Italy - The Aeolian Islands by Alison Boler
Errr... Where??? That was my reaction sixteen years ago when Reg Vallintine asked me help him to organise a diving holiday for the London Underwater Centre to the Aeolian Islands. I soon found out and discovered a group of seven islands between the north east coast of Sicily and the pointed toe of mainland Italy that offered an idyllic holiday spot and some fantastic diving. We had such a wonderful week that I vowed to return. I'm just surprised that it took me this long. There are seven main islands in the group and many tiny islets and pinnacles. The main islands are: Lipari, Panarea, Salina, Stromboli, Alicudi, Vulcano and Filicudi. They are all volcanic in origin - clearly so - and two are still active volcanoes: Vulcano and Stromboli. They form the pinnacles of a large volcanic area which stretches from the mainland (Vesuvius) through to Sicily (Etna) and the power from the molten Earth is visible not only in the smoking craters of the above-water volcanoes but in the gas bubbling and venting from the sea bed itself. This is a most unusual and exotic area to visit and dive - I can't think of anywhere else like it in the Mediterranean.
The islands have been known since prehistoric times, named after Aeolus, the Greek god of the wind. Stromboli, which has been constantly erupting for thousands of years, was known as an ancient lighthouse, guiding sailors towards and away from the Straights of Messina. The islands themselves were a famous centre for trading in obsidian and wine in ancient times and there are fascinating archaeological sites and important underwater wrecks in the area. Always important strategically, these remote peaks have played host to Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and lately, the rich and famous of Italy's jet set. If such things interest you, many film and fashion stars holiday here, attracted by the privacy and some own homes. Dolce and Gabbano have a home on Stromboli and are often on the island with visiting supermodels such as Naomi Campbell.
Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, Giancomo Ferre, Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffiths and many other celebrities often visit, eating in the local restaurants. This has given the islands a sophisticated nature, despite their remoteness. Whilst retaining their charm, it is intriguing to wander through the warren of tiny streets and note the quality of the clothes and goods on sale. Cheap tat doesn't get much of a look in! Having said that, the restaurants are not expensive and this is not - or need not be - an expensive destination. It is however a very high quality destination, everything is just right.
We were on a combined sailing and diving holiday this time with another family, sharing a yacht and moving from island to island, four adults, four teenage girls. This is an ideal way to see the area, but if you prefer to stay in one place, the distances between them are so small and the ferries and hydrofoils so fast and plentiful that you can easily have day trips around the group. You can also hire small boats from the fishermen for reasonable rates. Before tourism took off twenty years ago, most people on these islands scratched a living from the basalt/pumice mines or from agriculture - both occupations they dropped swiftly and happily once they found they could make a living from their visitors. The islands are totally geared up for the tourist - many of them support less than 50 permanent residents year round, the rest decamping to the mainland or to Lipari, the largest of the group in the winter off season. I won't labour the details of a yacht based holiday here - if you want to know more about that side of it, please contact me. Alison.firstname.lastname@example.org Suffice it to say there are plenty of anchorages and marinas and the sailing is superb.
How do you get there? You can fly to Naples and get a ferry across or you can fly to several locations in Sicily and get a ferry across. There a many charter flights to Catania on the east coast of Sicily and you can then get a ferry from Milazzo. Ryanair have now started scheduled flights from Stansted to Palermo which is also a good base for a ferry crossing (about 1 - 2 hours). We flew Ryanair which cost ?180 each return for the half term week at the end of May. It can be much cheaper. One other point to note, before I go on about the individual islands we visited, is that July and August are the months when the Italian holidaymakers come. If you plan to visit at this time, you must book in advance because it will be busy. We had a 41 foot Lagoon catamaran which cost 3000 euro for the week. Divided between 8 (4 double en suite cabins) that came to roughly £250 each. We self catered breakfast and lunch from the many excellent delis ashore (cheap but very very good) and we ate ashore every night.
