Exploring Italy’s Aeolian Islands, where fire meets water

By DPA / Reuters

Panoramic view from the cliffs of Salina. Photo / Bernhard Krieger/dpa via Reuters Connect
Panoramic view from the cliffs of Salina. Photo / Bernhard Krieger/dpa via Reuters Connect
Lava-spewing volcanoes, romantic villages, lively harbour towns and crystal-clear bays - Italy's Aeolian Islands, an archipelago off the north coast of Sicily, is a holiday paradise.

In Sicily, many things are different. Even fire and water. In other places the two elements stand in irreconcilable contradiction to each other. But on the Aeolian Islands off Sicily’s northeastern coast, the two merge to create a unique landscape, one of lava-spewing volcanoes rising up from glittering blue ocean waves.

For German vulcanologist Boris Behncke, the region stretching from Mount Etna in eastern Sicily to the Aeolian Islands in the north is a paradise on earth. “Each and every day I am living my childhood dream here,” the scientist says.

View from the crater rim on the island of Vulcano with the neighboring island of Lipari in the background. Photo / Rolf Haid/dpa

Behncke works at the Italian Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology (INGV) which keeps an eye on all the country’s volcanoes. His focus is on Etna and the volcanoes on the Aeolian Islands, an archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea which attracts tourists from around the world.

Mount Stromboli – the ‘showmaker’

Among Italy’s active volcanoes, the real “showmaker” is the 900-metre-high Mount Stromboli on the island of the same name, which erupts “with wonderful regularity,” Behncke says.

Sometimes, just a few small clouds of ash rise up from the volcano’s crater, as if it was sending smoke signals over to the likewise rumbling peaks of its sister island Vulcano and Etna in Sicily. On other days, you can witness fountains of lava spewing upwards into the sky.

After an exceptionally strong eruption in the summer of 2019, when one person was killed and several injured by volcanic rocks raining down, tourism excursions to Stromboli were stopped.

Often, streams of lava flow down the Sciara del Fuoco, the northern slope of the volcano. After really hefty eruptions – such as in the summer of 2014 – the lava reaches the coast where, steaming and hissing, it disappears into the sea.

“Above all the eruptions and lava flows are an unforgettable spectacle during the evening twilight,” says Gianni Arena. The skipper, from a fishing village near Messina, accompanies vacationers on sailing trips from Sciliy’s Portorosa marina.

Arena knows the seven Aeolian Islands – Vulcano, Lipari, Salina, Stromboli, Panarea, Filicudi and Alicudi – like the back of his hand. He’s the man to ask about the most secluded beaches, the most scenic hiking trails, the quietest bays to lay anchor, or the most picturesque harbours.

Lipari’s old town is usually the busiest part of the island. Photo / Bernhard Krieger/dpa

Summer high life

It gets busy in the region during high season when the jet set from Rome and Milan head for the islands. Italy’s high society including fashion czar Giorgio Armani will descend on Panarea, which counts only 200 souls during the winter months.

“The islands are actually at their best either before or after the high season, when it is still nice and warm,” Arena says. Even longer trips like the one from Stromboli in the northeast of the archipelago via Panarea to Salina in the centre – a good 50 kilometres at sea – are merely relaxed day trips for the professional skipper.

When a stiff breeze fills the white sails, the yacht, which stands out sharply against the blue sky and the gray-brown volcanic islands, plows at considerable speed through the Tyrrhenian Sea.

The winery Capofaro Locanda & Malvasia on the northern tip of Salina offers incredible panoramic views. Photo / Bernhard Krieger/dpa

An island named after the god of wind

Salina is the second largest, and the greenest, of the Aeolian Islands. The name is derived from Aeolus, the Greek god of wind. It’s a fitting choice, as the wind can be extremely strong here at times, occasionally leading to the cancellation of ferry services.

The Aeolian Islands are well connected to the Sicilian coastal town of Milazzo but island-hopping with a sailing yacht is more fun. Chartering a 9-metre-long yacht for two people costs around €2,200 a week in early September for those who can sail the vessel themselves. Hiring a skipper means an additional €1,600.

“Often, several couples or friends jointly charter a larger yacht and share the costs,” Arena says.

Left: The Tyrrhenian Sea around Lipari is a deep blue colour. Right: Strolling through the narrow alleyways of Salina. Photos / Sönke Möhl/ Bernhard Krieger /dpa

A meal with a view in Salina

The marina of Salina is filled with many larger yachts capable of accommodating four, six or even more passengers. After a successful docking, you can hear passengers clinking wine glasses while below deck there’s the sound of pots and pans in use for the evening meal.

Some crews will do their own cooking, but many more usually try out the fare in one of the many restaurants in the town of Santa Marina Salina. Narrow alleyways lead between white and pastel-coloured houses where lush bougainvilleas climb up the walls.

Cars and scooters can be rented at the harbour for exploring all the scenic attractions of the island which measures about 7 by 5 kilometres.

One recommended spot is the winery Capofaro Locanda & Malvasia on the northern tip of Salina. Surrounding the old light tower, Sicily’s wine dynasty Tasca d’Almerita grows its famous Malvasia wines here – the island’s top export, alongside capers.

The gnarled vines grow on terraces which are curved like an antique theatre and slope down to the sea. Only the well-heeled can afford staying in the vacation resort here, but all others should at least have a meal and wine-tasting in Capoforo. The panoramic view across the waters to Stromboli alone is worth it.

Salina is considered the pearl of the Lipari Islands, and not just because of the panoramic views. The island draws visitors because of its high-class resorts and restaurants and its fishing villages Santa Marina and Malfa. And, because it is not as easily accessible as Lipari, the archipelago’s largest island, life on Salina is comparatively quieter.



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