Apparently, I didn’t know what I was signing up for when we booked our flotilla sailing trip to Sicily. Not really understanding the geography, I envisioned us sailing Sicily’s perimeter, eating pasta, and skillfully evading the mafioso. Turns out, while the pasta part was spot on, our sailing plan would take us Northeast of Sicily in and around the Tyrrhenian Sea’s stunning Aeolian Islands.

What we found there was a perfect place to sail for anyone who enjoys island-to-island sailing, uncrowded conditions, many hiking options, lovely sea-side towns, and volcanoes ranging from “it is really just land now” to “actively spitting out lava”.

Here’s your Geography 101 on the Aeolian Islands and how you can replicate a sailing trip to this beautiful place.

The What

The Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily formed over a period of 260,000 years and have been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000 because of their idyllic example as volcano-formed islands.

Today, just two of the seven islands have active volcanoes. Stromboli is the liveliest, and while we were sailing in September 2019 it was strictly off limits because of recent activity. You can observe the lava flow from two nautical miles out, but any closer the Italian coast guard will issue an immediate warning. Isla Vulcano, on the other hand, last erupted in 1890, and while you can see the puffing gasses emitting from the steaming fumaroles at the top, the volcano is perfectly safe to climb and explore.

The remaining islands of this volcanic archipelago – Lipari, Salina, Panarea, Filicudi, and Alicudi – each rising impressively out of the surrounding cobalt blue waters, are all easily accessible on a week-long sailing trip.

The approximately 15,000 residents of the Aeolian Islands call their home Isole Eolie, and you will find when you visit that they are warm and welcoming to the more than 200,000 visitors who arrive annually, mostly in the summer as that is the ideal time to enjoy the beaches and warm waters.

The Where

Geographically, the Aeolian Islands are Northeast of Sicily. The closest island, Vulcano, is approximately 14 nautical miles from the mainland and is an ideal first stop for the night.

Beyond Isla Vulcano, Lipari is the largest island and just past it, Salina, is a beautiful must-see island before you head either to the Northeast toward Panarea and Stromboli or straight West toward Filicudi then Alicudi.

All of the islands can easily be reached and enjoyed over a 7- 8-night sailing trip. Longer is always better, allowing plenty of time for day-time stops and morning hikes along the way.

The How

The Marina at Portorosa just South of Messina is an ideal launch point for your sailing adventure, and getting there is easy and best reached by train.

We flew into Palermo, and found the train station just below the baggage claim and rental car area. The train is an easy and inexpensive way to reach either Central Station where you can head directly to Portorosa or to any number of stops if you plan to enjoy extra time on Sicily’s mainland before starting your sailing adventure.

From Palermo, the beautiful train ride along the coast will take you between 2 1/2 to a little over three hours depending on the train you take and the number of stops. You’ll depart at the Barcellona Cantonale station. From Catana, the other city on Sicily with a sizable airport, you can also take a train to the same station. In both cases, the train is much easier than driving.

Once at the Barcellona Cantonale station, you’ll take a taxi to the marina at a rate of approximately 45 Euro. Our advice? Arrange for this transport with your charter company ahead of time. We did not do this and had a difficult time arranging for transport on arrival.

Another tip is to have explicit instructions to exactly where your charter company is located to ensure that your driver takes you to the exact location you need. Once at the marina, you will find a small market that caters to boat provisioning and that will deliver your items directly to your sailboat. There are several restaurants as well along the water for the evening of your arrival or departure.

The where and how is pretty simple, bringing us to the most important question of all:

The Why

Also easy. Sailing in the Aeolian Islands is an experience of the bluest water, easy sailing, beautiful islands, and a lovely culture that persists despite the tourism that supports each of these islands today.

For our favorite reasons to sail in the region, read here. Or you can just trust me and begin researching charter companies that can make your sailing trip here a reality. If you have your sailing certification, charter your own sailboat with one of the many companies serving the area. You can also hire a captain to safely and knowledgeably take you and your crew from island to island.

However you choose to go, make sure the Aeolian Islands sit alongside the Dalmatian Islands and British Virgin Islands on your sailing bucket list as a must see destination.