Just a typical day on Panarea. Photo courtesy of Hotel Raya.
The seven Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily are one of those known-yet-not-overblown Mediterranean destinations. They're hard to get to, not very touristy, and gorgeous. Plan now: September and October are the best times to go.
AEOLIAN ISLANDS, Italy – My husband and I wanted to honeymoon on the Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago off the coast of Sicily that juts out of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The chain is named for Aeolus, the keeper of the winds in Greek mythology who mischievously blew Odysseus back to the islands' craggy shores when he tried to return home.
THE ODYSSEY TO GET THERE
We're well traveled, resourceful, capable people, but getting there had us mystified. Aggressive Googling only provided us with one ferry schedule in Italian, a language we don't speak. And the ferry schedule said it would be changing on September 15, the day we would be returning to Sicily, and didn't provide further information. To top it off, we were worried about the five hour journey, involving planes, trains, automobiles, and a long ferry from Palermo, which is where our trusty travel aid (Black Tomato) suggested we depart from after flying to Sicily from Los Angeles via stops in NYC and Rome. As Martin Creed, a British artist who has a house on the Aeolian island of Alicudi, put it: "From London, it's easier and quicker to get to Australia."
I called my travel writer friend Julia "Gypset" Chaplin for encouragement. She had written about the cool art scene on the islands for The New York Times, which helped inspire our trip. She said we were nuts, that the islands were honeymoon-worthy, and that the ferries were not a big deal from Milazzo, a port town near Catania, which also has an airport. Then I called my hotelier friend Sean "The Bowery" Macpherson, who had recently visited with his wife Rachelle and loved the islands. They had experienced the islands on an Italian friend's boat. We would later learn that there were plenty of pretty old sailboats available for a charter — a great way to see the islands, particularly if you're with a group of friends or family.
As it turns out, the islands' remoteness is a big part of what makes them special. It feels old-fashioned (in a good way) to expend so much effort getting there. During our ten days of island hopping, we never encountered any Americans. Most other visitors were Italians, with a smattering of Brits and Germans.
STROMBOLI, THE DRAMATIC
We started in Stromboli, the smallest island at the foot of a live, active volcano that spurts smoke and orange lava in the air. It looks particularly dramatic at night. It's the most quaint and dramatic-looking island. There are no cars, just mopeds and golf carts. It takes about 15 minutes to walk anywhere on the island, which only has a small handful of hotels and restaurants and a larger residential area where jetsetters like Stefano Dolce and Domenico Gabbana have vacation homes. The intense, lunar-esque landscape and black lava beach have attracted many artists, including Marina Abramovic, who recently sold her house because the island's energy became "too much" for her. This is where neorealist director Roberto Rossellini shot Stromboli, his 1950 film starring Ingrid Bergman.
We stayed at La Sirenetta Park Hotel, a lovely place on the black sand beach, the nicest beach in all of the islands. (The other beaches are rocky). It has a saltwater infinity pool, a slightly strange outdoor gym, and a nice restaurant and coffee bar. The service is great. The rooms are basic but charming and clean and many have sea views.
La Locanda del Barbablù is a fantastic restaurant that only serves a pricey prix fixe menu. It's worth it, but you may want the petite menu, as the regular one is massive. They also have a few rooms that are very pricey but probably very good, although the hotel is not on the beach.
The best thing to do in Stromboli is to hike up to the volcano at night, stopping off for dinner at Ristorante Osservatorio, a restaurant close to the top. People tend to cheer when the lava explodes in the sky. It's like organic dinner theater. The hike, which you can do without a guide, is about three-and-a-half hours up a fairly easy, dusty path. (Wear sneakers and bring a flashlight.) Sometimes they close the top of the the volcano trail if it's too active. In any case, when it is open, you need a guide to get up that high.
SALINA, THE GREEN
Our next stop was Salina, the green island. It's the biggest and most developed of the islands. We stayed at Hotel Signum and loved it. It was exactly the kind of romantic Mediterranean hotel we wanted for our honeymoon: a cluster of old farmhouses turned into a quaint, perfectly decorated inn. The owners, Clara and Michele Rametta, are always around. Clara helps you plan excursions and Michele cooks fantastic local fare. It's expensive but worth it. If you get tired of fancy food, walk a few blocks to a great pizzeria and eat a take-out pie on your terrace.
