The Aeolean Islands
by Michael Fields
If following the ancient volcanic routes of Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey sounds like a unique cruise, then the Aeolean Islands (some refer to them as the Eolian Islands) are the place you’ll want to check out. The islands are nestled northeast of the island of Sicily just off the tip of the “boot” of Italy. Here you will find winds so famous they have names; such as the prevailing Aeolian wind, the winds out of the northwest referred to as the Mistrals, or the desert wind from the south called Sirocco. As for the seas, there are big swells which flow primarily from west to east which dominate the area, with occasional flat seas from time to time that are so glassy you can see reflections of the constellations on the surface. There is also bioluminescence which is frequently accompanied by dolphins and other marine life.
The islands, or Isolas as the locals refer to them, get their name from Aeolus, lord of the winds, who according to Homer, had his kingdom there. They are “wandering islands,” which over thousands of years of volcanic eruptions, have modified their size and appearance. You can’t help being overwhelmed by the magnificent scenery and temptation to explore every nook and cranny. You can spend the night on the hook just beneath active volcanoes as they vent and gently pour lava to the sea, or moor further away by a quaint village. The islands themselves range from lush to craggy; each a result of the temperaments of some ancient god. These volcanic creatures were born from the active pressure of the four elements: air, water, earth, and fire. They emerged from the sea during the Pleistocene period and have changed many times over. Their evolution is ongoing. In 1955 near Stromboli, a new island emerged and then sank again. On Lipari, the pumice and obsidian flows of Monte Pelato and Forgia Vecchia date back to 729 AD.
The islands caught our eye when The Moorings contacted us that they just opened a new base in Palermo, Sicily. Always wanting to sail this more southern portion of the Med, Cari and I decided it was the best of both worlds, Italy and the sea, and to just go for it despite not knowing anything about the islands. We are glad we did.
We picked early October as the time to go since it was on the cusp of the low season, and October, anywhere, tends to be a perfect time. We picked up our “tricked out” and spanking new Moorings 325 in Palermo. After provisioning at a local market, we spent the first night on the boat to get settled in, check out the systems, and chart our course after talking to Alex, the local Moorings go-to guy.
The next morning we set sail at 7:30 am for an 80-mile trip due east to Filicudi, an anti-stress refuge with an uncontaminated environment. The seas that day were rolling with an eight-second swell that pushed us along nicely with the help of a light Mistral wind. We passed by Alicudi, its sister island to the west, since both are relatively the same and Filicudi got us that much closer to the center of the island chain.
We picked the windward side of the island to anchor due to the mystical atmosphere we discovered at the base of a rock protruding from the sea some 210 feet high, as if it were a black blade sticking out of a blue sea. Mediterranean brush covered the entire island and it was particularly thick on our side. The coastline was gradual and rose to its maker, the extinct volcano Fossa Felci. We spent the evening in the cockpit playing cribbage, pausing between hands to lean back and take in the vastness of the sky, and then look back to the island, nodding in agreement of why the gods would have picked these islands as a place to reign.
The next morning we awoke to a blazing sky. Obviously Vulcan, the god of fire, was putting on a show for us at his forge beneath Mt. Etna a few miles away on Sicily. The red sky at morning did catch our eye though (more on that to follow). We hauled the anchor and pointed Ciele d' Irlanda's nose towards our next planned stop, Salina.
As we made our way around the northern shoreline of Filicudi, Salina came into full view, as did the other remaining islands we were seeking. Her twin volcanic peaks of Monte Fossa Delle Felci and Monte Porri make her distinctive to the other islands and an excellent navigational aid.
Salina was a special destination for us because it was home to where Massimo Troisi made his last film, Il Postino. The sheer cliff at Pollara, on the west side of the island, is where the exiled Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, spent his days with Massimo’s character, the postman, teaching him about metaphors and poetry so he could impress his love, Beatrice.
We sailed directly to Pollara and arrived about two hours later. We dropped sail and slowly motored into the small cove, sneaking our way past the small island of Scoglio Faraglione. The water was lapis blue… and deep… as all our approaches were. The islands are literally the tops of mountains, and they just drop to thousands of feet within a hundred feet of shoreline. We looked at the massive sheer in front of us and then looked at each other with big grins on our faces. We had found what we came looking for.
