Sicily has long been a world apart. A crossroads of Phoenician and Greek cultures, Arab and Norman, Spanish and Teutonic, it stands proudly separate from the rest of Italy, which locals refer to as il continente—the continent. This resistance to central government lies behind perhaps the island’s most notorious export, the Mafia. But it’s also one of the reasons why Sicily is so refreshingly different.
To capture Sicily’s unique spirit, one needs to go beyond the package destinations. Taormina, for example, is stunningly beautiful. But the town is a victim of its own success, overrun by tour groups, souvenir shops and rip-off restaurants. The real Sicily is elsewhere: in the handsome southern towns of Ragusa and Modica, in a string of deserted beaches near Menfi and in the grand and delicate palazzos of the aristocracy. We’ve chosen four of Sicily’s up-and-coming regions and assigned an appropriate travel category to each. They’re not mutually exclusive (there’s plenty of culture in the gourmet area, for example), but they do give some idea of the riches this island has to offer.
The central part of Sicily’s eastern shore is a perfect family destination. To the north, Etna provides volcanic thrills and a wine terroir that has been dubbed the “Burgundy of the Mediterranean.” To the south, Syracuse has dazzling ancient Greek ruins and, in the seagirt old town of Ortygia, a chic urban destination that’s home to creative types. Of course, the area also has one of Sicily’s eternal draws: dreamy Taormina. If one is in Sicily for the first time, this medieval hill town is too beautiful to miss. And in the Grand Hotel Timeo ( rooms, from $595; Via Teatro Greco 59; 39-0942/627-0200; grandhoteltimeo.com), ably managed by the personable Luca Finardi, and its seaside sister, Villa Sant’Andrea (rooms, from $580; Via Nazionale 137; 39-0942/627-1200; hotelvillasantandrea.com), it has two outstanding properties that keep much of the old Taormina magic intact.
Etna is worth doing properly. It’s easy to ride the cable car up to the 9,840-foot mark and take some high-altitude snaps, but without the services of a volcanologist guide like Andrea Ercolani (39-348/853-0310), lava fields, craters and fumaroles remain a mystery. For jeep excursions, contact Etna Experience (etnaexperience.com); with Sicily Off-Road (sicilyoffroad.com), one can drive over the lava flows. Kids will enjoy the Etnavventura adventure park (SP 92 km. 14, Etna Sud; 39-333/151-5904) on the southern slopes of the mountains, where tree climbing and suspended ropewalks are among the attractions.
Villa rental agency Think Sicily (thinksicily.com) has the pick of the area’s properties. Our favorites: the airily elegant Crossing the Rock (from $8,220 a week for six people), a nine-berth Belle Epoque villa built into the cliffs overlooking the charming fishing port of Santa Maria La Scala; and, for aristocratic seclusion amid citrus groves, the Don Arcangelo all’Olmo (from $16,320 a week for up to 12 people), which, with its 12 bedrooms, is perfect for a family celebration. Eat at one of the area’s most atmospheric trattorias, La Grotta (Via Scalo Grande 46; 39-095/764-8153), in pretty Santa Maria La Scala.
In the relatively undiscovered town of Lentini, Villa Tarocco (from $15,875 a week with full staff for up to 16 people) is a perfect base: Book via Emily FitzRoy at Bellini Travel ($ bellinitravel.com). This graceful property stands at the center of an orange-growing estate.
In Syracuse, a visit to the well-preserved Greek Theatre is a must; so is a foray into the ancient quarried cave known as the Ear of Dionysius, with its bizarre whispering-gallery acoustics. Syracuse’s centro storico, Ortygia, juts into the sea on a walled promontory. Smart urban restaurants and bars with hip menus are sprouting like fungi here, but so far none beat the friendly vibe and country cuisine of Osteria da Mariano (Vicolo Zuccolà 9; 39-0931/67444). Marjorie Shaw, who organizes bespoke tours through her company, Insider’s Italy (insidersitaly.com), also recommends Ortygia’s traditional marionette theater, Teatro dei Pupi (Via della Giudecca 17–19; 39-0931/465-540).
Sicily’s southern tip boasts magnificent Baroque architecture, reconstructed after a 1693 earthquake. And its ravishing sandstone towns like Ragusa, Modica, Scicli and Noto are on the cutting edge of the island’s new gourmet wave.
