An Island-Hopping Journey to See Stromboli (April 2017)
I admit it – I have a bit of an obsession with volcanoes. Matt and I have had wonderful trips to Iceland and the Azores, where we saw all sorts of volcanic features like hot springs, fumaroles and lava tubes. But we had never actually seen an erupting volcano in action. Thus for several years I had been thinking a trip to Stromboli would be fantastic. This spring I finally got round to planning a tour of the Aeolian Islands, which lie just off the coast of Sicily, incorporating a couple of nights on the active volcano.
Itinerary and Travel Information
- Flight to Catania Airport (Sicily)
- Bus from Catania Airport to Milazzo port (Sicily) (one night)
- Ferry from Milazzo to Lipari (four nights)
- Hydrofoil from Lipari to Panarea (two nights)
- Ferry from Pararea to Stromboli (two nights)
- Hydrofoil from Stromboli to Salina (three nights)
- Ferry from Salina to Milazzo (Sicily)
- Bus from Milazzo to Messina (Sicily)
- Train from Messina to Catania (Sicily) (two nights)
- Flight home
How to Get to the Aeolian Islands
There are several ways to get to the Aeolian Islands, which lie between Sicily and Naples. You can get ferries from Naples and Reggio Calabria on mainland Italy, or from Palermo and Messina on Sicily. But the most regular and convenient route, especially out of the peak holiday season, is from Milazzo on Sicily.
To research available ferry routes, timetables and prices try Direct Ferries – just search Aeolian Islands or the port you wish to depart from.
We flew to Catania on Sicily. We then got a bus direct from Catania Airport to Messina, where we changed to a bus from Messina to Milazzo port (Giuntabus timetables). This is a really convenient service, and the second bus terminates right at Milazzo port where the ferries and hydrofoils depart for the islands.
Travelling Between the Islands
For some strange reason most tourist guides advise that you should use the hydrofoils rather than the car ferry, stating that they are faster and more convenient. We couldn’t disagree more. The car ferry was almost empty, and we could move around the decks at will, watching the islands slowly approach and then watching the views of the coastline evolve. Why anyone would prefer to be squashed onto a fast, noisy hydrofoil with limited visibility, I cannot imagine. Of course it is much faster, but unless time is of the utmost importance why not enjoy the views?
We found the ferries so much more relaxing, with much more room for your luggage, and cheaper to boot. But it is worth checking the timetables before you plan a trip because the ferries do not run every day. We had to use the hydrofoils for a couple of our journeys, and I wished I had arranged the itinerary differently.
For routes, timetables and prices see Direct Ferries, Siremar ferry timetables and Liberty Lines hydrofoil timetables. You can buy your tickets online, but there are ticket offices at every port and it is easy to buy them just before you travel.
Not many travel companies arrange holidays in the Aeolian islands, but if you prefer an organized tour check out TourRadar, Exodus and Riviera Travel. These companies all have at least one tour that includes the islands.
MILAZZO – Gateway to the Islands
We spent the first night in the simple but comfortable Petit Hotel. This is close to the bus terminal and right opposite Milazzo port. The hotel is only a few steps away from the ticket office for the ferries and hydrofoils, making it incredibly convenient.
After checking the times and buying our ferry tickets for the following day, we had a stroll around Milazzo. Although Milazzo is not the prettiest of towns, it does have a nice old centre, and a castle up on a headland. The climb up to the castle is well worth the effort for the great view over to the other side of the headland and out to the islands.
Ferry to Lipari
The ferry from Milazzo to Lipari was a pleasure. First we had lovely views of the headland and castle in Milazzo (see photo above). Later we had a great view of Mt Etna steaming away in the distance (there had been a recent lava flow). The snow-covered slopes dwarf the surrounding landscape, showing what big mountain Etna is.
