to yacht isle to isle
A night of rock and roll,” Nino, our ship captain, growls as he joins me on deck. “The winds come from this direction, then the sea from this, and BOOM!”
A night of rock and roll it has been. A storm had rolled in, and I found myself clinging to sleep, and the edge of my bunk, in a hopeless attempt not to wind up on the floor. As the tempest grew, so did my restlessness, and the notion of sleep drifted farther and farther away. I finally gave in to the inescapability of consciousness, climbed from my bunk and emerged onto the deck of our yacht.
The magical scene belies the night’s activity; pastel tones of pink and orange splay across a midnight blue sky and reflect perfectly in the now still waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Even with the sun below the horizon, I can see the silhouettes of the surrounding Aeolian Islands enveloped in a darkened sky. As the sun begins its ascent, the rays instantly bathe the landscape in a palette of warm, golden hues. The thunderous rhythm of rock and roll had subsided and given way to the morning’s ambient folk song.
Tropical islands, frozen islands, desert islands, any islands . . . isolated pockets of civilization and nature enveloped in the unique customs of indigenous species. Islands offer not only a distant sense of adventure, but also a chance to experience cultures detached from mainland globalization.
Settled off the southern coast of Italy, just to the north of Sicily, the Aeolian Islands are an ancient archipelago full of mystery and lore. Actually volcanic outcroppings that rose one million years ago, the islands are a result of a great tectonic shift along the European/African fault line. Ancient Greeks and Romans hailed these turbulent islands the “Islands of Wind and Fire” for the Greek god Aeolus, King of the Winds, who stored his most powerful winds in a hollow cave on, a floating Aeolian island. Aeolus would calm or excite the waters depending on his moods, thus ships would often stay away from the islands for fear of his devastating storms.
A true lover of islands and always one for an experience, I find myself aboard a yacht in the Aeolian Islands, a remote chain of seven tiny islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea, just north of Sicily. Although today these popular islands attract over 200,000 visitors annually, I still wonder if a part of the mysterious folklore would prove true on my journey.
The Aeolian Islands are remote and difficult to reach, which is a part of their appeal. No air travel is available to the archipelago, so photographer Jay Dickman and I cross the straits of Messina on the mainland and arrive in Lipari via hydrofoil. Lipari, the capital of the Aeolians, is the most accessible island and a transportation hub, and thus a perfect base from which to begin our trip.
“Welcome to the Biligú.” Nino, the yacht’s captain receives us gracefully, his scratchy, heavily accented voice revealing years of heavy smoking. With his tanned, leathery skin and wind-whipped silver hair, Nino is a classic image of a great seafarer. I see a gleam in his eye that indicates a more youthful soul than his appearance portrays, as Nino extends his hand to help me up the gangplank and onto the Biligú, the 45-foot sailing vessel with three cabins and a kitchen, our home for the next week. She would show us the isles of Aeolus and the people who called them home.
Sergio, the mate, watches quietly as we take off our shoes and settle in to the comfy cushions on the freshly washed teak deck. From what I can make out, both Sergio and Nino are from Palermo, married only to sailing and the sea, and live aboard the Biligú, sailing the Mediterranean from Spain to Greece.
We leave the harbor under a beating Mediterranean sun, with the breeze fresh against our faces. Nino chuckles at our smiling faces and tips his Ray Ban Wayfarer sunglasses as I ask about how the vessel got her name. Nino simply gestures in response, pointing to a white-sea bird, “She sails like her name.”
“Le isole fanno le rose,” Susan gushes, as we gazed across the Tyrrhenian Sea from her hilltop home. “The islands are blooming roses…it only happens this time of year,” Susan admits remorsly. “It means it is the end of summer.”
And sure enough, perfectly circular white cumulous clouds surround the peak of each Aeolian island.
An American journalist from Boston, Susan first came to the Aeolians on vacation, but fell in love with both an Italian man and these mysteriously beautiful islands. She bought a home with Danilo, her Italian husband, on the island of Salina and has lived in Italy—splitting her time between Salina and Rome—for the past ten years.
“There is an island for everyone,” she commented while giving us a tour. “Each has its own personality. Salina spoke to us for the rich agriculture and quiet lifestyle.”