Chef Ciccio Sultano at Ragusa’s Duomo (Via Capitano Bocchieri 31; 39-0932/651-265) was the pioneer of the southern scene. These days his restaurant’s chilly ambiance seems designed to remind us that we are here to pay homage, not to relax. More impressive is La Madia in Licata (Corso F. Re Capriata 22; 39-0922/771-443; ristorantelamadia.it), a rather ugly modern town on the road from Ragusa to Agrigento. There’s nothing ugly, however, about chef Pino Cuttaia’s delicate cuisine, which is inspired by childhood memories and the colors, tastes and aromas of his native island. A snow-white chunk of merluzzo (cod) is smoked over a fire of pinecones, while his variation on the classic cannolo seems to concentrate all of Sicily’s pasticceria expertise in a single dish.
Other fine culinary experiences in the area include the high-end La Gazza Ladra (Via Blandini 5; 39-0932/755-655; ristorantelagazzaladra.it) in Modica and its trattoria offshoot, La Locanda del Colonnello (Vico Biscari 6; 39-0932/752-423). A short way to the northwest, in the pottery town of Caltagirone, there’s Coria (Via Infermeria 24; 39-0933/334-615), an imaginative, competitively priced restaurant. On the coastal strip south of Modica and Ragusa, Monoresort Beach Club (Piazzatta Santa Chiara, snc Contrada Maganuco, Marina di Modici; 39-0932/453-308; monoresort.com) is the place to go for fresh seafood in seaside-chic surroundings.
Draped across two steep-sided valleys, Modica is famous for its chocolate, made according to an Aztec recipe brought across by Spaniards in the 16th century; top artisanal producer Antica Dolceria Bonajuto (Corso Umberto I 159; bonajuto.it) is worth a visit. Another must-do is the loveSicily cooking school (from $2,165 for weekly residential courses; Via Ritiro 7; 39-0932/950-222; lovesicily.com): Katia Amore leads the classes, with three bright bed-and-breakfast rooms upstairs.
Our pick of the villas is Palazzo Hedoné (from $12,890 a week for up to 12 people; thinksicily.com), a restored mansion in Scicli that features a heated pool in a partly covered courtyard and unrivaled service. Not far from Noto, two exclusive villas can be booked through Lanza & Baucina ($ lanzabaucina.com): One is the ten-bedroom castle (from $64,720 a week for up to 18 people) of an Italian fashion designer, the other a stylishly appointed mansion (from $11,645 a week for up to six people) on a wine estate.
A crossroads of Mediterranean culture for several millennia, Palermo, the island’s capital, sums up the agony and the ecstasy of the new Sicily: Glorious, ancient palazzos and Norman churches butt up against crumbling tenements on garbage-strewn streets. Enclaves of aristocratic splendor still embody the spirit of Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel about the twilight years of the feudal system. One is Villa Tasca (from $20,040 a week for up to eight people; thinksicily.com), where Wagner finished writing Parsifal in 1881. Back then it was surrounded by fields and woodland; today it has been engulfed by suburbs. Its 25-acre private park acts as a welcome buffer. In the winemaking Tasca d’Almerita family for generations, the flamboyantly frescoed 18th-century mansion sleeps eight guests, with four more double bedrooms in an annex in the park. For another equally evocative experience, book a visit to Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi. A dazzling example of the opulence of 18th-century Sicilian aristocracy, it became famous as the location for Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film adaptation of Il Gattopardo. The palazzo is still a private home, but group visits can be arranged by Charles FitzRoy at Fine Art Travel (finearttravel.co.uk).
One lesser-known gem that should not be missed is San Cataldo (Piazza Bellini; 39-099/470-7545), an unadorned 12th-century chapel belonging to the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. Sicily expert Joyce Falcone (italianconcierge.com) recommends the 16th-century church of Chiesa dello Spasimo (39-091/616-6480): “Bombed during World War II and lacking a roof, it’s now an atmospheric venue for alfresco jazz concerts.”
For an out-of-town excursion, there’s Cefalù, just an hour’s drive east along the coast. This Arab-era fishing port was gentrified by Norman king Roger II, who founded one of Sicily’s most magnificent cathedrals there. Completed in the mid-12th century, the Duomo di Cefalù has, in the solemn Christ Pantocrator apse mosaic, one of the most striking religious images in Western art. Another masterpiece is on view at the Museo Mandralisca (Via Mandralisca 13; 39-092/142-1547): Antonello da Messina’s Portrait of an Unknown Man is an exquisite oil painting that has fascinated art historians ever since collector Baron Mandralisca bought it in 1852 on the island of Lipari, where it had been used as a cabinet door in a pharmacy.
