I am just about to dip a fresh brioche into a coffee granita topped with freshly whipped panna – and it’s only breakfast time.
I’m in the Isole Eolie, a volcanic chain of seven tiny islands north of Sicily. From Malta, it’s the shortest of flights and, once there, a hydrofoil ride from Milazzo, Messina or Palermo will get you to Lipari... the largest of the islands and my base for island hopping. There are also ferries or hydrofoils from Reggio Calabria and Campania.
Gliding all the way up to this archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea in a sailing boat would, of course, be the ultimate way to travel. Volcanic activity over the course of millennia has created unique landscapes and rock formations possessed of an incomparable, ancient beauty. I’m here in the autumn and so, along with the boisterous, colourful locals, I’m sharing the island with a few holidaying Italians and fellow tourists.
Staying on the bustling main island of Lipari is the practical choice for those wishing to island hop, visiting a different island each day, while keeping themselves close to all amenities.
With no cars allowed, transport is by mule
The islands are a place of quiet indulgence, whether you are a food and wine lover, a sun worshiper or an exercise fanatic. The seafood, the savoury pastries and the ricotta and almond based sweets are heavenly. The volcanic beaches are spectacular and the islands provide the ideal setting for trekking, biking and water sports.
The islands are a sailor’s paradise... a lot is missed if only seen from land. On most of the islands you can rent and stay in one of the typical whitewashed houses with large front terraces shaded with vines. Alternatively, you can choose from a range of hotels, from B&Bs to luxury, boutique hotels.
Lipari has an abundance of pasticcerie, fish shops and churches. Wander the historic centre’s narrow, winding streets that encase the towering citadel, all the way to Marina Corta where you can buy some beautiful, indigenous carved obsidian from the artist Massimo Ziino and enjoy fantastic granite and other Sicilian classics at d’Ambra.
If a lunch on the go is what you’re after, snatch the meatiest of arancini from Rosticceria Mancia e fui in Via Vittorio Emanuele. A steep amble to the top of the acropolis is well worth the climb. Here, you can explore the superb Aeolian Archaeological museum that spans a period from Prehistory to the Greco-Roman era and boasts one of the finest collections of ancient finds in all of Europe.
Adjacent to the citadel in Piazza Mazzini stands the highly acclaimed Ristorante Filippino – easily the best restaurant in all the Eolie. Open since 1910 and with an air of faded glamour, this restaurant is a mainstay of Lipari’s gastronomic scene, offering the finest in Aeolian cuisine. Journey into the bougainvillea-clad hills and make your way to the other end of the island to Aquacalda and try some delicious mupa, a prized local fish and freshly collected patelle (limpets) pasta while enjoying a full view of Salina, the second largest island in the archipelago.
Lipari’s once exotic-looking beaches – formerly a brilliant white, due to debris and dust from a defunct pumice mining industry – are now a thing of the past, although some websites and guide books will still tell you otherwise. The white beaches may have faded to grey, but the sea is still a brilliant turquoise and there are a number of beautiful, sand or pebble beaches dotting the island.
There are only two easily accessible beaches in Lipari – those at Aquacalda and Canneto – but many more beautiful bays and grottos are completely inaccessible from land or very difficult to get to. Be sure to wear good walking shoes when heading to the beach. Alternatively, take a boat tour or hire a boat and sail around the island at your own leisurely pace.
Stromboli is one of two Aeolian islands that is, in fact, an active volcano that has been in activity for over 2,000 years. You might want to gaze upon Stromboli from the safety of a boat, unless the thrill of a hike up the volcano’s smouldering sides to the top of the crater is more appealing. Accompanied by certified guides, a three-hour ascent will enable you to witness volcanic activity at the top. I opted to take an early evening boat trip from Lipari. At sunset it offers a breathtaking experience. A lava explosion from a safe distance would have added to the spectacle, but the volcano was quite dormant the evening I visited.
The other active volcano island, aptly named Vulcano, lies close to Lipari and is the southernmost of the islands in the Aeolian group. Marked by the stench of sulphur, you can smell this rocky, lava-covered island before you’ve actually arrived.
For the most part, Vulcano’s terrain is harsh and barren, presenting an almost lunar landscape. Trek to the summit of the crater or wallow in warm, sulphuric mud pools and hot springs with hundreds of other reeking, like minded people. Peg your nose, ignore the stench and think of all the wonders the mud is doing for your skin.
