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SHH! Don't tell anyone but I think I may have found the hippest holiday destination around.

When looking for somewhere to visit, which of the following are on your list of must-haves? Beautiful scenery, drama, peace and quiet, history, good food, culture, style, sea, snorkelling, value for money, volcanoes.

Well, you don't have to want all of them but the more you tick, the better time you will have in my perfect hotspot.

Sicily has become one of the most fashionable destinations in Europe over the past few years. But to stay one step ahead of the package crowd, take my advice and get yourself to the Aeolian Islands.

This group of seven little volcanic isles - Lipari, Vulcano, Stromboli, Salina, Basiluzzo, Panarea and Filicudi - are huddled just off the northern coast of Sicily.

My wife Soraya and children George, seven, and Olivia, three, headed with another family for the main island of Lipari.

A short hydrofoil journey from the Sicilian port of Milazzo took us out to the Aeolians.

As the islands dramatically came into view, they reminded me of the sort of hideout that James Bond's Mr Blofeld would be quite happy to hole up in. Rugged, with deep caverns and steep cliffs, they promised splendid views.

Only Stromboli has an active volcano but the eruptions are mild. If you're lucky with your timings you could get to see a natural firework display at night.

Evening boat trips take tourists out to see the lava fly, but sadly the volcano was sleeping when we visited.

The history of the islands mirror that of Sicily and were colonised by Greeks in 580BC.

The Turks attacked Lipari in 1544 and pirates often sought refuge in the islands over the centuries.

Lipari, the hub of the Aeolian Islands and the busiest in the summer, is the the best place to base yourself.

We stayed at the superb Hotel Rocce Azzurre which sits on a rocky promontory less than 10 minutes walk from the hydrofoil jetty. The hotel will happily arrange to come and pick up your bags - allowing you a little time to acclimatise to the relaxed Liparese way of life.

Several things immediately strike you about the place. The first is that it is so unspoilt. No high-rise buildings, no cranes or building sites. The second is the s-l-o-w pace of life here.

While obviously touristy, the shops, bars and restaurants have a great deal more individuality about them than in many other Mediterranean destinations.

The paved streets and beautiful architecture probably help, but there is also a very special vibe about Lipari. Once here, you know that one visit will never be enough. You will want to return. We were very impressed with the Rocce Azzurre, it was a great find and very good value. In fact, it would be worth staying here for the views of the beach and boats alone, but it also has an excellent restaurant and bar.

If you don't make it down to the beach, then the roof terrace has a sunbathing deck with loungers hovering just above the sea.

Recently refurbished, the hotel's 33 air-conditioned rooms are very comfortable and the owner and staff welcoming and helpful.

All rooms have ensuite bathrooms, and many have balconies with superb views.

And, of course, this being Italy, the attitude towards kids is warm and friendly - which helps mums and dads feel relaxed right from the start. Contacting the hotel direct is the best way to sort out your stay. The staff will also be glad to help with other arrangements, including boat and motorbike hire.

And to make it even easier, you can arrange your flights through the hotel's affiliated firm, City Jet Travel. It can provide direct British Midland flights into Catania, the most convenient airport for Milazzo. The Greeks named these islands after the mythical figure Aeolus - a god-king with control over the winds. Dominated by Mount Chirica, Lipari is littered with Greek ruins. But perhaps even more impressive is the town's citadel. Here you can follow the island's history since Neolithic times (about 4500BC) - and it's all explained in English.

More recently, just a few decades ago in fact, Lipari was the talcum powder capital of the world.

The process of turning lava rock to talcum powder apparently had one main byproduct - it left a very fine pale powder.

Of no use to the mine operators, this blue powder was dumped by the lorry load on to the coast for years. As a result, the sea is a truly wonderful pale blue colour.

But do remember that these islands are volcanic so some beaches, particularly on the Vulcano and Stromboli, can be quite dark and pebbly.

We only knew our favourite beach on Lipari by the name of its beach bar - the Blu Lounge.

We had to hire a water taxi to get there, which made it very exciting for the children. And it meant the adults got to spend some time at a beach drinking the finest mojitos known to man.

Choose any restaurant or bar to eat out in Lipari town centre - all of them guarantee good Italian food and style.

A wide strait separates Lipari and the next island of Vulcano. A great way to spend a few hours here is to hire a quad bike and ride up the now extinct volcano. The views from the top are spectacular.

It makes sense to split your holiday between the islands and Sicily itself. But however you decide to do it, one thing is sure - you will feel like you have visited somewhere very special.


HAVEN SENT: Lipari's harbour' FIRED UP: Stromboli is home to a live volcano
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jul 15, 2006
Next Article:GETTING THERE...

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