Constellations sprinkled the midnight sky like luminous grains of sand on an ink black carpet. Phosphorescent jellyfish filled the sea with pinpricks of light, mimicking the stars above.
Between sea and sky, the island of Stromboli loomed before us, a cone pointing to heaven. The captain cut the engine and we waited in darkened silence to witness the volcano's spasms.
Soon, smoke glowing red-orange billowed from the peak. Seconds later, a deep rumble and crimson sparks sprayed into the sky. As if in slow motion, the sparks fell earthward, red-hot boulders tumbling down the mountain from which they were born.
The spectacular volcano of Stromboli epitomizes the rugged beauty of the Aeolian Islands. This archipelago off the northeastern coast of Sicily -- the peaks of a chain of undersea volcanoes -- have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thousands come from the world over to trek to Stromboli's crater, see and be seen in Panarea's chic Hotel Raya, soak in Vulcano's mud baths and yacht in crystalline waters.
While Stromboli has an end-of-the-world feel, each of the Aeolians has its own distinct personality. Vulcano's mud baths and thermal waters have a special appeal, while jet setters rent pricey villas on chic Panarea. Salina, the largest and lushest of the islands, has an agricultural characteristic, with plentiful vineyards and abundant gardens. All the islands connect to the basic elements of life -- sun, sea and the fruits of the earth.
It's hard to imagine these remote outposts, named for Aeolus the god of the winds and a setting for Homer's Odyssey, were once the center of the world. Exquisite vases and countless amphorae on display in the archaeological museum on Lipari, the most populous of the islands, testify to the importance of the Aeolians to the Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans of the ancient world.
With rare source of obsidian (volcanic glass) used for blades in Neolithic times, the islands had a monopoly on the most advanced tool-making technology of the day. The Romans believed Vulcano was the chimney of Vulcan's workshop where he made weapons for the war god Mars, and they mined sulfur and other minerals here.
Filmmakers from the neorealists to the contemporary have been drawn to the islands. This is where Roberto Rossellini had a scandalous affair with Ingrid Bergman while filming Stromboli (their love nest is immortalized with a plaque). Michelangelo Antonioni captured the primal beauty of the place in L'Avventura, and made Monica Vitti a star. The village of Pollara on Salina served as the setting for Il Postino.
I made Vulcano my base for exploring the islands. It's the first stop on the ferry from Sicily.
Tourism development is centered in an area near the landing. Away from the madding crowd, secluded on a promontory with breathtaking views of Lipari, Salina, Panarea and faraglioni (free standing rock formations), the 5 star Therassia Resort and Spa takes the prize for dramatic beauty. Whether dining on an excellent pizza or linguini with vongole by the infinity pool, or lounging on one of the secluded platforms descending to the sea, the panorama is breathtaking.
Therassia makes use of local materials, including lava rock from Mt. Etna and Sicilian terra cotta in expansive outdoor areas, stylish rooms and terraces.
Most of Vulcano is a nature preserve. A pleasant terrain of rolling meadows, vineyards and groves of trees rewards hikers with stunning views of neighboring islands. The more intrepid can trek to the Gran Cratere, looming 1,600 feet over the island like a massive pile of steaming cinders. The round trip takes about three hours; start early to beat the heat of the day.
The sulfur mud baths are Vulcano's main attraction. The rotten-egg odor greets you as you get off the boat (the mud puddle is near the ferry landing), not a good advert for the island, and not a fair one either as the smell is confined to the immediate vicinity.
The mud is reputed to have therapeutic powers for arthritis, rheumatism and skin ailments. Having bought a used swimsuit that I could discard afterwards -- the sulfur will render whatever it touches useless -- I joined the happy multitude slathered in mud and soaking in the bubbling broth. I walked a few steps to the beach where I washed off in the sea heated by submarine fumaroles.
The proper perspective for experiencing the Aeolians is from the sea. Each island can be circled easily, and the distance between them short, so get on a boat, whether it's for an afternoon or a few days, and emulate the sea-faring people who first visited the Aeolians millennia ago.
The easiest way to get to the Aeolian Islands there is by ferry from Millazzo, Sicily. Meridianaairline has direct service from JFK to Naples with connecting flights to Catania.
On the way from Catania to Millazzo, visit Taormina, a charming hilltop town with resplendent views of the coast and Mount Etna. You can see both from the ancient Greco-Roman amphitheater, still in use today. The historic Grand Hotel Timeo, located next to the theater, has a superb restaurant not to be missed. Opson restaurant, atop the 5-star Hotel Imperiale, introduced me to Nebrodi prosciutto made from black pigs roaming the slopes of Mt. Etna. For the traditional breakfast of coffee granita with cream and brioche, go to Bam Bar. If you're still craving sweets, see a doctor -- or go to Pasticceria D'Amore for the best. cannolli. ever.