Sailing the Aeolian Islands

Find adventure among the historic villages and volcanic landscapes just north of Sicily.

There is no better way of sailing into the Tyrrhenian Sea than to board the rusty overnight ferry Laurana in Naples and wake up as dawn breaks over the Calabrian coast to see the fiery cone of Stromboli surging out of the dark blue water. A lilac-colored cloud of mist and smoke hung over the upper part of the volcano when I arrived on an otherwise perfectly clear morning in May. The rock of Strombolicchio, topped by its little white lighthouse, seemed to float next to the island like a Champagne cork that had popped out of the crater during the night.

Stromboli is the first of eight islands one reaches when sailing from the north—the gateway to a volcanic archipelago that, according to Greek mythology, was ruled by Aeolus, guardian of the winds, and Hephaestus, blacksmith to the gods and keeper of volcanoes. Scattered between the northern coast of Sicily and the western coast of Calabria, the islands were first settled about 9,000 years ago, during the Neolithic period. In Greek and Roman times, they became an important crossroads for trade in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Later they were known all over Europe for producing fine Malvasia from the vineyards on the slopes of the volcanoes. But at the turn of the last century, phylloxera, the dreaded grapevine pest, destroyed them all. Most of the islanders left their ancestral homes and migrated to America and Australia. Today tourism is the main industry, yet the islands have preserved—some more than others—their character and pristine beauty.

After the obligatory cappuccino at Il Malandrino, a popular meeting point near the landing dock, I headed to the small town of Stromboli, a cluster of whitewashed houses scattered at the foot of the volcano’s northeastern slope. The town is divided lengthwise by a narrow street that connects the churches of San Vincenzo and San Bartolo. In the early morning stillness, I passed by simple houses with lush gardens and vegetable plots. The air was rich with the fragrance of lemon and orange blossoms, jasmine and honeysuckle. And on either side of the street, nasturtiums, morning glories and hibiscus tumbled over the dry walls, their orange, blue and red vivid against the black earth.

I took a room at La Locanda del Barbablù (Bluebeard), a lovely pensione that was once the seamen’s hostel. The red-and-yellow two-story building was tastefully restored by Andrea Fabbricini, the owner; my room, sparsely decorated with local furniture, had a spectacular rear view of the volcano.

Fifty yards down the street, I passed by the best-known house in Stromboli: a Pompeian red villa with large windows and a wide terrace overlooking the sea. Ingrid Bergman lived there in the spring of 1949, during the shooting of Stromboli; she got the part after writing director Robert Rossellini cheekily that if he needed a Swedish actress who spoke English very well, had not forgotten her German, had trouble making herself understood in French and “in Italian only knows ‘ti amo,’” she was ready to make a film with him. Soon after, she landed in Stromboli and became Rossellini’s lover. A fuming Anna Magnani, the great Italian actress who was Rossellini’s companion at the time, stormed to the nearby island of Vulcano to shoot another movie, directed by the hapless William Dieterle.

Stromboli is the only seriously active volcano in the archipelago. The raw energy of the island unnerves many visitors; others find the experience soothing. Local residents speak of the mountain with awe, never calling it by name but referring to it as iddu, a Sicilian idiom meaning “him” but which is better translated in this case as the “fearful and unmentionable thing we live on.”

My guide, Mario Zaia, known to everyone as Zazà, met me outside his shop, Magmatrek. In his mid-fifties, short and wiry with a big nose, an unruly beard and a weather-beaten complexion, Zazà arrived at our appointment on his electric scooter looking very much like a pirate on wheels. “Bring warm clothes,” he said. “It will be cold on top.”

The walk up the mountain was steep, the pathway threading through bushes of white and pink rockroses, ferns and plants of caper. Crumbling walls were all that remained of the terraced vineyards that once covered the lower part of the mountain. After an hour, we left the vegetation behind us and zigzagged our way up the lava field.

Zazà was originally a fisherman from the island of Lipari. “Tuna and swordfish,” he said as I followed in his footsteps up the rocky path. “It was a hard life. Then I spent a winter in Stromboli, and I never left.” For the past 25 years, he has been going up the mountain nearly every day, taking all sorts of people to the top, even blind men and women who want to feel the energy of the volcano. He has also saved the lives of many careless travelers. I asked him if he ever tired of going up. “Every time it is different,” he said.

It took us three hours to reach the summit. The sun was going down over the coast of Sicily, and the view transformed into a Turner-like landscape of multicolored fumes and clouds. Suddenly it was dark, the temperature dropped and the wind was blowing hard. Right below us five large craters were filled like cauldrons with incandescent magma that churned and bubbled and gurgled in the night. Every ten minutes or so, a powerful explosion sent a spray of burning lava flaring above us.

During the making of Stromboli, all the movie equipment was carried to the top of the volcano by a long line of villagers. They say Bergman spent three days on the mountain, sleeping at night above the burning craters. After that, spending the night with your lover wrapped up in a blanket on top of the mountain became the thing to do for the youth of Stromboli. “I used to do it all the time,” Zazà told me. “But after the big eruption of 2003, it is not safe anymore. I tell my son not to come up at night, though I am sure he does it all the same.”

