You’ve heard of Ischia & Capri…but have you every heard of the Aeolian Islands? Chances are, probably not. In fact, I hadn’t heard about the Aeolian Islands until two years ago. Here’s little geography and a few facts on this volcanic archipelago:
There are eight completely unique islands that make up the Aeolians. They’re found in the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily. The largest island is Lipari. The other islands include Vulcano, Salina, Stromboli, Filicudi, Alicudi, Panarea and Basiluzzo. There are two active volcanoes – Stromboli and Vulcano. The volcanic activity of steaming fumaroles and thermal waters waiting to be tapped are on most of the islands. However, Stromboli is the only current active volcano. In fact, one of the most popular activities in the islands is to watch the explosions and lava at night from a boat off the coast of Stromboli. We did this and it was one of the most exciting experiences that I’ve ever had. Truly magical!
Getting to The Aeolians
Getting to these remote islands is no picnic. There are three ways to get there
1. Take a 5-6 hour hydrofoil from Naples or Palermo (Sicily).
2. Take a 1-2 hour ferry or hydrofoil from Milazzo in Sicily.
3. Take helicopter via Air Panaera from Southern Italy or Sicily.
First Stop: Panarea
Our first stop was Panarea. There are not many hotels on Panarea, because as we found out, the island is tiny and only about 1/3 is developed because of the steep landscape. Panarea is a great island for relaxation. Because of its size, there really isn’t much to do or see on the island itself. You really need a boat. Many people chose to come to the island by private yacht. But in case that doesn’t fit into your budget or style, you can easily rent a boat and explore the island and surrounding thermal springs yourself. If you’re not comfortable manning your own vessel, then you can also charter a boat with a driver for the day. Either way, it’s a magical experience that you won’t forget!
The Hotel Raya
On Panarea there are two hotels that people talk about as being the best, The Hotel Raya and believe it or not, The Best Western actually called Hotel Lisca Bianca. We chose the Raya because of the reputation, but honestly the Hotel Lisca Bianca looked just as nice. The Hotel Raya was in one word, okay. First, the reception, restaurant and night club are located at the based of the island near the sea. The rooms and pool are located about 10 minutes walking up what we began calling heart-break hill. Not that it was incredibly steep, just a little steep but in the intense heat or after a bottle of local vino…because a daunting task. Nothing special. The rooms were adequate, the bathroom was tiny, outdated and the bath towels were like rubbing sand paper on your body. The attention to detail was poor. The attitudes of staff were not welcoming, and at times unprofessional, with the exception of Angela who was always helpful and lovely! When you are in the infinity pool overlooking the edge, you see an unfinished area that is not maintained. Actually, we ran into a friend that is the owner of a beautiful Relais Chateau property and he pointed out that although their rooftop deck is a stunning place to watch sunset, the area just below in your line of site is also unfinished and not maintained. Overall, the problem that I had with the hotel is that for 300-600 euros per night, I expect the best in service and a well-kept property. On the positive side, our room had a large private terrace which offered a stunning view of the town below and of Stomboli. Another great thing is that the hotel has recently added a thermal hot spring and infinity pool were a nice place to relax and enjoy a good book. One thing I really loved was Apertivo on the roof top terrace of the restaurant. Each night from about 7-9pm, you could enjoy drinks and complimentary appetizers while watching the sunset. This is common in many of the restaurants and roof top bars on the island. But the panoramic views from The Hotel Raya’s roof top are fantastic, definitely the best on the island.
Getting Around the Island
The island is a pedestrian heaven. No motor vehicles are allowed, nor would they fit on the super narrow streets. There are a few locals with scooters. Golf-carts are the transportation of choice for those that don’t wish to walk. Even the taxis are golf-carts!
My overall impression of Panarea is that the people on the island are a little different than the Italians in the other cities that I’ve visited. They don’t seem as friendly and outgoing. It seems like there is an air of ‘entitlement’, which I know is a weird way to describe the personality of an entire island…but it’s honestly how it seemed. We actually met a local fashion designer that is from the island and he shared the history of the island and his views as to why the locals have this ‘entitlement’. In a nut shell, he said that 10 years ago the island was a super-exclusive hot spot for celebrities like Tom Cruise and designers Dolce & Gabana (who have a house on Stromboli). This incredible success as a summer destination to the rich and famous eventually fizzled to where it is today. He believes that the locals and business owners have become greedy, charging Capri prices without offering Capri service- which has lead to the decline in the islands’ popularity.
So, would I recommend Panarea? It’s a complicated answer. The island itself is beautiful, offers a unique landscape, stunning sunsets and there are many really great restaurants. If you’re looking for a relaxing vacation and you happen to be in Sicily, it’s definitely worth the ferry ride for a few days. But I would center you vacation around this island in particular.
In my next blog, The Lesser Know Italian Islands: The Aeolians (Part 2) , I’ll tell you why the Hawaii meets Tuscany island of Salina is my favorite of the Aeolians!
Till next time… Ciao!