Everyone has their happy place. Mine is a group of islands that took me sixteen hours, three buses, two planes, one train, one taxi, one hydrofoil and over eleven thousand footsteps to reach the last time I visited. A very long day to traverse a distance that was, as the crow flies, only a thousand miles. But once I arrived it was, and always is, worth every minute.
The Eolian Islands are off the northeastern coast of Sicily- the closest big port is Milazzo. There are seven of them- eight if you count Basiluzzo (aka: Mini Panarea. I don’t because it’s deserted and you can’t go there without a private boat). They are Vulcano, Lipari, Salina, Panarea, Stromboli, Filacudi and Alicudi. They are all volcanic in origin- two of them, Vulcano and Stromboli, are still active. In the case of Stromboli, VERY active.
They are part of Sicily but, like the rest of the island, feel as much Greek as they do Italian. This is because for thousands of years they were part of Greece, and then saw a number of civilizations march through. The Italians were relative late comers although they brought the most important thing with them: their cuisine.
Planning your trip
These islands cover a relatively small surface area, but are very diverse and accommodations range from hostels in the center of Lipari, to very exclusive hotels in Salina to remote villas on Alicudi. My advice would be to determine your budget, the type of vacation you want and your appetite for taking Italian public transport. Once you do that, read the rest of this blog and figure out the islands you wish to visit. Then draw up a plan. I provide one hotel choice for each of these islands: Lipari, Vulcano, Panarea and Salina. I’ve been to each a number of times and have personally stayed at all of these places- they are my top picks. None of these hotels has paid me for a review, nor given me any type of perk for including them in this blog. I just enjoy them and would like to give them some publicity because I know how hard it is to run a small, service oriented business. There are hotels on Stromboli, I’ve just never stayed on the island for the night because, well, I’m scared of volcanoes. Plus I think the Stromboli eruptions are best viewed from a boat, or Panarea. That said it makes a nice day trip- I had the best arancini of my life on Stromboli. Felicudi has a couple small hotels that seem rather unappealing. Alicudi doesn’t have any hotels. In my opinion, a stay on the last two islands would be good for a honeymoon or some other occasion when one wants a LOT of private time. In these situations I would recommend a private villa and a boat.
There are a number of ways to accomplish this. If you are coming from outside of Italy, the easiest is to fly into Palermo. From there you can take a hydrofoil straight to the islands, or you can take a train to Milazzo and then catch a ferry/hydrafoil to the the islands. If possible I prefer to take the hydrafoil straight from Palermo as the trains in Sicily are pretty bad (there’s a reason I invented the hashtag #trenitaliasucks on my last trip). The only problem with this is the hydrafoil runs once a day at best, and it can be a rough ride if the sea is choppy. Last time I took the hydrafoil the weather was beautiful, but we bounced around so much on the sea that 95% of the people on the boat threw up. Thankfully the crew let those of us that weren’t sick on the back deck so we could get some fresh air, or the stench probably would have made me ill as well. You can certainly drive from Palermo to Milazzo, which is the easiest, but then you have to pay for parking while you’re on the islands as you can’t bring your car. If you need a place to stay in Palermo, I highly recommend the Centrale Palace.
If you’re coming from Italy, you can take a ferry from Reggio Calabria or Vibo Valentina. Ustica Lines gives the best service to the Eolian Islands. Siremar also operates ferries around the islands but I find them to be less reliable and have more limited service.
Once you are there, you can island hop. This is one of the reasons I like the Eolian Islands so much. You can either go to a different island every night or two, or use one as a base and then take ferries to the others. The cheapest thing to do is to stay on Lipari (the largest and most accessible), then take day trips to other islands. The ferries are well scheduled so you can leave in the morning, arrive in time for a long lunch, have a swim and still have time to do a little shopping or sightseeing. Alternatively, there are many private boat charters that will take you to one or two islands for the day. These are a pretty good option as they are reasonably priced, you don’t have to wait in line at the ferry terminals, they’re usually very punctual (let’s face it, this is Southern Italy and the public ferries often run quite late) and they always take you to special swimming places you couldn’t access unless you rented your own boat (another good option).
Alternatively, if you have money and are looking for pure relaxation, you can park yourself someplace elegant like Panarea, Salina or Vulcano and just chill. I recommend visiting Alicudi, Felicudi and Stromboli as day trips. They are gorgeous but they don’t have much in the way of facilities.
