SHARE
COPY LINK

DISCOVER ITALY

OPINION: Why Sicily’s archipelagos are the best part of Italy for island-hopping

If you’re planning an island-hopping holiday in Italy, choosing which archipelago to visit might seem difficult. But there's one option that trumps all others, says reporter Silvia Marchetti.

OPINION: Why Sicily’s archipelagos are the best part of Italy for island-hopping
The perfect place to get away from it all - Pecorini a Mare, Filicudi. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

Surrounded by seas, Italy is popular for its many stunning beaches and pristine islands with clear turquoise waters. And it may be difficult to choose which of them to visit.

But if I had to choose between Tuscany’s archipelago, the Pontine islands off the coast of Lazio, the Tremiti islands in Puglia, and Sicily’s many sets of ‘satellite’ isles, the latter get my vote every time.

The Sicilian islands are well connected to the mainland and there are multiple daily ferry boats within each archipelago allowing you to discover several diverse islands in a weekend. Above all, they’re near each other, so you could explore a big chunk of southern Italy in one single vacation.

As opposed to Sardinia, Sicily still boasts an untouched beauty which has survived the contamination of mass tourism.

There are three archipelagos: the seven UNESCO-listed mythological Aeolian islands, the three Egadi islands, and the two Pelagie islands which are those closest to Tunisian shores. Plus, there are the solitary big islands of Ustica north of Palermo and Pantelleria south of Agrigento.

You have a wide choice of shores, ranging from pebble beaches to jet black volcanic sand and soft white dunes.

Island villagers, eager to meet outsiders and break the winter boredom, make you feel part of a big family; they’re likely to invite you to dinner and show the best of Sicilian hospitality.

READ ALSO:

Having visited all Sicilian islands several times, staying for long periods, in my view the most genuine, quiet, and well-preserved of them all are Filicudi, Marettimo and Linosa. Here, old fishing community lifestyles and traditions survive, and they’re ideal for a detox break.

Linosa, dubbed the black jewel of the Pelagie archipelago, is the most distant of the Sicilian islands and to get there you need to embark on a long trip. The first time I visited it took me 10 hours: first the plane to Palermo from Rome, then the bus to Agrigento, and finally a night-long ferry boat ride. 

When I landed at dawn I was fascinated by the jet black rocky shores of this tiny volcanic isle, which is the polar opposite of its touristy sister isle Lampedusa. 

The black pebble beaches have the appearance of a Martian landscape, with the dark cliffs streaked with sulphuric yellowish and red layers. Prickly pears and capers grow along the drystone walls that line the streets. It’s a snorkeling heaven: when you dip your mask into the water it’s like swimming in a translucent black aquarium.

Linosa is so pristine that it is also one of the few remaining spots in Italy where endangered Caretta loggerhead turtles lay their eggs at night. 

Forget social buzz: there’s just one tiny harbour and fishing village, a cluster of bright yellow, purple and pink dwellings covered in bright bougainvillaeas. There are no hotels, just a few apartments and cottages rented out to tourists by villagers.

Filicudi’s quiet, solitary shores. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

You’ll find silence and solitary inlets with emerald green waters in Filicudi, the wildest and most stunning of the Aeolian islands where uncontaminated nature rules.

Here, trekking routes unwind across meadows and up to the extinct craters now covered in bright flowers. 

The best way to explore it is by fishing boat, zig-zagging between its funny-shaped sea stacks and green, red and golden coral-covered cliffs scorched by lava flows from past volcanic eruptions. Ruins of a prehistoric hamlet and crumbling farmers’ huts dot the shore.

Stone steps and old donkey trails connect the harbour to whitewashed houses with typical Aeolian panoramic terraces where locals dine year-round thanks to the warm temperatures. 

I was fascinated by the fishing village of Pecorini a Mare; a cluster of pastel colored seafront dwellings where there is just one tavern serving delicious seafood, and one hotel.

The best accommodation however is found in the cottages for rent and B&Bs up on the hills, with great views of the entire Aeolian archipelago, where hosts welcome guests with a refreshing glass of white wine.

Marettimo harbour. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

If you’re looking however for a totally unplugged stay, complete with poor mobile connection, the secluded island of Marettimo off Trapani’s coast is the right spot. 

Sleepy and with a primitive-mystical vibe, it’s the farthest island of the Egadi archipelago. Silence rules. Three fourths of the island is uninhabited and features tall cliffs dotted with Byzantine chapels, secret pebble-stone inlets and caves where sea monks hide. One grotto has paintings made by early humans.

The white and blue village has a few pastry shops and seafood tavernas, while early in the morning fishermen sell their daily catch at the harbor. 

OPINION: Italy must update its image if it wants a new kind of tourism

There’s just one seaside resort with a bunch of houses rented out by locals. Sunset dinners here are served in front of a spooky, crumbling overhanging pirate fortress.