The tour guide to know in Palermo and Cefalù is Marcella Amato (realsicily com); as for a driver, it’s hard to beat Silvano Lunetta (39-320/819-4405).
I had the most revelatory dining experience of my recent trip to Sicily at Il Melangolo ($ Via Lo Bue 5, Porticello; 39-349/636-4769) in Porticello, a half-hour drive east of Palermo. It’s the home of Marta Messeri, who cooks for parties of four or more who book ahead. Her spaghetti with sardines, toasted almonds, breadcrumbs and fennel is superb.
Back in Palermo, one can take a glass-by-glass tour of the burgeoning Sicilian wine scene at Picone (Via Marconi 36; 39-091/331-300), the best enoteca on the island. With a high-end boutique hotel still lacking in the area, the default centro storico option is the cute designer bed-and-breakfast BB22 (rooms, from $100; Largo Cavalieri di Malta 22; 39-091/611-1610; bb22.it).
Beach & Country
Until recently, only three sites in the western tip of the Sicilian triangle were on foreign visitors’ radar: the Greek temples Segesta and Selinunte and the medieval town of Erice. Over the last few years, however, the scene has evolved. Pretty Scopello, an hour’s drive west of Palermo, has become a word-of-mouth destination, though it’s still lacking in good places to stay and eat. The most promising, Tonnara di Scopello (tonnaradiscopello.com), a restored tuna fishery, is recommended for an out-of-season swim on the adjacent beach rather than for its spartan accommodations. North of here, the Riserva Naturale Orientata dello Zingaro nature reserve (riservazingaro.it) is a walker’s paradise. Marettimo, the remote westernmost of the Egadi Islands off Sicily, is worth discovering for its crystal-clear sea, walking trails and the gourmet seafood trattoria Il Pirata ($ Via Scalo Vecchio 27; 39-0923/923-027). Old Marettimo hands ignore the island’s one basic miniresort, Marettimo Residence (rooms, from $440; Via Telegrafo 3; 39-0923/923-202), and do what visitors have always done: turn up on the quay and take a room in a local house.
Much closer to the Sicilian coastline, Motya island rises in the middle of the Stagnone lagoon. A fishing-boat ferry takes visitors across to the island, the site of a Phoenician settlement excavated by British Marsala exporter and amateur archaeologist Joseph Whitaker (39-091/682-0522). Wildflower-edged footpaths lead to a small archaeological museum with one standout exhibit: an exquisite fifth-century b.c. Greek statue of a young man, unearthed here in 1979.
It’s the coastal area around Menfi, on the southern shore of Sicily’s western bulge, however, that’s generating the most buzz. The reason is simple: Besides its lively wine scene, plus sightseeing draws like the historic town of Sciacca, the temple of Selinunte and the atmospheric Greek-era quarry of Cave di Cusa, it also has some of the best beaches on the Sicilian mainland.
The big hotel player in the area is Rocco Forte’s Verdura Golf & Spa Resort (rooms, from $420; S.S. 115 km. 131, Sciacca; 39-0925/998-001; verduraresort.com), which golfers and families looking for style and comfort should consider. But the region’s standout accommodations are Acquamarina and Profondo Blu, two romantic villas on a private coastal nature reserve between Selinunte and Menfi (villas, from $3,250; thinksicily.com). These seaside charmers are elegantly appointed, but it’s what’s outside that counts: Each has a decked seating area that seems to float over the aromatic Sicilian maquis, plus a path down to a sandy beach that, at times, seems more Maldives than Mediterranean. The other accommodation in the area worth considering is La Foresteria (rooms, from $195; Contrada Passo di Gurra ex. S.S. 115 S.P. 79 km. 91, Menfi; 39-0925/195-5460; planetaestate.it), a cool, rural small hotel recently inaugurated by dynamic Sicilian wine producer Planeta. Looking down to the coast across a swath of vines, the 14 rooms, each of which comes with its own terrace and herb garden, deploy traditional Sicilian motifs, colors and materials (iron bedsteads, Caltagirone ceramics) in refreshingly contemporary ways. Another draw is the in-house restaurant, where chef Angelo Pumilia (who also offers cooking classes) turns out perfect renditions of Sicilian classics like caponata, or pasta with eggplant and basil pesto. It’s a fine introduction to an authentic, unspoiled corner of the island.
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