This August 2010 photo courtesy of Giovanna Dell'Orto shows the port of Alicudi, Aeolian Islands, Italy. Located off the northeastern shore of Sicily, vacationers, including some celebrities, flock to the Aeolian Islands in the summer season. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
updated 5/4/2011 7:06:25 PM ET 2011-05-04T23:06:25

As I watch the sun set from my terrace on the west coast of Salina, one of Italy's Aeolian Islands, I marvel again that the stone headrest I am lying against is so inexplicably comfortable.

Its effect is like so much else on this harsh volcanic island, located in the clearest Mediterranean waters: Salina's very starkness soothingly lulls you into contemplating its simple beauty.

Vacationers — including celebs like Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Campbell, and even the designer duo Dolce and Gabbana — flock to the islands in this archipelago off the northeastern shore of Sicily, named after the Greek god of wind and inhabited for millennia. Salina also has its share of famous visitors, especially since scenes from the Oscar-winning "Il Postino" were filmed on one of its beaches, and you could spend an afternoon here cafe-hopping in one of its ports, or splurge on a stay at a smattering of luxury hotels. But there are plenty of places to escape the crowds and take in its idyllic side, as a low-key haven of reddish volcanic rock speckled with palms, olive and lemon trees, and fuchsia clumps of bougainvillea.

I spent five days last summer at a caper farm in Pollara, a hamlet of less than 100 people in the half-sunken crater of a tall volcano that turns pink at dusk and pitch-black at night, unmarred by street lights.

It made perfect sense here to pass an evening listening to a gecko's jaws methodically clamping on its moth snacks, in such utter stillness that the sudden sound of two teenagers laughing down the street lit up the windows of several sleepy households.

Farm owner Giuseppe Famularo took me around the caper fields he inherited when he was 12 from his father, one of the few islanders who didn't emigrate to the Americas or Australia after a bug destroyed the island's crops.

As he told me how his family and half a dozen others started over with the local Nocellara variety of caper, I was struck by how much the resilient, labor-intensive plant is a stand-in for life on this island.

The sweet, compact caper is the early blossom of a bush that rises a foot off the ground before spreading its branches out like fountain splashes under the relentless sun — typically it doesn't rain a drop here from May through August.

Throughout that time, each minuscule caper must be picked by hand every eight days, avoiding the painful thorn that grows right underneath it, for a total of nearly 9,000 pounds each season. The capers then ferment under sea salt for at least two months before becoming the staple of the island's cuisine and a slow-food certified delicacy, used in Famularo's unique "pesto di capperi di Salina."

"This is work of the soil, and you need to love it," said Anna Alizzo, who started picking capers on Salina as a child and whose personal record is 77 pounds in one back-breaking morning on Famularo's farm.

"Nobody wants to work in this field, but it's still enough for local young people to stay," said Famularo, in his 30s and with a young daughter.

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The only other major crop on the island is Malvasia grapes, which produce the eponymous dessert wine whose powerful, honeyed taste reflects its origin: Hand-picked from volcanic slopes, the grapes are sun-dried over reed gratings for nearly a month, said Gaetano Marchetta.

"It is our choice to produce it with very traditional methods," even though that means only getting some 660 gallons a year, Marchetta said. He inherited the winery, Azienda Agricola Marchetta, in the village of Malfa four miles from Pollara, from his uncle, who tended it for 50 years.

The most ancient tradition of Salina is fishing, especially tuna and swordfish, so I trusted a fisherman born and raised in Malfa, Antonello "il pescatore" Randazzo, to take me on day-trips to three other islands with a dozen other vacationers.

One day we traveled west about an hour to Filicudi and tiny Alicudi, the wildest and least developed Aeolian islands, their bare cliffs showing all the violence of volcanic eruptions.

Cubic white houses, flat-roofed to gather rainwater and connected via steep stairways, plus a few stone walls dating from 1,800 B.C., dot the islands. If you stay in Alicudi, your valet is going to be Otto or one of his colleagues — sturdy donkeys that enjoy midday siestas in the little shade among the prickly pears and purple rocks.

Another day we headed east to Stromboli, an active volcano reliably spewing incandescent rocks every 10 minutes or so that looks perfectly conical, as if a child had drawn it.

