“From the age of seven, I grew up sailing Optimist dinghies on Lake Como; I still love anything to do with the water. From learning to windsurf in Hawaii when I was 15 years old, to the purchase of my first boat – a motor yacht – at the age of 27, I have always been happiest when I’m on the sea or on a lake. I bought my current yacht, Atlante, in 2015, and this is where you’ll find me on weekends from April through to October, as well as for the entire month of August. I love to sail the waters of Italy, Greece and Spain, where we’ll often travel with several other boats full of family and friends.
After much exploration over the years, I think the Aeolian Islands – a volcanic archipelago north of Sicily – are the best part of the Mediterranean. They are a Unesco World Heritage site for good reason: the deep-blue colours of the sea, the fragrant jasmine and the rugged landscape make it a unique part of Italy, and of the world. The food here is exceptional too: many of the ingredients come straight from the sea, and the pastas are made with local aubergines, capers and olives. The local Malvasia wines are excellent as well.
The Aeolian Islands are best explored by boat, and Stromboli – with its towering, active volcano – is a great starting point. Anchoring in the bay, you can wake up and plunge into the crystal-clear water for a pre-breakfast swim before exploring the black-lava-sand beaches of the island. This was the setting for the 1950 Roberto Rossellini film Stromboli, and its unspoilt beauty – as well as the quaint, whitewashed villages of Ginostra and Stromboli – remains completely unchanged.
I highly recommend a hike up to the volcano with the incredibly knowledgeable tour guide Zaía, of Magmatrek. He’s something of a local celebrity; he’ll take you to a magical place to watch the sunset, with the smoke of the volcano adding to the atmosphere. After working up an appetite, Pizzeria da Giovanni is a great spot for simple, rustic pizzas, while the Ristorante Punta Lena is my favourite for pasta with fennel, tomatoes and breadcrumbs. The relaxed setting and the views of Strombolicchio jutting out from the sea are incredible.
While I stay on our boat, I recommend La Sirenetta Park Hotel, which is set on the beach at Ficogrande; it has an authentic atmosphere and a large dive centre. For a step back in time, Ginostra – a cliffside fishing village that’s only accessible by boat – is a must. With just a few shops and restaurants, no cars and beautiful citrus and pomegranate trees everywhere, it is a place like no other.
From here I usually make for Salina, a much more touristic place with some of the best hotels, restaurants and beaches in the Aeolian Islands. I think this is the finest place to eat in this part of the world. The spaghetti al fuoco – a spicy pasta dish with tomatoes and herbs – at Porto Bello, in the main Santa Marina Salina port, is just incredible. It’s difficult to describe this pasta, but it’s one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted.
The film Il Postino was shot here on beautiful Pollara Beach; it’s a wonderful place to swim, and the best place on the island to watch the sunset. With its dramatic sandstone cliffs and volcanic rocks in the water, it looks like something out of a James Bond film. One of the best – and most unique – resorts in southern Italy is Hotel Signum, in the small town of Malfa. It’s a stylish, family-run hotel with gardens overlooking the sea, and it also has an extraordinary spa. A meal of seafood carpaccio and local figs eaten on the terrace here is very special. There is nothing new on the island, so the whole experience feels very original.
Every morning on Salina begins at Da Alfredo, where you’ll find the best granita made with coffee, local nuts such as pistachios, or fruit. They also make a kind of flatbread, pane cunzato – topped with tomatoes, ricotta, olives and tuna – that resembles pizza but is very particular to the Aeolian Islands. It’s worth spending time exploring Malfa, which is a typical southern Italian village with just a few boutiques and food shops – A Putia, a sort of bazaar with artisanal jewellery and rugs, is one of the best. If you’re looking for a stylish, minimalist hotel, Capofaro Malvasia & Resort is a special spot as it’s set in a working vineyard; the former workers’ houses, scattered in the vines – which have been converted into rooms and suites, with their own terraces – have spectacular views of the sea and volcano.
For festive dinners with friends – big ones; maybe 20 of us at a table – I like Hotel Mamma Santina for local fish, including scorfano (scorpion fish), yellowtail and red tuna. The fish from these waters is so delicious that it is exported to Japan; I sometimes think it’s the best you’ll find outside a Michelin-starred sushi bar in Tokyo. Other Mamma Santina specialities include pasta a la Norma – a Sicilian dish with aubergine, local capers and fresh ricotta.
Next up is the island of Panarea, an easy shot from Salina, but with a different energy and atmosphere. You go here to have fun: it’s the place for young people and late nights. Days begin and end at the elegant Hotel Raya, and after a leisurely breakfast here, I stroll around the village of San Pietro where a few shops sell local, artisanal things. In all of the products here, whether textiles or sandals, you can see the north African influence. Unlike Capri or Positano, there are no luxury brands on Panarea. With just a few hundred residents, whitewashed terraces and bougainvillea everywhere, it’s rustic and simple. Long days are spent in or on the water, and one of the most beautiful places to explore is the islet of Lisca Bianca, off San Pietro. Rent a small boat to reach the Arco degli Innamorati – or Lovers’ Arch – and to see the area that was made famous by Michelangelo Antonioni’s film classic L’Avventura.
Everything runs late in Panarea, including dinner, which typically begins at 10pm and can last until 1am or later. Bridge Sushi Bar, with its Sicilian take on sushi and its Aperol spritz aperitivi, is a great place to start an evening before moving on to one of the island’s excellent restaurants. I love Ristorante Da Pina for the relaxed tone and friendly staff. The aubergine gnocchi, pastas with peperoncini, and gamberi rossi – delicate red prawns – are all outstanding. I don’t drink much, but I’ll make an exception for the local, dry Malvasia wines. After dinner, even if you’re tired, the terrace at Hotel Raya is a must for dancing and drinks.
The last islands in the Aeolian chain are Filicudi and Alicudi, and they are more or less the opposite of Panarea in terms of atmosphere. I like Filicudi because it’s discreet, sophisticated and home to many artists, writers and so forth. This is the place to enjoy the sun and the sea, and to savour the peace and quiet – preferably in a private villa. Unlike Panarea, where the party continues through the night, on Filicudi everyone is in bed by 11pm.
The Filicudi landscape is probably the most striking: the mix of the blue sea with the greens and the dramatic rock formations is singular. As with all the islands, the scent of jasmine and bougainvillea is everywhere, but this island has a more rugged feel.
And food is a big focus here. Da Nino Sul Mare is a great lunch option for its casual setting by the sea, while La Sirena in the ancient village of Pecorini A Mare is good for dinner. All of its seafood dishes are amazing, but I especially love the octopus cooked in Malvasia wine.
The thing about the Aeolian Islands is that everything still feels original, because it mostly is: from the tuna packed in oil that is sold by the local fishermen, to the caper exporters, to the winemakers. For me, this is the real southern Italy. In a world where everything is moving so fast, here not much has changed in a hundred years – and that is a good thing.”