There is a small cluster of islands off the coast of Sicily with no throngs of tourists, no teeming crowds, no traffic jams. Instead, what you find is Italy at its dreamiest, picturesque best: acres of olive trees and grapevines; small, just-right hotels; and crystalline waters made for long, lazy swims. Ondine Cohane uncovers the best of the Aeolians, where summertime fantasies are born.

It sounds like an impossible request—Wanted: Beautiful Italian countryside, few tourists—but the dream of an unspoiled, undeveloped Italy actually still exists in the form of the UNESCO-protected Aeolian archipelago, a scatter of seven small islands and five islets afloat in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Unlike Capri and Amalfi, spots that today seem more curated for tourists than authentically Italian, the Aeolians—as close as a 45-minute hydrofoil ride from Milazzo or Palermo, depending on which island you’re going to—have retained their traditions of wine cultivation, fishing, and farming. Add to this a handful of intimate hotels and guesthouses (no huge resorts here) and you have a place whose low-key chic is so seductive that even usually cynical Italians can only sigh dreamily when they speak of it.

Because it’s difficult (and pricey) to find a room in July and August, the best time to take advantage of the Aeolian idyll, as real insiders know, is during the off-months of April through June as well as in September and October, after the crowds of swanky Milanese and Romans have headed home and the islands have returned to their usual quiet. It’s also in these months that you’re able to properly appreciate each of the islands’ unique topographies, from the fields of dazzling wildflowers that blanket Filicudi in the spring to the vines of Malvasia grapes that brighten Salina’s countryside in the late summer. In the waters around Stromboli, meanwhile, the late-spring and early-autumn months offer spectacular fishing and deep-sea diving (the water, which hovers in the sixties throughout the year, will be plenty warm for swimming), and on Panarea, you’ll have the rocky coves virtually to yourself, with not a yacht in sight.