Holidays in Italy with no cars and lots of sound

THE PEAK of Stromboli lurked behind my hotel, black smoke seeping from its top, making me more fearful as the hours passed. The total absence of vegetation on the volcano’s upper half gave it a daunting and desolate feel.

I had signed up to climb to the summit of the volcano that comprises most of this small, carless Italian island, strung in between Sicily and the nation’s boot, and issues the black sand that covers its beaches. Stromboli is one of several active (in its case, hyperactive) volcanoes in Italy, from Sicily’s Mount Etna to Mount Vesuvius near Naples, which buried Pompeii 2,000 years ago. Stromboli’s volcano erupts constantly—volcanologists register activity at least every hour—and it has been that restless for 250,000 years. The persistence of its eruptions as well as its relatively hike-able size (it rises 3,000 feet from sea level) make it the rare active volcano that people can experience up close. Francesco Sortino, a scientist at Italy’s National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology who was working in Stromboli for the summer, told me before I set out, “Stromboli is a spiritual experience. Arrive at the top and you’ll see.”

Stromboli is located in the Tyrrhenian Sea, at the eastern end of the Aeolian chain of seven islands and six submerged volcanoes, many of which derive their names from Greek deities. Stromboli comes from the ancient Greek word strongule, which means a round, swelling form. A couple of the other islands have had explosions in recent centuries, but only Stromboli keeps churning out the fireworks from its summit craters. A major eruption in 2002 caused a 10-foot tsunami, and 2007 and 2014 also saw significant bursts that closed the volcano to visitors for a while. Scientists vigilantly monitor eruptions and if they get too intense, they close the trail.

As the start of my excursion approached, my anxiety grew. It wasn’t the possibility of being close to eruptions—the gases, the lava—that scared me. I worried I’d lack the stamina to make it to the top and back down. Italy in high summer is hot, and hiking for five hours along a 4 ½-mile loop could be exhausting. But Ingrid Bergman had done it in a dress and espadrilles in “Stromboli,” the 1950 film Roberto Rossellini shot on the island.

There are less strenuous ways to appreciate the volcano. Boat tours circle the island, offering a view of the western slope no hiker can get: a spectacle known as the Landslide of Fire, a cascade of ash and rocks falling hundreds of feet from the craters to the water. Evening tours hit this spot right at sunset to see sprays of magma in the best light.

You can also appreciate plenty of the volcano underwater. Only the top third of the mountain is above sea level, and the ocean floor drops off quickly beyond the surf, giving the sea its deep blue. Boats take divers and swimmers to Strombolicchio (little Stromboli), the original center of the volcano, where magma hardened into what is now a column of rock off the coast.

Since 2003, only hikers accompanied by guides have been allowed to reach Stromboli’s summit. Three outfits operate near-identical excursions: They all use the same trail to get hikers up and back, and stop for a bit at the crest overlooking the craters. Most groups set out in the late afternoon to avoid the midday heat, and arrive at the summit by sunset. Hikers are advised to be in good physical shape, which seems open to interpretation.

Magmatrek, the outfit I chose, instructed me to bring: a backpack and lots of water; a windbreaker, sweater and long pants for the cold weather at the top; a flashlight and snacks. I had all that ready. And yet, I couldn’t get rid of the butterflies in my stomach. At 5 p.m., I checked in at Magmatrek’s office on the main town square. A picture of a red stiletto was captioned simply “NO” in four languages. My guide, Nicola, checked my footgear—I wore ankle-high boots, as the website hadsuggested—before handing me a red helmet to protect against falling rocks. He had some bad news: The god of wind was not cooperating. Gusts coming in from the west were shoving clouds right into the craters. The day before, climbers hadn’t been able to see much and the gasses at the top were intolerable.

Our group of 20 set out single-file up a little road, past a cart selling giant peaches. Within 10 minutes, we were already on a dusty path that zigged and zagged, bordered by bamboo stalks that barred any breeze. As the sun fell behind the slope, we paused for a water break to look down at the village. The architecture could be Greek—white Lego blocks of houses, accented with blue doors—but it’s on this side of Italy that the African plate is sliding under the European plate, causing the volcanic activity that created Stromboli. An hour in, halfway up, we reached the vegetation line beyond which the cactus, fig trees and caper bushes below couldn’t survive. “Now we’re on the moon,” Nicola told us, gesturing to the barren landscape ahead.

