Aeolian Islands

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Posted by Dan Webster on Dec. 11, 2018, midnight

From a distance, the island of Stromboli looked to be shrouded in clouds. Once we got closer, though, we saw they weren’t clouds at all.

Stomboli was leaking steam from its volcano.

And I thought, these volcano visits are getting to be a habit.

Years before, we’d driven around Mount Etna, an active volcano located on mainland Sicily. And some years after that, we’d seen Kilauea on Hawaii’s Big Island, which we had visited at midnight so we could better see the red glow of its open caldera.

Stromboli, though, was part of something every bit as special. Set amid an archipelago called the Aeolian Islands, it sits in the Tyrrhenian Sea, just off the northeast coast of Sicily. It is one of eight major islands in the chain, all of volcanic origin, though Stromboli’s volcano is the only one still active.

Lipari island

We came to the islands from Naples, where we’d spent the night at the hotel Exe Majestic and dined on pizza – obligatory in Naples – at Umberto. The six-plus-hour hydrofoil ride to the Aeolians was one of the most uncomfortable forms of travel I’ve even endured. My wife and I had come prepared for motion sickness, with Dramamine for her or Travel-Gum for me. Other passengers were not as well prepared.

The up side? Two things: We were able to watch a World Cup match on a big-screen TV (cue the trumpets), and we ended up in Lipari (pronounced, we learned, LEE-pah-ree), the biggest of the islands in the group.

After we arrived, still regaining our land legs, we made a rookie mistake. Taking a cab from the port, we were deposited on a street that was maybe only about half as close to the hotel as the port itself.

Turns out, Lipari’s main streets are closed to vehicles after a certain hour. So we had to walk. Ah, well, it was late, we were tired and mistakes were made. Even experienced travelers sometimes get confused.

Our basic plan ended up being sound, in the long run. We used Lipari as our home base, leaving our luggage in the room we rented at the Residence Alberghiero Eolie, which included a kitchenette and access to a terrace with a grand view of the neighboring hillsides. This gave us the freedom to explore the other islands during day trips.

Lipari itself, which boasts a permanent population nearly 12,000, was ideal for our purposes. Though the island is a popular tourist site, attracting some 200,000 visitors a season, it never felt as crowded as any of Italy’s most popular cities – Rome, Florence, Venice and the like.

And there is plenty to experience in Lipari, particularly the food. It should come as no surprise that seafood is a specialty, which we took advantage of more than once, most notably at Ristorante Pescatore.

Maybe our favorite eatery was a street-side sandwich shop called EnoPaninoteca Gilberto e Vera, which prompted a second visit during our trip. The panini were tasty and inexpensive, and the service was friendly and prompt.

To see the rest of the island, we hired a taxi driver to take us around (as we had done on the island of Ponza the previous summer). This gave us a feel both for Lipari’s smaller communities and for how elevation can, as the day progresses, affect the weather – the late afternoons were surprisingly foggy and cool.

Mostly, we enjoyed just walking the streets of the island’s main town center, which aren’t very long but do feature steep climbs up to the castle that overlooks the port. Like all of Italy, Lipari boasts a variety of museums that capture both its history and culture.

Streets of Lipari

Our favorite was the Museo Archeologico Regionale Eoliano, which revealed the natural history of the area’s volcanoes. Not only did we enjoy combing through the collection of artifacts, but we marveled at the view of the harbor the museum offers.

Even if you stay for a week, as we did on Lipari, you never find time to see everything. This is especially true in the Aeolians because the other islands – we visited three – are also must-sees.

First, we took the hydrofoil to Vulcano (Vul-CAH-no, pop. 470), the island nearest Lipari, which turned out to be the start of a movie mini-tour; Anna Magnani starred in the 1950 film “Vulcano.” After strolling through the town, past the Sulphur mud baths that are a major island tourist attraction, we returned to the port in search of a guide.

Lucky for us, we found Santi (of Santi Tour), who quoted us a decent price and who spoke English well, in contrast to our mediocre Italian. And while exploring most of what the tiny island had to offer, Santi gave us a virtual college education in Vulcan’s geology, geography and history while keying on the occasional volcanic eruption. The last major one ended in 1890.

After the tour, Santi recommended a restaurant, Malvasia Pane Cunzatu, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch that I would describe as Caprese salad on a pizza.

On another day, we caught the hydrofoil to the island of Salina (Sah-LEE-nah, pop. 4,000). Again, we hired a driver to see both that island’s scenic views and its three distinct towns, including Pollara ,where Massimo Troisi’s final film, “Il Postino,” was shot.

Stromboli island

We were most excited to visit Stromboli (STROM-boh-lee, pop. 500), namesake and site of the 1950 Roberto Rossellini film starring Ingrid Bergman. We’d booked an overnight stay in a seaside room at the exclusive La Sirenetta Park Hotel, where the echoes of the waves splashing on the nearby beach rocked us to sleep.

They don’t allow cars on Stromboli, so the only way to get close to the volcano is to hike up the mountain (our aging legs nixed that idea). Or you can rent a boat on the gamble that you’ll be able to get a clear view of the lava flow from out on the water. But the boat-rental cost on Stomboli (as on the other islands) seemed a bit steep, and there was no guarantee that we’d see any more than what we’d viewed passing by on our initial arrival. So we declined.

Instead, we chose to take an evening passeggiata (or “stroll,” an Italian tradition), climbing up alleyways and stairwells, past little shops and the occasional open area where residents gathered to chat and otherwise pass the time. Ultimately, we arrived at the restaurant Trattoria Ai Gechi.

And then there we sat, on an outdoor terrace, our backs to an active volcano, drinking from a chilled bottle of Malvasia Bianca as night came on. We clinked glasses as we looked out over Stromboli’s countryside and onward to the blue sea beyond.

And I pondered: How many other volcanoes can we visit in the world?