The sprawling grounds of Signum are filled with lemon trees, grape bushes, and a big freshwater infinity pool. The hotel has an awesome spa with a steam room, pools of volcanic mineral water, a Jacuzzi, a bar, and lots of cool treatments. It's stunning to watch the moon rise from behind the hills while sitting in those pools.
The beach is about a ten-minute walk from the hotel. Like most beaches on the islands, it's rocky — hard to sit on without a chair. Flip-flops are useful to get close to the water. A better plan is to rent a boat and check out the seaside village of Pollara, where scenes from Il Postino were filmed.
Another mediocre, rocky beach is at Lingua, which has a very touristy restaurant, Da Alfredo, that's famous for its homemade granitas.
FILICUDI, THE TINY
We spent one of our best days renting a motorboat in Salina and visiting Filicudi (less than 30 minutes away), one of the tiniest and least inhabited islands. (Alicudi is the even smaller one.)
Filicudi is very chic in the European art world. The Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan apparently has a restaurant there, but we couldn't find it. We made the mistake of booking lunch through our hotel, which involved a taxi ride up into the hills. We should have eaten at one of the cute restaurants in the port.
The best part of Filicudi is not on the island; it's the water and landscape around it: gorgeous grottoes you can motorboat into, the best snorkeling we saw in the islands, lots of pretty fish and coral. Watch out for jellyfish (Italian word: "medusa"). We saw tons and I got stung. It's not a big deal, but it's not fun either.
PANAREA, THE FABULOUS
Up next was Panarea, which is known as the jetset island with frequent fab visitors like Prince William and Roberto Cavalli. We had heard a lot about how Hotel Raya is the place to stay from our most discerning cool friends, and it totally was. It was opened in the 1960s by groovy artists Myriam Beltrami and her partner Paolo Tilche, who are largely credited with making the island a glam destination.
You can spot Raya's famous blue stingray logo on a building near the port as soon as you arrive. That's where the very well-designed reception, restaurant, and bar are located. Once you check in, you are escorted on a ten-minute walk up a hill to the rooms, where there's also a more casual restaurant that serves breakfast. The warm mineral pools and Jacuzzi are up here, too. As our cheery guide showed us around, she explained that we were visiting during a special therapy week retreat. A bunch of senior ladies were taking advantage of the program and hanging out by the pools. "Like Cocoon," explained our guide, referencing the 1985 movie. So we were the relative jetset that week. We felt very chic.
Our room had two massive terraces overlooking a picturesque port. The hotel supplied terrycloth bathrobes for drying and skimpier, sexy robes for hanging out at breakfast or by the pools, as well as a beach bag and beach towels, with the groovy sting ray logo. You feel part of the cool kids club carrying them around. Apparently, many people carry them off the island because there are signs everywhere warning you not so, or else you will get charged. If you want to buy them, they are sold at the hotel's many chic boutiques for very high prices.
We dined once at Hotel Raya, which has a lovely restaurant on the water with spectacular views. We also checked out Il Macellaio, a restaurant that specializes in meat, a welcomed change of pace from all the fish. The restaurant Adele, right across the street from the port, was also great.
A great hike behind Hotel Raya takes about two hours roundtrip and leads to the very top of Panarea. You'll see Bronze Age ruins along the way. The view is stunning.
ROME, THE FINALE
From Panarea, we caught the ferry to Milazzo and took a cab to Taormina for the night. The next day we flew to Rome for three nights. Since there's tons of information out there about what to do and see in Rome, I'm just going to cover our highlights.
We loved our hotel, the Mario de Fiori 37. It's a boutique hotel of seven rooms located a few blocks from the Spanish Steps. The rooms (except the duplex suite) are small, but chic and modern. It feels a bit like staying in the guest room of a cool friend's downtown New York City loft. (No gym, no restaurant.) If you want a fancy place with the works, Hotel de Russie would be the spot.
While the old city is gorgeous and fascinating, exploring it can be exhausting and boring if you don't know Roman history. My husband and I don't love guidebooks or guides, but we had a fantastic sightseeing afternoon with our friend Andrew Kranis, a native New Yorker architect and former Rome Prize Fellow who leads small group walking seminars. (Reservations and inquiries can be made by emailing him at [email protected]). A few hours with him is all you need to fall in love with Rome.
