It is a land out of time, a land of smoldering volcanoes and black sand beaches and bubbling hot mud baths.
With views only rivaled by your most vivid dreams, the Aeolian Islands are an archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily. Home to the rich and famous and those only wishing they were, they are a destination steeped in history, but open to new interpretations, they are, an adventure holiday destination that should not be missed.
The islands were given claim to a Unesco World Heritage Site as the world ushered in the new millennium in 2000. They are spectacular and varied, each carrying a unique personality and catering to a myriad number of personal quests. From the island of Alicudi, where only donkeys serve as transportation, to Panarea where the rich and famous come to play, this volcanic set of islands and islets is primal yet beautiful.
The Gods of Old
The islands was named after the Greek god Aeolus, god of the winds. From ancient times to today, the land is tumultuous with two active volcanoes, Stromboli and Vulcano a constant reminder of the origins of the island eons ago.
With a personality that changes with the seasons, the islands are home to around 10,000 full-timers, swelling to 200,000 as the summer brings warmth to the air and a collection of multi-million dollar yachts to the shores. This is a time of both celebration and dread as the locals of Panarea open their shops and eateries to the masses, who don’t come quietly and demand 5-star service and food. Should you only experience Panarea in the peak season, while you’ll find every amenity you desire, you’d miss the real variety and spirit of the island chain.
The largest island in the chain it exists with the sharp contrast of old and new. While it contains the most significant full-time population and a variety of industry, it seems juxtaposed with a tourist trap mentality. Collectively the shops and gift stores are gaudy, standing in contrast to the fortified acropolis and flower-hung alleys and picturesque Marina Corta.
Pumice quarries have left many of the mountains wounded and gaping, though perhaps the island is forward-thinking, as mining has been banned and there are plans in place to reclaim the land with eco-museums and thermal baths.
Still, there is a rugged beauty to the island with undeveloped rocky and splintered shores, unreachable by car, but accessible by foot at Valle Muria and Punta delle Fontanelle or in season, by boat.
There is a footpath that stretches along the coast that must be experienced. The path is well maintained, though rocky, the views are as if from an alien landscape. The stark white kaolin stone has been stained by volcanic emissions into a myriad of colors as if Picasso dipped his brush and created a masterpiece.
As the name implies, there is an active volcano on the island, simmering mud baths and an overwhelming smell of sulfur, which you’ll eventually get used to. The town is a mixture of brilliance, with good hotels, and despair, with an unfinished, haphazard look, reminiscent of an unfinished do-it-yourself project. Should you become tolerant of the sulfur smell, which not everyone will, finding, a good restaurant will have you searching and searching. This isn’t to say that Vulcano shouldn’t be visited, it should, it’s merely not this writer’s favorite. There is an abundance of novelties to be had, buy one and tell everyone you made the journey.
The Arduous Climb
If you’re of an adventurous nature, climbing to the top of the crater is a possibility. The trail begins about a mile out of town, and you’ll quickly encounter a sign warning of dangerous volcanic gases. The climb itself isn’t steep, though you need to come armed with a sturdy pair of hiking shoes and a stout disposition.
CAUTION: Do the climb at your own risk and only if you are in good physical condition. While the worst of the gases can be avoided, there is no way to avoid breathing some of the fumes.
Alternatively, to climbing to the crater top, you can just visit the bubbling Funghi di Vulcano (mud baths) and offshore fumaroles, which is located a short distance from the port.
CAUTION: Do not wear contact lenses in the mud baths. Do not allow children to play unattended in the mud baths.
If your tastes are a bit more refined and scampering in the mud isn’t on the agenda, you might like the Oasis Della Salute spa. There you’ll be greeted warmly and led to one of three hydromassage pools.
WARNING: You’ll likely smell of sulfur for a day or so after leaving the island.
Probably the most beautiful island and without a doubt the most green. The port is a beauty filled postcard set against the green hills and clear blue skies. The island garnered some notoriety from the 1994 film Il Postino
Not that It needed publicity, already famous for the beautiful port of Santa Marina Salina and the long and trendy street visible to anyone arriving by sea. Filled with trendy shops, fine eateries and housed in the bottom floors of 19th-century homes, built by the wealthy owners of local vineyard producing the sweet Malvasia wine. For a time, this export, sold mainly to the British Isles, made many wealthy, but it was not to last. In 1890 phylloxera, a pest that attacks grape vines destroyed most of the vineyards. Most of the wealthy wine merchants lost their fortunes and those that survived left the islands for a new home in Australia, which marked the beginnings of that countries wine industry. Since then the vineyards have made somewhat of a return to prominence with local vineyards like Fenech at Malf and Caravaggio at Capofaro producing fine wines for limited export. Wine tastings are available at the vineyards.