Lipari is the largest island of the group and the most developed (about 20 NM from Sicily). It's hopelessly picturesque in that faded, slightly crumbling Italian way that somehow looks so charming and stylish but that would simply look rundown and shabby in the cold light of Yorkshire! The main town is a warren of tiny streets clustered around a couple of small harbours and a large bay. It is dominated by the historic area on a raised headland. Once the acropolis of the Greek settlement, made a castle by the Normans, it is now the centre for a number of fantastic museums. Don't miss a visit. One has a fabulous underwater archaeology section, very imaginatively laid out, which shows a selection of the artefacts raised from the wrecks of the islands. There are large quantities of amphorae and beautiful pottery which clearly demonstrate the links these islands had with ancient Crete and Greek communities. There are many restaurants in Lipari to suit all tastes and hotels and guest houses and it's a lively spot at night. We enjoyed sitting at a pavement caf頷ith a flagon of cold local wine and watching the world go by whilst the waiters brought us selections of (free) titbits to nibble on. We had several good meals and can thoroughly recommend the Portofino restaurant and the Flor de Canela. You should reckon on about £20 for an excellent multi course dinner. You can eat much cheaper than this (£5) if you stick to pizza or pasta, both of which are superb. It would be a shame to miss out on the seafood though - unusually for the Mediterranean it is plentiful and not overpriced. The local wines are excellent and start at about £4 a litre. Of course you can spend more, but the local stuff was great.
What about the diving? The water around the islands is absolutely crystal clear, even in the harbour. I have never seen cleaner water in the Mediterranean. This may be due to the extreme depths just offshore. Basically, once you get back about 50 yards from the shore (much nearer in some places) you will be in 50+ metres - its just that sheer. There are a couple of dive centres - diving is popular in the islands - and we found the La Gorgonia Diving Centre on Lipari. They dive from RIBs like all the operators out here - they are ideal, very fast and comfortable between the sites. They offer different dive sites to suit the party from deep to shallow and on some of the pinnacles you can pick your depths. Some memorable sites are:
Punta Castagna which was a lovely scenic dive which you can do in depths between 10 and 40 metres. The coast here has pumice mines and the white pumice has slid down into the sea making the water a fantastic colour and ledges that look as if covered in snow. You can follow some deep channels along the cliff. There can be current. La franata dell'arcipelago : This site is in the channel (0.4NM) between Lipari and Vulcano. There is a plateau in about 3 - 10m and you then move towards Lipari across a sloping rocky bottom. The rocks are really weird shapes and some are absolutely huge. A really nice dive for everyone.
You need a strong stomach or a faulty nose because Vulcano, well? er? it smells! It smells terribly of bad eggs, due to the sulphurous emissions of the volcano. But you must persevere and visit this place - it's fantastic, straight out of the Land that Time Forgot. If a dinosaur appeared on the mountainside, it would come as no surprise. The terrain is just primeval, smouldering, weird vivid colours - orange, yellow red, all stained by the gas venting up from deep within the Earth. There are a couple of small villages, hotels, restaurants clustered around the coast and the ports. Vulcano has become quite stylish of late - the fashionistas are moving in here. You can climb the volcano and look into the steaming crater - takes about an hour. Another unique attraction which you MUST DO is the mud bath or fanghi. Its located on the beach and forms a shallow pool perhaps about 50 feet in diameter. The mud is about 2 feet deep, grey in colour, warm like a bath, and oh yes, it stinks! Stinking or not, it is purported to be very beneficial for a number of skin ailments and rheumatics and many people come here to wallow in it. It is one of the weirdest sights I have ever seen to see a collection of mud caked Europeans lolling like hippos in the pool. Very very pleasant though, at least I found it so. My daughters and their friends shrieked in horror, gagged at the smell and ran off aghast. The men in the party bravely submitted but looked uneasy throughout! As though they were taking part in a sort of erotic but slightly perverse sexual ritual. After your wallow, you go into the sea and rinse off.
