Sicily by Sea / Sailing the Isole Eolieo

Waking up in Italy is a great way to start any day. Waking up on a sailboat criss crossing the Aeolians is the best, even if the boat in question is the Josephine, the noisiest boat of the modern seafaring era.

Off the coast of Sicily, the Aeolian islands offer seas as clear as the Bahamas, landscapes worthy enough to be film sets and exceptional restaurants.

In antiquity they were the home of Aeolus, god of the winds, who gave his name to the islands. Ironically on this trip we either had too much wind , or non at all.

There are seven of them ; each with their own characteristics that they could easily be a boy band:

– Vulcano , the smelly one, thanks to the sulphur baths on the coast.

– Lipari ,the administrative island and main ferry port.

– Salina , the lush one with the twin peaks.

– Panarea, the posh one with the nice bars and fashionable boutiques.

– Stromboli , the tough one with an active volcano and fire-trekking routes.

– Filicudi and Alucudi , the quiet and isolated ones.

To do justice to all, one needs at least two weeks, but we had only one, so we did some research and decided to eliminate half of them.

We’ve rented the Josephine , a 50’ Dufor from Parallelo 38. I got mixed feelings about the company for they were not the most responsive, but when we arrived at the base and managed to get their attention after a number of calls and texts, we found our representative Fabio ultra capable and positive. And apart from the non-stop sounds coming from everywhere on board, Josephine turned out to be a fast and reliable boat.

We were planning to sail to Lipari for our first night but no such luck. Due to a super slow check-in which started hours after we arrived Capo D’Orlando, we had to spend the night at the marina, as all the other charter boats renting from the same company. Thankfully it was a new marina with a great sushi/ seafood restaurant , the Ma Sushi , and clean facilities, so no big complaints.

Day 1

Since we had less time than planned and places to go, we decided to skip Lipari due to our previous research and by Fabio’s blessings : ‘ Allora, other islands are more molto bene ‘. So after a quick breakfast of brioche and coffee at the marina, we set sail to

Salina, some 25nm away. Most of the route we had to deal with high seas, side waves, heavy squalls , rain and the occasional twister.

When, after three and a half hours later , we enter the Porto Salina, the heavens were thankfully clearing but the wind was still strong. Securing the Josephine with double Med lines, we went to Il Gambero on a nearby cove and tasted the local specialty, Pani Cunzatu. Once a poor person’s meal, nowadays it’s a giant open sandwich, tasty and rich.

Other specialists include tonno crudo and grilled gamberetti. I quickly learned that both the tuna fish and the red prawns were especially good in these waters and reliable choices in any restaurant.

Afterwards the real feast came – at least for me – in the form of a gelsi & pesca (mulberries & peaches) granite at Da Alfredo, a small ice cream parlour with a well deserved reputation. I finally understood what the fuss about the granite was.

Salina is big, lush green, fertile and beautiful. It’s also very tranquil. The island had it’s 15-minutes of fame back in 1994, when Michael Radford went there to shoot Il Postino. Quickly afterwards, the island turned back to its original rhythm of life where nothing much happens.

The main port, Santa Marina, is beautiful and unspoilt, with a long street lined with boutiques. The streets came alive at sunset where locals emerge for the daily passeggiata, old mamas gather in the town square for day’s gossip and tourists try to capture the best shots for their Instagram stories.

There are a few good restaurants serving fresh seafood and good Sicilian wines. The stone beaches are simple, clean and rarely crowded. And my beloved Med is dark blue and wonderfully cool under the Sicilian sun.

In the afternoon, after a refreshing swim we had a long walk around the town, went for a dinner at Porto Bello and turned in for an early night.

Note : Porto Salina costs EUR 70 per day, including water and electricity. There’re also clean showers and toilets.

