The allure of the Aeolian Islands is immemorial. A necklace of seven volcanic peaks, rising from the Mediterranean off the northeastern coast of Sicily, they appear in Homer’s “Odyssey,” where Aeolus, the keeper of the winds, offers generous hospitality to Odysseus and his crew, as well as a fair breeze for their return voyage to Ithaca.
Alicudi, Filicudi, Salina, Lipari, Panarea, Stromboli and Vulcano were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. Each has a distinctive and intriguingly different personality: Alicudi — where donkeys are the only means of land transportation — and Filicudi are the quietest islands, Salina has become the most fashionable, and Lipari is the largest and busiest. Pretty Panarea is a long-established favorite of moneyed Italians, which makes it a clubby and rather standoffish place, especially for anyone who doesn’t speak the language. The volcanoes in the middle of Stromboli and Vulcano are still active, while all of the islands have steaming fumaroles or thermal waters. Stromboli is also a favorite island for hikers, who ascend as close to the edge of its crater as they dare.
Discerning international travelers come to the Aeolians because they remain so unspoiled and authentic.
The population of the Aeolians has waxed and waned through the centuries according to demand for the islands’ primary products. These have included obsidian, the hard volcanic glass used in ancient times for knife blades and arrowheads; pumice, mined on Lipari; and wines (until phylloxera destroyed the islands’ vineyards at the end of the 19th century, prompting large-scale immigration to America, Australia and Argentina).
It wasn’t until after World War II that the Aeolians found a new vocation. In 1949, director Roberto Rossellini filmed “Stromboli, Land of God” with actress Ingrid Bergman, and the international success of this sulfurous love story aroused the world’s curiosity. The aura of romance was renewed for a new generation by the release of “Il Postino” (“The Postman”) in 1994. Although much of the film was actually shot on the tiny island of Procida in the Bay of Naples, several key scenes were filmed on Salina. Today, discerning international travelers come to the Aeolians because they remain so unspoiled and authentic. Their appeal has also been boosted by the arrival of several stylish and very comfortable hotels. (The best times of the year for a visit are May-June and September-October, which lie outside the July and August high season favored by Italian vacationers.)
The drama of the Aeolians became apparent almost as soon as our ferry left the harbor and headed out into the open sea. The islands are visible from a great distance, which creates a growing sense of anticipation and a deepening curiosity during the crossing. We passed Vulcano and Panarea en route to Stromboli, our first stop. As we drew nearer, the conical island vented huge plumes of smoke from its 3,031-foot volcano. Recent lava flows were legible on its otherwise green slopes, evidence of an eruption last August.
On arrival in Scari, the main town and principal port, the black-sand beaches were crowded with fishermen, some of whom had already been out to sea in their small, colorfully painted wooden boats. After the ferry had maneuvered to the stone dock, we disembarked to the singsong appeals of taxi drivers standing next to their open-air three-wheel Piaggio cabs.
Speeding along narrow lanes paved with black volcanic stone and lined by whitewashed houses, citrus trees and flowering bougainvillea, we came to the nine-room Il Gabbiano Relais, perched on a hillside overlooking the black-sand beach of Ficogrande (which is accessible via a flight of steps adjacent to the hotel’s main entrance). It seemed a pretty and peaceful place, and after a warm welcome, we strolled across to inspect the large swimming pool set amid gardens planted with jasmine vines and ivy.
The spacious bedroom with a large picture window afforded views of Ficogrande beach.
All the accommodations are individually furnished apartments and come with kitchenettes equipped with coffee makers, fridges and stoves. The hotel will gladly arrange a grocery delivery, including fresh fish and locally grown fruit and vegetables. (Breakfast is served in your room.) Our two-bedroom apartment came with whitewashed walls, a dining area and a private terrace with a table and chairs. The spacious bedroom with a large picture window afforded views of Ficogrande beach. Although our accommodations were not especially luxurious, they were extremely comfortable.
Sightseeing opportunities on Stromboli are minimal beyond the houses once occupied by Bergman and Rossellini and the pretty little church of San Vincenzo Ferreri. So before going out for the day, we made espressos and relaxed on our terrace. Watching the diligent efforts of the friendly housekeeper, we were momentarily puzzled by the fine black dust she was removing from the furniture, before realizing that the residue had come from the island’s volcano. Stromboli has been in almost continuous eruption for at least the past two millennia. This causes little inconvenience to the inhabitants of Scari — the most dangerous volcanoes are those that lie dormant for centuries as cataclysmic forces build up — but guided hikes to the crater organized by Magmatrek, a well-reputed local firm, are suspended during periods of vigorous activity.