This is the most populated of the islands, the cheapest and the best connected. There are two harbors: Marina Corta and Marina Lunga. The big ferries and hydrafoils all stop at Marina Lunga. My advice is to get out of there as quickly as possible. The main thoroughfare is called Corso Vittorio Emanuele (not very surprising if you know Italy well)- it starts at Marina Lunga. You will most likely walk up this road until you reach your hotel. The further you walk, the less touristy and more atmospheric it becomes. There is a grocery store on Corso Vittorio Emanuele, plus lots of shops. They are fine for food, but I would resist buying clothes. There are much better boutiques on the other islands (especially Panarea and Salina). If you want cheap beach cover-ups and sun dresses, best to buy those from the guys that sell them on racks down by the harbor.
The Marina Corta is much more atmospheric. It is a lovely place to go for the sunset, an aperitivo or for dinner. Small, private excursion boats to the other islands usually leave from Marina Corta. It is crowned by a pretty little church.
Things to do on Lipari
Lipari has, in my opinion, one of the most interesting museums in the world: The Museo Archeologico di Lipari. Its focus is underwater archeology. It has finds from a number of ancient Roman and Greek wrecks, plus coins and other treasures from antiquity. Additionally, it houses what is probably the best collection of ancient Greek vases in the world. I highly recommend a trip there.
After exploring the museum, I recommend a stroll around the Citadel, and to have a look at the old Cathedral- especially the cloisters. They are very atmospheric.
If you want to go to the beach, you have to take a bus or taxi. There are a number of buses that depart from Marina Lunga. The closest beach is Canneto. It’s not great but the water is very clean and it’s relatively convenient. Spiagga Bianca is interesting because it is made of pumice and there is an old pumice factory on site. Acquacalda is another possibility. Personally, I don’t like any of the beaches on Lipari. They’re not that great and even Canneto is a pain to get to. My recommendation is to charter a boat and have it take you somewhere private, or to take a ferry to Vulcano. It’s very close and has lovely spots to swim.
Where to stay
My recommendation is Punta Sallustro. It’s quiet and reasonably priced. They don’t have a restaurant but give you vouchers for breakfast at a cafe in Marina Corta. Plus it has the things that I deem important: beautiful decor, terraces, a lovely garden with seating and luxurious bath products made of local ingredients.
When the doors of the ferry/hydrafoil open at Vulcano’s port, you are hit by two impressions- crystalline aqua water and the overwhelming smell of sulfur. Exiting the ferry you will see the two main calderas on the island. The large one to the left is the Grand Crater. It has been designated a national park and you can hike to the top. The view is supposed to be fantastic, although it emits large amounts of sulfurous gas and you have to be careful not to inhale too much. The much smaller one to the right is called Vulcanello- you can walk to the top of that one too. I have not climbed either because both endeavors seem hot and scary and generally unappealing, but some people like that sort of thing.
From the harbor, most things are readily accessible. There are streets with a number of shops and restaurants in front of you and to the left. The shops closest to the harbor have cheap tourist things, but if you venture further away there are some lovely, very chic shops selling beautiful, unique clothes and jewelry. For lunch, I recommend an Eolian Salad. It is basically a Salade Niçosie, but they substitute capers for green beans. I have one of these salads for lunch almost everyday whilst in the Eolian Islands. It’s worth noting here that the best capers in the world come from nearby Salina. Once you have those you won’t be able to eat capers from anywhere else in the world.
If you walk to the right you will come immediately to the mud baths (Laghetto di Fanghi) and then the black sand beach (Le Spiaggia Sabbia Nera). Further to the right is Vulcanello, the smaller crater.
Things to do on Vulcano
Because you are so close to the volcanoes and the sea, you can’t help but feel incredibly close to nature on Vulcano. It permeates everything. There are excellent hiking trails which I am sure are enjoyable when it’s cooler, but I’ve always been in the summer. For me, the thing to do on Vulcano is enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Window shop in the boutiques, enjoy a lunch of simple, natural ingredients, drink a little too much wine and swim in the sea (not necessarily in that order).
Swimming in the sea here is something special. The water at Spiaggia Negra has fumeroles- natural underwater vents that give the sea a Jacuzzi effect in certain places. They’re a little scary at first because you’re afraid you might get burned, but as long as you don’t step on them you won’t. That said, make sure you wear sea shoes everywhere in the Eolian Islands. I cannot stress this enough. The beaches are almost always rocky (which I prefer so I don’t end up with sand everywhere), and if you walk on a fumerole it really hurts.
I highly recommend a mud bath at the large natural pool between Spiaggia Negra and the port. Just don’t wear a fancy swimsuit or coverup because if you get mud on them (which you will), the mud and the smell won’t come out, even after you wash them.