Former New York Times restaurant critic and Rome bureau chief Frank Bruni compiled a great Roman restaurant list. We particularly loved La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali and Da Fortunato al Pantheon. (Before dinner at Da Fortunato, stop to see the Pantheon, which is open daily until 7 p.m.) If you want simple home cooking, Trattoria Der Pallaro is fun for dinner: They serve one set menu per night for about $40 per person, including wine. L'Orso '80 is great for lunch. Order antipasti, which will be more food than you can possibly eat for a real bargain.
Most nice bars have aperitivo hour, a kind of happy hour special where they bring you seemingly endless snacks with your drinks. Go for it and save on dinner or just keep eating and walking all night.
HOW TO GET THERE
Plan A: Catania
We flew into Catania and spent a night there at a Una, a forgettable hotel that was well priced on hotels.com. It was a fine business hotel, nothing amazing, but the concierge helped us figure out the ferry schedule. Catania was not super interesting. Then again, we were jetlagged and grumpy from all the traveling, and that's not Catania's fault.
The most convenient, inexpensive way to get from the Catania airport to the ferry port in Milazzo is to take the Giuntabus service, which leaves daily at 4 p.m. and arrives at the port 1 1/2 hours later. We were eager to get to the islands and we paid the price: The cab we took in the morning cost about $240.
The Better Plan B: Taormina
On the way back, we wised up and spent a night in Taormina instead. Much prettier and more fun than Catania. It's a pleasure to wander Taormina's windy cobblestone streets and the restaurants are fantastic. (I recommend Ristorante L'Arco Dei Cappuccini, but you really can't go wrong). We wanted to stay at Villa Ducale or its sister hotel Villa Carlotta but they were booked, so we stayed at Hotel Sirius, another forgettable place. You can check into very grand, fabulous, pricey hotels like San Domenico Palace and Villa Sant'Andrea Hotel. Just don't linger too long. The islands are much more interesting and Taormina is very touristy. We heard more English spoken there in ten minutes than we did in ten days on the islands.
Taormina is about a 45-minute taxi ride ($140) from Milazzo. We took a bus from Taormina to the Catania airport and it was about $12 each and took just over an hour. You could also spend a night in Milazzo, which is not very interesting but convenient if you want to catch an early ferry and avoid the taxi.
From Milazzo, there are three major ferry lines: Siremar (the nicest), Ustica, and SNAV. Take the high-speed hydrofoil! As long as you are not traveling in August, it's fine to just show up about half an hour before the ferry leaves and buy your ticket. Any hotel in Sicily can help you figure out the schedule, and ferries run frequently until Sept 15.
You can visit the islands in any order you want. They are very close together — no more than about 45 minutes by ferry. The first leg of the trip, from Milazzo to the islands, is a two-hour drag. That said, the ferry is big and nice and you can read a book. If you're really rich and fab, congrats. Take a chopper.
HOW TO PLAN YOUR ISLAND-HOPPING
We picked our order of island-hopping based on the availability of the hotels we wanted.
If you don't have two weeks for a vacation but still want to visit the Aeolian Islands, you could skip Salina or go there to eat and spa at Hotel Signum. You could also just power through the journey and skip Taormina or Catania, but it would be a pretty brutal journey. Rome could be cut shorter, too. But go. Like most hard-to-get things, the Aeolian Islands are totally worth the effort.
WHAT TO DO
There's not a ton to do on the islands, so they are best for people who love each other and are happy lounging around on the beach, swimming in a clear and gorgeous sea, hiking, wining, and dining. The best hotels are elegant and romantic without being fussy and fancy. There are no Jacuzzi tubs, but they have lovely views and a cozy feel. The shopping is overpriced and not that interesting — the best stuff is from India and Papua New Guinea. Most restaurants serve very good classic Sicilian fare (fresh fish and pasta). The pizza is weirdly not great, but we had exceptional pasta and risotto, particularly when seafood was involved.
WHEN TO GO
May, June, and September are the best times. Avoid August at all costs.
We went in early September, after the tourist crush had dissipated. The weather was perfect — hot and sunny — every single day. Hotel rates were slashed. We could eat at almost any restaurant without reservations, and it was all very tranquil.