The ferry first called at the island of Vulcano, where we had further evidence of volcanic activity. Even without disembarking the stench of hydrogen sulphide was really overpowering – presumably emanating from the mud baths near the port. We could see the fumaroles up on the crater rim, and lots of hikers, and decided to come back to climb to the crater another day.
The ferry continued on to Lipari, passing some beautiful sea stacks between the islands, before heading round the coastline to Lipari town. The view of the old walled town is very impressive.
LIPARI – The Perfect Base
We disembarked at Lipari’s main port and contacted our hotel to arrange a transfer. The friendly driver soon appeared, and drove us up and down impossibly narrow streets to arrive at the hotel.
The hotel Rocce Azzure is in a very quiet setting, with a comfortable rooms, a private swimming platform and a beautiful terrace. Breakfasts on the terrace were lovely, watching the occasional ferries, hydrofoils and fishing boats coming and going.
The hotel does a very reasonable half-board package, but we found there were often tour groups present for dinner, and the menu was limited. There are many restaurants to choose from in Lipari town, which is a short but steep walk from the hotel. I would definitely return to the Rocce Azure, but stay B&B next time.
Lipari is the largest and busiest of the Aeolian Islands, and Lipari town is bustling but lovely. There are plenty of shops, bars and restaurants, as well as the historic walled town. We had lunch at the old port Marina Corta (not the larger Marina Lunga where the ferries arrive). This is a lovely spot with several outdoor restaurants with a view to the sea.
We then visited the excellent archaeological museum situated up in the old walled town which is definitely worth a visit (check opening times). As well as extensive archaeological collections the museum has a very informative volcanology display. Unfortunately there is no English text, but it is still quite easy to interpret.
Two Nice Walks on Lipari Island
Our first walk on Lipari was to the headland named Monte Rosa just to the north of Lipari town.
To find the path you walk along the coastal road from Porta Lunga (where the ferries arrive) towards Canneto until just before the road goes into a tunnel. Here you take the very steep lane on the left, which rises past various properties. It eventually becomes a footpath, and continues to a chapel on the headland. The footpath is very scenic, with views first to one side over Lipari and then to the other side over Canneto.
The route is far more interesting than it appears from below. There are lots of colourful flowers, grasshoppers and butterflies, and lizards scurrying on the walls. The only disappointment is that there is nowhere to sit with a view when you reach the chapel. A pity in such a lovely spot. The return is by the same footpath, and the round trip takes about three hours. Take water and a snack, and make sure you have sun protection because the steep lanes can be very hot.
For our second walk, we caught the local bus from Lipari to Quattropani (timetables). The buses leave from Marina Lunga near where the ferries dock. There is no complete circular bus route out of season, so we intended to walk along the road for a gentle 5km or so to Acquacalda, and get a bus from there back to Lipari. However walking along the road was so lovely that we continued beyond Acquacalda. We walked all the way past the abandoned pumice mines (where residual pumice deposits turn the sea a lovely turquoise colour) and on to Canneto.
We saw only a very occasional vehicle on the road. The easy footing meant that we could concentrate on the stunning views of Salina, Panarea and Stromboli. The abandoned mines were quite eerie, and the scale of the site very impressive. This walk turned out to be one of the highlights of the holiday, and I would highly recommend it on a sunny day in spring. Canneto is quite a sizeable town, but we arrived just in time to catch a bus back to Lipari. Perhaps we will have time to explore another time…..
VULCANO – Fumaroles at the Crater
One day we decided to catch the hydrofoil from Lipari to Vulcano, and climb to the crater.
To climb to the crater you walk through the town after disembarking at the port, following the signs. Soon after passing the attractive properties of the town, you reach the start of the footpath on the left. There is an information board, and the footpath is very easy to follow. It is a bit of a slog at first, ploughing through soft ash, but it gets firmer later on.
