While it’s peaceful down here, up there unseen molten lava is bursting skywards.
I’ve only seen lava on documentaries and disaster films before, so I can safely say I’m pretty nervous about the prospect of coming face-to-face with the stuff.Looking back at the island while swimming offshore, however, is magical. Mount Stromboli, one of Italy’s three active volcanoes, sticks up on the horizon in the shape of an incisor. It’s a perfectly volcano-shaped volcano.
It’s also one of the most active in the world. In fact, every night on this island off the northern coast of Sicily, you’re basically guaranteed a spectacular light show of burning orange. These continual eruptions give the island its nickname, ‘Lighthouse of the Mediterranean’.
Bird’s eye view: the smoking volcano
I’m staying in the main village – also called Stromboli. Unsurprisingly, for a village clinging to the edge of a volcano, the streets are steep – real steep. The hodgepodge of white-washed buildings means that roads are just wide enough for the rusty three-wheeled electric carts that trundle up and down packed with daily supplies (and with local kids hitching a ride on the back).
Eventually, I’m forced to haul myself out of the warm sea and head towards the offices of Magmatrek, where I’ve booked a tour to Stromboli’s summit, knowing full well it will bring me up close with the blistering lava.
As I stroll along, I realise that even though this tiny island is remote, it’s still very much Italian. I see impeccably dressed waiters dishing out perfect espressos and sugary Sicilian treats, such as sweet ricotta and pistachio-stuffed cannoli. But, alas, there is no time for me to indulge – the group of hikers is gathering.
Remote: the island’s white-wash villages
A young Canadian guy, Jamie, is getting ready for the walk as well. He peers upwards at the monster we’re preparing to conquer. “Look at that…” he says, pointing at the tiny figures making their way up the steep mountain trail, “…that’s going to be us.”
Our Magmatrek guide lives and breathes the volcano and respects it accordingly, taking eager travellers up every day of the week. He hands out yellow and red hard hats to everyone. Yellow helmets are for the group that will trek up first – the people he has deemed to be the fittest and most able.
I look down and in my hands is a bright yellow helmet. This is momentarily flattering, but also means I will have to keep up with some pretty serious, seasoned-looking climbers.
Our yellow-helmeted group departs first, snaking up the small path away from the town. The incline of the dusty, rocky track increases the further up we go. As we climb, the detail of the land beneath becomes harder to make out, until the waves on the sea are no longer visible and the ocean looks like a perfectly flat slate of marble.
Before we even reach the crater, we can hear it – eruptions booming like waves crashing against rocks.
In total it takes about five hours to reach the summit. The guided treks are perfectly timed to reach the top at sunset. The sky steadily turns orange and an evening mist settles over the sea below. Other Aeolian islands, Vulcano and Lipari, peek up through said mist in the distance.We are looking down upon the volcanic crater from our safe vantage point on the summit. Plumes of dirty smoke explode upwards every few minutes.
I feel the rumbling first – frightening and incredibly loud, like a jet engine roar. Members of my group look at each other nervously. We can’t tell which of the many vents below is getting ready to explode.
Suddenly, from the black crater, a demonic fountain of red-hot liquid earth erupts. The other hikers and I gasp in awe – then, after a moment, break into applause and cheers.
There is a familiar hiss and more red molten earth bursts from another vent on Stromboli’s charred crater – it sprays into the air, met with the camera flashes of our group.
It’s an exhilarating, impressive sight. There aren’t many places where eruptions such as these can be witnessed in relative safety. All the same, I check that my yellow helmet is fixed properly, just to be sure.
We then descend in the dark of night, guided by the flashlights attached to our helmets. Sliding down scree fields, we arrive back in Piazza San Vincenzo in the village in no time.
I grab a beer in the piazza with Canadian Jamie. We share a certain look on our faces – a look that has been plastered on us since reaching the summit. It is dumb-struck awe mixed with the trace of a budding addiction – a desire to head back up the volcano and experience the raw power of nature again as soon as possible.
You can only reach the summit of the volcano if accompanied by a professional guide. Magmatrek runs group tours from around £23pp. Must be booked one week in advance. A good level of fitness is recommended.
Getting there: You can reach Stromboli by ferry from Sicily or Naples. The easiest point of departure is from Milazzo on Sicily, where ferries or hydrofoils get you there in between three and six hours. Prices from around £35 return. usticalines.it
Eat, drink, sleep
Budget: With jaw dropping views out over the sea, Ritrovo Ingrid is a great spot to grab a cheap bite to eat or drink before heading on a guided mountain trek. Pizzas from around £8. (Piazza San Vincenzo)
Midrange: It’s a steep trek up the side of the island, but L’Osservatorio is worth it for the views and the pizza: you can see erupting lava glowing at night. Bring a flashlight for the dark walk back down an old goat path – there are no streetlights. Affordable meals at around £20 for a main and wine. (Salvatore De Losa, tel. 0039 90 98 63 60)
Luxury: A pricier option, Ristorante Punta Lena offers a wide selection of local seafood. Find it along the waterfront from the ferry terminal. Main courses range from around £25-£35 and it’s recommended you book ahead. (Via Marina Ficogrande, tel. 0039 90 98 62 04)
Budget: Pardes Wine Bar is located in a peaceful garden with a great view of the volcano. Perfect for a happy hour glass of wine. (Via Vittorio Emanuele 81)
Midrange: Bar Ingrid is an open-air affair that’s always buzzing and comes with gorgeous views out to sea. (Via Cincotta Mario, tel. 0039 90 98 60 83)
Luxury: La Tartana ramps it up in the evening with dancing out on the terrace. If you’ve been hiking, make sure you scrub up nice, as the crowd makes an effort. The place to go for a cocktail. (Via Marina, tel. 0039 90 98 60 25)
Budget: On an island known for vacationing movie stars, reasonably priced accommodation isn’t easy to find. Hotel Ossidiana is one of the more affordable options. It’s also conveniently located near the ferry terminal. Double rooms start at around £60pn.
Midrange: Il Giardino Segreto is a small, six-bedroom B&B that promises either mountain or sea views from every room. Average room price is around £104pn.
Luxury: On a more secluded side of the island, Hotel Villagio Stromboli is blessed with serene sea views. Picture a grand white-washed building and gorgeous sunrises in a quiet location. Average nightly price (high season) for a double room with sea-view is £120pn.
Photos: Thinkstock; Flkr: Ginger Phil, Johannes Zielcke, Simone Pelliconi, Rita Alexandrea, Navnetmitt, Luigi Strano