Outside Panarea's main carabinieri station—a whitewashed cube, like so many on the island—the policeman on duty is washing his pajamas in a bucket. Nearby, his beach buggy stands idle. When he finishes with his pajamas, the cop turns his attention to the flowers on the terrace. They need watering. It is, in other words, looking like another day without a car chase.
Panarea is the prettiest and most desirable of the seven inhabited Aeolian islands, a scatter of peaks thrusting out of the cobalt-blue Mediterranean off the northern coast of Sicily. Nineteenth-century French visitor Guy de Maupassant described them as "little pieces of heaven which have fallen into the sea." But their origins are more infernal than celestial: The islands are volcanic, Stromboli and Vulcano actively so. Lava and sulphur make for a hard but fertile soil, well-suited to the islands' two main products, Malvasia wine (at its most alluring and amber best on Salina) and fragrant capers, which the locals serve with pasta, fish, salads, and pretty much everything else.
Homer identified the islands during the reign of King Aeolus, who gave Ulysses (the world's first frequent traveler) a bag of winds as a gift, leaving only the gentle West Wind free to blow the wily Greek back to his home on the island of Ithaca. Of course the whole thing went horribly wrong, as we were barely into Book Ten of The Odyssey, and Homer had to keep his hero away from his long-suffering wife, Penelope, for a few more episodes: Ulysses' rascally shipmates obligingly opened the bag of winds, believing that it contained treasure, and the galley was blown right back to Lipari.
Most of today's visitors travel by ferry and hydrofoil rather than sacred windpower, but they too keep coming back—despite the inconvenience of the journey. Not that the Aeolians are a secret. In July and August, it's bikini-to-bikini on the islands' dark-lava-sand beaches; the narrow lanes of Panarea, Vulcano, and Filicudi are full of rich Milanesi making deals on mobile phones while their wives, in ethnic pareus and Gucci shades, compare plastic surgeons. But thanks to their far-flung location, the islands have preserved a certain mystique, and tend to attract loyal Italian cognoscenti rather than the international Blue Grotto hordes that descend on Capri.
The Aeolians are stunningly beautiful—especially in April and May, when the red and black rocks are daubed with Impressionist splashes of yellow gorse, cool-blue interludes of lupine, dark-brown carob pods, and the prickly pear's bright vermilion beacons. A network of footpaths, mostly well maintained and signposted, allows visitors to work up an appetite for the next plate of spaghetti con le vongole or pesce spada ai ferri in restaurants that range from basic-with-frills to basic-without-frills.
There is, however, one major problem. While the Gordian knot of hydrofoil timetables and 12-hour overnight ferries can be cut through by simply hopping on a helicopter in Naples or Reggio Calabria, little can be done about the lack of luxury hotels—and the high-end-service that goes with them. With one exception—the Hotel Raya on Panarea—the hotels, to be honest, are bland beach resorts or glorified self-catering operations. Of course, some of Italy's most charming accommodations fall outside the luxury bracket. But even then, only the delightful Signum on Salina really makes the grade.
From the terrace of the Hotel Raya the view is mesmerizing. In the distance rises the cone of Stromboli, puffing meditatively on its volcanic cheroot. Closer by, an archipelago of uninhabited islets—all that now remains of the rim of a huge extinct volcanic crater—provides a backdrop for the intricate marine choreography of ferries, hydrofoils, yachts, and Jet Skis.
The smallest of the seven inhabited islands, Panarea is the only one to have achieved the critical mass that pushes a resort onto the international A-list. It has also done so without sacrificing its considerable natural charms. Olive trees cling to the lower slopes of Punta Corvo, the jagged mountain ridge that dominates the island; all around gorse, myrtle, strawberry trees and delicate, paper-leafed rock roses in shades of white and purple attempt to reclaim the place for Mother Nature.
On Panarea, life is linear. One long paved lane, plied at breakneck speed by open-top buggies, three-wheeler utility vehicles and underage scooters, connects its three settlements, which spread out along the eastern edge of the island. San Pietro, in the center, is where the ferries dock and where most of the shops, hotels, and restaurants cluster; Ditella (or Iditella) to the north, and Drauto (or Drauth) to the south are quiet residential enclaves with holiday villas dotted among the greenery.
