Like many of our trips, this one started out with a simple musing: “I wonder if they have any hot springs in Sicily.” We’re passionate about hot springs. One of our favorites was the Saturnia hot springs in Italy, so revisiting the country made us want to search out another. And last year we visited a hot springs inside a volcano. We figured since they have volcanoes in Italy, maybe we would get lucky, but had no idea it would lead us to the Vulcano Island mud baths.
I remember the day Laura asked me the question, “Did you know they have sulfur hot springs on an island off Sicily?” I’d spent all my time trying to find a hot springs on the island of Sicily that the rest of the country really wasn’t on my radar. I certainly hadn’t heard of an island chain call the Aeolians. And then she dropped the bombshell. “But they really aren’t natural springs pools – they are hot mud baths.” And just like that, we had a new mission and the Vulcano mud baths were on the agenda.
We researched Vulcano Island, which is one of the many islands of Italy. Located off the coast of Sicily, this is part of the Aeolian Island chain (called locally Isole Eolie, or sometimes incorrectly called the Sicily Islands). In fact, these volcanic islands between Sicily and Naples have been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since the year 2000 as a pristine example of volcanic island building. We love UNESCO Sites, so this was another strong motivator for our visit.
Vulcano Island is more than the mud baths (called Laghetto di Fanghi in Italian). As it turns out, the island is quite famous. This is the original volcano, not just the original Italian volcano, but the very original volcano for which all other volcanoes in the world take their name. According to lore, it was here that Vulcan, the Roman God of Fire had his forge. All other volcanoes are named for this Vulcan island off Sicily. It is also here, remembering our schooling on plate tectonics, that the African Plate dives beneath the Eurasian Plate as it moves northwards, creating a tremendous amount of seismic and volcanic activity in the region.
Through the course of our planning, we decided it would be best to visit Vulcano and the Aeolian Islands as a day trip from Sicily. We left our hotel near Taormina early and drove to Millazo via the highway (through Messina). In Milazzo, we dropped our rental car in a garage and headed over to the ferry building. We had purchased our Liberty Lines ferry tickets from Milazzo to Vulcano in advance on the Internet, but learned at the office that they were just vouchers. We needed to stand in line and exchange the vouchers for the actual boarding tickets, so we were thankful we allowed extra time.
We don’t know what we expected of Vulcano, but it surprised us. The population of the island is a minuscule 715 people. The fastest hydrofoil service approaches the island from the south, past the Grand Cratere. As we rounded the volcanic mountain, we could see steam escaping from the fumaroles on the side of the volcano near the summit which hinted to the fact that this island is still geothermally active.
A brisk wind blew us into Porto di Levante. The town is small. There’s a handful of restaurants and shops along the two main streets (one heading to the crater trail and the other by the mud baths and the beach). However, travelers don’t come here for shopping and entertainment, this is an ecotourism destination. You visit Vulcano Island for one of three reasons: hiking the crater, lounging on one of Italy’s black sand beaches, or soaking in the thermal waters of the mud baths. We had plans for two of the three.
After getting off the ferry, we immediately headed to the right between the two yellow-discolored rock mounds in search of the mud baths (the signs pointing to Laghetto di Fanghi should have been our first clue if we spoke Italian). Our plan was to immediately dip into the thermal springs and mud baths of Laghetto di Fanghi in Vulcano. The springs were easy to find – we just let our nose guide us to the source of the sulfur smell. We are not novices to sulfur springs, having visited them from Colorado to Budapest. However, we’ve never encountered such a strong smell. Many visitors report being physically nauseated by the smell. We were there on a day with a stiff breeze and found the smell to be strong, but certainly not overpowering.
The mud baths on Vulcano Island are one of those unique experiences we will always treasure. How can we describe how relaxing it was to sit in the warm waters after several days of traveling and hiking? How can we describe the feel of the fine, silty mud on our skin? This warm, muddy pit is one of the most remarkable hot springs we’ve ever visited.
After dipping into the Vulcano Island Mud Baths, we headed to the north and made our one of the famous Italian black sand beaches (Spiaggia Sabbia Nera), about 1 kilometer away. The beaches are in the “other” town on the island: Porto di Ponente. The reality of life on the island is that the two “towns” just bleed together. Where Porto di Levante is the commercial port where ferry traffic arrives, it seems that Porto di Ponente is where private yachts arrive on the island.
Lounging on the black sand beach, we stared out at the private yachts in the small, protected harbor. In the distance, the peak of Monte Fossa Felci on the Filicudi volcano contrasted against the sky. We had a light salad lunch and a local beer at one of the restaurants on the beach. Despite the cooler October temperatures, we laid on some sun chairs and watched the waves for a while.
Walking back to Porto di Levante and our ferry to Milazzo, we realized that the Aeolian Islands offer a much slower pace compared to Sicily or mainland southern Italy. The Aeolians is a chance to be in the moment. And nowhere is better for that than soaking in the Vulcano Island mud baths.
Things to Do on Vulcano Island
Soak in the Vulcano Island Mud Baths/Hot Springs (Laghetto di Fanghi).
Visiting the hot spring bath is the number one attraction on Vulcano Island. The mud is a constant 28 degrees Celsius (82.4 degrees Fahrenheit) year-round. Soaking in the warm water and slathering your skin with mud is both fun and relaxing. We recommend enjoying mud baths/hot springs at the end of your trip to Vulcano Island, so you don’t smell for any other activities you want to do.
Hike the Grand Crater (Fossa di Vulcano or simply Gran Cratere).
There are a number of extinct volcanoes in Italy, but this isn’t one of them. It’s technically a dormant volcano (not an extinct volcano), with its last eruption in 1890. If you choose to hike up to the 391 meter high summit, you’ll likely pass by numerous fumaroles (volcano vents where gas and steam escape from within the mountain). The hike begins from Strada Provinciale and should take between 60 and 90 minutes to the top and another 45-60 minutes on the return trip. Consider taking your time for more photos! Be sure to take enough water for the hike.
