Towering over Sicily and the port of Messina at a staggering 3,350 meters, Mount Etna is Europe's highest and one of its most volatile volcanoes. Unlike the below scenery, which is speckled with red-hued village rooftops, the lush green pastures of farms and rolling vineyards and the tall steeples of medieval churches, the landscape at the top is barren, desolate and otherworldly. The contrast provided from the highest peak to the world below makes you feel almost as if you're traversing another planet -- a place disconnected to the tourist haven below. This is why so many cruise passengers choose to embark on the adventure up to the top -- along the weaving roads, up the steep inclines or over the snowy peaks to ascent to the top. Mount Etna doesn't just give Sicily's northeast coast a beautiful and atmospheric mountain backdrop, it shapes the region's terrain just as much as the food or the culture.
How you explore the volcano is based entirely on your level of adventure and physical fitness, as well as how deeply you want to explore its crannies and unusual terrain. If you're considering an excursion to Etna (including the Rifugio Sapienza station, the stunning Valle del Bove summit or the base of La Montagnoia), check out these tips on the best way to see and experience this magnificent mountain.
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Covering more than 224 square miles, the national park that surrounds Mount Etna boasts some incredible hiking trails -- ranging from easy walks along comfortable paths to steep uphill climbs saved for the most daring of adventurers. In spring, the barren fields of lava are flanked with colorful flowers and vibrant trees while the fall brings multi-hued shades of oranges, yellows and reds. The national park and volcano have more than 13 trails you can tackle by foot. There are many places to start, but most visitors begin at Rifugio Sapienza, which can be reached by bus or cable car. Rifugio Sapienza sits at 1,750 feet above sea level and is the central meeting point to explore the Silvestri Crater, a mammoth volcanic crater that was formed in the late 1800s. The walk to the top from Rifugio Sapienza is moderate at best, with some level walking paths and also a few steep inclines and uneven surfaces.
The walk to the top and back from Rifugio Sapienza takes about seven to eight hours, so plan to arrive on the earliest bus possible (departing between 6 to 8 a.m. that picks you up at the Catania railway station) so you can get up and down in time to make it back to your cruise ship. The price per each bus ticket is low, only setting you back around 6 euros for a round trip ticket.
For those seeking a very strenuous workout, take the hike from Rifugio Sapienza down to the Schiena dell'Asino Trail, which is also the unofficial starting point of the ascent of Etna. Take the "extended route," which will guide you up to the base of La Montagnola where you'll hike past expansive lava fields and ash cones and around the famed 2002 crater. After you ascend, you can pickup on other trails leading to the Western edge of the Valle del Bove and back down the volcano.
2. Helicopter Tour
The view of Mount Etna from above, flanked by rustic Sicilian houses, rolling hills and the lapping Mediterranean Sea is truly indescribable -- which is why so many visitors opt for a helicopter tour instead of a grueling hike. It's advisable for those with limited mobility, but keep in mind one thing -- it's not a budgetary option. Excursion Etna, one of the notable operators in the area, offers a half-day package that picks you up at your ship, takes you on a 20- to 35-minute flight around the volcano and its summit's infamous craters as well as offers incredible views of the beautiful town of Taormina and the eastern shore of Sicily. The tour will end at the Picciolo golf course on the northeast edge of Mount Etna. Although prices vary by company, expect to shell out more than $1,000 per person for this aerial perspective.
3. Jeep Tour
One of the more popular options for cruise passengers who want to see Silvestri Summit Craters and lava fields without a high cost or excessive activity is a half-day 4x4 jeep expedition up the volcano. Tour operators pick you up at Catania (which is where most cruise ships dock) and then head to Mount Etna. It's good to note that this is an adventurous drive, so the ride isn't easy -- as the jeeps go deep off road, over cold lava streams, through volcanic ash and deep forests. The tours make ample stops along the way for photos and reflection. The tour also includes a bit of walking, from Monte Fontana to the famous Valle del Bove, but it's very moderate and includes visits to a real lava cave. In addition to the actual volcano, many of these tours (like the one offered by Royal Caribbean) also take you through the Sicilian countryside and to the picturesque town of Taormina, where you'll have time to wander along the medieval village and discover traces of ancient fortification. Jeep tours vary in length, from four to seven hours.
4. By Ski Lift and Cable Car
The charms of Mount Etna are actually best seen via ski lift and ski. Thanks to its recent UNESCO World Heritage protecting (Etna was added in 2013), there are two tourism zones catered directly to skiing, hiking, guided hikes and drives. The national park also boasts two of the three Mount Etna resorts, so you can even book a stay to ski after your Mediterranean cruise ends. However, keep in mind, most cruise lines don't venture into Europe after October. For expert skiers, start from the volcano's southern slope and traverse the 3,329 meters all the way down to the northern flank of the volcano and regale in sparkling views of the crystal-blue Mediterranean contrasted against the black lava ash and the bright white snow. However, don't think the ski lifts or cable cars are just reserved for winter -- they are open year-round and venture up and down the mountain so you can get incredible views without having to do the extra legwork. Funivia dell'Etna runs the cable car from Rifugio Sapienza up to the 2,500-meter mark. If the three-and-a-half hour walk is too cumbersome, many tour groups will connect you with a 4x4 jeep ride that'll traverse to the 2,800-meter mark.