You eventually arrive at the crater rim, and then have the choice of which way to go round the crater. Both ways involve more climbing, but we chose to go right and do the steepest climbing first, before descending through the fumaroles. Most people go the other way, heading straight for the fumaroles, but this involves climbing through them. This may be difficult if you are trying to hold your breath to avoid breathing in too much sulphur whilst struggling up the steep slope! Either way it is quite hard work, but definitely worth it. The crater is impressively large, the fumaroles fascinating, and the views of the other islands very beautiful.
There is much more to Vulcano island than its crater, and I would love to return one day and explore more of the island.
PANAREA – Silent Nights
Our next Aeolian Island was Panarea. Unfortunately we had to use the hydrofoil, because the car ferry did not run that day, which was a pity. The hydrofoil was very busy, and the luggage space had all been taken, so we had to sit holding our cases. This meant we were not able to appreciate the lovely views as we approached the island and its islets and sea stacks.
After reading about how small and peaceful Panarea is (except for July and August when it is renowned for late night discos!), arriving was actually something of a shock. When hydrofoils or ferries arrive at San Pietro, the port area is suddenly a hive of activity. Noisy scooters and taxis ferry people and goods to the hotels, accompanied by the unpleasant smell of two-stroke engines.
Our hotel was the excellent Lisca Bianca, adjacent to the port. Unfortunately this did mean that the scooters whizzed by directly below our room. With this and the usual out-of-season building work, I feared that our stay would not be so peaceful at all.
Fortunately the port soon settled down again, and the building work did not carry on too late. We could then appreciate the hotel’s beautiful terrace, which was the setting for the best breakfasts we had in our trip. The view really is spectacular, looking over the islets and the more distant Stromboli. Despite the occasional disruption to the peace and quiet, I highly recommend this hotel.
The owner and staff were really helpful, the suite (in a separate building) was full of character, and those breakfasts on the terrace were magical.
Cala Junco and Punta Milazzese
We stayed on Panarea for two nights, and during our day there we strolled from the port to Cala Junco, which is a pebble beach in a beautiful setting. The stroll was a pleasant amble of about an hour, through lanes past pretty properties and then a pleasant small beach.
Adjacent to Cala Junco is a headland, on top of which is a Bronze-Age settlement called Punta Milazzese. This is a fascinating site, well worth a visit. The dramatically situated site consists of the remains of a number of stone huts, now being taken over by wild flowers and lizards. There are paths winding between them, and several information boards. The whole site is very atmospheric, and you can imagine what life must have been like here.
After exploring the settlement we carried on further round the island to explore some of the footpaths in the area. The views over to Lipari and Salina were just beautiful. We also enjoyed seeing Eleonora’s falcons and buzzards soaring around the hillsides. You can walk all the way to the summit of the island, but we were happy just taking in the views and the peace (no scooters here!)
A lot of the restaurants on Panarea seemed to be closed when we stayed, with it being out of season. The first night we ate in Da Antonio il Macellaio, which specializes in steaks. We both had fillet steak, which I have to say was excellent. Unfortunately just as we started our meal a large TV screen was switched on and lots of locals turned up to watch a football match. This is not what we want or expect when we are paying for what is by no means a cheap meal!
The second night we ate in a restaurant called Da Pina, which had a much nicer ambience. The mixed breads were beautifully presented, and the fish main course was very good. Altogether a more pleasant experience.
Wandering through the streets of Panarea at night is a magical experience, because there are no streetlights (you need a torch). You do have moments of complete quiet – a rare experience indeed. If you are lucky enough to have a clear starry sky and a full moon (as we did) you will feel very privileged to be in such a special place.
STROMBOLI – Arriving at the Volcano Island
It was with great excitement that we approached Stromboli, having been interested in volcanoes for so long. Fortunately we were able to travel on the car ferry, which was lovely. We stood on the almost deserted deck, watching Stromboli approach. The ferry first called at the tiny settlement of Ginostra, which is only accessible from the sea, before going around the coast to Stromboli’s main village and port. The journey is more like a mini-cruise than a ferry, and so much more interesting and pleasant than the faster hydrofoils.
