Think island-hopping and you tend to think Greece - but it's just as much fun in Italy, where it's the perfect way to discover the diverse charms of the seven Aeolian Islands
As we sat enjoying a leisurely al fresco lunch on the beach overlooking a tiny cove on the Italian island of Panarea, we spotted a man clambering into our small rental boat and starting up the engine. Quick as a shot, my husband sprang out of his seat and ran up the beach, arms flailing. As it transpired, our thief had the most noble of intentions - inexperienced salts that we were, we had dropped anchor too close to the beach and, fearing the worst, our kindly passer-by had intervened to prevent the inevitable beaching in the shallow water. Several heartfelt apologies later, we finished our lunch and resumed our trip around the island.
Despite our inauspicious start, Panarea, with its pretty, sheltered coves and dramatic, volcanic good looks, proved the perfect backdrop for our brief boating excursion. We wended our way beneath vast cliffs, circled tiny crags and dropped anchor to while away afternoons in the torpid summer heat, cooling off with an occasional dip in the aquamarine water.
Panarea is one of the seven islands, uninhabited crags and dramatic islets that make up the ravishing Aeolian archipelago off the northwestern coast of Sicily. Surrounded by the deep blue Tyrrhenian Sea, the Aeolian Islands, or Isole Eolie, take their name from Aeolus, the lord of the winds, who, according to Homer, resided on Stromboli. But all of the uniquely different islands share some common characteristics - breathtaking scenery and a laidback island charm. Regular ferry services between them, particularly in high season, mean that island-hopping is the best way to discover each of the Aeolians' distinct charms.
Our first stop, Panarea, has the most jet-set reputation and is the centre of the party action during the sultry summer months. Its whitewashed, pastel-coloured cubic houses attract a well-heeled bunch, best observed during the daily passeggiata along the waterfront or lounging with the bikini clad bellas around the terraces of the fashionable Hotel Raya that overlooks Panarea town.
Lipari, which serves as a jumping-off point for most visitors arriving from Sicily, has hot springs and countless walking paths criss-crossing all over the island. Vulcano is dotted with hissing fumaroles and mud baths. Then there is the vine-clad island of Salina, the menacing lava-caked cone of Stromboli, which glows like a giant cigarette at night, and the more isolated and less-visited duo of Alicudi and Filicudi.
Countless film-makers have fallen for the Aeolian’s cinematic good looks. There are craggy peaks, panoramic views of the sea at every twist and turn, grottoes, vineyards and volcanic monoliths thrusting out of the blue sea. In his 1949 film Stromboli, Roberto Rossellini used the eponymous isle's dramatic landscape as a metaphor for the isolation experienced by Ingrid Bergman's character, a young Lithuanian girl who marries a fisherman to avoid prison camp. You can still see the pretty, burnished-red house on the via Vittorio Emmanuele in San Lorenzo, where the director stayed and which now bears a plaque in his name.
The spectacular coastline of the Aeolians also formed the backdrop for Michelangelo Antonioni's 1960s L'Avventura, the story of a group of rich Italians who sail to a deserted Mediterranean island, where one of their number disappears.
But it was Michael Radford's 1994 Oscar-winning Il Postino, filmed on the island of Salina, that brought the Aeolians' rugged beauty to a wider audience. After a few days on Panarea, we were eager to move on and discover Salina’s attractions.
After the relative hustle and bustle of Panarea, Salina felt like a distinct change of gear. There was an even more relaxed pace on the island and its landscape is some of the greenest of the archipelago, blanketed with vines that go into producing Malvasia wine and fields of caper trees – two of Salina’s biggest exports.
Il Postino tells the story of a local postman who befriends the exiled Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. One of the film's most memorable and poignant moments comes when the postman records the sound of the sea at the dramatic, black pebbly volcanic beach of Pollara, which is overshadowed by the forbidding Il Costone cliffs. These days the beach has become a victim of its own fame and is now closed to the public due to erosion caused by visitors, boats and even tourists making off with souvenirs of bags of sand. Even so, looking down from above, it’s the perfect place to listen to the sea and stand and admire the panoramic sea views and rugged beauty of one of these unspoiled Italian outposts.
Where to stay
Hotel Signum is a pretty hotel in the small town of Malfa, spread throughout a cluster of pink and terracotta-hued converted Aeolian farm buildings and surrounded by fragrant gardens.
Capofaro is a contemporary-style resort set amid terraced Malvasia vineyards, with stunning views out to sea.
Hotel Raya has spectacular views of Stromboli from its terrace.
Where to eat
A Cannata, Lingua (00 39 090 984 3161) – try the stuffed calamari with Malvasia and the squid salad.
Le Macine, Pianoconte (00 39 090 982 2387) – serves delicious fish-based pasta and other local specialities.
Hycesia (00 39 090 983 041; www.hycesia.it) serves the likes of spaghetti with sea urchin and freshly landed fish.
Snav (00 39 081 761 2348; www.snav.it) operates a hydrofoil service to the islands, which takes about five hours. During high season, advance booking is advisable. Siremar (00 39 081 317 2999; www.gruppotirrenia.it) also operates an overnight ferry service from Naples. Or fly to Sicily and catch one of the regular ferry sailings from Milazzo.