The gas is bubbling here too in great hot jets - you can easily burn your feet if you put them on the vent itself. Amazing place. Another word of warning: Don't wear anything you value into the pool and take an old towel that you throw away afterwards. Despite many washings, the smell will not leave the clothes. Frankly, it took many washings to get the smell off the humans too! Joking apart, Vulcano is great, a beautiful, grand spot. It is the original volcano as named by the Romans! Diving: Any of the Lipari dive centres will take you there or there is Vulcano Mare right on the beach of Vulcano port itself. Some of the dive sites are:
Scoglio Quaglietto: This is a super dive. You dive on a sheer wall in about 20 - 30m and there is a grotto in which you can see a statue of the Madonna and loads of schooling shrimp. Very clear water.
Capo Grosso: A completely sheer wall going down from a tall, rocky headland. The wall diving here in these islands is fantastic. Not covered in coral like the Red Sea, but amazing for the total clarity of the water, the strange rocky outcrops and the utter sheerness of the drop.
A very beautiful green island which is still heavily involved in agriculture, notably vineyards making a good local wine. The port is gorgeous - tiny streets leading back from the harbour filled with excellent restaurants and some very very nice shops! This was a great place to be based. There were a number of good food shops for self catering, wonderful bakers and fruit and veg too. It reminded me a bit of some Cornish villages, but warmer! Had a very good dinner at the Portobello restaurant on the harbour front which had a superb view of Stromboli in the distance. Could have easily spent longer on Salina - you could go on some interesting trips/hikes ashore as well as use it as a good central point for the rest of the islands. We didn't dive here but there are hotels and guest houses and I'm sure you can arrange diving. Some of the coastline looks so promising - sheer cliffs, arches, caves that it must be great.
One of the most beautiful Aeolian islands and many people's favourite, this wedge shaped island is surrounded by its own archipelago of islets and jagged fingers of rock providing a fantastic sightseeing and diving playground. I remembered Panarea well because we spent most of our time here sixteen years ago and I was keen to see if it had changed. In 1987 the main harbour village was a collection of white cubed houses, a warren of tiny streets, a few surprisingly stylish restaurants and bars and a nightclub that would have not disgraced New York (completely bizarre but indicative of the type of people who holidayed there even then). It was absolutely fantastic. Well, it hasn't changed much. Its got a bit more organised. Whole clusters of the white houses have been transformed into hotels, great hotels, stylish five star hotels for the most part. There are still small guest houses and rooms though. There are a few more shops - gorgeous things on sale of course. The diving is superb. We moored up right on the tiny dock - bizarrely in exactly the same place as Reg and I had moored with our party all those years ago. This time it was a bit tricky squeezing our catamaran in over the other anchors but we were helped by the local fishermen who greatly enjoyed seeing Bob having to dive down when we got a rope around the prop! We all enjoyed a beer together afterwards and there was a lot of laughing and a slight feeling of ?Ha Ha Engleesh! Today we drink your beer but tonight we steal your women? but all very good-humoured!
We dived with Amphibia Dive Centre and they were an excellent operation, with a fantastic RIB and based just above the harbour. They have plenty of rental equipment and cylinders and are very thorough in their checking and dive operation. Clearly very experienced in these waters. We paid 39 euro per dive including tanks air and weights and that was pretty constant everywhere. There are many dive sites and to be honest, they didn't seem to have particular names. We dived various places around the outer islands of Dattilo and Basiluzzo. It's just a fascinating place to dive. The ocean floor around here is absolutely alive - erupting with gaseous emissions, some just tiny silver streams bleeping up from the bottom, others, are great gushing vents visible from the surface. The area around the vents is interesting: bleached white, covered in a white mineral deposit, like snow. The bubbles are mild sulphuric acid and they have a curious tingling effect on your exposed skin. Not painful, but weird and slightly numbing. You might think you had a slight skin bend afterwards if you didn't know. There are loads of fish - clouds of small ones and also large grouper and other types. We saw squid and octopus frequently. Some of the places are not exactly for beginners. The currents can be enormous. We encountered some of the fastest we have experienced outside the Corryveckan here!!!! Which was interesting and a bit unexpected! Made us glad that the girls had a good number of dives under their belts and had experienced current before. To be absolutely fair, the dive centre had already checked all of this out, so maybe the current was as much of a surprise to them as it was to us. Their English was pretty good, better than our Italian anyway, but there may have been a few gaps in the briefing sometimes! No problem though: the dive masters clearly knew the area and there was no question (!!!) or attempt to swim against the current, we just went with it and then circled around the pinnacles and eventually got back to the boat. That was the general pattern of dives. The underwater topology, like the other islands, isn't colourful - there isn't soft coral. But they are great dives: sheer sheer cliffs, huge weird rocks, strange coloured drifts of stone, lots of small fish, streams of venting gas.