Because of the natural mud and thermal water, Vulcano is an idea place for a spa treatment. I think the best place is at the Therasia Resort (see below). You can also shop in the pharmacies for locally made bath products that feature pumice from Lipari, mud and thermal waters from Vulcano, Malvasia (with its antioxidant properties) from Salina and other local ingredients. Although these islands don’t attract many international tourists, they draw a high end clientele from Rome and Milan. This clientele is, like me, very picky about their cosmetics so you’re not going to find hippy products here- it’s all high end stuff, at relatively reasonable price points.
I also love going for a boat ride around the island. If you do this, don’t miss the Piscina di Venere, a naturally occurring, luminous blue pool that is possibly the best place to swim in the world. Because of the large amount of volcanic ash that covers the sea floor around these islands, the light is reflected through the water in a very special way. The result are shimmering blues and azures that can’t be captured by a camera. You have to visit the islands and see the effect with your naked eye before you realize how truly beautiful this world can be.
Where to stay
I like the Therasia Resort. It is on the opposite side of Vulcanello as the port, so it feels remote yet you can walk into town (although it’s a bit of a trek on a hot afternoon). They also have a shuttle bus. The rooms are very natural- mostly white with natural wood touches. Even the cheapest rooms have private terraces. The spa is excellent. My favorite thing is the main terrace- you can have a glass of wine or cocktail and watch the sun set. They also have a vertical sun deck with chairs on descending terraces that lead straight down to the sea. One evening a storm was blowing up as the sun set. I walked down to only a few meters above the sea (I couldn’t go all the way down because the waves were crashing up onto the platform)- feeling the full force of the sea whilst still on land was incredible.
Salina is the oldest and greenest of the islands. It has two old volcanoes, but they haven’t erupted for quite some time (13,000+ years). As a result grape vines now climb the slopes of the old volcanoes and caper flowers grow wild all around the island. My favorite hotel has a small lemon grove in the garden and you can see umbrella pines and jacaranda trees wherever you walk. The island gets its name from the naturally occurring salt lake that is to the left of the Santa Marina port- sea salt was produced from this lake.
The island has two ports: Santa Marina and Rinella. Santa Marina is the main one- your ferry/hydrafoil will most likely let you off here. If you turn to the right and follow the street by the sea (Lungomare), you will come to the pretty little church of Santa Maria (the ferry ticket office is right next door). The church is cool and quiet inside and makes a nice respite from the heat. If you walk along Lungomare there is an amazing spot to swim, where all the locals go. If you keep walking you will come to the remains of some old Roman baths. Santa Marina was originally a Greek colony- it was founded in the 4th century BC and continued to thrive through Imperial Roman times.
Parallel to the Lungomare, away from the sea is the street Via Risorgimento. It is lined with restaurants, stores selling local food such as capers and Malvasia wine and interesting clothing boutiques. Note: almost all of the shops here still close for lunch, so do your shopping in the morning or early evening.
I like the smaller town on the north shore of the island, Malfa. It has some of the best hotels (including the Hotel Signum, where I like to stay), a couple restaurants and shops. There is also a Simply if you want to buy a bottle of wine, do some grocery shopping or don’t want to pay fancy pharmacy prices for sunblock or shampoo.
Things to do on Salina
Salina is small and quiet. If you want to spend more than an afternoon here I recommend either staying at a comfortable hotel that has a pool and things to do, or exploring the island. There are good beaches (small pebbles- not much sand in the Eolian Islands so don’t forgot those sea shoes) at Punto Scario or Pra’Venezia. Alternatively, you can visit the charming village of Pollara where the film Il Postino was filmed.
Where to stay
I am in love with the Hotel Signum. It is a short walk outside Malfa. When you enter the grounds you are stepping into a private, self contained world. To illustrate: I brought my very active cousin to this place and in four days he only left the grounds of the hotel once- to have a pizza. They have a wonderful pool, or you can exit the hotel at the bottom of the grounds and walk down to a very private, pretty little cove for a swim. On the way there is a restaurant with a spacious outdoor terrace where you can go for a drink. The food in the restaurant is excellent with lots of locally sourced, biodynamic options. Plus they have an amazing spa based upon ancient Mediterranean principles. You can give yourself a mud treatment (with mud from Vulcano), use the sauna, visit the hydrotherapy pools or just relax. Much of it (except the treatment rooms of course) is outside which I love.
Panarea (and Stromboli)
I would be hard pressed to chose a favorite island but if I had to, I think it would be Panarea. It’s more expensive than the others, but also more glamorous (in a calm Italian way). What I really love about it is the colors- it’s a hundred different tones of lapis lazuli, and most of the buildings are white. It’s small so you always feel a breeze from the water- the island is really just an extension of the sea. The air often carries the scent of jasmine as the island is filled with it- the vines flow over walls along the small side streets. At night, if you’re lucky, you can sit on your terrace or balcony and see the fiery lava from Stromboli shoot into the black night.
