Comandante Damiano Russo, the poised captain of the overnight ferry to the Italian Aeolian Islands, gives us a 5 a.m. wake-up call. The dark hours of early morning, he says, are the best time to see the volcanic island of Stromboli. He should know. As Odysseus is said to have done, the captain sets his vessel's course by heading toward the red glow of lava from this very active volcano.
Stromboli is a perfectly black, smoke-spewing cone that rises from the blue waters of the Mediterranean. It's one of the most beautiful and savage of the seven Aeolian islands located about 40 miles north of Milazzo, Sicily.
With only 500 year-round residents, the island in the summer has as many as 5,000 visitors. They come for the four miles of stunning black sand beaches or to whet their sense of adventure by climbing 3,000 feet to the volcano's twin craters. Rugged and rustic, Stromboli is a destination for those looking to venture off the beaten path.
Getting there, however, is fairly easy. Overnight ferries leave Naples six times a week in the summer and twice a week in the winter. The nine-hour trip costs about $50, plus $20 for a sleeping cabin. For faster service, there is a hydrofoil, which serves the route twice a day from June to September. The fare for the three-hour trip is $70.
Once on Stromboli, you won't find opulent hotels. In fact, the island has just six hotels, and rates range from $60 to $150 a night, depending on the season. One of the nicest, Locanda del BarbablYen , has only six rooms. Many visitors opt to rent rooms in private homes for a third of a hotel rate.
RUSTIC. The island is rustic, to say the least. There are no cars, since the one road is too narrow. Locals dash through town on three-wheel ape (bee) vehicles that look like a cross between a moped and a truck. When api pass, pedestrians are forced against whitewashed walls. Stromboli's west side isn't hooked up to electricity or phone service. In Ginostra, the 15 residents rely on solar panels and cell phones. Food, mail, even water is brought in by boat.
For the Strombolari, a boat's arrival is the day's high point. When our ferry pulled into the port of Scari at about 6:30 a.m., a welcoming committee awaited. The island's local personalities are an attraction in their own right. There's 70-something Umberto Palino, who claims to be "the most famous Aeolian dancer" because of his passion for tango and waltz. Umberto, who has shoulder-length white hair, is also a big landowner, with seven attractive seaside houses that he rents to tourists.
We also met Giuseppe Mirabito, a former banker from the Italian city of Trieste who runs Ai Gechi, one of Stromboli's best restaurants. He experiments with recipes from Italy's many regions and concocts meals that--at $25 a person--are enough reason to stay.
The star of the show is the volcano itself, affectionately called Iddu ("him," in the local dialect). Iddu explodes every 15 minutes or so, and minor tremors are a constant reminder of its presence. A poorly marked trail takes you to the peak. You will smell the sulfur, hear hissing and hiccuping, and see explosions of red lava. The hike, which takes about three hours, isn't for the faint of heart. At times, you must scale near-vertical slopes and balance on ridges left by lava trails. But at the summit, you will be rewarded by a spectacular view that extends to Sicily.
In mythical times, Stromboli's most important resident was Aeolus, god of the winds. When Odysseus stopped by after his encounter with the Cyclops, Aeolus gave him an ox-hide bag for his voyage. What Odysseus' curious crew didn't know was that the bag held violent winds. When they opened it, a raging storm pushed Odysseus back to Stromboli. If you don't have an Ithaca or Penelope to return to, you may desire a similar fate--without the storm, of course.