I had booked us into the Hotel Ossidiana for two nights, because of its proximity to the port, and we could see the hotel as we docked. When you have luggage it is always nice to find your hotel easily!
The downside of course is the inevitable bustle of the port area. The hotel does have an outside bar area which is directly below the bedrooms, and you can hear the noise from this. However it had very pleasant rooms with a lovely view out to sea. Breakfast was served in an attractive room in the adjacent building, which also had a lovely view. With the convenience for the port, I would definitely recommend the hotel for a couple of nights. We did see a few other hotels further away from the port which may have been quieter, and I am sure these would have provided a shuttle service if requested.
Many people visit Stromboli to climb the volcano in the late afternoon to see the crater and the volcanic explosions close up when it turns dark. This trip, which can only be undertaken with a guide, is of course hugely popular. Where else can you climb an active volcano in (relative) safety, see it in action after dark, and then return to a comfortable hotel room? 15 years ago nothing would have prevented me from doing this trip.
But now, in my mid-fifties, a little overweight, with foot and knee problems….. I have no doubt that I could have achieved the climb at my own pace. But the thought that I might be the slowest person in a large group and hold everybody else up really worried me. Also I am a very nervous descender, and the thought of coming down a 3000 ft mountain in pitch darkness was just too much.
Fortunately, though, there are other ways to experience Stromboli’s fireworks. Although less dramatic and exciting, these are still unique and wonderful experiences that make the effort of getting to Stromboli well worthwhile. For an account of our stay on Stromboli see Stromboli – Experiencing the Volcano Without Climbing to the Summit.
SALINA – The Less Touristy Island
Our final Aeolian Island was Salina. On arrival I was surprised how different it seemed to the other islands. None of the touristy hustle and bustle of Lipari or Stromboli, and none of the manicured perfection of Panarea. Instead our first impression of the port and town of Santa Marina was a little ….. desolate. (It was quite a dull day!)
I had again booked a hotel near to the port for convenience. So the next surprise was finding that to reach the reception of the hotel (the Hotel Santa Marina Antica Foresteria), we had to climb a steep flight of stairs. It was definitely worth it, though. The room was lovely, with another great view out to sea from the balcony, and the breakfast room on the top floor had an even better view.
A quick stroll around the main street of Santa Marina showed that the lack of touristiness was in fact its charm. We found a restaurant with a beautiful terrace (Trattoria Cucinotta), where we had the best meal of the holiday so far. Simple but excellent pasta dishes accompanied by a mixed salad and a carafe of local white wine – delicious! Santa Marina is in fact very attractive, with some lovely architecture and interesting shops and several very good restaurants.
For our first day on Salina we decided to have a late start (after enjoying a slow breakfast on the terrace!) and walk south to Lingua. Although on the road, this was a pleasant stroll of a couple of kilometers or so, and there was not too much traffic. The views out to sea were typically great, and the road passes an imposing deep gorge with interesting rock outcrops.
Lingua is a busy but pleasant little place, with a few good restaurants on the seafront. We were advised to try Da Alfredo for the local speciality – Pane Cunzato. This is like a thick pizza bread, piled high with fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, and numerous combinations of other ingredients such as tuna, olives, capers (grown locally and almost ubiquitous in local dishes), anchovies, rocket, onions, sundried tomatoes, etc.
Da Alfredo’s was very busy, so we opted instead for Il Gambero next door. We actually returned the next day and went to Da Alfredo’s, so we had Pane Cunzato at both restaurants. We enjoyed both thoroughly, and both have the same lovely sea view. So I think the choice should be which has the best available table! I would mention that the Pane Cunzato are HUGE, so it is best to share. You can buy a half portion, so it is nice to have two different halves, and share both. Delicious!