On the boat, Antonello served his signature pasta with fresh-caught tuna, tomatoes and, of course, capers. In typical island understatement, when a tourist asked him the name of the dish, which would not have been out of place on a Michelin-starred tablecloth, Antonello looked puzzled and said, "pasta al sugo," generic pasta with sauce.

As the moon rose and the breeze carried the scent of sun-baked wild fennel out to sea, we spent a rapturous hour floating in front of Sciara del Fuoco, the slope where lava and black rocks can be seen bursting out of Stromboli and falling back to the sea.

Sailing back, we passed just north of Panarea, the Aeolians' celebrity-packed party island, a reminder of how close all-night foam parties are to the haven at Pollara.

On both days, I lost count of how many times I jumped off the boat into water so clear that swimming felt like flying, the sun streaking the sea floor green, cobalt and turquoise.

Another day, a couple of friends and I rented a small dinghy, named "feluca fishing," and took it around Salina. Anchored just east of the diminutive port of Rinella, the sea was so transparent that it looked colorless above the rocky floor. Away from the coast, the water turned lapis lazuli-blue, so deep that it was impossible to see the bottom.

Lying in the sun as the boat sailed back toward Malfa, I marveled at how precisely the sprays its prow splashed onto the sea resembled fireworks. It was the typical kind of thought that Salina provokes, its stark stillness calling for precise observation of just how beautiful it all is.

One late afternoon, I hung out on Antonello's boat anchored in sight of Strombolicchio, a 150-foot basalt spire emerging from the sea that would make a perfect home for the most evil James Bond villain.

Antonello and I chatted about the fishermen's life. It's a hard life, disdained by the younger generation, but once it's in your blood, he said, you can never consider leaving the island. I asked why. The gruff fisherman paused.

"It's paradise," he finally said, shrugging. "You wake up, you see the sun rise, you see it set. You feel the wind, the sea. Paradise."


If You Go...

AEOLIAN ISLANDS, ITALY: The best season to go is May to October; most establishments close in winter. You can fly into Naples or Palermo and take ferries from their ports, or drive to the closest port at Milazzo, where many daily crossings to Salina originate, taking less than two hours. Companies include Siremar, http://www.tirrenia.it/it/siremar and Ustica Lines, http://www.usticalines.it . Overnight ferry service from Naples is available, or take the more expensive daytime hydrofoil, about five hours.

ACCOMMODATIONS AND DINING: Azienda Agrituristica "Al Cappero" has simple, stunningly located mini-apartments in Pollara and a superb restaurant featuring caper dishes and fresh fish, http://www.alcappero.it . The town of Malfa has a small supermarket and the Azienda Agricola Marchetta, http://www.vinidisalina.it .

BOATING: Antonello Randazzo leads small-group boat tours from Malfa to all islands, including a dinner excursion to Stromboli — http://www.stelladisalina.it . He also rents mini-apartments on Salina. Massimo Taranto, at Nautica Non Solo Mare in Malfa's port, rents easy-to-use dinghies and speedboats, 011-39-090-984-4009.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Rome city guide

Photos: Rome, “The Eternal City”

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  1. Open for business

    Tourists walk in the Colosseum near the hypogeum (underground) on October 14, 2010, in Rome. The underground, never before available to the public, is now open for visitors. (Franco Origlia / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Underground tour

    Gladiators, wild beasts and ... tourists? Yep. People visiting the Colosseum can now walk around the underground chambers where lions and tigers were caged and gladiators waited to hear their fate. (Ettore Ferrari / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Roman hot spot

    More than 18,000 people visit the amphitheatre every day. The newly opened areas will be accessible to guided tours of a maximum of 25 people at a time. (Gregorio Borgia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Colosseum

    The Colosseum is one of the most recognized structures not just in Rome, but in all of Europe. The building, which was inaugurated in 80 A.D., is visited by several million tourists each year. (Alberto Pizzoli / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Papal Basilica of St. Peter

    The Papal Basilica of St. Peter is illuminated in Vatican City, an enclave of Rome. The basilica, until recently, was the largest church ever built. The holy place stands where St. Peter was crucified and buried. (Miguel Villagran / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Roman Forum