Amphibia's RIB was GREAT! Very large and very fast. And most fabulous of all: it had a ladder on the back! So, no undignified lurching up and across too-high-to-quite-reach-tube and then wallowing like a beached whale experience or my personal favourite, the quick sharp shove up the bum and land head first on the floor method, - you could simply slip off your fins and step up! Loved it? Panarea is beautiful. You could happily spend a week or two or a lifetime just here - there are great beaches, restaurants, archaeological ruins. We ate at the Raya (5 star designer style hotel) restaurant and had fantastic gnocchi, and risotto followed by fresh fish with several bottles of wine for under ?20 per head. The view from the bar terrace over the island and beyond to Stromboli was heavenly.
Stromboli is the furthest east of the group and the highest and its brooding presence dominates the skyline as you sail around the islands. Quite simply it is a volcano sticking up out of the sea. And it's the quintessential volcano of your dreams - perfect shape, often ringed by cloud, a constant plume of smoke by day and a shower of fire by night. If there was a sign on top that said ?Here dwell Dragons? it would come as no surprise. There are three villages on the island, two of which on the north shore kind of merge together to form the largest town and harbour. The other, Ginostra, on the south west side can only be reached by boat or by a long hike. Stromboli is striking and unforgettable and has a definite charisma in the way that places with huge history and a violent present often do - Santorini is another such place. It's completely stark, a vivid mixture of browns and yellows studded with orange. The towns are white, cubed. The shoreline is a cruel ribbon that appears in pebbly black beach in some places and disappears into sheer cliffs in others. You can completely understand why it was so feared by ancient sailors who believed it was the home of the fire god. Odysseus passed this way on his journey home from Troy and the myths of those times talk of the place of the tumbling rocks where sailors were lured to their deaths and then stoned.
There are many places to stay in the main port and lots of restaurants. We ate in one of the pizza restaurants perched high in the cliffside one night and for 4 euros I think I had the best pizza I have ever eaten. It was luscious. This is an island well used to tourists and you could enjoy a week here. The beach is good if you don't mind the black sand and pebbles. There is pumice all over the place. You can pick some up for a unique souvenir to take home to granny and her feet! You can undertake different excursions. If you feel fit enough you can hike - with a guide - up to the top of the volcano itself. This takes 3 - 4 hours (each way) and it is a steep and rocky scramble. If you go in the summer you must go early, come back late and take lots of water. Whenever you go, proper stout shoes are a must. In any case, you will come back at night, in the dark, lit by torches. One of the most amazing sights in the world is that of Stromboli erupting which it does roughly every 15 minutes. By night, it's like a firework display of showering sparks of molten rock. If you can't make the hike (we didn't!) you can view the show by boat. Boat trips leave the dock on a regular basis and for 15 euro roughly you get taken around the island and have an hour's view of the eruption. Well worth it.