Panarea has one port. When you arrive, walk to the left and up. If I’m not staying for the night, I’ve come for lunch and I walk straight to the restaurant of the Hotel Raya. The restaurant has an amazing view of Stromboli and Mini Panarea, plus the food is excellent. The hotel next door, Hotel Cincotta, also has a lovely terrace and is a quieter, less boho version of the Raya.
If you don’t want lunch, at least have a glass of wine on the terrace of the Raya as it has an amazing view and wonderful vibe.
Things to do on Panarea
Panarea has one of the best swimming spots in the islands- Cala Junco. I prefer to go in the mornings because in the afternoons many people sail from the other islands for a swim so it can get crowded. It’s a lovely walk from Hotel Raya. Simply follow the signs.
You walk past private villas, then through a nature trail that is about 1 km long. It weaves through a special bio reserve that is filled with traditional Mediterranean scrub: primarily laurel, myrtle, scrub oak and rosemary. Note that olive trees are not native- they were introduced by the Greeks. You climb the nature trail to the top of a cliff, where there is an old bronze age settlement called Capo Milazzese. I love just walking through it by myself- the centuries seem to fold into themselves and you get a sense of timelessness when you look towards the sea. On the other side of the settlement you walk down the cliff to arrive at Cala Junco. Make sure you bring your sea shoes, a towel and a big bottle of water on this expedition. If you want another place to swim, you can also to the beach of Calcara- it has hot springs and fumeroles like the Spaggia Nera on Vulcano.
When you arrive back in town, if you’re at all inclined, have a look in the shops. Panarea has amazing, independent boutiques at many different price points. In town, Hotel Raya has a shop filled with items from Indonesia and other places in Southeast Asia that are quite interesting. Another shop called Moda Mare makes beautiful leather sandals. The owners can custom make a pair for you in a day, or you can choose from the wide ready made selection.
If you like sightseeing, make sure to see the little church San Pietro. It is small but beautiful, and the walk up to it is quite atmospheric.
Something I highly recommend, that is best done from Panarea, is to hire a boat, or book a space on a boat to Stromboli. There are many options- my favorite is to go in mid afternoon. Try and find one that gives you some time to explore Stromboli, then embark before sunset. That way you can see the eruptions at night. The last time I did this we anchored our boat next to Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana’s yacht, which I quite enjoyed.
If you’re more adventurous you can spend the night on Stromboli and climb to the top. Personally, I am happy to walk around the island for a couple hours, have a late afternoon snack and get back on the boat to watch the lava explode into the air from the safety of the sea. It’s nature’s fireworks display and it happens every night.
Where to stay
The chic choice is Hotel Raya. It’s beautiful and I am always easy prey for a place with stunning views and a boho vibe. But it’s quite expensive for the level of amenities on offer. It’s technically a two star hotel- it has been intentionally kept that way so Panarea doesn’t go the way of Capri. The super rich have started going to Lipari so they can stay on their posh big yachts- Panarea’s harbor isn’t large enough to accommodate big vessels which is fine by me. The other major drawback to Hotel Raya is there is a nightclub on the premises. Bring ear plugs.
Honestly, I prefer Hotel Cincotta, located next door. It is much cheaper, has equally stunning views and although less chic, is more elegant. Plus the clientele is better behaved. It doesn’t have the boho vibe or celebrities that Raya sometimes attracts, but you can always go for drinks on the terrace at the Raya then retreat back to your room at Hotel Cincotta to listen to the sea.
Filicudi and Alicudi
These are the most remote of the Eolian islands. If you want to get away from everything and lose yourself in the water and the earth, this is the place to go. When you approach the islands, they shimmer and shift into the blueness of the sky and sea. In the afternoon heat they seem to be covered by a translucent blue veil, and you wonder if it will be lifted or not- perhaps they are simply a mirage in the midst of a vast liquid aquamarine. As the boat approaches land, the earth firms up and you can see small details of boats and houses.
For a quick exploration they are best visited from Salina or Lipari. For a longer stay you can take the hydrafoil from Palermo- Alicudi is the first stop, then Filicudi. Alicudi is the most remote- it has two restaurants and a handful of private villas you can rent. If you want to move around the island you have two choices: hiking or donkeys. Filicudi has a few more creature comforts, and a couple small hotels, but a stay on the island is still quite spartan. If you plan to remain on either island for more than an evening, I recommend hiring a boat so you can explore the coastlines and spend your days swimming and sunning. Filicudi’s Grotta del Bue Marino is not to me missed (their answer to Capri’s Blue Grotto), and the formation La Canna is a must see. To rent an apartment or villa, you can look on the big sites like booking.com or Airbnb.