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Spend the night atop an active volcano: Climbing Stromboli, last of the Aeolian Islands of Sicily

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An eruption of the volcano on Stromboli
An eruption of the volcano on Stromboli
The single most incredible Aeolian thrill, and one of Italy's most unforgettable experiences, is climbing to the top of 3,055-foot Stromboli, the last island in the Aeolian chain and, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the most active volcano in the world.

It erupts explosively two to three times an hour, spewing lava rocks and ash in a tight cone as high as 3,000 feet into the air.

It is quite dramatic—but you really need to stand up on the lip of the crater to get the full effect, preferably at night.

How to pronounce Stromboli
Unlike the Italian-American snack (which ironically, you can't find on the real Stromboli), the name of the island is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable: STROHM-bo-lee. Also, that's a long "o" as in chrome (not a short "o" as in Strom Thurmond).
Stromboli looks very much the part: a forbidding, conical mountain rising suddenly from the azure waters, with smoke trailing from the summit and a tiny, whitewashed community of cube houses clinging to one side where some 400 hardy souls live (primarily off tourism).

Stromboli is immortalized both as the spot where Jules Verne's adventurers popped out at the end of their Journey to the Center of the Earth, and as the site and title of the 1950 Rossellini film Stromboli, during the filming of which the director and his star Ingrid Bergman had a scandalous off-camera love affair.

Climbing the volcano

A view back to the town during the hike up Stromboli
A view back to the main town during the hike up Stromboli.
Officially, you cannot ascend without a guide, but the rule isn’t really enforced unless the volcano is having a particularly dangerous fit, as it does from time to time.

Even the scientists who constantly monitor the belly of this beast have, at best, a few hours' notice before a big eruption. Usually, there is no warning. Just explosions of magma.

In other words: hikers beware.

The hike up is a strenuous three to five hours; follow the red-and-white blazes. In daylight you can't see the glow of lava in the eruptions—it just looks like fountains of mud, really. Against the night sky, however, the fireworks are spectacular.

Most people start up in late afternoon to arrive before sundown, spend the night sitting on top, and descend at first light. Do not attempt to walk back down after dark. Bring at least two liters of water per person, and if you're spending the night, a picnic, all your warm clothes, a poncho with a hood, and a flashlight.

The volcano at dawn
The volcano at dawn
Don't go up if it's going to rain—you’ll be miserable. It gets cold and very windy on top, even in summer, and the pumice dust blows continuously; you'll need to put that poncho on backward and pull the hood over your face if you want to lie down and avoid getting pumice dust in your ears, eyes, nose, and mouth.

Stick to the outer ridge of the ancient, enormous crater that surrounds the two smaller, active ones—still a mere couple of hundred feet from the eruptions. Every year a dumb tourist or two gets hurt or killed by raining lava when they venture up on the lip of the active crater.

Descend the way you came.

Guided hikes arrive at the top for sunset, spend about half an hour at the top after dark (time for at least one good eruption), then lead you sliding back down a pumice chute on the back side of the mountain. Do not attempt this unmarked descent without the guide.

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This article was written by Reid Bramblett and was last updated in October 2010. All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 2008–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett