A Taste of Sicily

The ancient hilltop town of Taormina commands unimaginably impressive views over the Ionian Sea, and no more so than from the terrace of the Grand Hotel Timeo where the vista stretches across to brooding Mt. Etna. Here a sense of tranquillity pervades each day until the early evening when ‘promenading’ commences in earnest and suddenly the whole town is alive to café society, music and laughter. As one strolls down the ancient streets, past the luxury boutiques and hidden bistros, there is an overriding sense of pleasure in being encapsulated by such beautiful surroundings. Red Savannah CEO, George Morgan-Grenville, explores the  island of Sicily.

A really good morning consists of popping into the Bam-Bar (so loved by Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Robert Duvall) for coffee and granita, a quick look around the stunning Graeco-Roman theatre and then down by cable car to the private beach at Villa Sant’Andrea for a culinary feast of fresh fish and a chilled bottle of Benanti Pietramarina Etna. Sicilian wines were a serendipitous discovery and it is worth noting that wine production has undergone a renaissance and the island now has more vineyards and grows more grapes than any other region in Italy.

Luxury holidays in Sicily - SiracuseFor those for whom culture is an essential ingredient of any holiday, a visit to Siracusa and specifically the tear-drop island of Ortigia is a must. The legend goes that it was here the goddess Leto gave birth to Artemis before moving on to the island of Delos where she gave birth to her second twin, Apollo. Navigating through the narrow and sometimes chaotic streets of Siracusa can be a challenge, but on reaching Ortigia, by foot is the only way to explore. Most appealing is suddenly exiting from a labyrinth of narrow streets into the magnificent Piazza Duomo, dominated by its large baroque façade. The duomo itself was originally built as the Greek Temple of Athena and the doric columns are still visible from the via Minerva, as are the Norman battlements (most people don’t realise that having conquered England in 1066, the Normans went on to capture Sicily only five years later in 1071). It is difficult to tire of the maze of medieval streets, bars, restaurants and shops all around the island but it would be criminal to come this far and not visit the Neapolis archaeological park on the mainland. The Greek theatre, part of which dates from 3rd century B.C. is one of the largest of its kind and was cut directly out of the rock where it lies. Close by don’t miss the Latomia del Paradiso, an ancient quarry now planted with an orchard of orange and lemon trees.

Mt. Etna on the other hand, is perhaps better simply viewed from wherever you happen to be as opposed to taking an organised visit, although the drive up is rather beautiful and it is interesting to see where the lava stopped after the last eruption – about 20 feet away from the edge of a small village.

Luxury holidays in Sicily - Hotel RayaFrom Taormina, head northwards to the port of Milazzo and take the hydrofoil across to the Aeolian islands. The best hotel by far is the Raya on Panarea, a wonderful boho-chic paradise with a spring-fed geothermal, hypotonic pool and a biodynamic restaurant. Dinner is served on the terrace with the magnificent backdrop of smoking Stromboli and the occasional eruption lighting up the night sky. Dine beneath a cloud of stars and enjoy the most delicious and delightfully simple dinner. During the day it is possible to hire a small motorboat and explore the islands with their hidden coves and ancient legends. The water is beautifully warm and crystal clear so well worth renting a mask and snorkel too. With no cars allowed, a perfect alternative is to wander across the island following the small paths and mule tracks to visit the prehistoric ruins at Punta Milazese before returning for an al fresco lunch in the tiny port. After dinner, during the summer months, the roof terrace turns into a hip nightclub making the Raya the place to see and be seen.

Leaving the Aeolian Islands is tough, especially when one’s natural instinct is to go and explore them all. But the blow is softened on arrival in Palermo, a much over-looked city with some seriously stunning architecture. Unlike so many European cities, no attempt seems to have been made to ‘sanitise’ the city and thus the feeling is one of pure authenticity. Perfectly positioned in a bay overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, Palermo was founded in 734 BC by the Phoenicians before falling to the Carthaginians and then the Greeks. Following the Punic Wars it was absorbed into the Roman and then Byzantine empires for over a thousand years. In 827 it came under Arab rule before becoming capital of the new Norman ‘Kingdom of Sicily’ in 1071. This rule lasted until 1816 when it was united with the Kingdom of Naples and thereafter with Italy itself in the latter half of the 19th century. The beauty of all this change of course, is the magnificent eclecticism of the architecture throughout the city. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the façade of Palermo’s Cathedral or in the sumptuous Arab-Norman interiors of the Cappella Palatina (situated within the Palazzo Normanno) or indeed in the city’s Baroque crossroads, the Quattro Canti. Everywhere the city houses a plethora of utterly magnificent churches and palazzi as well as the old Arabic quarter of La Kalsa. Vibrant street markets have evolved from the Arab souks of 9th century and side street restaurants can be found in abundance. You can’t get bored but if for some reason you run out of steam, it is easy to while away the afternoon enjoying the café culture of the Piazza Verdi and Piazza Castelnuovo. In so many ways, Palermo is an undiscovered jewel.

Luxury holidays in SIcily - Verdura ResortSightseeing is hard work and for some well-earned R&R, head south to Sciacca to Rocco Forte’s extraordinary Verdura Golf & Spa resort. As you descend the hill into the resort, you slightly question what it is that you are coming to. Verdura spreads eagle-like over a vast area and architecturally, it is probably best described as controversial – the blocks of rooms almost looking institutional. However, get over it because once you are inside, it is fabulously well run and beautifully choreographed. The Landscape Villas house the Classic & Grand Suites, the design of which is quite simply, superb. Every aspect has been thought through in the greatest possible detail, both from a functional and ergonomic perspective. For families or those keen on sports, Verdura is right up there. Two championship Kyle Phillips designed links golf courses, beach activities galore and the excellent Verdura Tennis Academy. For those in need of rejuvenation or stress management, the Vita Life programme at the spa is the real McCoy. Bike riding, jogging routes, volleyball and football are also on offer – there is even a weekly staff versus guest football match. The dining is also superb with the menus based mainly on Mediterranean and Sicilian cuisine and a wine list that never ceases to impress and amaze. The resort is also an excellent base from which to discover some of Sicily’s finest architectural pleasures including Agrigento, the Greek city originally founded as Akragas in 580 BC which became one of the richest and most successful colonies of Magna Graecia.

In summary, Sicily should be a requirement on every intelligent person’s bucket list – there are few places on earth with as much history, culture, and geological diversity. Some excellent hotels and the kind of cuisine that it is impossible to tire of merely enhance the proposition as do the really excellent local wines. It does have to be said that some of the scenery as you circumnavigate the island has been thoughtlessly ruined with an abundance of windmills and pylons on too many skylines. But that is simply a detail as one travels from A to B. What cannot be denied is the undeniable substance of the experience and in reality, it probably needs multiple return trips before one can even begin to comprehend this wild, complex and utterly fascinating island.

To learn more about our luxury holidays to Sicily, contact Red Savannah on +44 (0)1242 787 800.