Coming down the mountain in total darkness was the best part. Guided by the light of our head torches, we bounded down the eastern slope, making giant leaps in the fluffy lava sand. The sky was filled with stars, and in the distance lights shimmered along the Calabrian coast.

A fleet of fast ferries connects the islands of the archipelago. On the way from Stromboli to Lipari, I stopped for lunch in Panarea, a small island with clear water perfect for snorkeling.

Most of the original islanders left during the great migrations of the last century. The old houses in the village have been rebuilt into elegant whitewashed villas with columned pergolas, straw shades and exposed wooden beams. There are no more than 200 residents during the year, but in July and August the population swells to several thousand with wealthy vacationers and migrant workers employed in luxury hotels.

Panarea’s crown jewel is the Hotel Raya, which Myriam Beltrami and her late partner, Paolo Tilche, opened more than 40 years ago. Beltrami recently turned 80 but still runs the place with verve. She insisted on giving me a personal tour of the hotel, which has about 30 rooms of various sizes, each with its own private sea-view “star deck.”

We had lunch on the terrace of the waterside hotel restaurant. Even by the very high standards of the Aeolian seascape, the view was breathtaking, with the islets of Dattilo and Basiluzzo floating in front of us like water sculptures and in the distance Mount Etna, still covered with snow. Beltrami, who is from the northern lakeside city of Como, told me she arrived in Panarea the first time with Tilche in 1959. “I’ve always been very sensitive to the particular energy of a place,” she said over a plate of vegetables arranged according to a five-color scheme. “The moment I set foot on the island, I felt the volcano’s destructiveness was spent, and there were only positive energies left.”

The outdoor disco on the ground floor had yet to be refurbished for the upcoming season. I was told that during the summer it becomes a magnet for vacationers who come zipping across the water from neighboring islands to dance the night away.

From Panarea it is a short ride by ferry to Lipari, the largest island of the archipelago, as well as its administrative and political center. It has a gritty, urban feel to it. In the main harbor, ferries come and go. The waterfront is jammed with car traffic. People honk and shout. Scooters whizz by. In town, the streets are crowded, and at the open-air cafés everyone talks about politics and soccer. Sailing in from the other islands, it feels like coming to the big city.

This bustling community is one of the oldest in the Mediterranean. Settlers first sailed here from Sicily and Calabria during the Neolithic period, attracted by the commercial potential of obsidian, a black vitreous rock formed during a powerful volcanic eruption on Lipari millennia ago. Obsidian was used to make everything from deadly arrowheads to sharp kitchen utensils and agricultural implements that were exported as far as northern Europe. With the rise of the Bronze Age, obsidian gradually lost its importance, but Lipari continued to play an important trading role during the Hellenistic expansion in the western Mediterranean and later in Roman times.

The vestiges of this rich history are on display at the Archaeological Museum in the so-called Castle, a citadel built on top of a rock that splits the bay of Lipari into two separate harbors. It is one of the Mediterranean’s finest archaeological museums. The ceramic collections are some of the very best we have from the Neolithic era, and the beautifully painted cups and bowls are reason enough to make the trip to Lipari. But the museum itself is a marvel: The artifacts are intelligently laid out, the glass cases are elegantly designed and even the carpentry is exquisite.

Maria Clara Martinelli, an archaeologist at the museum, told me this remarkable institution was put together by Italian archaeologist Luigi Bernabò Brea and his French associate, Madeleine Cavalier, starting in the ’50s. “We owe all this to his vision and labor,” she said.

From the museum it was a short walk down to the second, quieter harbor. The square was filled with open-air cafés. I stopped at Caffé la Vela to taste Carlo Di Paola’s popular pane cunzatu, a rough, dark bread on which he spreads pressed local tomatoes, olive oil, anchovies and marjoram. He also makes a variety of excellent salads. I thought this was a good find until I noticed a framed newspaper clipping hanging on the wall, with a photograph of Kevin Costner hugging Di Paola. Costner had been vacationing in the area as a guest of Dustin Hoffman and was quoted in the paper as saying: “Hoffman told me I couldn’t leave without tasting one of your famous salads.”

Vulcano, across the canal from Lipari, is the least inviting of the islands. A strong smell of sulfur hangs over it, and the landscape can be harsh and lunar. Yet it is certainly worth a stop, if only to see the spectacular view of the Tyrrhenian Sea one enjoys after an easy climb to the top of the volcano. The last major eruption took place more than a century ago, but the crater is covered with fumaroles that wheeze and pop and let out noxious gases that form beautiful yellow-green sulfur incrustations. I was imprudent enough to walk through a field of fumaroles; the wind suddenly changed and I was trapped in the poisonous fumes. I clambered out of the crater, gasping for air.

Down at the harbor a series of unappealing restaurants offered menus that included pizza al cratere and spaghetti volcano. Following the advice of Luigi Segatta, who owns the best scooter rental in town, I drove to the other side of the island to find lush valleys with oak trees and olive groves and pastures with cows and goats. I stopped for lunch at the roadside, family-run Maria Tindara. Angelo Iacono, Maria Tindara’s son and the current owner, told me they opened the place 50 years ago. “We started by serving bread, salami and olives,” he said. “The only way to get here was on the back of a donkey.”

I had a plate of homemade pasta with fresh tomatoes and basil, and a slice of delicious ricotta made by one of three shepherds who still keep their goats on the island.

Vulcano was deserted until the early 19th century, when Ferdinand IV, king of Naples, gave the island to Vito Nunziante, a general in his army, to mine sulfur, alum and salt using forced laborers from the neighboring islands. In 1870, James Stevenson, an adventurous Welshman with huge sideburns, purchased the island and further developed the local mining industry. Stevenson also introduced vineyards and produced a very respectable wine. He built himself a crenellated extravaganza known as Castello Stevenson, which he abandoned in the 1880s after a terrifying eruption.

The island reverted to a primitive state until 1949, when Anna Magnani decided it was just the right location to shoot her own movie about love under the volcano. She stayed in one of the only standing houses left on the island, a melancholy building with Gothic windows. It is still there, looking very forlorn next to a small road. A tiny white plaque with blue lettering says the great Magnani lived there.

Stevenson’s castle, on the other hand, has been cheaply renovated and is now a spa, with crowded mud baths and hot pools. All around it are rows of ugly little vacation homes. I told myself that sooner or later the volcano would explode again and bury all that hideousness.

Sweaty and sulfurous, I boarded the fast ferry to Salina, the second-largest island of the archipelago, yearning for its fabled green valleys and chestnut woods. The name comes from the salt marshes near Santa Marina Salina, the main town, but in antiquity the island was called Didyme (“twin” in Greek), after the two volcanoes that face each other, Monte dei Porri and Monte Fossa delle Felci. Both are now dormant (a volcano is dormant if it hasn’t erupted for 10,000 years), and today Salina is covered with rich vegetation that draws all its moisture from sea breeze and mountain mist. (There are no springs.) Along the coastline are several pebbly beaches, coves and inlets for fine swimming and fishing, but most vacationers, especially in off-season, come to Salina to take walks along the mountain trails that crisscross the island.

Some of these trails leave directly from the square in Santa Marina, a laid-back little harbor with a nice view of Lipari. My favorite town, however, is Malfa, on the northern coast of the island, which I reached by scooter, driving along a lovely winding road bordered with locust trees, acanthus and caper bushes covered in their gorgeous flowers (four cream-colored petals and a thicket of long, purplish stamens).

Malfa, which looks northeast across the sea toward the plumed cone of Stromboli, is formed by a cluster of old houses, small squares, narrow streets and secret gardens filled with lavender and honeysuckle and wild roses. In the lower part of town, nearer the sea, Clara Rametta and Michele Caruso, both natives of Salina, restored several crumbling buildings to create Hotel Signum, possibly the nicest, most tasteful place to stay in the Aeolian islands.

Once known all over Europe for its sweet wines, Salina was covered with vineyards before phylloxera destroyed them. But unlike the other islands, the old vines have been reintroduced here. Carlo Hauner, an industrial designer from Brescia, in northern Italy, came to Salina in 1963 on vacation, fell in love with the place and decided to start producing Malvasia here. “The locals used to say my father was crazy, but he paved the way for a rebirth of the local wine industry,” his son, Carlo Hauner Jr., who now runs the business, told me when I stopped by their winery near Santa Marina Salina. There are now a dozen small vintners, and Tasca d’Almerita, one of mainland Sicily’s top winemakers, has also established a strong presence on the island.

The next day I went down to the harbor to board the Laurana for the return journey to Naples, but the crossing was canceled due to the weather. The next trip wasn’t scheduled to take place until three days later—all the time in the world to pay another visit to Hauner’s winery for one more glass of Malvasia.

Aeolian Islands Address Book

La Locanda del Barbablu Rooms, from $150; Via Vittorio Emanuele 17, Stromboli; 39-090/986-118;
Hotel Raya
Rooms, from $400; Via San Pietro, Panarea; 39-090/983-013;
Hotel Signum
Rooms, from $160; Via Scalo 15, Malfa; 39-090/984-4222;
Caffe La Vela
Marina Corta, Lipari; 39-090/981-2600.
Carlo Hauner
Via Umberto I, Santa Marina Salina; 39-090/984-3141;
Il Malandrino
Via Marina, Stromboli; 39-090/986-376.
Maria Tindara
Via Provinciale 38, Vulcano Piano; 39-090/985-3004.
Luigi Segatta
Via Provinciale, Vulcano; 39-347/760-0275.
Archaeological Museum
Via del Castello, Lipari; 39-090/988-0174.
Via Vittorio Emanuele, Stromboli; 39-090/986-5768;

Getting There

The Aeolian islands can be reached via Siremar ferry (39-081/497-2999) or Ustica Lines hydrofoil ( from Reggio Calabria or Sicily. But beware: It’s a long, tough haul. By charter boat is, of course, the best, or for quicker travels with an aerial view and the most comfort, helicopter excursions can be arranged through Think Sicily (