Day 2 found us motor-sailing to Panarea for the wind died to a boring 6kt. Fabio gave us the contact numbers of the mooring people on all the islands and at Panarea that meant Vincenzo, who tied us securely with fore and aft mooring lines. We quickly realised that the bay is very open to swells and everyone has to take moorings like this in order to avoid nasty accidents. They charge EUR 50 per day, which includes the taxi service to the town.

Panarea is a wonderful mix of rocky hills, green slopes, and cute little villages adorned with lemon trees, oleanders and narrow lanes. There are no cars on the island, only golf carts and electric bikes.

There are some pebble beaches, especially around Cala Junco, but nothing worth mentioning. However Panarea has a variety of inlets around the main island, and many jutting rocks offshore – Basiluzzo, Dattilo, Lisca Bianca and Bottaro among others – that provide perfect daily anchorage while you swim in some wonderfully clear waters. If you came to Panarea by ferry, no problemo, you can rent a boat and enjoy the big blue.

After a light lunch on board and some swimming where we had encounters with some long tentacled jellyfish we dressed to explore Panarea.

We started with prosecco cocktails at Bar Banacalii and after a slow passeggiata in the narrow lanes of Panarea, ended up at Ristorante Hycesia for a great dinner. It’s a trendy family-owned restaurant with a kind owner/proprietor and a menu largely based on pasta & seafood and the attention to detail is superb. Just to give an example, when we asked for olive oil to dip our breads, they brought three different kinds, certo all extra virgin but with different acidity, so we had an impromptu tasting.

I had raw king prawns as an antipasti and they were juicy, sweet and oh so incredibly delicious. The proprietor told me that the locals eat them raw and suck the heads, which I did and it was like tasting the ocean. Afterwards I had a l’hamburger di spada e panino al nero di seppio, or a swordfish hamburger in a black bun made with squid’s ink.

Note to self : In this part of the world, always stick with tuna and prawns. Always.

We tried two Sicilan wines, a sauvignon blanc, dry with citron notes which went wonderfully with my antipasti and a red from the Planeta vineyard near Syracuse. It was like a light Merlot, lots of fruit and light in the body. Wasn’t the perfect choice for my secondo piatti, but with pasta, cheese or fruits, I’m sure it would go superbly.

Sleep was not easy on board the Josephine due to the swells and the noises. By second day we started to believe that there was an invisible crew on board , dubbed the ‘night crew’ and they were creating havoc during the nights just for the fun of it.

Day 3

We decided to spend another day at Panarea and after a light breakfast on board, we went on a photo-hiking tour to Cala Junco – Villagio Prehistorica to see the 16th cc BC bronze age huts. Yip, BC. Now, that’s really old.

It was a beautiful walk as well as an advanced lesson in sprezzatura , the effortless elegance that comes from centuries of excellence in fine living, arts and architecture.

After a pizza at the harbour, we went for a swim to the various rock formations surrounding the island. The waters around Basiluzzo and Lisca Bianca were impossibly clear and cool. At the north end of Bottaro there were underwater volcanic vents that send gas up from the bottom to the surface and the smell of sulphur was truly disgusting. This little tour made us fortify our original decision of skipping Vulcano, a whole island of boiling sulphur baths. I’ve read that Vulcano is fast becoming the most visited of the Aeolians. Not even the smell deters tourists from climbing the volcano; since Stromboli blew its top, it offers the best volcano-viewing in the Aeolians. Well, maybe in another life when I’m equipped with a less sensitive nose and a stronger stomach.

Drinks were at the legendary bar of Raya, the hotel that put Panarea on the map. For three weeks in August, this bar reputedly metamorphose into one of the most popular clubs in Italy, but that evening it had the perfect chill-out atmosphere with it’s chic clientele and cooler-than-thou staff.

For dinner we went to Da Pina which turned out to be an excellent choice for our last night at Panarea. The theme of the restaurant is more-is-more, with colourful Sicilian ceramics, huge bouquets of flowers and a bunch of busy, noisy and friendly ladies who, while taking orders and commenting on our choices, simultaneously joke with regulars.

