(CNN) — Locals call them the “shape-shifting” or “floating” islands.
That’s because the Aeolian archipelago has been sculpted and destroyed by volcanic activity over the millennia.
Named after the powerful wind god Aeolus, the string of UNESCO-protected islands off Sicily’s north coast offers a variety of volcanic landscapes and local color, each with its own unique character.
From the active cone of Stromboli to chic Panarea and car-free Alicudi, here’s how to enjoy the best of the Aeolian islands.
Filicudi is only nine kilometers square and has about two hundred residents.
Nicknamed “Bone Island” because of the pirates who died here after long sieges, Filicudi is a place where unspoiled nature rules.
There are just two fishing villages and one road on the island, with steep stone paths connecting bright cottages.
Sea stacks such as “La Canna,” shaped like a cobra’s head, jut out of the emerald sea, while the black, green and red cliffs contain labyrinths of grottoes.
Then there’s “Lovers’ Cave,” which is famous for its fertility power. In fact, “enter in two, exit in three” is a saying popular with locals.
Exercise trainer Simona De Stefani (+39 349 887 9963) holds yoga, shiatsu and fit walking sessions on the wild hilltops.
Stromboli is home to one of the most active volcanoes in Europe
Stromboli is considered the most spectacular of the Aeolian Islands because of its volcanic activity. Visitors should prepare for a constant adrenaline rush, as the hyperactive “Black Giant” erupts every 15 minutes with smoky cannonball blasts and warm underwater bubbles. It’s flanked with huge scars from former lava flows.
The jet-black scenery clashes with the translucent aquamarine water and the white village running from the port to the lonely beach of Piscità.
Stromboli has long been associated with fertility, and residents often refer to it as the “aphrodisiac isle.” There’s even a “magical” citrus plant on the island which is thought to have helped couples conceive.
Local Pippo (+39 339 222 9714) organizes evening and daytime boat trips to admire the fireworks under starry skies as well as visits to the isolated fishermen’s village of Ginostra, popular for sunset aperitifs.
The mud baths at Vulcano are its most popular attraction.
Dubbed the “Mouth of Hell,” Vulcano is believed to be where Greek God of fire Hephaestus vented his anger over wife Aphrodite’s betrayals, so it seems fitting that it’s full of bubbling mud baths and hot springs.
Guided walks to the golden crater pass through the Valley of Monsters, which is full of bizarre animal-shaped magma shards.
Lipari is the largest of the Aeolian Islands and the most inhabited.
The largest Aeolian island is often viewed as a starting point to access the others, but Lipari has much to offer.
Quads and mountain bikes can be hired to explore the winding chaotic alleys, Arab-style palm courtyards and the ghost pumice quarries that have bleached many shores. You can also rent boats from Bartolo “Cantalanotte” (+39 333 590 6992) to visit inlets and nearby beaches such as Praia di Vinci.
White Beach (+39 338 709 5902), a former mine turned into a club, is known for its pure white pumice sand dunes. You’re likely to witness children rolling down these “whip-cream mountains” right into the clear waters.
Mangia e Fui, Via Vittorio Emanuele; 94;+390909813505
Salina, positioned in the middle of the archipelago, is the greenest of the islands.
Salina is famous for its sweet Malvasia passito wine and caper gourmet delicacies. Rumor has it that Admiral Horatio Nelson’s troops became very fond of Malvasia while patrolling Sicily in the 18th century.
Salina also has a luxuriant vegetation dotted with caper fields. The capers here are believed to be the best in the world and the island puts on a Caper Festival, held in Pollara, each year.
The coast is dotted with abandoned fishing grottos worth exploring on guided boat trips with local Angelo Zavone (+39 368 525 706).
Panarea is surrounded by a cluster of uninhabited pristine atolls, which can only be accesssed by boat.
Panarea is the tiniest of all the Aeolian Islands, but it’s also the most chic. VIPs and royals routinely flock here on flashy yachts.
Dwellings are dazzling white, covered in bright pink bougainvilleas. Glitzy boutiques and elegant cafés line the neat winding alleys.
The resort boasts one of the archipelago’s top restaurants, with chef Gaetano Nanì at the helm. Raw red king prawns with Sicilian finger lime are among his specialties.
There are no roads in Alicudi so prepare for a no-frills, zero-pollution break.
The most faraway island is so secluded that Saracen pirates once used it as a hiding place.
Silence and isolation rule here, and time has frozen. So forget cars, scooters and even bikes. There are no roads, only dusty mule paths that unwind for 25 kilometers, while more than 10,000 stone steps connect the areas.
Donkey taxis (Bartolino, +39 340 982 8648) are a luxury just for your luggage.
There are no ATMs, boutiques, clubs or cigarette vendors. Not even electricity at night, just the stars as natural flashlights.
Colorful dwellings are built inside weird mushroom-shaped rocks and natural arches dot the pebble beach. The few residents here turn their homes into summer B&Bs.
Fishing and boat tours (Arduccio Barbuto, +39 340 764 8001) leave from the tiny harbor where fishermen sell their morning catch.
Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance reporter. She writes about finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of media including MNI News, Newsweek and The Guardian.