When one mentions the islands of Italy, most people think of the major islands of Sicily or Sardinia or they mention the popular tourist destinations such as Ischia, or more likely, the Isle of Capri. Yet, Italy boasts many other islands which have attracted tourists from near and far, some which are still ‘undiscovered’ by visitors at large. The Aeolian Islands are well-known to Italians, but are often overlooked by tourists, who are not aware of the charm and breathtaking natural beauty they offer.
Rising out of the cobalt-blue seas off Sicily’s northeastern coast, the Aeolian Islands – Lipari, Salina, Panarea, Stromboli, Vulcano, Alicudi and Filicudi are bits of paradise, comprising a seven-island archipelago offering a wealth of opportunities for relaxation and outdoor fun. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, its stunning waters provide a marine playground for swimmers, sailors, kayakers and divers. It seems everyone finds something to love about the Aeolian Islands, whether it is hikers who climb the hissing volcanoes or gourmets who choose instead to sip the honey-sweet Malvasia wine.
The Aeolians are of volcanic origin, separated from the Sicilian coast by waters nearly 700 feet deep. These magnificent islands are quite rugged, with deep caverns, steep cliffs and fantastic views. The best place to begin the exploration is from Lipari, the largest and liveliest of the seven islands. Like its neighbors, Lipari has volcanic origins, but its last eruption took place about 1,400 years ago. Visitors arriving from the mainland will find their experience to be a relaxing introduction to island life. On the island, it is the Town of Lipari that serves as the archipelago’s principal transport hub. The busy little port has a lovely, pastel-colored seafront, picturesque streets, a historic castle-citadel and plenty of accommodations. For those who wish to explore the archipelago, Lipari is the most convenient base for island-hopping, but you can easily spend a day walking around Lipari and touring the museum, with a leisurely lunch and an afternoon drink by the harbor. The most impressive historic site in Lipari is the castello. The entrance is through a defensive gateway and a stroll through the citadel is a must. Those with an interest in history will also wish to visit the museum, housed in several buildings within the castle walls. Away from the town, the island reveals a rugged Mediterranean landscape of low-lying macchia (dense Mediterranean shrubbery), serene windswept highlands, precipitous cliffs and dreamy blue waters. With its combination of charm, scenery, history and atmosphere, Lipari is an ideal place to vacation.
Salina is the archipelago’s second largest island and boasts a lush, green landscape, thanks to its natural freshwater springs. Woodlands, wildflowers, thick yellow gorse bushes and rows of grape vines carpet its hillsides, while high coastal cliffs plunge into the breaking waters below. Named for the saline (salt works) of Lingua at the island’s southeastern edge, Salina is shaped by two extinct volcanoes, Monte dei Porri (2,840 feet high) and Monte Fossa delle Felci (3,175 feet high), two of the Aeolians’ highest peaks. These form a natural barrier in the center of the island, ensuring that the sleepy villages around the perimeter retain their own individual character. Tourism is most evident in the main port of Santa Marina Salina; elsewhere there’s a distinct sense that the rest of the world is a long way away.
Panarea is the smallest and most fashionable of the Aeolians, attracting international jet-setters and Milanese fashionistas. During the summer, luxury yachts fill the tiny harbor, while tourists walk the whitewashed streets of San Pietro, the port and principal town. Panarea is an idyllic place to relax and explore in the midst of an endless blue sea. The natural beauty and architectural style of Panarea has been carefully preserved by its residents who number just a few hundred. Cars are prohibited on the island so the best way to explore is on foot or by bike. On the southern tip of the island you will find the Bronze Age village of the Milazzese culture that inhabited the site around 14 B.C. The remains of 23 huts were excavated in 1948. But it is the sparkling Mediterranean that calls visitors to the island and is popular with scuba divers. If you cross the narrow channel from the islet of Bottaro and proceed to Liscia Bianca, you will find the wreck of an old English ship that sank in the 19th century.
The Island of Stromboli is formed by a volcanic cone 3,000 feet above sea level. It is continuously active and pours lava along the northwest coast called Sciara del Fuoco. The other areas are inhabited and covered with vineyards, olive and caper groves. Stromboli has fascinated geologists for centuries and for nature lovers, climbing the volcano is one of Sicily’s not-to-be-missed experiences. Since 2005, access has been strictly regulated – you can walk to a height of 1,320 feet, but will need a guide to continue any higher. It recently reopened to tourists after an eruption last month, but after another eruption last Wednesday, authorities are reevaluating whether walks to the summit will be cancelled indefinitely. Organized treks depart daily in the afternoon, generally timed to reach the 3,000 foot summit at sunset and to allow about an hour to observe the crater’s fireworks. For the intrepid, it is a fantastic once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Vulcano is the nearest island to mainland of Sicily and is separated from Lipari by a narrow stretch of sea called Bocche di Vulcano. In ancient times, it was thought to be the home of Efesto, the God of fire. Still an active volcano, its last eruption was more than a century ago in 1890. Make sure to visit the beaches. They are located on each side of the isthmus that connects the main island to a smaller one known as Vulcanello. Both beaches are characterized by dark, volcanic sand. Vulcano is famous for its mud baths and you do not want to miss them; they are said to have incredibly beneficial properties, but be prepared for the pervasive smell of sulfur, a reminder of its subterranean activity and the root of the word volcano.
Alicudi is the most western of the archipelagos. The highest peak is that of an extinct volcano. The island offers an extraordinary array of landscapes with beaches, caves and the beautiful sea, rich with fish and lobster and will excite visitors with its off-the-beaten-track atmosphere of adventure.
Finally, there is Filicudi, where the pace of change is slow and the island’s tourism infrastructure is modest. It is however among the prettiest, if least developed in the chain. The island entices visitors with its rugged coastline lapped by crystal clear waters and pitted by deep grottoes. The island has just a few small villages, but that should not stop you. And by all means, make sure when you plan your next trip to Sicily that the Aeolian Islands are part of your travel itinerary.
EDITOR’S NOTE: THE PUBLISHER’S TOUR WILL BE VISITING THE AEOLIAN ISLANDS IN OCTOBER DURING THEIR TRIP TO SICILY.