After a few quiet nods of satisfaction, we spun to the north and crawled along the northern shore to check out what the island coastline had in store for us. The lush green hillsides with occasional vents of steam coming from them were breathtaking. We passed the small village of Malfa and then made our way around to the northeast corner to our destination for the next few days, Santa Marina.
Santa Marina is Salina’s main village. It has a marina and lots of quaint shops and restaurants. It's worth noting that all of our destinations were places that do not seek out tourists. They exist because they are home to fishermen, or vintners, or those who commute to Sicily for other work by way of a hydrofoil ferry system. So, you won’t find souvenir shops and the like. Instead you will find little paneras, or bakeries, butcher shops, small markets, and shops with local wares which tend to be textiles, wine or pottery.
The simple marina is divided into two parts. The northern section is where the ferry boats come in and where the fuel dock lies. To the south behind a seawall lies the “tourist” marina. The approach is a bit tricky due to the ferry boats. They come in often and fast. We were trying to get on the fuel dock and on each approach, decided to back off because the hydrofoils really get your attention with the speed at which they arrive. I would recommend tying up to the fuel dock to scope out how to come into the tourist marina. It’s a bit skinny. Ask for the dock master, Salvadori. He speaks not a lick of English, as we found in all of the islands, but he is really good at talking with his hands.
The marinas are all set up for what is referred to as Mediterranean mooring. You back in between your neighbors with about a foot on each side to spare. It’s a bit frightening at first, so make sure you know your vessel behaves itself backing down and how quick it reacts in close quarters to forward and reverse. Cari and I practiced out in the fairway first, and then caught a slack tide with little wind and we landed perfectly. Once you get backed in and about a foot away from the concrete wall you are aiming for, one of the crew needs to grab the boat hook and snag a small line hanging off the seawall at your stern which is the mooring line. You’ll start walking that line forward until you reach the bow of your boat and start pulling. Eventually you will pick up a heavier mooring line and pull on that until you see it rising out in front of your bow to a mooring sunk about 20 feet ahead of you. Once that is tight, tie it off and then make your aft port and starboard line adjustments so you are about a foot or two off the seawall. Getting off the boat is always fun because they supply you with a 2' x 8' board as a gangplank. It makes for an interesting trip home after a few glasses of Malvasia. Malvasia??? Malvasia is a locally cultivated and produced wine from Salina (as are their world famous capers and raisins), which is like a white port, heavy and sweet.
Now is as good a time as any to discuss ice, the nectar of our gods, but apparently not of theirs. It is tough to come by. Upon our arrival, Mercury decided to make good on the red sky at morning theme and delivered showers all day long. So we decided it was a good day to find ice. As with most European countries, ice is not a common thing for drinks. They prefer their vodka in a chilled glass and that seems to suit them fine. But hey, we are on vacation! Our scavenger hunt was met with a lot of “why do you need ice?” looks and they all kept talking about the pesche man; the fisherman. Since it was raining he must have called it a day, so we did too and focused on the consumption of local wine. Not a bad alternative. We boiled up some pasta and covered it in a local red sauce called Sapori Eoliani. It is made up of tomatoes, local capers, garlic, salt, red chilies, aromatic herbs from the island, and olive oil. It is incredible.
Dinner that night is also worth mentioning. We went to a restaurant at the top of the hill by the marina called Portabella. Their specialty is fresh spiny lobster. They bring it out to you for inspection (try not to name it - it makes things a lot easier), and then take it back to the kitchen and split it. Then they deep fry it for about four minutes and bring it out on a plate. Ours was a good three pounder.
The next morning we found the fisherman and he was happy to send some ice our way in about an hour. He showed up about four hours later. We were happy and savored our first sip of a frosty beverage as well as the bushel of clams he gave us, which Cari steamed and soaked in a local white wine with capers and garlic. Yum. The stars were aligned once again.
We rented scooters and headed out to find the house that Pablo Neruda rented in Il Postino and to climb down the cliff of the sheer where the famous beach was. We found them both and basked in the enormity of the wall behind us.
