Scattered in the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily, like rocky shards splintered from the mother-volcano of Etna, the 7 UNESCO-recognised Aeolian Islands are perhaps the Med's most beguiling, elemental and inaccessible archipelago. They rise "seething out of turbulent waves", to paraphrase local poet Rufo Festo Avenio, their "tall and twisting flanks granting shelter to tormented navigators". The ancient Greeks ascribed them to Aeolus, god of winds and placator of waves, who had 7 palaces, one on each island.
But they also have a softer side. Sail in on a calm summer's day, when the sky and waves melt into each other and a gentle breeze rustles the islands' draping bougainvillea, and they feel like a dollop of heaven. Wander ashore and you'll find ash-rich earth supporting vines, prickly pears, palms and a handful of indulgent boutique resorts.
After mass emigration to Australia in the 1950s, the islands have come back to life, gaining electricity, phones and tourists as recently as the 1980s. But, because of the difficulty of access and the lack of sandy beaches, there are no huge resorts, few tour groups and only a scattering of roads (or none at all on some islands). A blessing for the rest of us. The busiest bit of real estate is probably Hotel Raya's dance terrace late on a summer's night, when the beam of the lighthouse mixes with red sparks from the still-active volcano on Stromboli to illuminate a mass of beautifully bronzed bodies. At the other end of the scale, if you hike up the 900m summits of rugged Salina or take a boat to the sheer rocks off its coast, you can go all day without seeing another soul. And that, in today's Europe, is a rare boast.