By Travelin’ Gal Maxine Albert
Fashion designers, jetsetters and aficionados of stunning nature are flocking to the Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago located off the coast of northern Sicily. Jutting out of the Tyrrhenian Sea, these pearls of the Mediterranean are a Unesco World Heritage Site. The isles are named for Aeolus, the keeper of the winds in Greek mythology who mischievously blew Odysseus back to the island’s rocky shores when he tried to return home.
Rustic and wild, they proffer sandy beaches, coves, grottos, sulphur springs, lush vegetation, lunar rock-scapes and fiery volcanoes. There’s something both primal and mystical about these islands and their active volcanic terrain. Let’s not forget the Italian cuisine, shimmering Mediterranean, Sicilian sun and glamorous nightlife. Not surprising that the Aeolians are ‘in’. Each of the small islands has its own distinct charm and beauty. I recommend seeing as many as you can, if only for a short day trip by private boat or ferry.
My base for exploring the islands was Vulcano, the first stop on the ferry from Milazzo, Sicily. There’s a serene, unspoilt quality to the landscape where nature rules. The 5 star Therasia Resort and Spa, my lovely oasis, offers a striking lobby, stylish rooms with large terraces and expansive outdoor spaces for unparalleled sea views throughout – plus a helicopter pad. The resort sits atop a promontory overlooking other islands and free standing rock formations, the faraglioni. Local materials such as lava rock from Mt. Etna, Sicilian terra cotta and olive wood give Therasia a natural feel.
Whether lounging by the gorgeous infinity pool or on any of the scattered private spots on various terraces leading to the sea, the panorama was breathtaking. Gazing at the water, passing boats and majestic rocks jutting out of the sea, was hypnotic.
Mornings, I loved swimming up to the infinity edge of the huge pool to take in the spectacular vista. Afternoons were spent lolling on lounges that faced the sea with a cooling breeze. Stairs led down to the blue Mediterranean for those wanting a lovely swim, which I took quite often. Adjacent were lounges for guests desiring closest proximity to the water, or you might want to sunbathe on a rock. For pampering the spa offered rejuvenating treatments with local products such as a scrub with volcanic black sand from the islands beaches. Did I mention the outdoor Jacuzzi and nature trails? Many options in paradise. Hotel shuttles take guests to nearby beaches - but who wanted to leave.
One of the things I love most about Italy is the food and Therasia did not disappoint. For me, dining alfresco on delectable spaghetti with urchin, linguine with clams, freshly grilled fish and pizza with buffalo mozzarella was la dolce vita. At sunset, the fashionable guests gathered on the veranda to toast the last golden rays with prosecco while a combo played cool jazz. Also memorable was a private boat ride around the island, arranged by the hotel. Seeing Vulcano from the sea, the inlets and coves and rock formations in shapes that look like animals, seeing nature in all its majesty, was unforgettable.
A highlight was a visit to Vulcano’s famed thermal mud bath reputed for therapeutic powers to alleviate skin ailments, digestion, inflammation, circulation and even cellulite. Be forewarned – it smells of sulphurous gasses. I can attest that my skin felt and looked softer and revitalized after just one treatment. Afterwards, I strolled the 3 blocks near the port, the island’s only town, passing shops with Indian and Indonesian artifacts and eclectic jewelry. Looking in the window of the Gecko Café, (that nightly transforms into the swinging hotspot) a scrumptious cannoli called out to me. I sat outside and indulged in the tasty sweet and an espresso, under the glow of the Sicilian sun.
Therasia Resort and Spa
Panarea, the smallest of the chain, is the chicest with its white washed villas draped in bougainvillea, narrow lanes and one of the best nightclubs in Italy. Georgio Armani has a villa here, as do the Bulgaris, Viscontis and Princess Borghese. Sip an aperitivo at Bar del Porto near the port and glimpse yachts bringing in the fabulous. After dining at Bridge Sushi Bar, the pedigreed and jetsetters head to the dance party on famed Hotel Raya’s terrace.
Lipari, the largest and most populous, with a bustling main town is worth a visit for the fortified acropolis and Archaeological Museum. The impressive collection of Neolithic vases, Roman amphorae and extraordinary theatrical masks and statuettes from the cult of Dionysius demonstrate how these remote islands were indeed a cultural and commercial center in ancient times.
Salina, the lush, mountainous island, is known for its sweet Malvasia wine, capers and picturesque landscape. Massimo Troisi was so enchanted with this idyllic place that he filmed the movie ‘ Il Postino ’ here. For lunch, head to the charming Hotel Signum, in Malfa, for superb regional cuisine and an outdoor spa built like the ancient Roman thermal baths. Top it off with a luscious dessert at Da Alfredo’s in the seaside town of Santa Marina –renowned for its homemade, addictive granita with flavors like fig, pistachio and prickly pear.
Stromboli, remote and dramatic, is a favorite of designers Dolce & Gabanna, who own a villa and yacht there. Travelers come from afar to hike its spectacular volcano and explore its rugged beauty. Savor a pizza fantastica and chat with locals at Bar Ingrid on the central piazza. The café is named after Ingrid Bergman who carried on her torrid affair with Roberto Rossellini while filming ‘Stromboli’ on the island. When darkness falls, the main event is ‘volcano watching’. The best viewing is from a boat. Every twenty minutes a deep rumble signals a shower of crimson sparks lighting the sky as the molten lava shoots up. Witnessing the hot red fire and billowy smoke of creation with each seismic eruption was spellbinding.
To get to the Aeolian Islands, the easiest way is to go by ferry from Sicily. While you’re there, visit Taormina, a charming hilltop town with resplendent views of the coast and Mount Etna. The 5 star Hotel Imperiale offers contemporary, glamorous suites with panoramic vistas of the ancient Greek Amphitheater and sea, and a spa. I dined on Nebrodi ham with aubergine caponata, spaghetti with anchovies and sheep’s milk cheese, and other Sicilian specialties at the excellent roof top restaurant Opson helmed by Michelin starred chef Fabio Baldassarre. For lunch I headed to the stunning, historic Grand Hotel Timeo, furnished with antiques and located next to the Greek Amphitheater. At their sublime al fresco restaurant I relished perfect pasta with sardines, divine sea bream and the freshest burrata.
Getting There: Meridiana offers direct flights from JFK to Naples, with a connecting flight to Cantania. Travel in style in Business Class with spacious comfortable seats and extra legroom. Transfer by car to Taormina, then on to Milazzo for Hydrofoil to Aeolian Islands.