Sicily – a colourful cultured land with culture borne of diversity, sea and sunshine.
Sicily where soulful dark eyed women, redheads and blond blue eyed men are the inheritance of races from across Africa, Eastern Mediterranean and the Vikings.
Modern Sicily inherits so much more than looks – cuisine, monuments, architecture and more.
We sizzled in scintillating Sicily while testing the beaches, hotels and food.
Our conclusion – Sicily is superb for chilling out and getting laid back or active on travel incentives. And Sicilian wine tastes so much better in Sicily.
“Sicily is still a place where doing nothing is still not seen as a waste of time” (Selleria)
But of course there is so much to do.
Sicily has so so much. From beautiful beaches, picture perfect mountain top towns and villages through to history and right on up to Sicily’s smouldering Etna; with incentive travel activities to match.
We loved it.
And an encounter with the police!!!
Having collected our hire car we discovered the directions we printed, airport to San Marco, were not helpful as we were in the wrong “starting point”.
So, at an early junction we hesitated, had a police car on our tail, and took the wrong turn. The police pulled up alongside and indicated we wind down the window – trouble we thought!!!
But no – they asked where we going and offered to guide us, a few kilometres, onto the motorway.
We were relieved and amazed, friendly police.
Was it the police or the lovely warm sunshine – we had a smile on our faces during the forty minute drive to our first hotel Castello San Marco.
Mount Etna through the looking glass; well not really Alice In Wonderland but a wonderful view, from our room, of the gently smoking Etna.
Castello de San Marco is right behind the beach with its own private beach area and just outside the charming hillside village of Calatabiano.
Walking into the main building gives the feeling you are back in the 17th Century. The property was built in 1689 for the Prince of Palagonia and much of the main building reflects this period. An ostentatious family home for a wealthy nobleman of those times.
We loved the wine bar and wine making cellar and the 10 acre grounds offer a number of superb settings for outside event dining.
Despite the size of the grounds the hotel offers 30 rooms only and these are spread around the grounds; space and so peaceful. Castello is great for small groups looking for a 4*.
Our “home” for 4 nights was a junior suite. A good 35 sq m with its own little garden space and terrace with views over the gardens.
In addition to a modest meeting room the hotel offers a chapel and a wedding pavilion.
We did not have time to check out the Spa but did get in some sunbathing while testing the swimming pool and bar. And a surprise poolside we discovered Sicily has craft beer.
The beer was so good we researched Sicilian craft beers when we came back – another surprise craft beer breweries are booming in all of Italy!!
Tuesday was meant to be a morning on Mt Etna and an afternoon on a hill top, Taormina, plus meeting Michele from albamy DMC Germany. Michele was born near Taormina and “home visiting family.
Ordinarily Mt Etna is just over an hour from San Marco – but as we discovered this week was different. August 16 falls within the week that most Italians take a holiday – and it was also a Bank Holiday. So after two hours of jammed narrow streets and hillside villages, with some even narrower streets, we still had an hour to go.
So back to San Marco and on to our meeting in Taormina with another round of squeezing through narrow spaces.
A lesson learnt – if you want to enjoy the superb views of mountain, quaint villages and emerald blue sea don’t drive yourself!!
Taormina is a like two books – a history book and a picture book. Perched high up on a hill with amazing views of Etna towering in the near distance and coastline stretching below.
“If a man only has one day to spend in Sicily and asks what to see, I would answer without any hesitation: Taormina,” he declared, “It is only a place, but a place in which you will find everything created on earth to seduce the eyes, the spirit and the imagination.” (Guy De Maupassant).
Amazingly, visiting the first hotel, in the late 1800’s, meant a donkey ride up the steep hill!!! That hotel is now the stunning Grand Hotel Timeo. A hotel so good that the famous come for a holiday and stay for weeks, months and even four years (DH Lawrence stayed four years).
And the modern hotel is even better than in Lawrence’s times.
Taormina is great for window shopping, retail therapy, bars and restaurants. Window dressing is a real art, or in many cases a work of art in Taormina and has to be seen to be believed.
Mount Etna, on Wednesday we did make it to the top, well nearly so and would have loved to find time for one of the treks or the wine train. However, the drive from picturesque towns and villages through steep slopes that go from green and pleasant to barren bizarre grey lava formations was amazing.
Welcome Italy creates fun activity programmes where you can combine wine tasting (excellent reds), water rafting and so much more.
Our second “mountain top” town was a little higher up than Taormina Castelmola so of course many go simply for the view. However, the best reason for visiting Castelmola is to sample almond wine or local reds, with local food, in a unique bar. Caffé del Turrisi.
Bar Turrisi spreads over three floors, each filled with eclectic curios and a novel, surprising, theme. We will not spoil the surprise but you cannot miss it and should not miss trying the almond wine.
Thursday was office day, sadly, as we had emails to catch up on. But a poolside office and sunshine until a poolside lunch. And for the afternoon we checked out the local town of Calabatiano, a local glass of wine and the castle ruins.
Friday was off to Syracuse and its lovely island Ortigia.
As the drive was only a couple of hours we diverted a little to see, to briefly, the beautiful town of Ragusa.
Actually it is not one town but two for the price of one, or the cost of a steep hill climb. Each “town” is set on a hilltop with the new town (18th century) higher up.
The old Ragusa was destroyed in an earthquake in 1693. The new town was a triumph of town planning – all straight streets and squares. Many residents preferred the old streets and buildings. Streets that twisted and turned; so full of character that they rebuilt it.
If you love Italian pavement life and a good coffee, or a Michelin starred restaurant, and amazing scenery spend some time here.
Ortigia is a baroque island so close to the mainland it almost touches the rest of Syracuse. Three bridges span the narrow gap and, if you are a visitor driving in Ortigia – beware. Only residents can park on the island.
So a problem for us and our hire car. But a problem Des Etrangers Hotel & Spa has covered – offsite secure underground parking with a “taxi service”.
Without a doubt Des Etrangers’ has the best view of the new marina and out across the bay towards numerous sandy beaches. Three nights and two days gave us enough time to explore, window shop and to test the sunbathing.
Syracuse’s lovely sandy beaches are either side of the main town, up and down the coast. We avoided these in favour of a private beach club built on decking almost opposite our hotel. Service was good and sunshine was fabulous.
Ortigia is a mix of the restored, modernised and overgrown, love lacking crumbling palazzos, elegant shops and more. Aside from the main avenues, there are a few, Ortigia’s charming narrow medieval lanes will bring out the explorer in you.
Window shoppers and retail therapists will love the high end shops – clothes, shoes, bags, great local soaps and perfumes along with fresh caught fish and some amazing delicatessens.
Local restaurants feature fresh fish and pastas, colourful outdoor dining and more.
Space does not permit we cover all the hotels, venues and activities available in Sicily. Fortunately, if you want to look at Sicily for an Incentive, we have Dino and his Welcome Italy DMC team.
Sicily has been likened to a sugar spiked expresso. Sicily will reward you with an intense bittersweet experience rather than anything lightweight or frothy. Sicily is deep, diverse and richly contradictory.
In Sicily it seems as though the sun shines brighter and the shadows are darker; life is lived full on for the moment.