Aeolian Islands:
Sicily's home of the winds
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The Greeks colonized these islands around 580 BC and named them after the mythical figure Aeolus. According to Homer, this local god-king kept the winds bottled up in a cave. When Odysseus came by on his long trip home, he was given a favorable wind, but he accidentally released it from its bag and so was blown off course. All the world's winds do seem to converge here at times, though in summer it's as likely to be still and hot as wild and tempestuous. The difficulties of life in these islands led most of the inhabitants to emigrate to the US a century ago, so you will find them sparsely populated today. Come to the Aeolians to see the extensive Greek ruins on Lipari, but mostly to swim and dive in the crystalline seas and to sunbathe on the myriad beaches and rocky shores. You can get here from Palermo and Messina, but the best connections are the ferries and aliscafi from Milazzo to Lipari. Smaller boats connect Lipari and the other islands daily.

Lipari is the main island, and generally offers the widest selection of lodgings, restaurants, shops, and things to do. The people are warm and friendly, and their town's romantic citadel offers an uninterrupted record of its inhabitants from Neolithic times, featuring an extensive acropolis. Even people who hate museums and history will be fascinated spending a couple of hours here, because you start with ruins of the original settlement and proceed through rooms that have something even the Uffizi and Vatican can't boast: interesting explanations in English! If you're feeling energetic, hike to the top of Mount Sant'Angelo: the breathtaking view will greatly repay your efforts. Because the Aeolians are volcanoes, all extinct save one, each island has beaches of a unique character. Lipari is the oldest island, and thus its lidos are covered with the finest white sand, actually the end product of black lava. In earlier days, when this was the talcum capital of the world, there were several mines on Lipari and the owners used to dispose of the finest powder, unusable even to keep baby's posteriors dry, by dumping truckloads of it down the hillsides every evening. The startling effect is to make the hillsides of this Mediterranean isle look like the Swiss Alps, and to tint Lipari's waters the color of Seven-Up, even though the last of the trucks disappeared decades ago. To have the most fun, hire your own boat and spend the day swimming and sunbathing from its deck. Your boatman, most likely named Bartolo (after the local saint), will be happy to cook you a lunch of pasta and fresh fish on board.

Take day trips to the other islands. Vulcano, a "younger" extinct volcano inhabited by 400 islanders, is studded with fantastic formations, both above ground and under water. Stromboli, the tragic island made famous in Roberto Rossellini's film of the same name (starring Ingrid Bergman), features two miniscule towns on opposite sides of a mildly active volcano. This island is the "baby," and so it has the blackest beaches. For an unforgettable portrait of life as it used to be on this barren island, watch the film with Ingrid Bergman, Stromboli.

Salina is the garden island. Its slopes are blanketed with deep green vineyards that produce a heady malvasìa; its waters are populated with fish and octopus. Take home some of the local capers packed in salt: until you've tried them this way, you'll never really know what a true caper tastes like (if you don't like capers, you may discover it's really the vinegar they're usually packed in you don't like, not the capers).

Tiny Panarea is the jet-set island, and perhaps the most picturesque, with its stark white houses and brilliant yellow ginestra bushes; it boasts three small but famous hotels and the summer homes of many wealthy Italians (including fashion designers). The uninhabited satellite Basiluzzo might remind you of Delos, although its ruins are Roman. Filicudi (and smaller Alicudi) are both blessed with magnificent shores and underwater vistas; a popular outing is to Filicudi's Grotto of the Sea Lion. But if you're looking for wide sandy beaches, stay off these islands: they are strictly for snorkelers and divers, who will do their sunbathing on near-vertical slabs of lava.

For a delightfully funny and insightful peek at these islands, watch Caro Diario, a film by Italy's beloved comedian Nanni Moretti.

If you'd like help planning an excursion to the Aeolian Islands, click here to ask our Sicily experts for assistance.

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