After a peaceful and relaxing morning, we headed for lunch at Osservatorio, a restaurant with an outdoor terrace that offers fine views of the volcano. There, we enjoyed excellent wood-oven-baked pizza and pasta with a sauce made from locally grown capers — caper vines grow wild on all the Aeolian Islands, but they are also cultivated on farms, especially on Salina — washed down by well-chilled local white wine.
After lunch, we spent a pleasantly idle afternoon swimming in the warm waters of the Mediterranean at Ficogrande beach and then reading beside the pool at our hotel. In the early evening, we wandered back to the port to catch an hourlong volcano-watching excursion aboard a boat operated by the local Molotre company. Having dropped anchor in front of the Sciara del Fuoco, “stream of fire,” a black lava scar down the flank of Stromboli, we looked on as red and orange rocketlike flares shot into a sky adorned by a crescent moon.
After two days on Stromboli, we boarded a ferry for the hourlong trip to Salina, a 10-square-mile island with approximately 2,600 inhabitants. Long ago it was known as Didyme, “didyma” being the Greek word for “twins,” a reference to the two extinct volcanoes that give the island its distinctive profile. In addition to being the most verdant of the Aeolians, Salina now offers two genuinely luxurious hotels, plus excellent restaurants, good shopping, several small museums and a couple of sandy beaches, a rarity in the Aeolians, where the shorelines are most often rocky and craggy.
The dramatic location; the large and beautiful swimming pool; the lovely gardens planted with citrus trees and jasmine; the sincere hospitality.
Sometimes no English-speaking staff members are available.
Pack a flashlight, as there are very few streetlights on Stromboli; bring a fair amount of cash, since poor internet connections can sometimes make credit card transactions problematic.
Arriving at Santa Marina Salina, the largest town on Salina, a hotel transfer was waiting to take us to the 27-room Capofaro, set on a cliffside estate amid vineyards. The hotel is spread out across the property in low buildings that offer spectacular sweeping views of the lapis lazuli-blue sea, with Stromboli on the horizon and Lipari across a wide channel. Our welcome was warm and the check-in was effortless before we were transferred by golf cart to our Junior Suite in an air-conditioned whitewashed bungalow.
Our accommodations came with buffed cement floors, rustic but comfortable furnishings, and a palette of taupe and stone gray. The effect of this simple, almost monastic décor was immediately relaxing. Our only reservations about these comfortable quarters were that better bedside reading lamps would have been welcome, as would a tub along with the walk-in rainfall shower. Outside, a shaded private terrace offered superb views over vineyards to the Capofaro lighthouse and the sparkling Tyrrhenian Sea.
Capofaro is really a place to unplug, with lazy days spent by the pool or reading in the shade.
Capofaro is located on a working 15-acre estate owned by the Tasca d’Almerita family, which began making wine in Sicily in 1830 and today owns five vineyards, along with the renowned Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School, at their Sicilian Tenuta Regaleali estate. It therefore came as little surprise to find that the hotel’s restaurant is superb. Chef Ludovico De Vivo has won a Michelin star for his sophisticated but unfussy contemporary Sicilian cooking, which includes dishes like seared lettuce with watermelon and yogurt sauce; paccheri (tubular pasta) alla Norma with two types of eggplant, Ragusano cheese and fresh mint; and Nebrodi pork fillet with beet sauce, mulberries and wild sea fennel. (The delicious bread was awarded a “best bread” prize from the prestigious Gambero Rosso 2018 guide to Italian restaurants.) The wine list has an excessive emphasis on the Tasca d’Almerita family’s own wines, which is a shame, since Sicily today produces many spectacular wines that are not exported. However, be sure to sample a glass of Capofaro Malvasia, produced with grapes from the surrounding estate. (It is possible to walk around the vineyards accompanied by Capofaro’s sommelier, or even to work on the vineyard; chef De Vivo also offers cooking classes.)
Breakfast at the hotel begins with fresh ricotta cheese and yogurt, while Sicilian pastries such as graffe and sfinci are baked each morning. And hand-sliced charcuterie from the Nebrodi Mountains, homemade jams and Sicilian black bee honey all form parts of the morning feast.
A shuttle is available to take guests into Santa Marina Salina several times a day, and another one serves the hotel’s small, semiprivate pebbled beach, Lido Gharb, where lounge chairs and umbrellas are available. A garden spa offers treatments and massages. And there is a paddle tennis court for those in need of more-vigorous exercise. However, Capofaro is really a place to unplug, with lazy days spent by the pool or reading in the shade, with the tufts of smoke rising from distant Stromboli being the only distraction.
