Just like that, literally out of the blue (and the apricot blush color of the sunset) a tall spray of incandescent magma shot into the sky: Stromboli, the most active volcano in Europe, was putting on a show again. We were sitting on the beautiful terrace of Panarea’s most famous hotel, the Raya Panarea, having a state-of-art aperitivo with plump arancini alla Norma (eggplant and tomato sauce rice balls, lightly-fried and crispy) and fat green olives with a glass of chilled Etna Bianco, my favorite Sicilian white wine that hails from the island’s other famous vulcano vineyards.
From Panarea’s small but picture-perfect port you get a wonderful view of the island of Stromboli just across: you can also reach it in just 30-40 minutes by speed boat. The East coast’s view is further enhanced by five inlets, miniature rocky islands piercing the aquamarine waters: Dattilo, Lisca Bianca & Lisca Nera, Basiluzzo and Bottero. Natural wonders with underwater hot spring pockets releasing sulfurous gasses to the surface- I was swimming there and suddenly it hit me: “whoa, what’s that smell?!”
And this is how we found ourselves for the first time in the Aeolian Archipelago, a cluster of seven volcanic islands rich in mystery and charm. End of June, a pleasant climate, not too many tourists just yet- they’ll take over at the height of Estate Italiana, from Portofino to Positano, from Tuscany to the Amalfi Coast and just about any patch of beach there is out there-
So we can still breathe some space, walk around aimlessly, absorbing the newfound island vibes. Feels remote here, having for once decided to quit the lure of the European Summer, with the usual Ibiza-Formentera-Mykonos-South of France overcrowded mayhem. In the past years I found less and less joy there, and more dark thoughts resurfacing after observing the hordes wiggling for a spot or getting stuck in yes- as ridiculous as it sounds- island traffic.
A golf cart takes us through the maze of narrow streets to our suite- Raya Alta, up on the hill it’s where the guests’ rooms are: and the panoramic view unfolds in the most soul-soothing manner. Magnetic Stromboli with its lunar landscape at the center of everything, drawing your eye with its wisp of smoke, and all around azure waters shifting into deep blue.
“A mermaid!” the kids squeak with delight when discovering the infinity pool, guarded by the arched-back stone siren, a dreamy expression on her face. And there’s me, excitedly taking pictures of lemon trees, rock roses, bougainvillea bushes in full bloom and my personal quirky favorite, the Sicilian Prickly Pear Cacti– with its pretty cactus flower that morphs into a flavour-bursting fruit.
Feel free to just lounge on your terrace with your glass of Moscato, munching candied almonds and dipping your spoon in a pistachio parfait (try the Pistacchio sulla Sabbia semifreddo from Pasticceria Da Adelina, the island’s best patisserie shop) … but if you are like me, you want to move around a bit and explore! (Chill-out time later)
My favorite first-day activity is to take a boat trip around the island, exploring the hidden coves and secret beaches, finding the best spots for snorkeling and free diving. Go ahead, jump from the boat and swim to a crescent-shaped little beach made of fine volcanic sand, or spread like a starfish on a rock slab polished by the smoothing effect of the waves, a cool tanning spot usually reserved for the seagulls.
The kids’ favorite moment had to be the arrival of the gelato boat, the ice-cream truck of the sea! They’ll find you literally anywhere around the island and deliver your cornetto or rainbow-flavored lolly. Everything tastes better at sea, salt on your skin and sugar on your lips!
Hike up Punta de Corvo (Crow’s Point)- 421m with your camera in tow if you’re feeling in high spirits (although as I can testify for myself, all that pasta and lemon-scented ricotta-stuffed cannoli kinda weighs you down) to take a bird’s eye view over the surrounding islands and some great pictures. Ok, I skipped that (but I did hike up the Stromboli Volcano, which rises like 1000m above sea level…so yeah I burned some of that carb-bulk up there!)
At a definitely milder pace, take the coastal path east towards Punta Milazzese, and explore the spectral stone foundations of Il Villaggio Preistorico, the ruins of a Bronze Age Village.
Sunset-to-night Stromboli boat tour, with aperitivo in Ginestra
The children are going to love this one- especially if they’re too young to consider a trek on the vulcano to see the exploding craters up-close. We left the port of Panarea around six p.m., having packed snacks like we were preparing to cross the Atlantic (Mom hack: almost any sibling quarrel, boredom complaint or anti-parental authority rebellion can be defused when breaking out a fresh & tempting array of SNACKS!)