Susan and her friend, Santino Rossello, the “caper king,” drove us from the caper farms to the vineyards of el Capofaro (the Lighthouse) and described the myriad of uses of capers in pharmacology and cosmetics. Eager to show off this island, Susan continued to the northern tip of Samina, where we visited the house where the movie Il Postino was filmed.
Susan and Danilo are self-proclaimed “foodies” and had invited us over for dinner that night. We arrive to find Danilo, apron on and hands full of flour, carefully rolling pumpkin gnocchi in his outdoor kitchen while a pan of browning butter and fresh sage simmered on the stovetop.
Their home, rounded in the Aeolian style, is carved into the side of a mountain like a piece of art and provides sweeping views of Lipari and Volcano. Among those who dine with us, Carolina Hauner, whose winery we would visit tomorrow, shares the stories of her ancestors and their sweet Malaysian wine known for its golden tone from the grapes yellowed on rooftops by the Aeolian sun. We enjoy a bottle of her sweet wine under the stars with our meal of fresh arugula salad with tart lemon dressing and Parmesan and plenty of pumpkin gnocchi.
Nino casually raises his hand as we pull the tender into the tiny marina of Panarea. As he leads us into town, Nino utters nonchalant “ciao” to his sailing buddies. His carelessly cool attitude so depicts the relaxed vibe on this jet set island.
Passing a row of chichi waterfront cafés and restaurants, I take in Panarea’s perfectly whitewashed façade. Deep blue and turquoise accents complement the climbing pink bougainvillea, and a scent of fresh jasmine mingles with the sea air.
The town is nestled in the foothills of Panarea’s ancient volcano, and every home seems to have an incredible view of the sea. I follow the winding, cobbled roads that tangle and twine through the hillside, each turn leading to a new discovery, a beautiful old home, a spectacular view or old church. The quiet streets are disturbed as a motor scooter careens maniacally around a sharp turn, throwing me into a doorway.
The islands turn cold and windy from October to March, and most of the islanders vacate, causing everything to shut down. As the sun returns to warm the islands, so also do the bikini-clad bodies. Tanned, beautiful Europeans roam in expensive flowing linen, dot the beaches, drink in bars and finance the island for the winter to come. Rumor has is that only two of 280 inhabitants that still live on Panarea year round are native Aeolians, a husband and wife who run a restaurant by the pier.
I duck into a storefront; the warm scent of incense floods my mind with visions of colorful batiks and ancient, Asian antiques. “Can I help you?” A tall, native-looking Dutchman inquires. “I’m looking for the internet.” I reply, as I look over my shoulder and see a row of brand new Apple computers.
The Dutchman, Jergen, manages the boutique I stumble into. With long flowing hair and dressed in a sarong, he explains that the boutique belongs to the Hotel Raya, “the hotel of choice for the international public” who visit the island. Jergen came to Panarea three years ago, fell in love with an Italian girl and stayed. I smile thinking that I have heard this story before. “There is something about these islands,” he explains. “They are the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and I can’t bear to leave.”
A gentle breeze brushes across my skin, as the Biligú dances over the swell and tips to bow to Idu, the deity of Stromboli Island. Humid, dense air meets glossy ocean waters at an undistinguishable horizon. A sheer side of lava flow, evidence of former fury, drops precipitously into the ocean below.
Idu—Strombolian for “him”—provides fertile soil for crops and the volcanic ash that shimmers on the black beaches. Idu continues to attract tourists, but often becomes angry. Just as he did in December of 2002, when the entire island was evacuated after a major eruption. Today however, Idu is smoking profusely, allowing a quiet air to rise from his eight active craters.
As we sail closer, we see the tiny village of Ginostra, damaged in 2003, yet still nestled in Idu’s cradle. This is the smallest port in the world, claimed Nino, “El porto mas piccolo del mundo.” My mind wanders to those who live in that village. Stromboli has the largest permanent resident base of all of the Aeolian Islands, which is odd given that they live below one of the most active volcanoes on the planet.
I begin to feel nervous about the evening. Jay and I are going to hike to the top of Stromboli’s 3,000 foot peak and photograph the spectacular lava eruptions that occur nightly.