We found it difficult to leave Salina, but it was time to move on. We left around 2:00 pm for our next stop, the island of Stromboli. It, too, was one that we were anxious to get to. The sail north took about three and a half hours. As we approached the island, we were amazed with how it grew exponentially. It was the daddy of all the volcanic islands in the region. This “black giant” stands out imposingly against the blue sea. For thousands of years the volcanic cone with its "spurts," as the roars of explosions are called, has been a lighthouse for mariners. The myth of Aeolus, who controls the winds from there, came from the ability of sailors from Stromboli to tell the direction and strength of the winds from the volcano.
As we followed the western coastline, lava flowed down a black sheer and boiled in the sea across from us. This was impressive. We turned the corner for the north shore and came upon a rock approximately 200 feet high that seemed to just climb out of the ocean. Sitting on top of it was a lighthouse. How they got up there to build it is still a question in our minds. Incredible. As we turned back towards shore we were awestruck by our next view. At the base of the volcano was a grassy hillside that met the ocean with black sand beaches. Perched on and above the black beaches were dozens of white rectangular homes. The contrast was like a postcard.
We anchored just off the breakwater of the black sand beach and jumped in the water for a warmer than usual sunset swim. We ate dinner on board that night in the cockpit and once again found ourselves staring up and thinking about how we were looking at the same thing people did thousands of years earlier.
Once we soaked up all of Stromboli, we set sail for a six-hour cruise south to the Isola Volcano. We passed Panarea on the way, the smallest of the islands. It is a resort island that was once famous for its resident pirate, Draugh. Since it is mainly a draw for the European jet set, we decided it may be a little too fast for us, so passed it up. That said, it is a big destination for charterers due to its charm and development. All the homes are white and the contrast against the hillside is quiet unique.
We also passed up Lipari, the largest and most developed of the islands. Locals refer to it as the “big city.” Once again, we found ourselves seeking out a more unbeaten-path itinerary. Lipari does have all the fixings though. Plenty of services for the mariner and a good place, we hear, for major repairs.
As we approached Volcano, we began to pick up on the sulphur smell. Its fumaroles, the venting system comprised of carbon dioxide steam, reminded us of what a setting from one of Dante’s circles must be like, with the venting of sulphur making it difficult to breathe, and the periodic volcanic activity launching incandescent rocks into the air.
Upon our arrival we picked Porto de Levante as our anchorage. We were glad we did. It was perfect: sheltered from all the prevailing winds and seas and very picturesque. We were nestled between the base of two volcanoes, Vulcanello and Gran Cratere La Fossa Di Vulcano. We launched the dinghy and made our way to yet another black sand beach to go exploring and to seek out the famous mud baths. The mud baths were right there, hidden by a rock outcropping. We looked into the baths and began to rethink our itinerary. They stunk, and of course, they were mud. We decided to tour the small village and were pleasantly surprised with how well developed it was. We stopped for a quick lunch consisting of calamari and french fries, bought some obsidian jewelry which is polished rock from the lava flow which has been pressurized for thousands of years and looks like black opal, and reprovisioned for our long sail back to Palermo.
After a few frosties, we decided to find a private area to change into our swim clothes and give the mud baths a try. Not to our surprise, we ended up having to change “Euro” style right there for Venus and the rest of the gods and mud bathers to see; not that they really cared. As we eased into the mud we both thought this might be the dumbest thing we ever got sucked into, and were we wrong. Very wrong. It was great. A bit stinky, but great. Tradition calls for you to slather the mud onto each other and then exit the mud over to these rock “ovens” and squat down near a good hot one and bake until the mud is dry. Then it’s to the ocean to rinse and then around the corner to where there are hot springs in the ocean that run upwards of about 180 degrees. We learned the hard way to not lead “stern first.” Talk about getting goosed!
We then had a “Euro” shower and headed back to the boat to enjoy the evening on board and see what clever things we could rustle up for dinner with the veal we snagged from Salina and all the odds and ends of local goodies we had collected along our voyage.
When we finished our visit to Volcano, we readied the boat for our long trip back to Palermo. It was going to be a good 95-mile sail and we had some concerns about the current, the swell, and which wind would take us home. We left around 3:00 am, the seas were calm, and we had a broad reach thanks to a Sirocco. The constellations of the gods gave way to a beautiful sunny morning and day for our sail back.
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