THERE IS A STONE mermaid by the pools at Hotel Raya on Panarea — her face turned up to the sun, her breasts thrust toward the expansive blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea — who instructs the visitor on how best to spend time here: basking in the astounding beauty of Italy’s Aeolian Islands.
If the mermaid were to open her eyes, she would see Stromboli — the backdrop for Antonioni’s 1960 film L’Avventura — which still has an active volcano, smoking in the distance.
If she were to turn around, she would notice the hot pink bougainvillea and yellow lantana bursting on the rocky mountainside behind her.
On Panarea the soil is so fertile flowers explode from every crevice in the rock walls lining the narrow footpaths.
There are no cars, and chic tourists in flip-flops walk in a kind of happy, sunbaked daze between the brown-sand beach and the chamomile-scented hiking trails along the mountainside.
The sleepy residential fringe of the hamlet of Ditella curves around the island on the slopes above the harbour, smelling of hot stone and lemon trees, and punctuated by tiny six-vine vineyards.
The architecture — flat-roofed houses in white stucco, accented with sea-glass greens and blues — is unmistakably Mediterranean.
A hand-painted sign hanging outside the doctor’s house states his hours: a short while in the early morning, and then a shorter while in the afternoon. (Except on the days he takes off — there are several.)
Rustic glamour prevails on all of the Aeolian Islands, which were born from volcanic action in the cracks of a great plain at the bottom of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Unlike their better-known neighbour Capri — a shopper’s paradise where the streets are lined with Gucci, Prada, and Missoni boutiques — there is little to acquire in the Aeolian Islands besides a tan.
When I visited in midsummer, though, I was continuously struck by how indulgent the simple life can feel.
At Hotel Raya, there were no televisions, the towels were well-worn and the doors to my room did not close properly — but then, who would ever want them shut?
I looked out at the sea meeting the sky, what Lawrence Durrell called “the horizon beginning to stain at the rim of the world”.
I suspected the view — and not the food — would be the main attraction at the restaurant Cusiritati, as the airy porch where diners sit overlooks the port.
But when six loquacious elderly Italian women — clearly regulars — were seated at a table nearby, my expectations rose.
I was not disappointed. I had never tried (or even heard of) scorpionfish, the prevailing catch during my stay on Panarea, but after tasting it grilled and garnished with capers, I became an avid convert.
Capers are common on the Aeolian Islands — piled on plates and growing wild along the roadside. After the bushes offer up their green buds, they produce otherworldly flowers: four white petals around a shock of purple-tipped filaments. They seemed to be everywhere I looked.
The next day, sunning myself on the deck next to the Raya’s quartet of thermal pools, I saw the same gaggle of older women, wearing big earrings and even bigger sunglasses, chatting, smoking, and laughing with the grande dame of Panarea, Raya founder Myriam Beltrami.
The hotel developed over time, first as a series of guest cottages that Beltrami and her late husband, the artist Paolo Tilche, built for visiting friends in the 1960s — over the years, Gianni Agnelli, Aristotle Onassis and the painter Francis Bacon had visited.
“The Raya,” Beltrami says, “is for people who have too much, and want to find themselves.”
Beltrami is in her late 80s now, and, sitting topless under the sulphurous water cascading down from the mountainside, she was every bit as uninhibited as her hotel’s stone mermaid.
Later, dressed in a buoyant jumpsuit, Beltrami shook her finger at a pool boy — she remains very much in charge and her standards are exacting.
The rooms are understated but spotless. Breakfast is a simple feast of organic produce, tasty omelettes and perfect espresso.
But the Raya is hardly reserved for the aged or the sedate: Beltrami is also a woman who understands that times change.
In August, techno music echoes through the jasmine-scented night, when the Raya’s legendary dance parties are at their peak, attracting the likes of Kate Moss.
If Panarea, the smallest island in the archipelago, is the fun little ingénue of the Aeolian Islands, Lipari — which means “large, fertile” — is her big, slightly worn grandmother: She’s definitely seen a thing or two.
Looming over the main port is a massive steep-sided, flat-topped stone outcropping that has served since the Neolithic period as both watchtower and home for the islanders.
In its time, it was variously a Greek acropolis, Roman fort and, under Mussolini’s regime, both garrison and Fascist concentration camp.
Lipari is the largest of the Aeolian Islands, and the most industrial. In some ways, it is also the most interesting: There is evidence of real life being lived here, not just vacations being enjoyed. The port area and Canneto, farther north up the east coast, are bustling commercial hubs.
On the island’s western coast, orchards of Malvasia grapes line the mountainside over staggering views of neighbouring Salina.
