Discover the secret Italian islands where overtourism isn’t an issue
Just off the northern coast of Sicily is the dazzling Aeolian archipelago, with something to offer in every season.
Italy truly has a timeless allure. The country has been through so much recently, so you could be forgiven for forgetting the features that make Italy one of the most geographically diverse and spectacular countries on earth.
Beyond the classic destinations like Venice, Florence and Rome — and even beyond the mainland ‘boot’ of Italy — there are gorgeous islands of various shapes and sizes that invite discovery.
And the Aeolian archipelago just off the northern coast of Sicily, is arguably the most bewitching of these. Here, overtourism has never really been a problem — and it certainly isn’t an issue at the moment.
A chain of volcanic islands
The seven islands in the Aeolian chain include lush Salina, the jet-set playground isle of Panarea, and ethereal Stromboli, whose eponymous active volcano is a sight that has mesmerised travellers since ancient times. Gnarled, reddish lava formations grace many of these varied island coasts, sometimes jutting up right from the seafloor.
The Aeolian Islands are arguably the most pristine archipelago in the entire Mediterranean and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site too.
Go there by ferry from the Sicilian town of Milazzo or by flying into Naples or Palermo then taking any number of ferries from those cities to the islands, which include:
1. Fiery Stromboli
Stromboli’s volcano is rightly known as the “lighthouse of the Mediterranean” because every night, lava erupts from the top and streams down from the Sciara del Fuoco into the sea. It’s a truly awe-inspiring sight, especially when enjoyed from the outdoor deck of a night boat — it’s easy to find one in the little port of Ginostra.
The volcano is actually 8,000 feet tall, while only about 3,000 feet are above sea level. There are a couple of small villages and some decent black-sand beaches on the island, but basically, Stromboli is a giant volcano.
2. Sweet Salina
Two lumbering, extinct volcanoes form the spine of Salina. The taller of the two, Monte Fossa delle Felci, at 962 metres, is the highest peak in the Aeolian archipelago.
Unlike stern Stromboli, this is a lush and verdant isle. Its most famous products are capers and Malvasia, the sweet fragrant white wine made from dried grapes.
The main port is Santa Marina, but for the best vistas and most interesting places to stay, hop on a bus to the village of Malfa, where Hotel Signum has a pleasant al fresco restaurant and great spa. At the clifftop Capofaro Locanda & Malvasia, you may need to cross a vineyard get to your room — not necessarily a bad thing.
Movie buffs may also recognise Salina as the place where the classic 1994 movie ‘Il Postino’ was filmed.
3. Chic Panarea
Panarea is one of the smallest of the Aeolians. With its combination of stark geography and reputation for attracting A-listers like Uma Thurman and Giorgio Armani, it’s the Italian answer to Mykonos.
In fact, the whitewashed lanes of the main village are reminiscent of Greek island towns. It’s no surprise then that the before the ancient Romans were here, Panarea was settled by Mycenaean Greeks.
The breezy, eclectic Hotel Raya helped put Panarea on the map in the 1960s and is still the best place to stay.
Take a short boat trip to the deserted islet of Basiluzzo where you can swim in the clear blue waters. Above the water, Air Panarea offers helicopter tours of nearby Stromboli’s volcano.
4. Lovely Lipari
At nearly 15 square miles, Lipari is the largest of the Aeolian Islands and bears evidence of settlements long before the arrival of ancient Greek colonists.
Its main town, also called Lipari, is the commercial capital of the Aeolians and feels like a more down-to-earth version of Capri. It’s also home to a must-see archaeological museum, known for its displays of some ancient shipwreck cargoes and the world’s largest collection of miniature ancient Greek theatre masks.
From the Quattrocchi (Four Eyes) lookout point, about two miles out of Lipari town, you can get an eyeful of dramatic scenery and a view across the water to the island of Vulcano.
5. The Cutie, Filicudi
When approaching tiny, remote Filicudi, don’t miss La Canna, a volcanic rock that juts up like a sentry 243 feet above sea level. It’s a fitting introduction to an island that truly feels like it fell off the map, which is a bit deceptive, as this mountainous green island has been settled since Neolithic times.
You can inspect the ruins of a seaside Bronze Age village at Capo Graziano, about a 10-minute ride south from the small harbour. For the best seafood try Ristorante La Canna, perched just above the harbour, or La Sirena in the even tinier Pecorini a Mare beach.
6. Vibrant Vulcano
Ancient Greeks called it Therassia and ascribed it to Hephaestus, god of fire. But the Romans renamed the island Vulcano and thought it was the chimney of Vulcan, their god of fire. It’s hard to argue with that as you hike or drive past smoking sulphurous fumaroles on the way to the Gran Cratere della Fossa, the biggest of the stratovolcanic cones.
On the north end is little Vulcanello, product of an eruption in 183 BC and connected to the main island by an isthmus. It’s there, at Porto di Ponente, where you can indulge in a therapeutic mud bath and work in a swim at a broad black-sand beach.
For those who like to plan ahead, the best place to stay in Vulcano is the Therasia Resort — the views from there across the sea to Lipari will blow you away. The resort reopens in April.