Jennifer Ford from our Portfolio Suite in Howard Street, Belfast visits Sicily, famously dubbed ‘the land of lemons’, as guest of Kirker Holidays.
The gloriously scented lemon groves which colour the beautiful Sicilian landscape add zest to its culture, cuisine and economy. This is a truly beautiful, largely rustic, island destination, dotted with remote and exceptionally pretty villages, set against the amazing backdrop of snow capped Mount Etna.
Visitors are very much welcomed with a charming, relaxed spirit of hospitality. If you enjoy wining and dining … chatting with locals … stunning scenery and wonderful weather … exploring history and heritage … and absorbing another culture, Sicily is made for you.
Hotels reflect a preference for authentic style and traditional cuisine and many are either family-owned or are owned and managed by heritage hotel specialists.
My introduction to Sicily was enhanced by a wonderful guide whose mother actually wrote the definitive ‘Blue Guide To Sicily’. Having a private guide gave tremendous insight in to every aspect of Sicily and it’s something I would heartily recommend to travellers, partly because guides are plentiful on the island and their services well placed, but not least because driving here is so fraught. Cars are more abandoned than parked!
Amongst the fascinating facts imparted by guide Diana (whose twin brother is also a guide in the family tourism business) is that few Sicilians have freezers; they prefer to buy fresh produce daily. The local electricity supply can also be a tad unreliable and using a couple of major household appliances at one time can trip the system! I also learned that many Sicilians eat gelato con brioche for breakfast and think it quite strange that anybody should want eggs . All I can say is "when in Rome".....
I had the opportunity during my short stay to check out four very different hotels in key Sicilian resorts and would recommend all without question.
The Hotel Frederico II (refer to it as ‘Frederico Secundo’ if you wish to impress!) is a four star boutique-style hotel in the heart of the Sicilian capital of Palermo, perfectly positioned to dander out to enjoy the nearby café society and shopping and just a 6-minute walk from the Teatro Massimo auditorium and 2.1 km from 9th-century Palazzo dei Normanni – two of the city’s key visitor attractions. Elegant, under-stated rooms feature marble bathrooms and come with free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs and minibars. Suites add second bathrooms and living areas; some have terraces. Room service is available.
In the town of Sciacca, I stayed at the five star Verdura Resort. Occupying almost two kilometres of private Mediterranean coastline, the resort is home to three excellent golf courses, a 60 metres infinity pool, six clay tennis courts, a world-class spa, four restaurants and five stylish bars plus excellent children’s facilities … an irresistible combination!
The whole resort has been tastefully designed and accommodation is cleverly and subtly women into the natural landscape. All rooms are luxurious and have a terrace with a view towards the sea. This would be a fantastic place to base yourself in the height of the season when Sicily can become tremendously hot and sight-seeing is arguably best left to late afternoon and early evening! Perfect place to chill out and relax or be energetic if I choose.
Really worth a visit is the town of Syracuse, a thriving port city which blends spectacular ancient history with a breath-taking setting overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It is one of Italy's oldest cities and offers visitors hundreds of atmospheric lanes and beautiful seafront promenades. The island of peninsula of Ortygia, separated from the rest of Syracuse by a pint sized canal and linked by a bridge, is a major attraction within this pretty and architecturally important town. As one of Sicily's major tourist destinations it has modern shops brushing shoulders with classic trattoria and thriving craft shops. I loved Syracuse.
Next to the great resort of Taormina, lovely in itself but also a fabulous base for exploring lovely hilltop villages such as the nearby Castelmola or for taking the fascinating, must-do, visit to Mount Etna. The snow-capped mountain which is such a striking backdrop to much Sicilian scenery is Europe's tallest active volcano and erupts frequently. Look carefully and you will see, even from a distance, little plumes of smoke rising from vent holes.
Taormina is a bustling hubbub of a town, just perfect for strolling and taking in the general ambience. Fantastic eateries – but, then, everywhere seems to be great for eating out in Sicily! Fine dining reveals wonderful menus (look out for the local version of Caprese Salad with wonderful Buffalo Mozzarella) but casual dining is superb too, whether you stop for a coffee and canoli (those Sicilian speciality, cream-filled pastry rolls which feature so often in The Sopranos on TV) or sampling a super-cooling crystalline Granita, another local speciality: this time a semi-frozen concoction of sugar and water flavoured with fruit – usually lemon.
Not altogether surprisingly lemon features in another much loved local delicacy, the liqueur Limoncello while, on the road to Mount Etna, I even had the opportunity to enjoy local honey from bees who collected their pollen from lemon blossom.
In Taormina I stayed at the lovely town-centre five star Grand Hotel Timeo and also visited its sister hotel to Villa Sant' Andrea, also a Belmond owned property. Guests can use the facilities of either hotel and they are a near-perfect combination; Villa Sant' Andrea has an excellent location on the shore overlooking Mazarro Bay with its private beach area and beach club – easy-going ambience, with superb service and generally a gorgeous spot to enjoy a coffee, drink or meal al fresco. A shuttle bus operates between the two hotels or you can take the cable car with runs from the beach level to Taormina town.
I adored the Grand Hotel Timeo which is quite simply one of the nicest hotels that I have ever had the privilege of staying in – beautifully and tastefully furnished with some lovely finishing touches. To sit and have breakfast on the fabulous terrace with spectacular views over the bay of Naxos with snow-capped Mount Etna as a backdrop was truly amazing. (Earlier this year, for the first time in many, many years Taormina town had snow which was greeted as a wonderful novelty by the locals!). The hotel is also next to the Greek amphitheatre and within walking distance of shops and restaurants … ‘convenient’ doesn’t adequately describe it!
Sicily is a truly wonderful destination, well served by Ryan Air flights from Dublin to Palermo and Aer Lingus into Catania. Choose any destination or mix and match – and you are sure to fall in love with this charming, lemon-filled isle!