A hydrofoil ride from Lipari packed me off to Panarea for the day. This is the smallest and most exclusive of the Aeolian islands and, if you slip on your biggest sunglasses and panama hat, you might be mistaken for a VIP here. The island is a chic, fashionable spot, established as the playground of the rich. Here, prices are higher than the other islands but I did find superb, well-priced food at Adelina in Via Porto. At the height of summer, enjoy aperitifs at the stylish Bridge Sushi Bar and dance the night away with the upscale crowd at Hotel Raya’s stunning nightclub.
Surrounded by little islets, Panarea is said to have the most beautiful beaches in the Aeolie. And, while I found that statement to be true, as with most of the other islands, Panarea’s beaches can be difficult to access unless you are in the mood for a hike. I took the easy route and hired a boat that stopped at all the beaches. The sea around Panarea is perfect for snorkelling and scuba diving, rich in sea life with underwater fumaroles and wrecks to explore.
I would recommend spending a few nights on the most verdant of the islands, Salina (which translates to ‘salt mill’, referring to the island’s historic salt production days). This peaceful hideaway is much quieter than neighbouring Lipari, a half hour boat ride away. It has been a Unesco Heritage site since 1981.
The islands are a sailor’s paradise...a lot is missed if only seen from land
Famed for its Malvasia wine and its succulent capers, the island consists of two extinct volcanoes rising from the sea with clusters of sleepy villages scattered beneath. It is a place of great natural beauty. There are 18 scenic hiking trails, by which you can explore Monte Fossa delle Felci and Monte dei Porri and the forest reserve, wandering aimlessly or in the company of expert guides. Taxis are expensive so, although Salina is small, it’s still nice to navigate the winding roads with your own car or bike. Rentals are easily available.
The entire caper plant is considered a delicacy and cured lovingly throughout the Aeolie, especially in Salina where spontaneously growing capers are handpicked, slathered in sea salt and later covered in oil. With a unique taste, this precious Mediterranean plant has established itself as a staple of the local cuisine, enriching dishes from first courses to gelato.
If you find yourself in Salina in June, there’s the annual caper festival to be enjoyed in the village square at Pollara, an area of stunning steep cliffs made famous for the filming of the celebrated Il Postino. Enjoy sunset from the open-air terrace of Al Cappero, overlooking the distant islands of Alicudi and Filicudi. Here, the seafood is once again divine but if you’ve had enough of it, try the caper pesto pasta and the traditional coniglio in agrodolce (sweet and sour rabbit), one of the most typical dishes of Aeolian gastronomy. At Alfredo’s, in Lingua, the traditional pane cunzato topped with anything from tuna and mozzarella
to anchovies and capers makes for a very appetising meal. Da Alfredo also boasts to have the best granita in the whole of Italy. And it is, indeed, sublime. Choose from a multitude of flavours and take a stroll along Lingua’s splendid esplanade. It is well worth visiting the picturesque Malvasia vineyards. Taste the sweet, dessert wine and the less familiar dry, crisp version and take a bottle back home for some holiday reminiscing.
Nature lovers will adore Alicudi and Filicudi, a short boat ride from Salina. They constitute the least populated of the islands and possess an almost primordial nature. Their desolate remoteness and untamed beauty sets them apart from the other Aeolian islands. These islands are perfect for trekking. Filicudi is a scuba diver’s paradise, boasting abundant sea life. Heather-hilled Alicudi is the most western and the most undeveloped and tranquil of the islands. With no cars allowed, transport is by mule. You will only find one restaurant here and meals depend entirely on the day’s catch.
In the Aeolie, June to August is peak season, so costs are inflated and prices sky rocket whatever you’re paying for. But these islands are just as beautiful off season, taking on a different, wild magnificence. Autumn and early spring are lovely months to visit. Most hotels close during the winter season, when travel to the islands is difficult and life is at the mercy of wind and wave. It is perhaps quite pertinent that in Greek myth, the islands were home to the eponymous Aeolus, the ‘Keeper of the Winds’.
There is a peculiar magic surrounding these islands. And as you soak in the unhurried atmosphere and instantly unwind, they have already effortlessly seduced you into thinking that ordinary life is dangerously far away. The beauty of these islands is epitomised in chef Ludovico De Vivo’s degustation menu at the luxurious Capofaro resort, owned by the Tasca d’Almerita winegrowing family for their Malvasia wine production. His food captures the colours, the vivacity and the intense richness of the Aeolie. It en-compasses all the flavours of this delightful slice of Sicily.