I’m hooked as I lay my eyes on the beautiful Aeolian archipelago rising out of the cobalt-blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea on the north of Sicily and west of mainland Italy. Locals call them the “shape-shifting” or “floating” islands as they have been continuously sculpted by volcanic activity over millions of years. As a result, its exotic black-sand beaches, craters, and splintered, rocky coastlines are something utterly unique in the Mediterranean. No wonder it was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2000.
It’s a warm afternoon of August when I, for the first time, set foot in the jet-set Panarea, the smallest of the Aeolians, after a four-hour ferry ride from Palermo. Local boutiques and elegant cafés line the neat winding alleys. I love that there are no cars, only bicycles or buggies. The whitewashed terraces and bougainvillea are everywhere. It’s so charming, it hurts. It’s a place with exciting energy, young people, parties, and late dinners. I barely hear any English and notice beautiful and well dressed Italians all around.
I’ve always been happiest when I’m on the sea, whether it’s a boat or a beach. The Aeolian Islands are best explored by boat, and Panarea – with only one white sandy beach, Zimmari, reached by one-hour hike from the harbor – is no different. When I am not getting a tan on a small catamaran cruising along Panarea’s rocky coast, passing through the Arco degli Innamorati, with views to Stromboli, I am between brown-sand beaches and the hiking trails along the mountainside. Vine vineyards punctuate the sleepy village on the slopes above the harbor. I reach a quieter side of the island as I stroll around Punta Milazzese -the ruins of a prehistoric town – which is particularly beautiful over sunset when the sky glows and the heat is gentler.
Celebrities and royals often flock here on flashy yachts. The elegant Hotel Raya is arguably the place to stay – and to party. Panarea has a reputation for big night outs, and I love starting the evening in its superb restaurants (dinner usually starts at 10 pm). Da Pina, for an authentic Italian, or Bridge Sushi Bar, for its Sicilian take on Japanese food and mystic views to active Stromboli. It feels a world apart from other Mediterranean islands with loads of international tourists over summer. Panarea is less known than Capri and Positano and has a rustic glamour. It feels like the real thing, a place to experience the remarkable Italian culture.
I love to sail the waters of Italy. I’m aware that across the seven Aeolians – Vulcano, Lipari, Salina, Panarea, Stromboli, Filicudi and Alicudi – there is an infinity of delights to be discovered. So I leave on a small boat for a day trip to Stromboli, which is the active volcano I watch smoke in the distance from Panarea. As I approach the island, the hyperactive “Black Giant” erupts every now and then with smoky cannonball blasts and underwater bubbles. I anchor in the bay near the harbor and have a meal at fabulous Punta Lena, another powerful confirmation of Sicilian phenomenal cuisine. Then, I walk around the white village running from the port to the lonely beach of Piscità. I find myself wishing I could take the eight-hour trek to reach Stromboli’s crater, which is temporarily closed due to intense volcanic activity.
From Panarea, I make it to Salina, a much bigger island, the lushest of the volcanic cones, known for having some of the best hotels and restaurants in the Aeolians. Salina is a quieter place with a different vibe. The food here is outstanding, not only the sensational pasta, the fish from these waters is so delicious it is exported to Japan. Some say it is the best you’ll find outside a Michelin-starred sushi bar in Tokyo. The unpretentious Porto Bello restaurant, in Santa Marina Salina port, is heaven. And so are the restaurants at elegant Signum hotel, in Malfa – a typical southern Italian village – and Capofaro Malvasia & Resort.
Salina is a place to forget any diet, but you can balance the extravaganza with its compelling hikes. There are well-maintained trails around the island through vineyards and olive groves. My favorite is a strenuous four-hour hike starting at Santa Marina Salina road, climbing up through the forest to the top of Monte Fossa delle Felci, Salina’s highest point. It is hot and strenuous, mostly empty, with the blue sea, and a volcano in the distance.
I rent a house on top of a hill a bit off from Malfa, surrounded by vineyards and typical Mediterranean vegetation with views to the ocean and Stromboli. But when the sun is about to set, I go for a swim in Pollara beach, cruising along its dramatic sandstone cliffs and volcanic rocks. It takes a certain amount of clambering to reach the beach, through a steep path that drops to a slipway rimmed with ancient boathouses built into the cliff surface. I come across a few Italians sundowning with bottles of Malvasia, but the beach is far from crowded. Like other Aeolians, much of the tourism here in summer is domestic.
I’m therefore grateful for my days in this pocket of Italy. Shaped by volcanic action, this is a volatile part of the world ever since Filicudi, the first landmass, emerged from the sea 600,000 years ago. The lands are constantly changing, but its culture has remained loyal to its roots for hundreds of years. Pleasure here comes in different forms: in mystic landscapes, colors, sights, but also smells and tastes. It’s the reason I’ll be coming back for more: the wonder that hits me on the core just when I thought there was nothing as authentic among the Mediterranean’s allures.
We traveled to Panarea and Salina in August 2019 and did a day trip from Panarea to Stromboli. We traveled from Memmingen to Palermo with Ryanair and took a ferry from Palermo to Panarea.