Whether you’re a sunseeker, an open-water swimmer, or a newcomer to such authentic island lifestyles, the islands of Filicudi, Linosa and Marettimo offer slow-pace sea holidays far from the madding crowd.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

TOURISM

Trulli to treehouses: Why Italy’s tourists can’t get enough of ‘back to basics’ travel

Italy's mountain huts, treehouses and even caves are being given luxury makeovers and rented to tourists, often for eyewatering prices - and people are happy to pay. Reporter Silvia Marchetti looks at what's behind the growing trend.

Trulli to treehouses: Why Italy’s tourists can’t get enough of ‘back to basics’ travel

I believe there’s nothing more luxurious than simplicity, especially when it comes down to accommodation and travel. 

And it seems that tourists visiting Italy agree. Several accommodation business owners have recently told me there’s a high demand for chic but simple experiences, both in terms of holiday homes to rent and hotels, as well as restaurants. 

Unexpectedly, these places are more expensive to buy or rent than modern rentals and hotels. 

There’s a sort of ‘expensive poverty’ glamour that lures travelers. That’s why there’s been such a revival of ancient dwellings across Italy, well beyond the famous luxury spa-type hotels set in old cave houses like the ones in Matera, Grottole and other southern areas.

It’s an emerging trend that feeds the primeval nature of man. Travellers want to reconnect with mankind’s ancient heritage – but with money and a few modern comforts.

READ ALSO: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?

Take the simple treehouses that are springing up recently in Puglia, near Foggia, within lush forests where visitors are surrounded by nature – but at the same time inside a cozy room. The experience may recall our prehistoric roots in some way.

Or reverting to sleeping in sea grottos originally inhabited by primitive men, then turned into cozy white-washed fishermen shelters where entire crews would take shelter during storms.

A renovated fisherman’s hut on Italy’s Ponza island. Photo: Touristcasa

The tiny atoll of Palmarola off Rome’s coast is dotted with fishermen grottos turned into élite summer retreats, rented with private dinghies starting from 500 euros per person per night. One such grotto home has a double entrance that cuts right through the rock, so you have panoramic sea views on both sides – great for solo morning swims. 

On the nearby island of Ponza, where caveman used to go looking for the precious obsidian black stone, clifftop seafront villas cut into hillsides are the most in-demand accommodation.

I once met a young couple who was staying in one of these for two weeks and it was funny how they enjoyed such an isolated place with no easy access (only by boat). At night they would climb down to their little dock along a steep dark path without any lights lined with prickly pear shrubs to get to a little dinghy (that comes with the villa) that would take them each time to the main village to shop, eat and so on. It was like their scooter.

I fell, scratched my legs and nearly broke my neck visiting, and it was daylight. They enjoyed going around with flashlights at night because it was cool, they said. Oh, and their kingsize shower also had a limited water supply, because it used rainwater as a source like in the good old days. 

The view from a fisherman’s hut on Italy’s Ponza island. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

This is all part of a new  trend that’s unique to Italy, given the country’s rich, ancient architectural heritage. 

The cone-shaped trulli of Puglia are an iconic type of accommodation, found not only in Alberobello, the most touristy place of all, but scattered all over the area, where families that own one in their backyard can rent it at high prices – as referenced in the funny Italian movie titled ‘Mi rifaccio il trullo’ (I’ll give my trullo a makeover).

READ ALSO: Why visitors to Italy are ditching hotels – and where they’re staying instead

Last time I visited the Alto Adige region I was surprised at seeing so many old ‘masi’, which are Alpine dairy lodges and farms built by ancient shepherd tribes with thick stone walls and slanted roofs, lavishly restyled and transformed into country houses offering ‘nature stays’. The ‘spa’ at the one I stayed at was the actual freezing stream outside with currents, so I just had to take a dip and have my legs massaged by the running water, and the spring water served at dinner came also from that same stream. 

The owners are a very rich couple who hate cars, so they would travel from their house to the lodge on horseback. Obviously all the teas and herbs I drank came from the maso’s garden.

Part of an Alpine maso in Alto Adige. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

In Sicily I found interesting salt pan mills turned into panoramic bars, while near my house medieval olive oil millis, or frantoi, are now busy pizzerias and B&Bs with stone rooms featuring the original grindstones.

In the region of Abruzzo, the entire coast is dotted with old wooden sea huts dubbed Trabocchi suspended above water with fishnets, abandoned by fishermen families after the second world war and now turned into restaurants with a cute, romantic vibe.

All these ancient dwellings which are being restored for tourist use are in demand because they offer a chapter of history and an ‘immaterial cultural experience’. That is why people are prepared to pay whatever the price. 

It’s a bit like renting a tribal tent in an African luxury resort: you’d be paying more for the ‘emotions’ it triggers than the tent itself.

With savvy travelers always looking for that special, out-of-the-ordinary experience, this ‘luxury poverty’ accommodation trend will only keep growing in popularity.

SHOW COMMENTS