The Aeolian Islands' volcanic archipelago is the most exotic location in the Mediterranean, and seeing the night sky lit up by the natural firework display provided by Stromboli's volcano makes any visit to northeast Sicily memorable. Starting from the ancient port of Messina you can hop from one island to another taking in turquoise waters, hissing fumaroles, and mud baths.

Just off the northern coast of Sicily, the many charms of this volcanic archipelago of seven islands and five small islets are such that it has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. And they are truly fabulous: Whether you want to go hiking, fishing, canoeing, snorkeling, diving, swimming, sailing, or just relax, the islands have it all. There are beaches and coves with black sand, pumice stone, and tiny pebbles, steaming craters, bubbling mud baths, sulfur springs, strange-shaped grottoes, crystal-clear turquoise waters, craggy cliffs, and archaeological sites.

Each island has a distinct character: Lively Lipari is where most visitors stay, choosing to island-hop to the upmarket Panarea, peaceful Salina, wild Filicudi, unspoiled Alicudi, smelly Vulcano, and highly active Stromboli. On Vulcano you can take a dip in natural sulfur bubbling mud baths and then head off to relax in the warm thermal waters nearby. If you're feeling energetic you can climb to Stromboli's fiery crater with a guide. To cap it all, the islands offer amazing views as you can look from one to another, seeing their conical forms stretch out across the sea, and on some evenings, if Stromboli spouts lava, there's even a natural fireworks show.

Lipari (36 sq km/14 sq miles) is the largest of the islands and the most inhabited, Stromboli (13 sq km/5 sq miles) is the most distant and volcanically active, and Vulcano (21 sq km/8 sq miles), with its puffing, potentially unpredictable summit and sulfur-rich malodorant mud baths that bubble from beneath the surface, is the first island you reach when arriving from Sicily. Panarea (3.5 sq km/1 1/2 sq miles) is the tiniest and most exclusive island, while Salina (27 sq km/10 1/2 sq miles), the second largest of the islands, is famous for its Malvasia dessert wine and tranquility. The wild island of Filicudi (9.5 sq km/3 3/4 sq miles) has traces of the Bronze Age, and Alicudi (5 sq km/2 sq miles) the westernmost and furthest from Lipari, is a step back in time (no cars, no hotels).

The Aeolian Islands have been inhabited since Paleolithic times; in fact, they are probably Sicily's oldest human settlements, as well as an area of volcanic activity. According to mythology, this is where Aeolus (hence the name), god of the winds, dwelled and when the winds kick up in the afternoon, it's easy to imagine why.