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The Essential Guide to the Aeolian Islands

On the 15-minute cab ride from the port to the Hotel Signum, I pass olive groves, caper plantations, and vineyards where the famed Malvasia wine is produced. After my unbroken stretch of beach days, the muted light and cool greenery are a tonic. The bucolic mood continues at the Signum, a cluster of old Aeolian farmhouses turned into an inn. Lemon groves blanket the grounds. Rooms with patios have vine-covered awnings, antique candelabra, and terra-cotta busts that create the feel of an old family home. But the best thing about the Signum is its owners, Clara and Michele Rametta. Michele spends most of his time in the kitchen, deftly manipulating local ingredients like cuttlefish, wild fennel, dates, and capers. Clara, by contrast, is a local politician and human whirlwind. She organizes guests' days with admirable efficiency, pointing out the caves where the Salinesi used to hide from Saracen pirates. She'll send you off on nature trails or direct you to the folklore museum in the village of Santa Marina.

One day, Clara hires a boat and packs me off to the seaside village of Pollara, where scenes from Il Postino were filmed. Pollara's narrow beach is set beneath soaring sandstone cliffs. Skiffs and Zodiacs float about the bay; volcanic monoliths rise from the aquamarine waters. It was here that Il Postino's Pablo Neruda inducted his unlettered postman friend into the charmed world of poetry. Neruda was right—if poetry doesn't speak to you here, stick to prose.

f i l i c u d i  a n d  a l i c u d i

Spend some time on Filicudi, and you'll see Gilbert Lippelt's point: this is an island that could make you leave it all behind. Filicudi has yet to be discovered by mass tourism, and is devoid of sophisticated hotels and nightspots. It's what you'd call primitive—if unspoiled beauty is your idea of roughing it. Precisely because of this sublime minimalism, Filicudi is all the rage among trendy Italians. Designer Ettore Sottsass has a house here, as do Milanese photographer Giorgio Backhaus and a number of Italian TV personalities. Rumors are rife that Robert De Niro is buying a villa. Panarea may be where it's at for style and revelry, Stromboli for fireworks and creative flair, but for sheer Mediterranean ease, Filicudi and its little sister Alicudi are the answer.

At Filicudi's La Canna, a hilltop pensione, mamma Emma and papÀ Pietro Anastasi make you feel like their long-lost grandchild. Some of the 10 rooms are carved out of the living sandstone and decorated with naïve landscapes by island painters. From the sun terrace, you can see five other Aeolians. Pietro organizes a boat tour with a fisherman, Stefano. I ask when I'm to meet Stefano; he shrugs and points to the water: "When he comes." Those who live on Filicudi rarely make appointments or consult timetables.

Navigating the coast with a fisherman is a strategic way to scout any of the Aeolians, and is particularly rewarding off Filicudi. Blond, green-eyed Stefano shows me some of the highlights: the prehistoric village of Capo Graziano, the beach at Le Punte, the pristine reefs and coves along the northwest coast. We nose into the Grotta del Bue Marino (Cave of the Seal) and cut the engine to drift toward the pebble beach at the back of the cave. I wonder aloud why this entire coast is so empty—why so few tourists?

Stefano smiles. "You should see Alicudi." A steep pyramid rising from the sea nine miles west of Filicudi, it is the most unpolished Aeolian of them all. Electricity arrived less than a decade ago, and there is still little of it about. There are no cars, no motorini or bicycles. In fact, there are no roads—donkeys are the only transportation. The lone hostelry, the Ericusa, takes Mediterranean simplicity to remarkable lengths.

After all the seafood and high-octane frolicking of the other islands, Alicudi's peace is perfect. I spend my time taking long, aimless walks on the cobbled stairways that crisscross the island. There's practically no one around, so I can strip down, slip into the water, then sun-dry on the rocks whenever I please. Alicudi is a place where time uncoils; sunset and moonrise are near-religious experiences. Before stopping on Alicudi for long, make sure you have a return ticket in your pocket. Or you may never leave.

the big deep
The Aeolians are as captivating below the waves as above, with sunken wrecks, dramatic volcanic formations, and a bright, busy sea life. For beginning and accomplished divers, the essential stop is Stromboli's La Sirenetta Diving Center (39-347/596-1499). The certified instructors have all the latest gear, including underwater communicators to coach you along the way. They'll take you to the rocky walls of Strombolicchio, a hangout for whales and giant groupers, and the Sciara del Fuoco, where black lava from Stromboli's volcano has formed a sheer wall that plummets almost 4,000 feet.

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