They're Italy's best-kept secret. Seven tiny islands scattered off the north-east coast of Sicily, the Aeolians, with their isolated beaches, stunning azure seas, therapeutic thermal pools, dramatic landscapes and idyllic waterside trattorie, have been the exclusive playground of well-heeled southern Italians eager to keep this beautiful archipelago to themselves. The odd superstar has also been smitten - possibly as a result of films such as Stromboli and Il Postino shot against the islands' moody volcanic vistas.
While the Aeolians may lack the glamour of other, better-known Italian beach destinations (did someone say Portofino?), they do offer, in spades, a truly southern Italian experience, a taste of lazy la dolce vita. Each island - Salina, Stromboli, Lipari, Vulcano, Panarea and the mysterious and remote twins Alicudi and Filicudi - has its own very distinct personality from party-central Panarea to the therapeutic charms of Vulcano's steaming mud pools.
Salina Salina is one of the best bases for Aeolian Island hopping. The second largest, lushest and arguably the prettiest of the islands, it has several fine hotels and good connections for day-trips to the other islands. Head for the village of Malfa, on a fertile plain filled with vines and caper bushes, where you'll find the charismatic Hotel Signum - a great place to stay and day-trip to the other islands. Opened in 1988 by husband and wife team, Clara Rametta and Michele Caruso, it has 30 quirky rooms within a series of restored farm buildings featuring ancient brass or iron beds, antique furniture and ensuite bathrooms with Victorian bidets and sinks. The rooms are clustered around terraces fringed by plumbago and bougainvillea.
Both Rametta and Caruso are passionate about island food lore - Rametta is the unofficial ambassador for the island's backyard food and wine artisans, arranging visits to local winemaker Francesco Fenech or farmer Giuseppe de Lorenzo in Pollara who cures capers and makes jars of spicy vegetable pickles and chilli sauces. Caruso is also the hotel's chef and cooks some of the best food on the island. Try the likes of sea urchin crostini; palamita e cocomero crudo (marinated bonito and watermelon); pasta with sardines and wild fennel; or simply grilled fish such as mupa (gilthead bream) or ricciola (amberjack) with onion sauce.
Just outside the hotel up a cobbled side street you'll find Cosi Duci, a tiny artisan pasticceria. It has gained a cult following with its pastries such as vastidduzzi, pipareddi and giggi, and an enterprising selection of jams made from fichidindia (prickly pear), corbezzoli (strawberry tree fruit) and nespole (medlar), all wild fruits found on the steep sea cliffs and the Fossa delle Felci mountainside, a wildlife reserve which you can climb for amazing views of the other islands and Sicily's Mount Etna.
Anyone who's seen the movie Il Postino, shot on Salina, will be familiar with the magnificent beach at Pollara. Mercifully, nothing much has changed since being captured on film. The best time to come is at the end of the day to swim under the overhanging cliffs, then watch the sunset.
Pollara also hosts an exuberant annual caper festival, celebrating tondina (or nocellara), the main variety cultivated on the island, started by Hotel Signum's Clara Rametta, in June. Held in the village square with plenty of dancing and drinking, there are stalls serving classic dishes such as cheeses stuffed with capers, spaghetti with capers and tomato and caper salad.
At the other end of Salina, the seaside village of Lingua looks out across the channel to Lipari. There are some good seafood restaurants here, but most people make the pilgrimage to Da Alfredo for their homemade granitas; almond, coffee, jasmine, mulberry, fig and peach are favourites, best smeared between a brioche roll and eaten messily outside.
Home to one of Europe's biggest active volcanoes, Stromboli's dramatic, dark lava rock landscape and moody black beaches were the perfect backdrop for Roberto Rossellini's film of the same name, a movie which portrayed the island as a glamorous, hedonistic paradise. Rising nearly a kilometre above sea level, it used to be possible to climb into the summit and look down at the massive jets of lava shooting like gigantic fireworks from its core, but since the volcano blew its top in 1930 (when Stromboli's population abruptly dropped from 5000 to about 400) this is no longer possible. Instead, for a pyrotechnics display like no other, take an evening boat cruise to see the glittering Sciara del Fuoco (Trail of Fire) lighting up the nighttime sky.
The island has a very Greek feel - the ancient Greeks were the first to colonise the Aeolians around 580BC - and the remains of their settlements can be seen here as on every other island.
Most of the island's hotels and rooms are on its eastern side in San Vincenzo, San Bartolo and Piscità. For intense solitude, visit remote villages, such as Ginostra, accessible only by boat.
