A superyacht odyssey
Superyachts offer the ability to see sights in the remotest corners of the world with no specific itinerary but what you set yourself – but they can also reveal wonders in places far closer to home.
Seeing the glow and smoke of three different active volcanoes in almost as many days is something truly special, especially when you’ve seen those glows from the deck of a yacht before nosing into a black sand beach, dropping the anchor and heading ashore for a close-up explore. But this isn’t Indonesia’s ring of fire or some other faraway location – although a superyacht is certainly the perfect way to enjoy those too. No, this is something special barely a stone’s throw from the classic hotspots of the Western Mediterranean. Welcome to cruising through Italy’s Aeolian Islands.
The first time we did it was as part of a summer charter on board the sailing superyacht Mikado with a retired couple from Spain, who fancied a long and leisurely cruise starting in picture postcard Portofino before exploring everything the Tyrrhenian Sea of Italy’s west coast had to offer. As with so many superyacht adventures, the couple decided to leave the glamour of the South of France and Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda to others, instead choosing to nose around curious nooks and crannies along the coast and the myriad islands to explore in between.
It was a chance for them not only to unwind but also to spend time with family – their children and assorted nieces and nephews would head out to join the 48-metre sailing yacht at various stages over the summer as we found interesting places to stop. As it turned out, many of those places seemed to mirror the journey of Odysseus, and so our own 4,500-mile odyssey turned into something of a historical journey. We found Homer’s mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis in the Straits of Messina, where the fierce currents create ferocious whirlpools; and we heard the song of the sirens, believed to be based on the sound the wind makes as it blows through the finger rocks of Aeolian islets, luring sailors to an untimely, shipwrecked demise.
From our start point in Portofino we headed west to the island of Elba, famous as the location of Napolean’s exile in 1814-15. It was clear that, at that time, the island was considered somewhere unusual for cruising as we were the only superyacht around. From there we went to explore the islands of Capraia and Pianosa, before enjoying the best homemade pesto we’d ever had that the yacht’s chef had sourced from an old woman who lived on the hill behind Porto Venere at the bottom of the Cinque Terre.
Our history lesson continued as we docked briefly in Naples to go explore the extraordinary town of Pompeii, which had succumbed to the ravages of Mount Vesuvius in the AD79 eruption – our charterers were adamant that all the crew should head ashore in shifts to see the wonders of the excavations.
Mikado off Vulcano
Mikado off Vulcano
From there it was the curiosity of Ponza, the draw of Ischia and the allure of Capri, and the famous Blue Grotto that we snuck into by tender to bask in the alien blue glow from the waters in the cave. And then came the Aeolian islands, named for Aeolus who in the Odyssey and the Aeneid is the ruler of the winds – quite fitting for a sailing superyacht like Mikado. It was here that we reeled off our active volcanoes. The first was Stromboli, the conical island that is nicknamed the Lighthouse of the Mediterrean as it’s belching lava fountains can be seen from sea for miles.
We anchored off nearby Vulcano in the shadow of the smoking cone, and walked on black sand beaches before heading to the other islands of Lipari and Panarea, the latter a seemingly sleepy place until the evening ferries arrived from the mainland at midnight and the island erupted into party mode. The third volcano would come as we visited Taormina in the shadow of Sicily’s Mount Etna, which picked its time for a mini eruption to happily coincide with our arrival.
From the Aeolians we cruised into the Straits of Messina, where the waters churn and extraordinary local fishing boats with extended scaffold bowsprits and high-rise scaffold conning towers creep up on swordfish that sleep near the surface. We stopped in Catania, and then in Syracuse where Roman ruins delight at every turn. Then on round the south coast to Sciacca and to the pristine waters of the islet of Favignana, where our guests spent active days and lazy evenings on and under the water.
Yachts off Vulcano
Yachts off Vulcano
Finally, we arced north to the bottom end of Sardinia, far from the trappings of the Costa Smeralda to the north, and rather to the far more down to earth but equally inviting southern beaches and towns around Cagliari, at that point still a little-known destination for yachts or foreign travellers. Then we tracked north up Sardinia’s east coast, over the top through the Straits of Bonifacio, and on towards Barcelona where our odyssey ended.
These are the joys of being on a superyacht – the ability to find the extraordinary and immerse yourself in history, culture and adventure even in places you thought you knew everything about, and that everyone knew about. Perhaps Dutch entrepreneur Laurent Hompes, owner of the classic sailing yacht Iduna, summed it up best: “You feel so free,” he says. “I discovered islands off the coast of Sicily that I never knew existed. Those are the sorts of things I enjoy. I’ve seen so many things that I would never have seen if I didn’t own Iduna.” So it was for the charterers of Mikado, and a thousand other superyachts that have offered their guests a glimpse into worlds unknown right on their doorsteps.