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For a long time, Sicily hasn't been on the Departures radar. Not because it isn't one of the most ravishing spots on earth—a mix of rugged coastline, volcanoes, and sunbaked hills dotted with Greek ruins—but for more practical reasons: A luxurious night's sleep was sometimes hard to come by, especially if you liked it very luxurious. Well, we've changed, and to be honest, so has Sicily.
Prince Antonio Licata di Baucina, a Palermo native, along with a handful of nobles in Sicily's inner circle, are champions of a new Sicily. It's not a boiling cauldron of corrupt cosa nostra clichés, Licata di Baucina wants to assure us, but rather "a land of infinite contrast and color, with a refined artistic language, and naturally welcoming people." Licata di Baucina and his London-based cousin, Riccardo Lanza, have recently formed a company to create individual, insider tours of the island, providing access to sites generally closed to the public, such as Palermo's spectacular 17th-century Santa Caterina church. Private palazzo owners, many at Licata di Baucina and Lanza's suggestion, have also begun to rent out their palaces, complete with staff. And following suit (albeit slowly), restaurants are opening around the island—even if, in the words of the Princess Signoretta Alliata di Pietratagliata, a palazzo owner, "the Sicilian way is to dine at home, surrounded by the beauty that fostered such tastes through the centuries."
The Four Best Sicilian Palazzi
The approach to Palazzo Alliata di Pietratagliata, in the center of Palermo, Sicily's largest city, is inauspicious: T-shirt stalls surround the 16th-century palace and its 14th-century tower. Inside, however, the rooms of the piano nobile—a bedroom, ballroom, and three salons—are opulent and vast, with walls covered in green-and-gold silk brocade. There are frescoes by Sicilian artists Olivio Sozzi and Vito D'Anna, 22-karat gilt ceilings, an 18th-century Majolica floor, and a Murano chandelier from the 1700s, which some claim is the largest in Europe. Princess Alliata, whose family has owned the house since the 18th century, still lives here, which keeps it from feeling like a museum—even though, given the pedigree, it could be. Rates, $3,000 per day for the whole floor with a two-day minimum, breakfast included. There is no cook on-site, but meals can be arranged. At 14 Via Bandiera; 39-091-325-323.
Villa Tasca, the 18th-century mansion owned by the Counts Tasca d'Almerita, occupies 25 acres just outside Palermo, as well as a place in musical history: Wagner finished composing Parsifal here. The villa also has nearly all of its original antiques and frescoes and an idyllic pond on its grounds, movie-perfect swans included. (Though an unattractive housing development recently cropped up nearby, once on the grounds, it's blocked from your view.) Our favorite thing about staying here: The family also owns the renowned Regaleali vineyard, so guests have access to exceptional wines. Rates, $22,925 per week for four bedrooms, cook included. Located 15 minutes along the Corso Calatafini toward Monreale. Rent through Ileana von Hirsch; fax, 44-20-8423-4956.
The Neo-gothic Castello di Xirumi near Militello, in southeast Sicily, dates back to 1297, but has had several facelifts, including a 1908 overhaul by the architect who built the 19th-century Teatro Bellini in Catania. Its pink color makes it look like something from a fairy tale (the result of cement mixed with the red sand of Mount Etna, which dominates the landscape and is visible from the front bedroom windows). The interior is handsomely decorated by owner Baroness Ada Grimaldi using family antiques, rustic fabrics, and tiles from the nearby ceramics mecca Caltagirone. The baroness is known for her parties, so expect to find candles lighting the way up the driveway or dinners in a different location every night, such as the old stone olive mill where guests sit on Moroccan-style pillows. On the castle grounds is also an 18th-century church that the baroness rents for weddings. The only thing missing is a swimming pool, but one is, at press date, scheduled to be in place amid the 500 acres of gardens and orange groves by summer. Rates, $3,250 per day for the front wing, which includes four bedrooms, a sitting room, and a dining room; breakfast and either lunch or dinner included; $335 for a back room (these are not rented when the front wing is occupied), including breakfast. Militello is 30 minutes from Caltagirone and 45 minutes from Siracusa on road SS417. Available through Lanza & Baucina, 44-20-7738-2222; www.lanzabaucina.com.
Castelluccio is an 18th-century castle also in southeast Sicily. It belongs to the family who founded the nearby village of Castelluccio. The interior has been brought up-to-date with blue-and-gray walls and cream-colored sofas mixed with gilded tables and antique ceramic urns. The grounds are sumptuous, with orange groves, jacarandas, palms, a swimming pool, and a red-sand tennis court. Situated on a hill, the castle offers staggering views. Prices are available upon request and vary according to the time of year, number of guests, and services required. Castelluccio is northwest of Noto, 20 minutes off road SP55. Available through Lanza & Baucina, 44-20-7738-2222; www.lanzabaucina.com.