On another visit to Capofaro, we might select the romantic Imperial Suite Il Faro, which is housed within the renovated lighthouse building and comes with a sitting room, a bedroom with panoramic sea views and a private garden. One way or another, we’ll be back, because this is an exceptionally charming, distinctive and relaxing hotel.
The beautiful setting on a wine estate; the superlative restaurant; the languorous and relaxing atmosphere.
The wine tasting offered by the hotel was disappointingly amateurish, both in terms of the quality of the wines and the information presented by the distracted and inexperienced young host.
Reservations should be made as far in advance as possible, because this hotel is very popular and at desirable times of year soon becomes fully booked.
From Capofaro, it was only a seven-minute cab ride to the 30-room Hotel Signum in the delightful village of Malfa, which is built on a fertile green plain overlooking the sea beneath an extinct volcano. The atmosphere at this property is very different from that at Capofaro, being more arty and bohemian. Here, rooms are distributed among several stone houses surrounded by terraced gardens and orchards. All are individually decorated and come with patterned tile floors, a mix of antique and contemporary furniture, beds made up with top-quality Italian linen sheets, linen drapes and ceiling fans in addition to air-conditioning. Some accommodations overlook the gardens or the hotel pool, but the best rooms afford sweeping views of the sea.
Young chef Martina Caruso has won a Michelin star for her inventive contemporary Sicilian cooking at the Signum’s charming restaurant, where service is offered on an open-air patio most nights.
We fell in love with Suite No. 26 as soon as the front desk clerk had left us to settle in. It came with a private front porch, a side porch with heavy wicker armchairs and a small balcony off the spacious main bedroom. The lounge and the bedroom were appointed with a mixture of ’50s and ’60s retro furniture, lamps and mirrors, which combined to create a décor that was stylish but still wonderfully homey. The spacious bath had a jetted walk-in rainfall shower and a soaking tub, plus locally made toiletries employing volcanic ash, jasmine and figs.
Young chef Martina Caruso has won a Michelin star for her inventive contemporary Sicilian cooking at the Signum’s charming restaurant, where service is offered on an open-air patio most nights. Her menu changes with the seasons, but the pasta dishes are outstanding, including pasta mista with mussels, zucchini and Ragusano cheese; linguine with almond milk and clams; and paccheri with squid, Tuma Persa cheese and crispy chard. Among the main dishes, the locally caught rock lobster with celeriac, escarole and Marsala wine is outstanding, as is the scorpionfish cooked in parchment paper with tomatoes, potatoes, olives and capers. Alas, the service is often more good-natured than efficient, which can be a little frustrating.
The appealing bistro menu served at noon runs to a luscious Aeolian salad with lettuce, cherry tomatoes, potatoes, capers, onion and tuna; a breaded fish cutlet served as a burger with wild fennel and fries; and rigatoni with caper pesto.
Adding to the pleasures of a stay at the Hotel Signum are the other hotel guests, who tend to be worldly and sophisticated. During our stay, they included a Dutch artist and his doctor wife, with whom we dined with one night; a gregarious family of Australians, visiting the island from which their grandfather had emigrated; and a London magazine editor and her chef husband. Many guests seemed to be making a return visit, which augmented the familial and sociable atmosphere. The Hotel Signum is a place where we would happily have stayed for a week. And the magical views from the property are some of the best mental souvenirs we’ve collected during recent years of travel.
Our extremely comfortable and well-appointed suite; the fine restaurant; the glorious views; the sociable ambiance.
The sometimes erratic service in the restaurant and bar.
Bring water shoes if you want to swim from Salina’s rocky beaches; the boating excursions organized by the hotel should not be missed.
The Aeolians are not easy to get to. There are no airports on any of the islands, so unless you are prepared to go to the expense of a helicopter transfer aboard Air Panarea, it is necessary to take a ferry from Reggio Calabria or Palermo in season, or from the charmless port of Milazzo on Sicily’s northern coast year-round. The nearest large airport to Milazzo is Catania, a 90-minute drive away. Most ferry crossings from Milazzo are early in the morning, which means either spending a night in Taormina (where we recommend the Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo and the Hotel Villa Ducale) or staying in Milazzo itself, where the two most acceptable and convenient options for an overnight stay are the new Eolian Port B&B and La Bussola Hotel, a four-star business hotel overlooking the port. When traveling to the Aeolians, it is highly recommended to book ferry tickets in advance, as services sell out during the summer months and trying to buy tickets at the ticket offices in Milazzo can be a frustrating experience for anyone who doesn’t speak Italian.