The island of Stromboli in the Aeolian archipelago combines the picturesque with the elemental, discovers Ray Kershaw

It was Homer's King Aeolus's home of the winds - Odysseus once borrowed some to blow his ships home - but as we struggled to the crater not so much as a zephyr stirred the evening heat. The view was truly epic. A sheer kilometre below us the dusk-misty cones of the Aeolian archipelago were fading towards Sicily in an antique wine-dark sea.

Yet classical reflections were not foremost on our minds. Sporadically, there came heart-lurching explosions; banks of sulphurous fumes that stained the sinking sun an apocalyptic puce. The bunkers built from lava looked less than reassuring. Then the crater, I swear, serenely produced two perfect smoke rings. It had after all been practising for 40,000 years. The real pyrotechnics were about to begin.

Stromboli is the strangest of the seven far-flung Aeolian Islands. A speck in the Tyrrhenian Sea, it soars 1,000m directly from the shore, entirely a volcano, plumed perpetually with smoke. Eight ferry hours from Sicily - three by hydrofoil - it felt a universe away from modern mainland Europe.

Snuggling on one of its two habitable ledges, San Bartolo and San Vincenzo parishes are collectively known as Stromboli Town. The white cottages cascade towards brightly painted fishing boats moored off the black beaches. Its thoroughfares are alleys. Transport is by foot or bike or spluttering scooter-vans

The blissful hamlet of Ginostra, still uncursed by electricity, is reached only by boat or via the summit of the planet's longest continuously active volcano, which once served as a lighthouse for ancient Greek and Roman mariners.

The near-perfect climate - mild winters, early springs - helps explain why the volcano has been settled since antiquity. Gardens where palms shade oranges, bananas, olive trees and grapes, today resemble paradise, but the untended tiers of terraces scaling the cone testify to bleaker days. Between the world wars life here was hard.

On his hotel terrace, Signor Calogero Petrusa wistfully related the changes he had seen. The centuries-old, self-sufficient community had, by his childhood, shrunk through emigration to an ageing few hundred. Then, like a Hollywood miracle, out of the north appeared the island's lucky star.

The volcano's literary début had been a minor rôle as the exit from the centre of the earth for Jules Verne's explorers. But in 1949, Ingrid Bergman arrived with lover and director Roberto Rossellini to share a primitive existence for six months while they shot the film Stromboli. A plaque marks the cottage where Ingrid became scandalously pregnant.

Calogero, whose fisherman father was inspired to open the volcano's first hotel, recalls the islanders' bemusement when hired as extras. With no electricity, few had seen a film. Although the movie was panned, the notorious affair turned Stromboli briefly into a household name. Ingrid loathed the place - plumbing too was unknown - but by the early Fifties curious tourists had begun to find their way there.

Strombolians today number 5,000 but lack of space and rain (its one climatic handicap) keep mass tourism at bay. Every night the water boat pumps ashore your morning shower.

Other than the crater and some cindery beaches, the volcano's prime commodity is expensive escapism and quintessential simplicity. Life soon slows to the pace of geological timescales.

In a surf-lapped silence we watched dolphins offshore and a glinting shoal of tuna. There are seasonal boutiques selling chic bikinis but men still mend their nets while women salt wild capers in each other's homes. The handful of grocers' shops, packed with every necessity from spaghetti to string, seem from another age. The itinerant fishmonger bawls his ancient pitch: "Pesce! Pesce! Pesce!" - mullet and bream, sea bass and squid. Imported meat is rare.

During the winter, cut off by storms, for Signor Petrusa it still feels far from anywhere. Helicopters now whisk islanders to hospital, but toothache demands a long, expensive journey. Older children catch the hydrofoil to weekday boarding school.

The hydrofoil services are the Aeolians' aorta. As on country buses, people show off their purchases from rare trips to Milazzo, the Sicilian port at the network's hub. After the islands, it has the buzz of a metropolis. Two competing companies operate the craft. You need the timetables of both.

For you cannot reach Stromboli without at least a look at the other fabled islands of Aeolus's realm. Lipari, the largest. Bizarre Panarea. Lovely green Salina - once the home of Sirens - with its exquisite white wine. Smouldering Vulcano - the original volcano - where Vulcan had his forge. But our aim was the terminus - the highest and most rugged - for a nocturnal close encounter with its fire in the sky.

We set off in late afternoon through forest-like esparto grass. The steepness soon gets serious, zigzagging the brink of the Sciara del Fuoco - the Trail of Fire - an abyss down which, during major flows, lava torrents sizzle seawards. We overtake a guide and perspiring clients.

As volcanoes go, Stromboli is a kitten. But kittens too have claws. Although Signor Petrusa belittled the dangers, the crater climb unchaperoned is technically illegal. But while risks are small, the even-vaguely nervous should shell out the £10 guide fee. You get a helmet, a staff and reassurance of his radio - descending in darkness can turn into a nightmare.

As we clear the final scramble there comes a spine-tingling explosion. Coughing with fumes, we skirt charily the powdery rim to reach the Pizzo summit - a grandstand view into the active crater 200m down. With eruptions on average every 15 minutes there are bangs, groans and rumbles, alarming whooshes of gases that, as darkness falls, are transformed into fountains of fire: white-hot strands of lava and incandescent slag shoot 100m skyward as if from giant Roman candles. The earth will never seem quite solid again.

A wind is getting up. At 1,000m the night air is chilly, but we have lost all sense of time. The guide has left without our noticing. The fireworks are perpetual. We know we have to go. As we fumble down the crags we find a frightened couple from Stuttgart whose torches have failed. Putting them between us, we stumble down together to L'Osservatorio - a remote and rustic restaurant with a view to the summit.

Up among a million stars, Stromboli is performing a late-night cabaret - but in an oven as fierce as another volcano a beaming old lady is baking what may be the best pizzas in the world.