We hit a traffic jam of trekkers: 300 people were visiting that day, Nicola told us, as many as live on the island year-round. The dust beneath our feet grew thicker and darker, and volcanic rocks, some football-sized, blocked the path, increasing the risk of tripping. Whenever the trail briefly leveled off, my feet and knees were so grateful. Out of breath, I noticed clouds skating by below us, but the top of the volcano was still shrouded.

As we neared the summit, just before sunset, we put on warmer clothes and our helmets. Nicola distributed dust masks to help fend off the fumes. Little good they did: Within a few steps, several of us were coughing as we inhaled the carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide the volcano spewed.

The crest overlooking the craters was dark and otherworldly. Stromboli blew black smoke and dust up into our eyes, forcing us to turn away. Nicola drew a line in the ash with his walking pole and told us not to go past it—two feet away led straight down to the craters and beyond, the Landslide of Fire.

Then, for a moment, the clouds rose and we could see the volcano’s pit and the sea below. “Look for red,” Nicola instructed. Smoke erupted again, obscuring the view, but I thought I saw a glow.

We departed in quiet awe after about 20 minutes—longer than Nicola thought we would be able to withstand the fumes. My legs felt somewhat refreshed, but I was not prepared for the trials of the descent. The steep trail was thick with ash that reached our ankles; Nicola said to imagine we were skiing. When night fell, we strapped flashlights to our helmets. By the time we got to the vegetation line and the path cleared, my thighs were quivering.

Five hours after setting out, we reached the town square and dispersed. I hobbled down a little road to the beach on my own. It was all black—the sand, the water, the sky—except for the white hem of the sea. I pulled off my shoes and stumbled over the rocks to wash my feet in the waves. The rocks and I had both come a long way.

Getting There The only way to Stromboli is by boat. Hydrofoils make the trip from Naples (about 4 ½ hours, snav.it) and Sicily (1 ½-hours from Messina, libertylines.it)during spring and summer. Leave your vehicle at home: There are no cars on Stromboli, only golf carts and mopeds.

Staying There La Sirenetta Park Hotel offers the prime location, across the street from Ficogrande, one of the island’s best beaches. Most of the rooms provide sea views, but make sure to ask for one farthest from the hotel’s popular nightclub. The breakfast of freshly made pastries, fruit and yogurt, included in the room rate, is enough to fill you until dinner (from about $137 a night, lasirenetta.it).

Hiking There The three main trekking companies are Magmatrek (magmatrek.it), Il Vulcano a Piedi (ilvulcanoapiedi.it) and Stromboli Adventures (stromboliadventures.it). Group hikes to the summit cost about $32; private tours are also available. Il Vulcano a Piedi also leads shorter tours to the edge of the Landslide of Fire, a three-hour hike that goes halfway up the mountain. Totem Trekking, on the main square next to the point of departure, rents hiking boots, flashlights, backpacks and other gear. Children older than 7 are technically allowed but operators don’t recommend it.

Eating There Hiking the volcano earns you several good meals on the island—then again, hiking isn’t required to sample any of them. Punta Lena is the most romantic restaurant option, with the sound of crashing waves through the open windows. Swordfish carpaccio and grilled fish pair well with white wine from one of Stromboli’s neighboring islands. Spaghetti alla Strombolana, the local pasta specialty, features a sauce made of wild fennel, tomato, capers and mint and dusted with breadcrumbs (via Marina 8). Da Luciano draws big groups of friends for pizzas, pasta and more grilled fish(via Roma 15). For the hike to the summit, or a picnic at the beach, pick up some freshly made deli sandwiches and snacks at La Bottega del Marano (via Vittorio Emanuele). Cool off with a scoop of artisanal ice cream from Lapillo Gelato. Local flavors include pistachio and chocolate orange (via Roma).