The tiny island of Ustica, floating 60 kilometres off the popular northern coast of Sicily, offers a unique natural landscape and crystal clear waters where intrepid holiday-makers and adventurous day-trippers can escape the mainland and get acquainted with a fascinating new destination.
Ustica is a haven of natural splendour, protected within the confines of Area Marina Protetta Isola di Ustica, the protected marine park that helps keep the shimmering waters clean and safe. The island itself is actually the tip of an ancient volcano, its bulk lying beneath the surface of the sea – a factor you cannot forget, thanks to the abundance of black volcanic rock that makes up the island’s landscape. However, far from being stark, Ustica’s black rocks are brought to life with colourful blooms of hibiscus and vivid green cacti whilst whitewashed, traditional houses brighten up the shoreline.
A firm favourite of locals living in the Palermo district, Ustica provides a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city streets with its fresh air, beautiful natural sights and delicious seafood cuisine. During the peak summer months the island fills up with tourists, Italians and Sicilians looking for some rest and relaxation, but visit out of peak times and you can enjoy this unusual island in a more tranquil state.
Divers and snorkellers rejoice, you may just have found your own personal paradise. Ustica is renowned as the diving capital of Sicily, thanks to its pristine, protected waters and assortment of excellent dive sites scattered around the island. The surrounding seas offer a rich variety of marine life as well as exquisite corals and interesting rock formations, crevices, vertical walls and caves to explore. Expect to see a huge range of tropical fish including grouper, barracuda and an octopus or two if you’re lucky. The experience has been likened to swimming through an aquarium – unmissable for anyone who loves being in the water.
As you might expect from any part of coastal Sicily and its minor islands, the seafood available on Ustica is sublime. Agriculture and fishing are an essential part of life for the near to one thousand residents that call Ustica home. Freshly caught specimens such as shrimp, squid and swordfish are consumed with homemade pastas and an assortment of vegetables and pulses which thrive in Ustica’s rich and fertile soil.
As well as the frequent boat trips that circumnavigate Ustica, the island offers some scenic opportunities for wandering around by foot. A network of trails dissects the island, bringing visitors up close and personal with the volcanic cones situated in the centre of the island as well as revealing dazzling sea views from numerous coastal paths. Ustica Town, the arrival point for the ferries and hydrofoils which bring travellers from Sicily’s shores, is also worth a wander with its picturesque streets, iconic old tower and delicious laces to eat.
Ready your sea legs as there is only one way to reach Ustica and that is by boat. Ferries and hydrofoils run from the port at Palermo regularly throughout the year, but between the months of October and February, much of the island’s accommodation and restaurants close and the boat services may well be cancelled due to poor weather. Simply catch a bus from Palermo out to the port – they run every 30 minutes and the journey time is approximately 45 minutes. You have a choice of two boats, the faster hydrofoil or the slower yet more scenic option of the ferry. Always check the ferry timetables at the time of travel as companies in Sicily change their services frequently and timetables vary, too.
Adding a trip to Ustica to your itinerary opens up the whole of Sicily’s northern coast for exploration. Spend a few days discovering the capital city of Palermo with its exquisite architecture, chaotic markets and irresistible street food before travelling west to the paradise beaches of San Vito Lo Capo where pure white shores dotted with palm streets await. You can even continue along the coast to picturesque Trapani with its stunning Old Town and close proximity to the misty mountain town of Erice. Trapani acts as the gateway to the rustic charm of the Egadian Islands so if you still haven’t had your fix of Sicily’s minor isles, you can take advantage of this here. Alternatively, head east to fashionable Mondello, Palermo’s favourite seaside resort, or further afield to the popular seaside town of Cefalu with its majestic cathedral and beautiful harbour.