: La Gorgonia, Manta Sub, and Sud Est.
Cards anyone? The Carasco Hotel has weekly bridge tournaments with official umpires and prizes.
Dominated by the Gran Cratere volcano that puffs out clouds of sulphuric gas, this island is known for mud baths born of thermal springs (both a public option and the private Therasia spa), its black beach (Spiaggia di Sabbia Nera), and volcano hikes.
If you are spending a lot of time (more than four days) in the Aeolian Islands, take a ride out to Filicudi. They are raw and rocky, devoid of celebrity attention. In Filicudi, fisherman and construction workers gather under awning of Da Nino sul Mare, the island’s only cafe. There are remains of a prehistoric village here; you can see the rock bases of about 30 huts where people lived in 3000 BC.
Where to Stay
There are 89 hotels (only four are five-star) and 137 bed and breakfasts in the Aeolians, which are especially popular and therefore most costly in July and August. Here is a sampling of special lodgings at a variety of price points:
By Ann Cochran for PeterGreenberg.com. Photos by Chuck Cochran.
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