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Aeolian Islands Sail

September 30, 2017

The rain was falling gently on the pavement outside when my alarm sounded at five a.m. on Thursday. As I scurried the several blocks to my car it began in earnest, so by the time I ducked into my little Fiat 500 I was soaked. Threading my way through the dark streets, I was feeling apprehensive, wondering if this all-day outing was even going to happen. Sheets of rain, thunder, lightning and streets flooded to the hubcaps made for a frightening passage toward the highway, and I seriously considered just bagging the whole trip.

But I pressed on toward Taormina (about 1 ¾ hours away), and when I emerged from a tunnel just north of Siracusa the road was dry and the sun was trying to peek out from behind a silver-lined cloud to my right, while Etna looked over me from the left. Two good omens, I thought.

Today’s itinerary called for meeting a tour in Taormina for a bus to the port at Milazzo, then boarding the high-speed ferry to the islands of Panarea and Stromboli. By the time we boarded the ferry the day had turned perfect.

The islands that make up the archipelago are all volcanic, and some are just massive rocks jutting from the sea. Those occupied are Lipari, Salina, Panarea, Alicudi, Filicudi and Stromboli, the outermost. Vulcano is characterized by constant sulphur emissions you can smell from the boat; I assumed it is uninhabited, but I was wrong: there are actually resorts and vacation rentals there, and visitors take their ease in the hot springs.

Panarea is a chic resort island; its boutique hotels and whitewashed houses with dark blue trim hang from the cliffside, and flowering vines crawl over fences and gates. Meandering up steep volcanic stone streets, catching a glimpse of the crystalline waters below, I felt the similarity to the Greek islands. Lunch included a great view off toward Stromboli: an Aeolian salad, very much like Salade Niçoise, with tuna, mozzarella, juicy cherry tomatoes, black olives, potatoes and giant capers.

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This island has lovely corners tucked away for the casual explorer to discover…

Back on the ferry, we motored on to Stromboli, threading through the islets on a sea of pure aquamarine. Past eruptions have formed the giant caldera in which we’re sailing, so the waters take on a brilliant turquoise hue. Passing close by several “elephant’s foot” rock formations, we could see the result of multiple eruptions building up the rock towers over the centuries, creating phyllo-like layers, some horizontal, some diagonal…

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Stromboli has a wholly different feel than Panarea, more rugged and almost primitive. The island has no road (or at least not one that goes around the island), and drinking water must be ferried in, though there are a number of bars and restaurants at the port. Intrepid hikers make a 5-6 hour trek to the top of the crater and back; outfitters rent everything from shoes to backpacks to walking sticks. I was reminded of the island of Hydra, in Greece, where the only motorized vehicles are Vespas, golf carts and little open trucks that carry supplies.

As I ate my yummy pizza, I wondered about the folks who live here, who flirt with danger every day. What do they do when it really blows? And what about the young people? What is there to do here?

Back on the ferry, everyone was anxious to get good shots of the sunset and be in a prime spot to see Stromboli erupt (which it does every 15-20 minutes, and has for 2000 years or more; but you can only see it at night). He burped just once, to the oohs and aahs of the passengers, but there was no way I could get a shot, as an obnoxious German man was standing on my foot. Too bad I wasn’t here in August, when there was a pretty good show. Instead, I settled for sunset.

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The long day ended back at the bus station in Taormina. As luck would have it, the hotel I had booked for the night was only 4 km. down the twisty road, so I fell into bed and had a deep sleep….

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