It is worth the trip here just for the 19-mile drive around the island, which gives you an unrivaled sense of the relationship between all the islands in the Aeolian string: Alicudi, Filicudi, Salina, Panarea, Stromboli, Vulcano and mighty Lipari in the middle. I made that daring drive in a rented orange open-sided Citroën Méhari — a barely aggrandised go-cart. I quickly discovered the speedometer and indicator lights were purely ornamental, the roof was a plywood board lashed to the frame by zip ties and the headlights blazed like two fireflies in the night sky.
I somehow lived to see Salina, my next destination, known as the garden island of the Aeolian Islands.
It is the lushest of the volcanic cones, and thought by some to be the prettiest.
Well-maintained trails for hikers and ramblers wind around the island and rise steeply upward through vineyards and olive groves.
A strenuous four-hour hike starting amid the old buildings and chic boutiques on the cobbled main road of Santa Marina Salina climbs up through the forest to the top of Monte Fossa delle Felci, the islands’ highest point, which was surprisingly cool in the summer heat.
One sunbaked morning after a storm, I tried an easier route towards Paolo Noce in the hills above the small town of Lingua; for a heart-stopping second I shared the path with a three-foot-long olive-green Biacco snake as it slithered over my foot.
Volcanic rock terracing on the mountainside provided a foothold for ancient olive trees.
I had heard a rumour that the houses there, built by olive pickers for use during their harvests, were kindly left open all year to serve as refuge for hikers.
I scrambled down to what I presumed was one of these: a simple lime-washed building facing the sea with two blue-trimmed, perfectly round windows like eyes above the weathered lintel.
A well head incorporated into the thick retaining wall of the small patio revealed crystal clear water just below the surface.
The front door was unlocked and the single room inside was spotless but obviously inhabited.
A threadbare serge suit hung on the wall near an eggshell-blue kitchen table on which sat a bowl of fruit, an unwashed teacup and a spoon. A photo of a wizened old man looked out across the room from a shelf above the neatly made bed.
I closed the door carefully behind me, mentally rehearsing “I’m sorry” in Italian as I picked my retreat through the olive trees.
The hiking on Salina is hot and strenuous, and all around is the cool blue of the sea in the distance — a taunting reminder that swimming in the Mediterranean is one of the few things in life even better in reality than fantasy.
Some of the best swimming here can be found in the cliff-lined bay of Pollara, which served as the setting for the classic Italian film Il Postino: The Postman.
You can swim for hours across the bay or around the headland, and I was amazed to find that the deeper below the surface you go, the more cobalt the water looks.
Getting in required a certain amount of clambering, however, down a steep path that drops to a slipway rimmed with ancient boathouses built into the cliff face.
It’s far easier to access the water from Malfa, where the beach had boulders worn smooth as billiard balls by the sea.
Lifeguards in red T-shirts rent out Li-Los, kayaks and umbrellas, then serve as waiters at the tiny, improbable beach bar, Maracaibo.
I was surprised to find my plastic cup full of fantastically crisp local white wine.
There was no shortage of sun, but the Aeolian Islands are named for the Greek keeper of the wind, Aeolus, for good reason.
Summer tempests blast suddenly across the ocean and the accompanying swell expends its energy with surprising force on the shoreline.
I took refuge back at the Signum, a hotel composed of a wonderfully eclectic collection of lime-plaster cottages with its own library, lemon grove, and rambling terrace — a perfect place to pass a late afternoon drinking Negronis and watching the rain blow in across the sea.
That night, I made my way to the best restaurant on the island, which chef Carla Rando operates out of her home.
She sent her barefoot son to meet me at the T-junction near her house above the port of Rinella.
He guided me back along an unmarked road, and then to a table on a gravel terrace in a yard lined with roses.
Along with the dozen other pilgrims who’d made the journey, I gazed out from the hilltop at the lights of Sicily in the distance.
Rando’s husband, the sommelier, directed me to a blue-labeled bottle of Didyme, a distinctly dry version of Malvasia from the local Capofaro estate in Malfa.
I had been labouring under the misperception that Malvasia was always a dessert wine, but it was a perfect, bracing accompaniment to fried zucchini blossoms and oily grilled shrimp, my first taste of Rando’s sublimely simple home cooking.
At the recommendation of my waitress — Rando’s denim-cut-off-clad teenage daughter, on summer break from her high school in — Lipari — my next course was a springy homemade tagliatelle with fried eggplant and, of course, capers: zingy and satisfying. Finally came a local spatola fish baked in breadcrumbs spiked with orange rind.
“This is real Aeolian cooking,” the daughter told me, her eyes lighting up every time she described an ingredient.
The flavours were bright, sometimes subtle, but never fussy — like the Aeolian Islands themselves. Life there is laconic and sumptuous without seeming extravagant.
Pleasure came not in the form of acquisition but in encounters with the salty sea, the fragrant mountain trails, the local people who seemed to view tourists not as a nuisance, but as novitiates with whom to share their culture.
In my next life, I rather hope to come back as a stone merman, perched for eternity on this blue-green edge of the earth.