After lunch we walked on past the small salt lagoon which gives Salina its name. The lagoon has a couple of small reed beds, and we were lucky to be able to watch a lovely squacco heron. We continued to where the road ends and becomes a footpath and climbed up steep steps to get more great views over the sea to Lipari.
The next day we decided to catch the bus to Malfa round the other side of the island. We intended to change buses and go to Pollara, noted as being the setting of Il Postino. However our bus from Santa Marina was late, resulting in us just missing the connection. Plans don’t always work out! So we had a stroll through Malfa, and made our way steeply downwards to the tiny pebbly beach. This was a lovely remote, peaceful spot, and we were surprised that there were no little bars or restaurants here. What a missed opportunity!
After climbing back up to the town we considered waiting and catching a later bus to Pollara. But we had enjoyed lunch at Lingua so much the day before that we decided to get the bus back to Lingua for lunch instead. Perhaps we will visit Pollara another day.
JOURNEY TO CATANIA
To return to Catania we first got the ferry from Salina to Milazzo. Unfortunately the weather had changed, so there were no great views of Etna this time. We then caught the bus from Milazzo to Messina.
Because we were going to the centre of Catania, and our hotel was located near the railway station, we continued from Messina to Catania Centrale by train. The train station in Messina is just across the road from the bus station, so very convenient.
However, travelling by train proved to be a lot more stressful than travelling by bus. The buses had luggage holds which were easy to use. But getting up the steep step onto the train, and then through the narrow doorway into the carriage, was not easy at all. And soon after we set off the train broke down! We had to wait for another train and everyone had to transfer. This involved changing platforms and then getting onto an already busy train, again with little room for luggage.
CATANIA – A City With A Lot To Offer
We did finally arrive at Catania, and I had again booked a hotel close to the station and easy to find – the Hotel Villa Romeo. This turned out to be a really elegant hotel with spacious rooms and impressive high ceilings. It has a lovely little central courtyard with seats among trees and potted plants – a real bargain at the price. Unfortunately the surrounding area was not so attractive, and walking from the hotel to the centre of Catania was actually a little intimidating.
From Catania you can get a bus to a cable car that goes up the slopes of Etna. The weather was not suitable for this, so we have a good reason to visit Catania another day!
Walking around the city we stumbled across an exhibition of the art of M. C. Escher at the Pallazo Della Cultura. I have always admired Escher’s work, and the exhibition was really excellent and comprehensive. If you have any interest in Escher’s art, and if you have the opportunity, do not miss it. (The exhibition runs until September 2017).
After leaving the exhibition we had a light lunch in a restaurant in the Piazza Duomo. Unlike the area around our hotel, the city centre is very attractive, bursting with impressive architecture and bustling piazzas.
After lunch we strolled around the beautiful Giardino Bellini. This is a haven from the traffic and noise of the city, and is much more extensive than it appears when you first enter. Also of interest are the remains of a Roman theatre situated right on Via Etnea, one of the major streets of the city centre. The ruins are worth seeking out – the contrast with the modern city around them is striking.
Restaurant with a View
On our final evening in Catania we decided to eat in the Etnea Roof Bar and Restaurant, after reading about its panoramic view. The restaurant is situated on the 7th floor of the UNA Hotel Palace, and it certainly lived up to expectations. The indoor restaurant and outdoor terrace are very stylish, the service impeccable, and the view magnificent. You can see right over the city to Etna in the distance. We had the best meal of the holiday, and I would highly recommend booking a table here if you want a very special evening.
Despite some parts of Catania having a run-down and neglected feel, the city centre is great, and has a lot to offer tourists. We hope to return one day and see more of Catania and other parts of Sicily. We would also love to stay on Lipari again and visit the islands we did not visit on this trip.
The fact that it takes a bit of effort and planning to tour the Aeolian Islands is the main reason that you can still find solitude and quiet here, and briefly escape from modern life, which is what makes the islands so special.
Please remember that this site is based purely on our own experiences – therefore kindly note the Disclaimer.