After an afternoon spent resting at our hotel, we head over to Magmatrek, a group of volcanic experts and guides, and meet up Mario Zaia, known as ZaZá. The Italian husband of yet another American who has made the islands home, ZaZá is reputed to be the best guide on the island. And Zaza looks the part; standing 5’7, he boasts a thick beard, long hair partially covered with a woolen cap, a pair of massively strong legs to power him up the mountain and his dog, ever at his side. In 2003, his dog warned him of the eruption, saving his life.
Sunset is spectacular. We pause gratefully to catch our breath and take it a palette no man can recreate. As we reach the summit, ZaZa guides us directly to the edge of the crater. There is no railing, nor warning sign; this is not Disneyland. One false step and we would, well . . . let’s not go there.
We watch Stromboli’s incandescent lava fragments, waiting to see if she will explode. A few sparks sputter into the sky. A hissing sound hints at eruption. A small energetic flare is cast out. And then a mammoth explosion: fiery red lava shoots hundreds of feet up in the air and a shock wave of heat fills the air. As the eruption violently ejects a glowing magma, my hands begin to shake as I start to understand the power of Stromboli. Idu is alive.
When the surface cools and assumes a dark color, we reluctantly begin to climb back down. The influence of the volcano’s explosion reverberates. Humbly I descend, now fully aware of the gigantic force upon which I tread.
Stromboli is dark. We use flashlights to guide us down Idu’s slopes, thick with sandy ash. As the stars gleam overhead, we remain silent as Stromboli continues to echo behind us.
We awake early Sunday morning to find ourselves in Filicudi.
The main road stretches from the port to a hotel and a small grocery store, before it twists up the mountainside to the village homes on top. More tanned, fit bodies with flowing hair, flip flops, sundresses, and shorts stroll casually as they chat with neighbors and friends. Filicudi is home to a mere 200 people, and they all know each other.
As soon as I step foot on the island, I begin to relax. We arrive at La Canna Hotel where we lunch on a terrace overlooking the islands of Salina, Panarea and Stromboli. The typical Aeolian architecture is complemented by potted cactus and bunches of cherry tomatoes and peppers hanging from the rafters. Kids run by with their dogs and exuberant voices carry as we dine on fresh antipasti of olives and capers followed by pasta, fish and a salad.
A music festival is the buzz this weekend, held for the second year in the Grotto de Bue Marino, a noted sea cave on the island’s coast with a partially submerged opening into the sea. Famous Italian musicians ride out on a boat to perform from inside the Grotto, while spectators swim and boats watch on merrily.
Nino picks us up at the small Pecorini harbor, where he docks with at least thirty other boats. We see a friend from the Meligunis, and she greets us with a double kiss on the cheek. The islands instantly begin to feel smaller, and in only five days time.
Our Last Sail
Jean Michele, Nino’s second mate, and Manuela, his girlfriend, join us for our voyage back to Lipari. The air is still so we motor around the island to La Canna, a 200-foot rock formation, to wait for the wind. Surrounded by clean, clear water, we all jump in like children, laughing and splashing in the cool, blue sea. With the air still and the sea like glass, the wind picks up from nowhere. Nino calls us back aboard, the sails unfurl, and the Biligú is off.
As we sail, I imagine the feeling of flight. Quiet. The only sound is the whipping wind and lapping ocean. The rhythmic motion is at first disorienting, then comforting, and eventually sooths into a gently rocking cradle with a nice breeze and occasional splash from the sea. The sun beats down, its sting taken away by the wind, and I feel alive. I am excited by the adventure, voyage and future destination: the freedom to travel, to live and to go. Breathing fresh air, I move to the bow and dangle my feet to feel the rising waves of the Aeolians.
Nino comes up from the kitchen with a plastic cup in hand. “your flower,” he says. And I realize he has kept the yellow hibiscus flower Carolina Hauner gave me as we walked down Susan and Danilo’s “Twenty-two flights of stairs” to return to the Biligú for the night. That was five days ago. “I’m a romantico,” he smiles self-consciously with a laugh. Looking out over Stromboli, I can feel the magic of tranquility and calm and feel tempted myself to never leave.