    The Roman Forum is located between the Palatine Hill and Capitoline Hill. The ancient city's most important and oldest structures were situated in or near the Forum, including many shrines and temples. (Doug Pearson / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Piazza del Campidoglio

    The Piazza del Campidoglio was designed during the 16th century by Michelangelo Buonarroti. The piazza is located atop Capitol Hill in Rome. The structure seen today dates back to 1560. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. City hall

    Two tourists rest next to a statue in front of the Campidoglio, Rome's city hall. The statue, one of a set of two, was built by Italian artist Matteo Bartolani in 1588 and is meant to represent Rome's Tiber River. (Gregorio Borgia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Castel Sant'Angelo

    Castel Sant'Angelo, sitting above the Tiber River, was built by the Emperor Hadrian as a tomb for himself and his successors. The Mausoleum was later completed by Antoninus Pius in 139 A.D. (Robert Harding / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Trevi Fountain

    Legend has it that if a visitor throws a coin into the Trevi Fountain in Rome, he or she is ensured a return. About 3,000 euros are tossed into the fountain each day, according to the BBC. (Sharon Lee / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Capitole Museum

    Antique statue fragments sit inside the Capitole Museum yard, located at the Square of Campidoglio, in Rome. The Capitole Museum contains an antique collection began in 1471 by pope Sixte IV. (Gerard Julien / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Basilica's interior

    Shafts of light fill the interior of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Tourists who plan to visit the basilica should take note of a strictly enforced dress code, which includes no shorts, bare shoulders or miniskirts. (Kazuyoshi Nomachi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Sistine Chapel

    The ceiling of Sistine Chapel was painted by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Images on the ceiling depict scenes from the book of Genesis, and the walls are covered with Renaissance frescoes created by other artists. (Jim Zuckerman / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Vatican Museum

    The main staircase of Vatican Museum forms a tightening spiral as it descends. The museum is located in the Vatican Palace, which popes have called home since the 1300s. (Peter Adams / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The Pantheon

    The Pantheon, according to the Web site italyguides.it, is the Roman monument that holds the most and best preserved records, and is "the most copied and imitated of all ancient works." (Glenn Beanland / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Museo D'arte Contemporanea Di Roma

    The Museo D'arte Contemporanea Di Roma (MACRO) houses a permanent art collection that includes "some of the most significant expressions characterizing the Italian art scene since the 1960s," its Web site claims. (Paolo Cordelli / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Villa Medicis

    Villa Medicis is a 16th Century garden located on the Pincian Hill at the top of the Spanish Steps. The gardens are complemented by statues and fountains. (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Villa Borghese

    The area now known as Villa Borghese was originally started as a vineyard in the 1500s, but was purchased by cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, in 1605 and turned into a park. Rome obtained Villa Borghese in 1903, and it was opened to the public. (Will Salter / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Piazza Navona

    People take a freshly brewed espresso at a cafe terrace on Piazza Navona in Rome during the "Espresso Italiano day 2009." Italians drink some 70 million cups of coffee at the bars every day, according to the figures given by the National Institute of Italian Espresso. (Alberto Pizzoli / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Rome from above

    This aerial shot of Rome shows the Vittoriano Monument, dedicaded to the Italian king Vittorio Emmanuelle II, in the background. (Patrick Hertzog / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Via Condotti

    Italian shoppers browse at Via Condotti, which is the home to some of the world's most famous designer boutiques, in Rome. (Franco Origlia / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Spanish Steps

    The Spanish Steps connect Piazza di Spagna to Trinita dei Monti, a French church. Once a gathering place for beautiful men and women hoping to be chosen as artists' models, the Spanish Steps are now used as a catwalk for an annual summertime fashion show. (Tony Burns / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Altar of Peace

    The Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Peace, dates back to 9 B.C. The altar was built to celebrate the advent of peace under the reign of Augustus, Rome's first emperor. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Vittorio Emmanuele II monument

    The Vittorio Emmanuele II monument is seen at sunset. With nearly 3,000 years of history, Rome continues to live up to its motto of "The Eternal City," being one of the founding cities of Western civilization. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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