Languish on the black beaches (Spiaggia Sabbia Nera).
To reach the black sand beaches, continue walking past the mud baths for 1km to reach the beach in the town of Porto di Ponente. There’s a hotel and marina here, as well as a couple of beach bars/restaurants and places to rent to sun chairs. We were here in the off-season and it was absolutely relaxing.
Shop and Explore the Beach Town (Porto di Levante).
From where the ferries arrive in Porto di Levante, bear to the right between rock mounds to reach the mud baths. A street will bear to your left that has several shops. You can even do a wine tasting here!
Tips for Visiting the Mud Baths on Vulcano Island
Limit your exposure. As with any thermal bath, it is recommended you don’t stay in the water longer than 10-15 minutes. Be advised that the mud is mildly radioactive. We stayed in about 40 minutes and found that we had some mild skin irritation.
Adhere to health warnings. Pregnant women and those with heart conditions should avoid the mud baths. Also, the water has a very high sulfur content, so people with sulfur or sulfite allergies should not enjoy them. While there are numerous mud bath benefits, be smart and limit your exposure.
Remove all metal. The high sulfur content will corrode metal so remove all watches and jewelry. Even the fumes coming off the water can tarnish earrings!
Take precautions. Some of the air vents in the mud can be extremely hot. We are not joking about this. Burning the bottoms of your feet hurts! There’s also a lot of rocks in the mud that you can accidentally step on. We recommend bringing a pair of very cheap water shoes (probably something sturdier than flip flops).
Bring disposable clothes. Specifically, bring a swimsuit you don’t mind destroying because it is nearly impossible to get the smell out. And it’s not just the swimsuit that will smell forever. Pretty much all of the clothes we took with us to Vulcano still smell.
Take a shower. Taking a shower at the Vulcano Italy mud baths is absolutely mandatory after being in the sulfuric water. The thermal baths operate a token-operated, timer-based shower system. Buy your tokens at the entrance kiosk before you get into the water. Unfortunately, the timers on the showers don’t give you much time. We recommend getting as much mud off you in the hot springs water first. Then take a swim in the ocean to further get the fine, silty mud off your body (and out of your swimsuit), before going to take a shower.
Travel Information for Vulcano Island and The Aeolians
How to get to the Aeolian Islands?
Visiting the Aeolian Islands turned out to be much easier than we expected. Travelers looking for a packaged experience can take one of the many Aeolian Islands tours from Milazzo offered by nearly every hotel in the city. Or, intrepid travelers can just travel independently. Visiting Vulcano Island is extremely easy for the independent traveler. The ferry from Naples to Sicily stops in the Aeolians, making it a convenient stopover point. All of the islands, but particularly Vulcano Island, are well covered by the Liberty Lines hydrofoil ferry service. These high-speed hydrofoil ferries make getting to Vulcano quick – about 45 minutes. The Liberty Lines schedule is frequent, but inconsistent. Our ferry from Milazzo to Vulcano left about an hour late (official explanation was boat problems) and the ferry from Vulcano to Milazzo was about 20 minutes late (no explanation). There are other ferries to the Aeolian Islands and other cities to depart from, but Liberty Lines Milazzo ferry worked for the best for us.
Day Trip to Vulcano vs. Overnight Excursion?
Visiting Vulcano Island is idea for a day trip. A day trip to the Aeolian Islands is extremely easy from Milazzo and other departure points in Sicily. Taking one of the first of the hydrofoil ferries to the Aeolians and then taking the last hydrofoil ferry back gets you a full day on one of the islands. If you opt for a slower pace, there a number of small hotels on Vulcano Island where you can stay and soak out the quiet island life.
What About Parking in Milazzo?
If you are like us and driving around Sicily, you probably have a rental car you will need to park in Milazzo. Be warned – there is precious limited Milazzo port parking. We ended up parking in the Petit Hotel parking garage (located on Via Giorgio Rizzo), which put us about two blocks from the Liberty Lines ferry terminal. The Petit Hotel garage could accommodate about eight cars. There were several other small garages on Via Giorgio Rizzo as well.
If you are traveling in high season or getting to the Milazzo port later in the day, your best bet may be larger Garage Delle Isole (located at Via Migliavacca 90). It’s larger and offers a shuttle to the ferry terminal. It’s only about 350 meters from the parking area to the port, so you can easily walk it as well. And if that doesn’t work, there are several other parking options along Via Alcide de Gasperi, although traffic on that street can be quite intense.
Where Can I Eat?
If you’re going to Vulcano as a day trip, consider packing your own lunch (picnic/self-catering). In Milazzo, there are a couple of quick serve counters along the main street in front of the ferry office (on the opposite side of the traffic circle), but we didn’t think they were very good. There are several restaurants near the port on Vulcano, although we didn’t try them. There are also several places out at the black sand beach which offered good options.
Packing Suggestions for Vulcano Island
Here a few things you should really consider bringing with you to Vulcano:
- Water shoes. If you are visiting the mud baths on Vulcano Island, sturdy water shoes will save your feet from sharp rocks and the steam vents in the water. Due to the sulfur, these shoes will be practically ruined when you are done, so we recommend a cheap, disposable option like these.
- Towel. The mud baths do not have towels for rent. So, if you need a towel to dry off, you’ll need to bring it with you.
- Suncreen. Despite being here in the off-season, we found the sun to be quite intense. Although we didn’t see sunscreen for sale in the few shops we looked at. So, be sure to bring your own sunscreen.
- Water bottle. If you plan to hike the Grand Cratere, be sure to bring your own water bottle.