And the food , -mamma mia ! – was unforgettable, spectacularly presented and incredibly delicious. I had one of the best pavè de thon rouge ever, slightly smoky and cooked juste saisi. Paired with a dry Malvasia Salina, it was a feast.French chefs should take note.

Back to the Josephine to listen to the shenanigans of the night crew.

Day 4

We sailed to Punta Torrione for a swim stop and a light breakfast. Final destination of the day was Stromboli, the last island on the eastern side, which in fact is an active volcano disguised as an island.

Once again there was no wind to speak of so we didn’t even bother with sails and motored our way to Stromboli for 13nm. Even from a distance it looked impressive with its conic shape and the constant cloud glued to its peak.

Stromboli is the inspiration for the 1949 Rossellini/Bergman film of the same name, and now the holiday home to the designers Dolce e Gabbana. No wonder their SS18 collection is based on Sicilian motifs and colours.

People come to Stromboli to see the volcano, which is still smoking after the 2007 eruption blew its top and left it exploding small jets of lava like fireworks from the core.

There are guides to take you to fire-trekking up the mountain. It’s a 3.5 hours steep climb to the top and another 2 hours to come down. Most our crew were recovering from various ailments so we didn’t even attempt it. Instead we sailed around the island to take a closer look at the old lava routes and marvelled at the healing powers of nature.

Stromboli has two anchorages. Tiny Ginostra has the better harbour but is on the ‘far’ side of the island and can only be reached by boat. With less than 30 inhabitants , no roads and no electricity, staying there gives a new meaning to the word ‘remote’. Scari, on the north-east coast, is better connected, linked by road to the island’s main village of San Vincenzo, a picturesque hamlet of whitewashed houses, narrow lanes and colourful flowers. Even from a distance the waterfront villas make a lovely contrast with the black lava rocks that are used as garden walls.

We dropped anchor at Punta Lena and went snorkelling. With the black lava sands, yellow Mediterranean anemone and acid green rocks, it was a very enjoyable experience.

After our swim we realised that our anchorage became quite windy for our little dinghy so we called a water taxi and went to explore the little town. Apparently there was a serious storm somewhere and we were getting the side winds.

In Scari we found a shop run by a lovely old lady and bought some much needed clean shirts . Afterwards she very formally shook our hands and wished us a ‘good life’, which sounded normal coming from someone who spends their life under a very active volcano.

After a truly satisfying dinner at the charming Ristorante Il Gecko where we gorged on raw necco shrimps, pasta di pistachio and bottles of white wine we went down to the harbour to find Ando, our water taxi captain. Instead we found ourselves watching a huge shouting match with lots of gestures and shrugging with half the town watching. Apparently one captain jumped the queue to pick up his clients and provided the nightly entertainment.

When we finally boarded Ando’s tender and reached our boat the seas were so high that it was a real challenge to jump from her to Josephine.

The wind and swells were crazy that night. Instead of suffering in a cabin more resembling a rodeo arena, I stayed on the deck reading and watching the lights of the fire-trekkers coming down until early hours.

Sleep ? So overrated.

Day 5

Today is the longest day of the year and we all are so so sleepy.

The original plan was to sail to Filicudi but after the third consecutive sleepless night, the marina at Salina had an almost magnetic pull, so we decided to go there instead.

We spent a lazy day, swimming , reading and day dreaming, watching the twin peaks of Salina.

Dinner was another happy memory, this time at Ristorante Didyme. Overlooking the harbour and a lovely sunset it’s a small restaurant of 6 tables serving good food and wine in considerably large servings. Everything is prepared in house, including the chocolate sorbet.

Sleep was a blessing that night. Even the night crew was silent.

Tomorrow we’ll be going to Capo D’Orlando and the next day, flying back home. So, arrivederci Sicily. Till next time.

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