To the casual visitor, these three villages, with their characteristic white cube houses and flower-filled terraces, tend to merge into one. Yet Panaresi are fully aware of the invisible borders. A few years after she arrived on the island, in 1958, Myriam Beltrami, who owns the Hotel Raya, was approached by a frantic mother from Ditella. She wanted Signora Beltrami to talk her her son out of marrying a forestera (foreigner). Imagining that the boy was about to elope with an American or a Swede, Beltrami enquired as to where the girl was from. "From Drauto!" came the distraught reply. It may have been only a couple of miles down the road, but on Panarea, two miles is a continental divide.
Even in the Bronze Age, Panarea was a desirable piece of real estate. At the end of the Drauto road, beyond the sandy beach of Cala degli Zimmari, a well-made path leads up to the prehistoric village of Punta Milazzese. On a rocky promontory, connected to the rest of the island by a narrow (and thus easily defendable) neck of land, the remains of 23 oval huts were discovered in 1948. They may have lacked certain modern comforts, but these near-contemporaries of Ulysses had what really matters: location, location, location.
Set in aristocratic seclusion above the port, amid lemon groves, carob trees, and prickly pears, the ocher-colored Hotel Raya (Rooms, $150-$300; 39-090-983-013; www.hotelraya.it) seems to grow out of the hillside. Created using local building methods (including rush cross-rafters), the Raya is a Mediterranean vision with an impeccable sense of design, its simple interior white walls and blue bathrooms enlivened by the occasional Balinese detail (Indonesia is Signora Beltrami's other base). There is no pool, but there are ample terraces outside each room for sunbathing and taking in the view. Those accustomed to pampered luxury may be put off by the flashlight provided for guests to find their way back at night. I see it as a part of the Aeolian adventure. The Raya's reception area, main bar, restaurant, and summer disco (the hub of Panarese nightlife) are in a separate building down by the port, as is the Raya Boutique. Here, ethnic sarongs, swimsuits, and jewelry are complemented by Indonesian objets d'art, antiques, and furniture. Just make sure that you've checked your credit limit—this ethno-chic doesn't come cheap. The best place to eat in the Aeolians may be in Panarea on the terrace of Da Pina (39-090-983-032). The gnocchi con la polpa di melanzane (gnocchi with puréed eggplant) is famous, but equally delicious are such dishes as sea-urchin ravioli and grilled fish with wild-fennel sauce.
Salina is little blue buses hurtling around don't-look-now curves; kiddie-colored fishing boats in tiny coves; wild white lilies by the roadside and hardy, gnarled vines climbing the fertile volcanic slopes. But overall, the island has a down-at-heels air about it, and thus, unlikely to be top of the luxury traveler's Aeolian checklist.
The greenest of the Aeolian islands, Salina has a mountain with two peaks and a reputation based on two local products: Malvasia wine and the movie Il Postino. Everybody you talk to seems to have been in the film or had a brother or first cousin who should have stolen the show from Massimo Troisi and Philippe Noiret.
Although the island itself is shabby, in a likeable sort of way, the Signum is a wonderfully chic place to stay ($ Rooms, $185-$210; 39-090-984-4222; www.hotelsignum.it). Apricot-hued and set amid vineyards and lemon groves, it also has a good restaurant and an infinity pool. Stock up on the island's gastronomic specialties at Carpe Diem (39-090-984-3053). The best investments are capers (smaller ones have more flavor) and Malvasia dessert wine (Hauner and Caravaglio are the producers to look for).
Chic it ain't. This is the place to catch up on real life. The largest, most densely-populated of the seven islands, Lipari is the hub of the Aeolian ferry and hydrofoil network—so even if you're not staying here you may find yourself at the café-lined port of Marina Corta between connections.
Lipari also has the islands' premier cultural pull in the imposing Castello, a fortress above the bustle of the port and lower town that has an archaeological museum. Pumice and obsidian are its other claims to fame. Though they look as different as rocks can be, the porous white bath stone and brittle jet-black shards are variations on the same volcanic rock. Today, craftsmen in town fashion obsidian into beads, earrings, and bracelets.
