Travel

Get Stranded Like Odysseus on Italy's Most Secret, Mythical Islands

Hear fisherman tales, sleep in sea caves, and see the ancient underworld.

Flavio Vallenari/E+/Getty Images
Flavio Vallenari/E+/Getty Images
Flavio Vallenari/E+/Getty Images

Say you were looking to sunbathe on a red and black pebble beach that looks like a corner of Mars, surrounded by volcanic, yellowish sulfur-rich cliffs where sea turtles come lay their eggs. If this sounds like your jam, this otherworldly destination is really just one of many under-the-radar Italian islands where you’ll find nothing but prickly pears, capers, and utter silence.

On this and a handful of other remote Italian paradises, you’ll be one of few exclusive tourists. Forget the usual crowded beaches with screaming kids and the parked luxury yachts you’ll likely find in Liguria or Sardinia. These atolls are unknown even to many Italians, but are rich with sea grottos, mythical beaches, and ancient legends to go with them.

Whether you’re looking to snorkel among friendly baby barracudas, admire dawn from a solitary cliff on an uninhabited isle, dine on succulent dwarf shrimps, or drink wild fennel liqueur with your feet in the water, here are some of the most secret and stunning islands in Italy.

easy camera/Shutterstock
easy camera/Shutterstock
easy camera/Shutterstock

Get high on sulfur vapor in the ancient underworld of Vulcano

Vulcano Island is sort of what we imagine hell might look like, but in a really cute way. This most wild island of the Aeolian Archipelago has an active volcano and is kinda like an open-air spa. You’ll find bubbly sea fumaroles that serve as natural jacuzzis, a steaming mud bath to nourish the skin, and sulfurous vapors, believed to cure sore throats, oozing out at every street corner.

It’s also super-hot. It’s really no wonder the ancient Romans believed the isle to be the entrance to the underworld. For some natural treatments, people sit for hours inhaling the gasses but watch out if you have low blood pressure or it could make you faint. Another warning for the scorching lime of the mud bath: great for the skin, but not so great for the hair, so avoid rinsing your locks.

All that being said, you’ll be dazzled by the spellbinding lunar scenery here: rocks are streaked with yellow, white, and silver, and there’s a park with solidified magma rocks shaped a bit like monsters.

Education Images / Contributor / Universal Images Group / Getty Images
Education Images / Contributor / Universal Images Group / Getty Images
Education Images / Contributor / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

Babysit sea turtles on black sand in Linosa

Linosa is so far down south that it’s closer to the shores of Tunisia than those of Sicily. This tiny, volcanic, jet-black island has just one fishermen’s village made of brightly colored dwellings covered in red bougainvillea flowers. You won’t find any baby-powder beaches here: instead, there are rocky shores and underwater scenery that’s totally black but so translucent you won’t even need goggles to admire the seabed.

On La Pozzolana Beach, sea turtles come to lay their eggs under starry skies. If you want to get up close to the action, you can volunteer at the local marine ER, where wounded loggerhead turtles are treated. Once they’re healed up and released back into the sea, visitors can dive into the water to wave them a proper goodbye. Just don’t be surprised if you see a family of hammerhead sharks swimming by in the distance.

The little harbor is the only buzzing social scene on the island, and you’re bound to see villagers meeting up for coffee slushies, framed by the capers and fig trees that sprout out of the brick walls that line the streets. Be prepared to stretch your muscles hiking to the grassy, extinct crater.

Matteo_Ciani/Shutterstock
Matteo_Ciani/Shutterstock
Matteo_Ciani/Shutterstock

Sleep in a sea cave in Palmarola

This gem of the Pontine Archipelago is a real throwback to the primeval age. Forget roads, bars, Wi-Fi, or electricity and prepare for a detox break. The isle is totally uninhabited except for a cozy beach tavern called O’Francese. Open just during summer, the restaurant owners rent out “rooms” in the grottos cut into the rugged, white-painted cliffs, where you can spend the night.

Inside the caves, you’ll also find very rudimentary bathrooms. It’s an experience to sleep in natural surroundings, where old fishermen once took refuge during storms or, it’s said, from sea monsters and ghosts.