For those interested, the story of the destruction and exodus is chronicled in two local museums, Museum of Emigration and the Ethnographic Museum in Lingua. Most visitors will naturally pass on the history lesson, opting instead to explore the stony beaches and sample the native cuisine or conversing with locals at the Da Alfredo bar.
Continuing onward and for those with adventure in their hearts, it’s time to climb the highest peak in the archipelago, Monte Fossa Delle Felci. Spring and Fall will offer the best opportunity for the climb, with summers often scorching hot and winter bringing uncertain storms to the islands. Heading south then, we’ll want to take a bus to the village of Leni, from there it’s a hike down a series of clearly marked mule tracks with a black sandy beach and a swim in the sea your welcome reward.
To cap off the day, try your best to be at Pollara for the sunset. This is where the 1994 movie, Il Postino was set and the setting is filled with beauty and romance. There are hotels and dining in the area.
August is the month when the rich, famous and internet moguls visit the island. There are multi-million dollar yachts, Arab sheiks, “Hollywood Stars” and the feeling that money, not lava spews from the nearby volcanoes. It’s a month of sheer decadence, better to be avoided unless that’s your fancy.
However, if you want to see one of the most beautiful islands in the world, arguably the best in the archipelago, then spring and fall should be the months you visit. The crowds are less dense and less rich, the hotels, while still expensive, are more available to those on a budget with the Pippo and Maria, while not on the beach, are peaceful, serene and affordable.
One of the most beautiful sandy beaches in the world, Zammarà, is only a 40-minute walk from town and is not to be missed. The lonely vista of Cala Junca bay is just beyond and topped by a promontory looming rock wall, magnificent. Stop for a moment, breathe the sea air and contemplate the people who first saw these lands and wondered if the bubbling mud baths were gateways to the underworld. Then, take the 20-minute walk to Cala Junca, and you’ll see the-the stained sulfur rocks that only added to the ancients belief of the underworld breaking through. One of the most enjoyable trips you can take is a boat ride to the outer islets, each unique; each painted a different color by the-the volcanic emissions over the eons. Ask your guide to point out Basiluzzo, where the ruins of a Roman port can be seen when the waters are still. Take the time to visit the nearby ruins of a Roman villa, then contemplate the times and traditions of the people who first settled these islands. Nearby is Lisca Bianca where you’ll see the troubled water bubbling up from the deep volcanic activity.
Have you heard of Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman? Maybe not, they were stars of your grandparent’s era, but they are the ones who brought fame to the island when they made the film ” Stromboli” in 1949. After the film’s release tourist began to arrive, sampling for themselves, the romance of the people they’d seen on the silver screen. As the visitors continued, the first hotel was opened by Domenico Russo, and the era of the island’s tourism began.
That of course, was a generation or more ago, today the attraction of the island is centered more on the volcano, active but for the moment, quiet allowing visitors a safe experience as they climb to the top. The guided and inexpensive tour to the top is about a two-hour hike, timed to arrive at sunset and an experience to last a lifetime. If you decide to take the trek, wear good hiking shoes, take a jacket and have a sturdy flashlight ready for the trip down.
liquid & Alicudi
Sometimes called a conundrum the settlements on the islands seems at once, far apart and close together. The confusion comes from the road which takes the long way around, increasing the distance between each village. In fact, they are close neighbors readily apparent if you walk the mule trails between each of them. Because of this, the best experience will be had touring the island by sea or on foot.
The surrounding seafloor is littered with shipwrecks, wrecked long ago against the splintering rocks by sudden winter storms. Their location, close to shore and in relatively shallow waters makes them excellent diving locations. If you’re not a diver, consider chartering a boat and asking the captain to show you the hidden grotto, which can’t be seen from the shore. Each September they conduct a candlelight festival in the grotto where legend says the soft, caressing candlelight soothe the spirits of the volcano.
Life runs at a slower pace in the archipelago, and you’ll want to adjust your rhythms to experience the Islands and their primal beauty. It’s said that when God finished creating the Earth, he saved seven jewels and sprinkled them in the sea, becoming The Aeolian Islands.