In fact though, spectacular as the night time eruption was, we preferred the daytime show. If you take a boat around to the west side of the island there is the outflow from the volcano which is called the River or Flow of Fire. Not a flow of fire anymore but a giant ski slope of volcanic debris stretching down into the sea. Now, depending on your fear hardiness and the insurance cover on your boat, you pull as near as you can and watch. When the eruptions come you will sea a cloud of dust begin high at the top and as this cloud moves down it stops and from it emerge tiny blobs of rock that hurtle down and across the flow, skidding in the dust and shale as they descend. Fast. As they come closer, you realise that they aren't tiny blobs at all. They're blooming huge chunks of rock. Amazingly huge chunks of rock and they're coming fast and they're coming straight at you. Finally they make a final bounce against the cliff and hurtle off into the sea where they disappear into the depths in a huge explosive splash. The sea boils around the impact point for a good 5 minutes! You realise you've been holding your breath for the last few minutes and burst out laughing! One of the most exciting viewing experiences ever. Fantastic sightseeing spot but a suicidal dive site!!! What about the diving: there's plenty of it, and it's as fantastic as the rest of Stromboli. The walls here are just so sheer and the underwater rock formations are enormous - some rocks as big as houses. Also, unlike many parts, the walls here are richly coated in life, coral and sea fans and there are very large fish. Very large fish. Must be something in the water?..
Just off the main port is the tiny islet pillar of Stromboliccio, which is a basalt pillar extending up a few hundred feet with an ancient lighthouse on the top. You can walk up the steps if you like. The underwater cliffs around this pillar make for some of the best diving. Basically you can pick your depth and just keep circling. You could have lots of dives just here - it's magnificent. La Dorsale del Diavolo: A strange double pinnacle in the open sea. There are a number of very large (try Enormous) fish here - groupers in the main but some moray eels too.
La Secca di Scirocco: This site is a tremendous monolith with the top in about 20m and the bottom falling away. The walls are absolutely straight down and covered with life - sea fans, urchins and coral. Very large brown groupers were here, back in their holes in the rock. The dive operator we found on Stromboli is Dive Sirenetta, attached to the Hotel (lovely) of the same name. They are very well accredited and run a well organised daily and weekly programme of dives. They also offer technical diving and courses - the only operator I saw that was suitably qualified in the islands.
Sadly, we only had a week so we didn't make it to either Filicudi or Alicudi which are the most easterly islands of the group. Much less developed than any of the others apparently but very beautiful and Filicudi is becoming very geared up for diving. I have heard very good reports of the diving there - apparently there are some terrific caves and grottoes - and I would definitely like to visit there another time.
What else can I tell you? We went right at the end of May, first week of June. The air temperature was in the mid seventies which was apparently unusually cool and we had sunny, dry days with breeze. The sea temperature was about 19°C at the surface and you quite quickly hit about 15/16°C. There were noticeably haloclines and thermoclines on the dives. We wore 3mm wetsuits and whilst 5mm would have been much better, we weren't cold, even the girls. The locals were wearing double 7mm and neoprene drysuits. We felt a bit nervous when we noticed that, but were grimly determined to be ?rock hard? and it was ok.!!! It obviously gets much warmer in the summer, although the depth of the water means in never gets much above 24/25°C. You can get quite a lot of information on the web, but when it comes to contacting the dive centres I found you had to telephone, emails just didn't seem to work. After that, it was plain sailing. The dive centres are generally open April - October, getting a bit iffy at either end.
To summarise, we had a fantastic week and would love to go back and I won't leave it another sixteen years. Everyone enjoyed the diving, sailing, scenery, food and weather. The sightseeing was unique and spectacular - you can do and see things here that you would have to travel a long way and with much more difficulty to see elsewhere. The food and drink - well, what can I say! It's Italy - it's fabulous - you won't go hungry. The adults loved the evening dolce vita, the cool drinks watching the world stroll by. The girls loved?. Well, the girls loved the young Italian boys? and the young Italian boys loved our blonde daughters. I can't imagine that Naomi Campbell and a posse of supermodels would cause more havoc in Lipari than our four did!!!! They have all begged us to take them back next year. Quite possibly, we will.
We organised our own flights and trip via Ryanair and Nigel James Yacht Charter. You could do likewise or try
Tuscan Divers: http://www.tuscandivers.com
The Sicilian Experience: http://aeolian.thesicilianexperience.co.uk/
La Sirenetta: http://www.lasirenettadiving.it/seconda%20pagina%20ing%202003.htm
La Gorgonia http://www.lagorgoniadiving.it/
Amphibia Dive Centre: +39 090-983311
Book: Rough Guide to Sicily will give you all the details you need for the Aeolians including ferry details etc.