At dawn, the owners take guests to Tramontana Hill to watch the blazing sunrise. Beach dinners are made with fish fresh from the net and fennel liqueur. All you need here is a dinghy to zig-zag between sea stacks, purple sponge sea grottos, and natural rock arches that almost look ready to crumble.

Maurizio De Mattei/Shutterstock
Maurizio De Mattei/Shutterstock
Maurizio De Mattei/Shutterstock

Suntan naked in quarries in Favignana

In one sea grotto on Favignana, myth has it that the beautiful nymph Calypso seduced wandering Greek hero Odysseus on his return home from the Trojan War. Today, locals have a habit of suntanning naked behind the huge stones of former quarries, which have been turned into lush gardens covered in thick vegetation.

If you’re looking to get stranded here for a few years yourself, the best way to explore the butterfly-shaped isle is either by bike or fishermen-guided boat tours that take you to sunbathe in hidden inlets with fluorescent-blue waves. The most spectacular of all such beaches is Cala Rossa.

Favignana also used to host a tuna factory that’s now been turned into a museum, and restaurants serve tuna delicacies of all kinds.

Marcin Krzyzak/Shutterstock
Marcin Krzyzak/Shutterstock
Marcin Krzyzak/Shutterstock

Explore ghostly sea grotto parties in Levanzo

The juxtaposition of dazzling whitewashed fishermen’s dwellings with the turquoise blue of the shimmering sea is only one good reason to visit Levanzo. The other, main lure is the maze of sea grottos you can explore on a guided boat tour with a savvy fisherman guide who enjoys spinning tales.

The Genoese Grotto, which was first inhabited by prehistoric people, just might be the most fascinating. Today, you can still see wall drawings and symbols that tell the story of the origins of the universe. Nearby, the so-called Flintstone Village is a former seaside hippie retreat where nudists lived in the 1960’s in straw huts and caves, and partied in sea grottos.

After you’re done riding a dinghy around to the different caves and snorkeling along the shore, try walking to different inlets and pebble beaches, and then indulge in grilled giant octopus served on a lava rock plate.

Stefano Batistini/Shutterstock
Stefano Batistini/Shutterstock
Stefano Batistini/Shutterstock

Visit a former prison fortress in Santo Stefano

Santo Stefano was once used as a former prison in the time of ancient Rome and later for anti-fascists, but the island has since been reclaimed by nature. Now, its waters are a snorkeling and scuba diving mecca brimming with baby barracudas and giant groupers. Though there’s still a horseshoe-shaped fortress at the top of a hill, a jungle of palms and fig trees has grown over the prison cells.

Just off the coast between Rome and Naples, the minuscule atoll can be reached via boat from the nearby sister isle of Ventotene, where scuba diving tours regularly depart.

maudanros/Shutterstock
maudanros/Shutterstock
maudanros/Shutterstock

Jog up the ‘killer climb’ in San Domino

The thick pinewood and dark blue waters of San Domino send out a siren call to adventurers. This main island of the Tremiti Archipelago is not a place for everyone, since you need to climb one long, steep road from where ferry boats land to the houses, hotels, and main piazza above. Some super-fit locals who jog up and down the steps have nicknamed it the “killer climb.”

Muscular thighs are also needed to reach the many solitary pebble inlets and cliffs that are fantastic for snorkeling. It’s safe to say this isn’t really the place for sun tanning unless you can cling to the granite rocks like a crab. In other words, not really a destination for flip-flops.

Gandolfo Cannatella/Shutterstock
Gandolfo Cannatella/Shutterstock
Gandolfo Cannatella/Shutterstock

Swim with and then eat dwarf shrimp ceviche in Ustica

Ustica is shrimp heaven both for gourmands and scuba divers. The specialty dish here is made of raw dwarf shrimps served with lemon juice, while the greatest dive is inside the so-called “shrimp underwater cave,” where you get to stare into the flashlight-like eyes of shrimps staring back at you.

Head to the fishermen’s village for a layer of cottages connected by steep staircases-which means it’s best to pack light. Forget clubbing here: in the evenings, the greatest thrill on Ustica is meeting in the tiny piazza for a gelato. You could check out Deadman’s Cliff or head somewhere less spooky, like the hilly, fluorescent-green countryside dotted with orchards, solitary farmer dwellings, and old donkey trails.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Silvia Marchetti is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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