The essential guide to the Aeolian Islands, where Italy kicks back

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.

The season peaks from mid July through August, when throngs of sun-seekers descend. The best time to visit is in late May and September, when there's better weather, fewer crowds, and lower prices. Since the islands can be reached only by water, take an aliscafo (hydrofoil) run by SNAV (39-090/985-2230) or Siremar (39-091/690-2555). The easiest route is to fly to Reggio di Calabria, a port town on the Italian mainland, and catch a two-hour hydrofoil. Alternatively, you can fly to Catania, Sicily, and take the train to Milazzo, and then a one-hour hydrofoil. There are also four-hour hydrofoils from Naples in high season. In any case, be sure you take the hydrofoil and not the far slower traghetto (ferry).

Carasco Hotel Porto delle Genti, Lipari; 39-090/981-1605, fax 39-090/981-1828; doubles from $42.
Hotel Raya Via San Pietro, Panarea; 39-090/983-013, fax 39-090/983-103; doubles from $160, including breakfast and dinner.
Hotel La Sirenetta 33 Via Marina, Stromboli; 39-090/986-025, fax 39-090/986-124; doubles from $137. A relaxed, breezy hotel above a black-sand beach.
La Locanda del Barbablù 17-19 Via Vittorio Emanuele, Stromboli; 39-090/986-118, fax 39-090/986-323; doubles from $74.
Hotel Signum 15 Via Scalo, Salina; 39-090/984-4222, fax 39-090/984-4102; doubles from $84.
La Canna 43 Via Rosa, Filicudi; 39-090/988-9956, fax 39-090/988-9966; doubles from $53.
Ericusa Via Regina Elena, Alicudi; 39-090/988-9902, fax 39-090/988-9671; doubles from $78, including breakfast and dinner. Manager Peppino Taranto is an excellent guide to the island.

Ristorante Filippino Piazza a Municipio, Lipari; 39-090/981-1002; dinner for two $80.
La Nassa 36 Via G. Franza, Lipari; 39-090/981-1319; dinner for two $60.
La Grotta del Saraceno 69 Via Maddalena, Lipari; 39-090/988-0218; dinner for two $40. Seafood on an outdoor terrace.
Ristorante Da Pina Via San Pietro, Panarea; 39-090/983-032; dinner for two $20. Fabulous fish, served beneath a vine-covered trellis.

Le Pleiadi Via Maurolico, Lipari; 39-090/988-0814. Dealer of Armando Saltalamacchia's paintings.
Fratelli Spada 3 Via XXIV Maggio, Lipari; 39-090/981-1741.
La Pecora Nera 123 Via Garibaldi, Lipari; 39-090/981-3074. Florence Quellien's boutique.
Stefano Panza Marina Corta, Lipari; 39-090/981-2021. The street artist's workshop.

Kasbah Café 25 Via Maurolico, Lipari; 39-090/981-1075. Killer cocktails. Live jazz on the torchlit terrace.
Banacalì Port of Panarea; 39-090/983-004.
Bar del Porto Port of Panarea; 39-090/983-254.
Bridge Club Port of Panarea; no phone.
Bar Ingrid Piazza San Vincenzo, Stromboli; 39-090/986-385.
La Tartana Club Via Marina, Stromboli; 39-090/986-025.

For nightly hikes up Stromboli's volcano, contact guide Mario Zaia (39-090/986-315; or via Hotel La Sirenetta). A less-taxing way to see the volcano is on a nocturnal boat tour of the southwest coast with Pippo (phone and fax 39-090/986-135). Motorboats, skiffs, and inflatable rafts are available for hire on each island, with or without a skipper. Book through your hotel.
Kurt Wahlen Via Serra, Lipari; 39-368/675-529. Swiss skipper Wahlen's Al Kaid, a classic 50-foot ketch, sails throughout the islands.
Nauta Charter 1 Via Santa Croce, Lipari; 39-090/982-2305, fax 39-090/982-2093. A fleet of eight yachts. Will arrange transfers to Lipari from Catania.

Salina's magnificent salted capers, as plump as blueberries. They are to pickled capers what fresh-pressed extra-virgin olive oil is to the weak, yellow variety.