Sicily’s Palazzo Hedone

Courtesy Palazzo Hedone

Rescued by two Italophile Frenchmen, an 18th-century Italian villa in the town of Scili is restored and reborn as a chic hotel.

Though its beaches are among Italy’s most beautiful, Sicily can be a bit rough around the edges. Palermo and Catania, while not without their merits and spots of transcendent beauty, are sprawling, gritty cities. Many smaller towns tend toward the dreary and uninteresting. But the village of Scicli (pronounced “she-klee”), on the southeast part of the island, could have been plucked from postcard-perfect Umbria, in Italy’s scenic center. Scicli is nestled in the confluence of three ravines, hard against the surrounding mountain walls and the blue expanse of the Mediterranean Sea. Its historical churches, including San Matteo, perched at the very top of a nearby peak, are impressive by day and, when illuminated at night, magical. But not all of Scicli was as well kept as Piazza Italia, its main square, or its churches, some of which are protected by the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation the village earned in 2002. And the Palazzo Hedone, Scicli’s hidden gem, was, until a few years ago, a ruin.

The palazzo was originally built as a villa for a local aristocratic family in 1737. It is reached by a steep set of stairs ascending from a tiny side street along the base of the San Bartolomeo Church. When Axel Garrigue-Guyonnaud and Sylvain Pataut de Escarrega first saw the place in 2007 while on holiday from Milan, says Garrigue-Guyonnaud, “It was a wreck.” The masonry was cracked; the walls were shambles and the roof was in disrepair. “Until recently,” he recounts, “the historical centers were seen as uninteresting. Nobody wanted to be there.” But Garrigue-Guyonnaud, a former marketing manager for Montblanc in Hamburg, Germany, and his partner, Pataut de Escaregga, previously a product manager at Louis Vuitton in Paris, recognized luxury, even if no one else could. The two bought the property in 2008 and began a three-year renovation to turn it into what it is now: an impossibly chic retreat on the Meditteranean.

“Our goal,” Garrigue-Guyonnaud says, “was to make Palazzo Hedone more like a house than a hotel.” And the pair has succeeded. They turned the ruins into 11 guest rooms and four suites with silk-covered walls and antiques from de Escaregga’s 17th-century family château. The two large sitting rooms are filled with books and a smartly chosen mix of vintage and contemporary furniture; the scent of fresh flowers and the ocean breeze permeates. The pair also built a family-style kitchen where a local chef serves imaginative Sicilian specialties like spaghetti alla Palermitana (fresh pasta with anchovies, fennel, pine nuts and breadcrumbs) and freshly caught mullet with a strawberry smoothie accompanied by fried ricotta and kiwi. A grassy terrace looks out over the color blocks of ocean and sky as well as ancient caves—inhabited until the 1950s—that the owners plan to turn into suites à la the caves of Matera. Under the Sicilian sun, guests gather at the tranquil pool in the courtyard or at the private villa de Escaregga and Garrigue-Guyonnaud built on the beach exclusively for Hedone’s patrons.

But more than the amenities, it is de Escaregga and Garrigue-Guyonnaud, the gracious hosts, who make you feel at home. “One of the strong points is sharing with guests our knowledge of the area,” says Garrigue-Guyonnaud. That knowledge extends to everything from organizing a private concert with a soprano accompanied by a harpischordist on a stage over the pool, to a private flight to Malta for a gala dinner at Catania’s most spectacular Palazzo Biscari, to a week of watercolor lessons.

In fact, Garrigue-Guyonnaud and de Escaregga have perhaps succeeded too well in transforming the Palazzo Hedone into a “home.” Since partnering with the London-based company Think Sicily in December 2010, the property is often booked as a private villa, a 24-capacity palazzo for $12,115 a week. But, says Garrigue-Guyonnaud, there is no need to despair if you can’t scrape together 23 of your friends for a weekend jaunt to Sicily. Even if the villa has been rented in toto, a new set of individual suites will open at the end of September. According to Garrigue-Guyonnaud, “If you want to visit, we’ll find a way to accommodate you.” At Palazzo Hedone, as in all good homes, the door is always open.

Rooms start at $185. At Via Loreto 51; 932/841-187;

The Ape Calessino Go Cart

The iconic three-wheeled Ape Calessino, whose engine buzzes like a bee (ape means “bee”), was a post–World War II transportation staple on the Italian Riviera until it went out of production in the ’60s. This model, used at the hotel for ferrying luggage, is one of only 999 special re-edition pieces from 2007.