Palazzo Beneventano del Bosco occupies the best spot in Siracusa, opposite the Cathedral and Town Hall on Piazza Duomo. As of this spring, it will also have a suite carved out of three vaulted reception rooms and furnished with the current Baron Beneventano del Bosco's Baroque antiques. The furniture wasn't in place when we visited, but the rooms and the terrace overlooking the square were majestic on their own. Rates, $1,300 per day, breakfast included. Other meals can be arranged. Available through Lanza & Baucina, 44-20-7738-2222; www.lanzabaucina.com.
Taormina's Top Hotel
The Sicilian hotel scene is, in a word, grim—except for the Grand Hotel Timeo & Villa Flora in Taormina. (Ignore The San Domenico Palace in town; even after renovations it feels tired and soulless.) The 55-room Timeo, an 1873 villa, has an extraordinary location just next to the Greco-Roman amphitheater with commanding views over the Bay of Naxos. Each room is decorated with Baroque furniture, contemporary ceramics, gilded mirrors, and fresh flowers and has a terrace overlooking the bay and Mount Etna. Room to Get: The Kaiser Suite has a large terrace and a particularly handsome selection of furniture. However, steer clear of the 31-room Villa Flora, the Timeo's separate guesthouse: Many of the views are blocked by another building, and the furniture is chain-hotel generic. Rooms, $280-$1,000. At 59 Via Teatro Greco; 39-0942-23-801; www.framonhotels.com.
Dining in Taormina and Palermo
In a medieval tower near the main square in Taormina, Casa Grugno, a relative newcomer (it opened in late 2001 to great reviews) is trying something different: local ingredients mixed with global influences. Austrian chef Andreas Zangerl's more ambitious concoctions can be gimmicky (the crunchy red shrimp wrapped in dry vermicelli was not good). It's best to come on a warm night, sit outdoors on the stone terrace (the locals love this), and order spaghetti with tomatoes and lobster. Dinner, $55. On Via Santa Maria de Greci; 39-0942-21-208, www.casagrugno.it.
The nearby Ristorante La Botte isn't trying to make any news—the menu hasn't changed much since Al Pacino was here filming The Godfather (his picture still hangs on the wall). But it's the quintessential lively trattoria with consistently good grilled fish, pasta with seafood, and excellent pizza served late into the night. Dinner, $50. At 3-4 Piazza San Domenico; 39-0942-24-198.
Kursaal Kalhesa, which opened last year in a palace near Piazza Marina in Palermo, is where Sicily meets SoHo. An attractive crowd congregates at the ground-floor bar flanked by halogen-lit stone walls and a bookstore-cum-lounge. Upstairs, Rasak Abderrazak's Sicilian-Tunisian fare is served in a cavernous room decorated with blue-and-white tiles (there's also a terrace open in warm weather). Dishes include artichoke pasta with a radicchio cream sauce and perfect lemon swordfish with shrimp. Dinner, $45. At 21 Foro Umberto I, 39-091-616-2282; www.kursaalkalhesa.it.
Don't miss Casa del Brodo within Palermo's Vucciria food market (itself worth a visit for olive bread and oysters shucked to order). Locals pack this simple restaurant, open only for lunch, to sample the rich antipasto buffet and fresh fish, including pasta with sardines and fried calamari. Lunch, $30. At 7 Via Pannieri; 39-091-329-523.
What to Bring Home
Andrea De Cesare started producing her jams, chutneys, and flavored oils at home but has now opened I Peccatucci di Mamma Andrea in Palermo. She uses fresh ingredients produced in Sicily for her luscious lemon honey, zucchini and tomato conserves, and chestnut-peach preserves (all $5 each). At 67 Via Principe di Scordia; 39-091-334-835.
Ceramiche Alessi in Caltagirone makes one-of-a-kind ceramics in a town known for its clay since the Middle Ages. There are shops selling bowls and vases on nearly every street, but Giacomo Alessi may be the only one who still creates every piece by hand. The majority of his designs use centuries-old patterns and have a depth and texture that modern pieces do not. Prices range from $15 for a small pitcher to $2,000 for a large carved urn. At 12 Via Duomo; 39-093-353-566.
Restaurant prices reflect a three-course dinner for two, excluding beverages and gratuity. Hotel prices show high-season rates from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.