Lipari Lipari Town has a bustling, beautiful port which acts as a transport hub for the rest of the Aeolians; you'll see islanders coming here to buy provisions. Lipari, the biggest Aeolian Island, has an impressive historical checklist. There's the 16th-century castle above the town right next to 11th-century San Bartolomeo Cathedral. The castle houses the Regional Aeolian Archaeological Museum with its collection of third and fourth-century BC-painted theatrical terracotta masks and Bronze Age Mycenaean bulls' horn cups. Best of all are the hundreds of coral-encrusted amphorae (ceramic jugs) and black plates fused with barnacles from a wreck at Capo Graziano.
It's easy to get lost in the warren of cobbled streets - blocked by Vespas and washing hanging out to dry from every available balcony - that lead back down to Via Garibaldi and Marina Corta, a tiny harbour packed with brightly painted fishing boats and surrounded by gaudy outdoor cafés.
The busy main street, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, is packed with shopping opportunities - from cramped antique shops, fishmongers' vans with slabs of fresh swordfish and piles of tiny red prawns and old women sitting in their houses selling huge black shards of obsidian and sheaths of dried oregano to pasticerria filled with Sicilian cassatas, cannoli, torrone and lifelike marzipan fruit and vegetables. There's also some great street food to be had at Mancia e Fui, where you queue for slices of pizza, savoury calzone-style pies stuffed with chicory and cheese and freshly fried arancini.
Lipari's beaches are rocky, but fishing boats - which can turn into floating parties - are on hand to ferry sunseekers to discreet coves where they can sunbake on huge boulders or take a dip in the blue waters. Then there's always the people-watching… And there are many beautiful people to watch.
It's a short hydrofoil ride from Lipari to Vulcano. On arrival your first impression will be the all-pervading stink of sulphur.You'll soon see why; an endearing Fellini-esque cast of Italian day-trippers loll in two steaming therapeutic mud pools - Acqua del Bagno and Acqua Bollente - the island's main attraction, before rushing to plunge into the nearby cool sea. Beside the open-air baths, stall holders sell kitsch obsidian ashtrays and tourists queue for gelati as they wait to return to Lipari or Sicily after their soak.
Beyond this mayhem, an eerily desolate landscape beckons, with a solitary road edging around the still-active Gran Cratere of the Fossa volcanic cone. Volcanologists monitor occasional murmurs and you can watch distant trekkers making the two-hour walk to the summit to peer down at the smoking fumaroles.
On the northern side of the island, there's a precarious drop down to Gelso, a small fishing village. You can watch dolphins swim in the black as tan waters here, while you wait for a table at the excellent Trattoria Maniaci Pino. This small place serves some of the most honest seafood in the Aeolians - super-fresh delights such as totani ripieni (stuffed flying squid), spaghetti nero di sepia (spaghetti with cuttlefish ink) and simply grilled swordfish involtini served with icy carafes of local white wine.
Panarea The smallest Aeolian Island, Panarea was the setting for yet another film, Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura, about an idle group of rich couples on a boat bound for Lisca Bianca, off the cost of Panarea - a seemingly resounding theme. At the height of summer, it's yacht-central here.
With its Greek-style whitewashed buildings, Panarea's Boho-chic scene attracts the rich and famous, fashionistas and wannabes. The island itself is a wonderful mix of rocky hills and green slopes and while the beaches are shallow, rocky strands there are inlets and many jutting rocks which provide perfect anchorage for a swim in shimmering clear waters.
But nobody really goes to Panarea for solitude, or even really for the scenery. Everybody is there for the scene, and the action is centred around the terrazzo of the luxurious Hotel Raya complete with bouncers and clipboards at the height of the summer. Hotel Raya has cult status here. It's sexy, chic and expensive - just like the people it attracts. Raya's terraces heave long after 10pm. Definitely one for the night-owls.
Filicudi and Alicudi The most remote Aeolian Islands - about two hours west of Salina - and seldom visited. Each is blessed with crystal-clear waters, perfect for spear fishing and sponge collecting.
Filicudi has mesmeric volcanic rock obelisks, like the 90-metre lo Scoglio della Canna jutting dramatically out of the sea and the nearby Grotta del Bue Marino cave.
Those who bother to stay a few days in Alicudi, an extinct volcano, are rewarded with true solitude, bar a small population dedicated to the simple life. After exploring the port's three shops, there's little to do beyond swimming and walking to Filo dell'Arpa (Harp String), the peak of the 675m volcano. The littoral Mediterranean is in its most pristine and pure state here with wild fennel, prickly pears, artemisia and ginestra shrubs clinging to the slopes. Locals sun-dry cherry tomatoes threaded on strings outside their houses, fish for rock lobster and grouper and in the winter, after rains, pick wild mushrooms that sprout all over the island, to pickle in olive oil and chilli. Ah, it's the good life here.