The island of Stromboli looks like a volcano in a cartoon, in a movie where people get stuck on a tropical island. It springs up out of the blue Aeolian Sea like a perfect jutting triangle, the bottom two-thirds covered in a sheath of rippling grass and brush, like Shar-Pei wearing a green sweater. The top is dark with the rock of new eruptions, a plume of brown and white smoke coughing steadily from the crater.
We approach it in an excursion boat called Paloma that hits the top of each wave with a loud thunk. In an irrational gesture that will neither stop me from getting hurt in case of an accident, or getting seasick, I grip the edge of a wooden table, my knuckles white with desperation.
We have just come from the island of Panarea, a sloping slab of white rock with a single, tiny, exclusive town full of white stucco houses with neon blue shutters and doors, and 4-Euro granita in the port. We’re looking forward to something a little more low-key on Stromboli. If we get there alive.
No one else on the boat seems bothered by the choppy waves, especially not the ship’s staff—the handsome, salt-and-pepper-haired captain or its first mate, a genial old guy who keeps making the rounds, asking if we’re all OK. I lie every time, partly because when it comes to me and seasickness, admitting there is a problem almost assuredly creates a problem, and partly because I have no idea what he’d do if I told the truth, and I have no desire to find out. The third member of the ship’s crew, a teenage boy in a pair of aviator sunglasses, is mostly busy hauling ropes and flirting with my sister. Every time we reach a port, he makes a point of telling her and only her the return time in broken English.
Rambling Stromboli town is bright in the sinking sun and full of tourists returning from a day of trekking to the crater. Walking away from the port, we find a restaurant with a terrace and order a heap of antipasto—grilled eggplant, olives, and artichoke hearts—and a half-carafe of white wine. We eat and take photos of the incredible view—a stripe of blue water broken only by a little rock of an island in the distance, the lighthouse just barely visible on the top.
The little offshore island is called Strobolito—literally, Little Stromboli—and it really is nothing more than a jutting rock with a lighthouse on top and a single zigzagging staircase leading up to it from the ocean below. It looks solitary and scary and a little sad at sunset, its sides brilliant with iron ore. On the way to Stromoboli, Paloma got close to it, but the ocean felt so rough that I thought we’d be thrust into its craggy sides.
Everyone who enters the terrace does the exact same thing—eats, snaps photos, marvels. Wonders how reality will feel afterwards, whether their eyes will adjust.
On the obsidian beach near the port, I cannot stop touching the sand. It sits in the palms of my hands like piles of silky caviar, sticks like a swarm of insects. The smoke from the crater drifts directly above our heads, a white stripe through the sky.
My sister goes swimming and everyone on the beach stares as though she’s sprung a third arm. The water is freezing in the late-afternoon shadow. The vacationers on their yachts and schooners have wrapped up in jackets and shawls. Only the occasional squall of a gull, or the shout of a wriggling kid breaks the silence.
Paloma is scheduled to return for us in a few minutes, and I savor the still ground under my body, knowing it won’t last. Our footprints in the black sand look like fossils, like nothing could shift them out of shape. When we trudge back up to the dock, I take half the beach with me in my shoes. I need to sift and shake three times to get it out, or maybe just for luck.
Paloma sweeps past Stromboli’s flat seaward side, the side that erupts.
A smooth sheet of hardened lava, the chute of so many eruptions, begins at the lip and cascades all the way to the churning sea below. The sun is just about to dip below the horizon, to give the Stromboli by Night tour its name. The captain explains that the eruption from just a few years ago lasted for months, that it created the long lava flow we’re seeing now. And all the while, the boat rocks.
“If you wait,” he says, “You may just see the eruption happening before your eyes.”
We wait. Beside me, a man with a video camera keeps rolling. I try to imagine who would want to watch this video back on dry land, the camera shuddering with the motion of the ship. The boat rolls too, first front to back and then side to side as we make a lazy spin into the waves.
All of my photos are on strange, sloping angles, as though I can’t properly feel the floor.
We crane our necks around like people watching a tennis match, focused on the dim smoking mouth. We circle and circle.
At one point, the captain calls our attention to two distinct colors of smoke pouring toward the sky in separate plumes at the same time—one a milky gray and one a filthy brown. That’s when it happens—a crimson fountain of lava bubbles up in a long, sparkling spout. In the same instant, the boat hits a massive wave and careens forward, tossing half of us off our seats. Everyone on the boat collects themselves and cheers, as the first mate shouts at the top of his lungs in Italian, fists raised, “It’s erupting! Oh my God! Stromboli by night! Stromboli by night!”
That he has probably seen this every single night since he took this job seems irrelevant. It seems likewise beside the point that Paloma’s rocking has reached a nerve-rattling extreme, that people are tumbling over themselves, craning their necks and spinning around backwards to see the volcano, which, by now, has ceased in its pyrotechnics.
As the sun slides lower behind the horizon, the boat continues to turn, and my stomach remains lodged somewhere against the inside of my ribcage. We wait for it to happen again. We wait for an hour, the boat bobbing all the while.
It is dark when the captain decides that we should be on our way, that we’ve seen enough of Stromboli and her treacherous dark water and bright plume. The people on the boat groan in collective disappointment.
Facing backwards on one of Paloma’s rear seats, I focus on Stromboli’s shadow in the distance, a ghostly blue-black monster breaking the line of the horizon. It is the only thing to do to keep from getting sick.
As it shrinks away from us, I feel as though I’m falling into a kind of trance. Or perhaps my sister and I are just reluctant to look away, or to speak, out of fear of what might happen.
The captain has turned on Paloma’s interior lights, and their reflection bounces between the windows. We remind each other to look past them at the objects in the distance, at things that are fixed and anchored to land. Others on the boat, apparently, do not share a similar strategy.
Because halfway back to dry land, the woman sitting behind us starts to vomit. The first mate and his assistant—the aviator-wearing teenage boy—leap into action. Stores of plastic bags are hidden all over the boat—under the seats, in the panels along the ceiling. They hand one to her, along with a fat lemon wedge that materializes out of nowhere. The woman hangs her head in misery—the only hint that anything is amiss, along with the wafting smell of lemon.
Then, a second sound arises from the other side of the boat—another woman is vomiting, hunched over herself. An instant later, the man sitting beside her starts to do the same, and is followed by no fewer than three other people. The first mate and the teenage boy move between them as though nothing were amiss, handing out lemon wedges and bags and rubbing backs.
My sister flashes a tight smile. “Everyone on this boat is throwing up right now.”
“Let’s not talk about it, please,” I say, fixating on the island in the distance.
By the time Lipari, our home port, comes back into focus, everyone is weary and slumped over and silent.
On the pier, my jelly knees quake. We walk carefully back to our hotel under the street lamps, queasy and in a haze. I mention that it was good to see the volcano erupting, even if we had to wait, had to turn around in circles for an hour to see it.
“I mean, look on the bright side,” my sister says. “I took a tortuga tour in Costa Rica. And the thing with that tour is that eighty percent of the time, they don’t see a single tortuga.”
Go there: The island of Stromboli can be reached directly by ferry from the town of Milazzo in Sicily. Tickets for the Stromboli by Night island tour, which includes stops in Panarea and Stromboli, can be purchased in the main port towns throughout the Aeolian Islands.