Filippino (39-090-981-1002) is the island's best restaurant. Here on the huge outside terrace, decorated with plates commemorating star recipes, old-fashioned waiters coddle customers in three or four languages. House specialities include "Aeolian orchids," a dish of curly pasta topped with tomatoes, capers, pine nuts, garlic, basil, mint, and pecorino cheese. For a cool crowd and great food, there's Kasbah (39-090-981-1075), owned by Sacha del Bono, whose equally charming Anglo-Sicilian parents run the no-nonsense (if dramatically situated) Hotel Carasco ($ Rooms, $120-$165; 39-090-981-1605; www.carasco.it). Lipari has more shops than all of the other islands combined. It's best to avoid the souvenir frippery and head straight for jeweler Adriana Salvini (39-090-981-3267), who uses the island's obsidian and other semiprecious stones in her range of simple but elegant necklaces, earrings, and bracelets; local pottery and other craft items are also offered for sale.
Seen from the deck of the overnight ferry from Naples, Stromboli is a forked tongue of orange fire in the darkness. This is not so much an island as a volcano surrounded by water. If it all sounds fairly primitive and primordial, it is. People come here to experience that under-the-volcano frisson. Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini felt the force in the spring of 1949, when they had a passionate affair on the island during the making of the film Stromboli. They also had a love nest here—a good move, as even today, the hotels leave much to be desired. The best advice is to gaze out at the volcano from your terrace at the Hotel Raya on Panarea or watch the fireworks of the Sciarra del Fuoco ("fire gully") from the comfort of your own yacht.
Still, Stromboli does have its man-made pleasures. Our favorite bookshop anywhere in Italy is the tiny La Libreria sull'Isola (Via Vittorio Emanuele III, 39-090-986-5755) in Stromboli, which opened in 2001 in a typical island house with a pretty shaded veranda. You can check your e-mail, buy postcards, and pick up a copy of the "Discovering the Island of Stromboli" map, which is a must for anyone intent on exploring the island's many paths and trails.
A name, an agenda. The raison d'etre of the southernmost of the Aeolian islands hits you with a blast of sulphur the moment you disembark. Like Stromboli, Vulcano is an active volcano. Unlike Stromboli, it finds itself in the final, gently simmering stages of life. But though it is now tame—fingers crossed—the Gran Cratere, an easy hour's walk from the port, is still an awe-inspiring sight, its enormous dark-gray walls rising up from the flat, plugged center as choking sulphurous steam hisses out of infernal yellow vents on the northern edge of the rim.
More close encounters of the geothermal kind are on offer just a couple of minutes' walk along the beach from the main Porto di Levante dock. In the lee of a garishly hued brimstone pinnacle, hot springs bubble to the surface in a stinking sulphurous pool filled with mud-daubed bathers. Tempted? Don't be: That je-ne-sais-quoi scent of rotten egg will cling to you for days.
More civilized pleasures are found on the other side of the island, in the tiny port of Gelso, which consists of a couple of houses and a single charming restaurant, Trattoria da Pina (39-090-985-2242), where we had our lunch alfresco: a delicious octopus salad dressed with sea salt, black pepper, lemon, and good local olive oil, and a plate of spaghetti con le sarde made with sardines, pine nuts, wild fennel, and raisins.
Filicudi and Alicudi
The remote Western Aeolians are mainly for yachties and villa owners and for those who rent out for the week, or for the entire season. If you happen to be one of the former, you may enjoy the thought that two of the latter include Robert De Niro and ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. You may also enjoy swimming (like Madonna on a recent visit) in some of the tiny coves that stud the coastline of Filicudi, the larger and better-connected of the two islands.
Alicudi didn't even have electricity until a few years ago, and it still doesn't have any roads. But if you have always dreamed of a close encounter with a Mediterranean donkey, Alicudi will provide it. It will also provide decent, filling, whatever-the-boat-brought-in seafood meals, courtesy of Ericusa (39-090-988-9902), which is the only restaurant on the entire island. Back on Filicudi, the best place to eat is La Sirena (39-090-988-9997), where you can indulge in original preparations (carpaccio of swordfish with juniper dressing, spaghetti in almond sauce) on a terrace overlooking the pretty beach of Pecorini, with its rows of beached fishing boats.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than American Express.