After just 40’ of munching and pointing out at the gradually approaching colossus of black lava we docked by the small village of Ginostra, counting around forty residents and three donkey heads as the locals like to say, naming the precious carry-all employed to take stuff around: i tre asini .
Make your way up a crumbling slope into the village, and enjoy a magical sunset over the sea in the tiny piazzetta. Find a spot, everyone gathers for the postcard-pretty tramonto and it gets crowded! Spend some time with the locals here, imagine how it is to live in the shadow of an active vulcano. It’s a pretty unique and secluded place- the village can only be reached from the sea (it’s been cut off from the rest of the island by lava flows, and electricity only arrived here in 2004- some houses here still lit up with the warm glow of gas lamps at night!)
The local grocery shop slash bar owner will take a nice bottle of white wine from the cooler, bring it along a platter of juicy capers, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and pistacchio-studded Sicilian tuma cheese…and prego, l’Aperitivo is served!
Then you’ll hop back on your boat as the last lash of sunlight disappears over the horizon, sea and island wrapped in darkness. Unsettling sounds like a rumble of rocks echo in the distance, we’re getting closed to La Sciara del Fuoco, on Stromboli’s nothern flank, where we can witness the volcanic activity in all its fiery splendor.
Imagine this: you’re out at sea under the faint glow of an incredible starry night sky, right under the vulcano’s gigantic shadow. Suddenly the craters awaken and send cascading magma eruptions into the air. Nature’s most dramatic fireworks- and a mesmerizing sight that kept the kids watching in awe, with the occasional exclamation of surprise: “Look! Another one! Biggest one yet, woooow!”
EAT TO YOUR HEART’S CONTENT:
You’re in Sicily, a foodie and wine-lover paradise. A place where again I forget myself and indulge deeply in the pleasures of the palate- everything here is just so fresh and inviting, with most of the ingredients sourced locally- as Italians say cucina chilometro zero, the food has travelled literally zero km before reaching your plate!
Ristorante Da Pina: a Panarea institution with its own array of celebrity customers- come for the food, be seduced by the charmingly rustic interiors, the citrus-flavored garden and traditional Sicilian decor- brightly painted ceramic vases and Moorish heads made famous worldwide by Dolce & Gabbana designer duo. Try the Aeolian Pesto with garden-grown vegetables and wild fennel or Linguini alla Panarellese, with capers, olives, spinach and tuna.
The pasta dishes are simple yet come in tastebud-blowing combinations : artichokes and sardines, lobster and capers, shrimp and rucola, pecorino cheese and almonds, squid-ink spaghetti with peas, anchovies with orange-peel flavored breadcrumbs and chili flakes linguini.
The massive, beautifully painted pasta plate is presented with a tasty dusting of the poor man’s parmigiano: toasted breadcrumbs flavored sometimes with caraway or fennel seeds.
This was my favorite from the seafood mains: the visual symphony of colors of Aragosta e Scampi alla Catalana, served under the watchful gaze of the Moorish Prince.
Ristorante Raya: with such a wonderful view even the (already superb) food tastes even better! Delicious antipasti with an accent on raw fish and seafood dishes, delicate, freschissimi crudi and creative pasta dishes with island herbs and flavors.
Hycesia: slow food for the gourmand taste that appreciates simple pleasures, there’s no menu, it all comes together over the fresh catch of the day, with a harmonious taste blending with the island spirit.
Cusiritati: Italian kitchen, poetry-infused. Appealing to all your senses. So pretty to observe, colors and textures, refined, delicately unfolding on your palate. Pesto of capers and octopus; calamari with almonds and zucchini. “Swordfish in a garden” or “Tuna in the farmhouse”? It’s all whimsical and inspiring: food that makes you think with every bite.
Easy enough, the entire boutique promenade spreads around the port area and a backstreet- score some local souvenirs, treat yourself to a beach dress made of Sicilian lace, decorate your travel counter at home with some majolica ceramic figurines.
Loved Boutique Raya for their chic selection of home decor, chunky bracelets and earthy-print dresses and kaftans; and the brand new La Formica di Panarea (The Ant of Panarea), another shop full of small treasures to take home and turn into a sweet-summer memory.
Get here: fly into Catania or Palermo, drive to the port of Milazzo (under two hours, from both cities) and take the hydrofoil (it’s faster than a ferry) bound for the Aeolian Islands (around 1 hour).