Uncovering the Secrets of Stunning Sicily

In 2004, my husband and I escorted a small group of 10 travelers on board Windstar’s Wind Surf, a motorized sailing yacht carrying 310 passengers. On our itinerary sailing from Malta to Venice, our first port of call was Taormina, Sicily, and our planned shore excursion was a hike to the top of Mt Etna. My husband decided he did not want to do the hike and faked feeling ill to get out of it. This was in the days of SARS, norovirus, and avian influenza, and the cruise lines were hyper-vigilant about addressing all illness on board their ships. As I was stepping onto the tender to begin the excursion, the crews literally yanked me off the tender and back on board the ship, only to be quarantined for 24 hours in our stateroom with my not-ill husband!

Fifteen years later, this past November, I finally was able to return to Sicily as a guest of the Belmond Grand Timeo in Taormina, and I couldn’t have been more excited for my second chance to hike Mt. Etna and experience all that Sicily has to offer!

Although this time of year is not peak season, I recommend taking the chance to visit Sicily in early November.  The weather was sunny and in the 70s, evenings were cool, there were no crowds, and the towns and cities were beautifully decorated for Christmas!  I was able to see a lot in my three days because we did not have to negotiate tons of people on narrow, cobblestone streets.

I arrived in Catania from Rome and was driven directly to the Belmond Grand Timeo (a bit less than an hour drive) for lunch with the hotel’s General Manager, Stefano Gegnacorsi.

On the terrace of the Timeo Restaurant, we enjoyed seven courses of salads, pastas, and dessert with different wines to accompany each course, prepared by the hotel’s one-star Michelin chef, Roberto Toro.

One-star Michelin chef, Roberto Toro.

My room was a deluxe sea view room (room 102) with a lovely added bonus!  I was on the first floor with views over the pool, gardens, sea and Mt Etna, and I had a lovely terrace complete with table and chairs. The other deluxe sea view rooms on my floor also had terraces.  If you prefer to be on a higher floor, they offer the same room level on higher floors, which have Juliette (French) balconies. For entry-level rooms, they were very generous in size and the bathrooms were marble with tub/shower combinations and bidet.  They were well equipped with several USB ports and complimentary Wi-Fi.

The view of Mt Etna was taken from my terrace.

After a brief break to settle in, we met our guide from Absolute Sicily who gave us an extensive tour of the Greco-Roman amphitheater immediately behind the hotel. Formerly used for gladiator battles, it is now used for concerts, including renowned Italian opera singer, Andrea Boccelli.

Grand Timeo even has an exclusive private entrance to the theater from the two-bedroom Presidential Suite for the stars to access the stage.

Master bedroom in the Presidental Suite at Grand Timeo.

The private Presidental Suite terrace at Grand Timeo.

When there are performances at the theater, guests of the Grand Timeo can dine on the patio and enjoy the concerts. Our tour of the amphitheater was followed by a terrific walking tour of Taormina. One of the highlights of the tour was a beautiful Victorian folly garden constructed in 1884, where many locals take their children to play in the evenings before dinner. This garden also connects to the hotel’s garden and spa area by a private entrance. Once we returned from our tour, we enjoyed a wonderful dinner at Timeo Restaurant, again prepared by Chef Roberto Toro.

Another highlight of my visit was seeing the beautiful-sister property, Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea in Taormina. Unlike the Grand Timeo, which is in town, Sant’Andrea is by the sea. This striking property is full of character, and you can literally step from your terrace onto the sand and into the water that is merely six feet away.

Closed for their customary seasonal renovation and refresh projects, I was grateful to be able to see a few stunning rooms not yet shrouded in plastic! This is a perfect destination for those who like to be at the water’s edge or families with small children, as the rooms and suites can easily accommodate families because of their generous size. In fact, Villa Sant’Andrea used to be a family’s summer holiday home.

Another great aspect of this property is that the cove in the front of the Villa is very calm with no waves, making it an easy and safe place to swim.

On to Mt. Etna! What was easily the most anticipated part of my trip began with a weather prediction of all-day rain, but to our surprise, it turned out to be a perfect chilly, blue sky day with lots of sunshine! Led by our volcanologist guides, we drove up part of the way to the top in 4x4s, stopping at a small ski resort (Etna Nord, which is the southernmost ski resort in Europe!) for coffee in front of a roaring fire. They were preparing to open for their very short season in December and January. Imagine skiing in the morning and going to the beach in the afternoon—and having fabulous Sicilian food for dinner!

After a quick break, we continued up Mt. Etna, climbing through the Parco dell’Etna, a 224-square-mile national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site protecting the cone and area surrounding it. We spent about two hours hiking on the well-maintained trails with our knowledgeable and friendly guides. They came well-equipped with down jackets and hiking poles, which were must-haves for the hike to Mt. Etna and very much appreciated! Although Taormina boasted a comfortable temperature in the low 70s, by the time we arrived at the end of our hiking point on Mt. Etna, the temperature dropped to a cool 40 degrees!

The hike itself was easy (especially for someone from hilly western Pennsylvania)—a three-mile loop with a few hills, a well-maintained volcanic ash path, and amazing vistas. Along the way (both during the drive and hike) our guides took time to point out the vegetation changes as we gained altitude (the top is approximately 10,000 feet), the evidence of different lava flows over thousands of years, the characteristics of the volcano, and even trees that did not burn despite being surrounded by molten lava in the past. In fact, Mt. Etna is one of the world’s most active volcanos, with its last eruption in July 2017. The total hike (more like a guided walk) lasted about two hours, with plenty of time to stop and take pictures and gaze at the amazing vistas over Sicily, Calabria, the Straits of Messina, and the Ionian Sea.

Just as we arrived back at our vehicles to depart Mt. Etna, we heard the first rumbles of thunder and, looking back at the mountain, saw the first flakes of snow of the fall season!

After our morning exercise, we headed around to the northern slopes of Mt. Etna and visited one of the many local boutique wineries, Destro Winery, part of the Etna DOC (denominazione di origine controllata designation) that indicates a defined quality standard within a designated wine region of Italy. Although Sicily has been producing wine for over 2,500 years, some of the vines at this particular winery are infants by comparison at only 150 years old! Interestingly enough, all of the vines within this growing winery are from the original rootstock. The interior of the original winery still has the original oak wine press (the production part was contemporary with lots of stainless steel and new oak barrels). After a tour, we had time for a tasting with snacks chosen to complement each wine.

My last day of touring in Sicily was an excursion to Siracusa, a small port founded by the Greeks 2,700 years ago as a stop midway between Carthage and Rome. Ortigia Island, the oldest part of the city, is approximately 90 minutes from Taormina. Our day trip was planned for Sunday, so we could visit the morning farmer’s market (8 a.m. – 2 p.m.). Our guide acted as our translator for the merchants as we sampled their honey, breads, charcuterie, fruits and vegetables, and very fresh fish.

Many of the vendors pointed out the little metal seal designating their Slow Food heritage products. If you aren’t familiar with the Slow Food movement, its philosophy is “good, clean, and fair food.” It’s the antithesis of fast food, aiming to preserve traditional cooking methods.

After the market tour, we went to a small rooftop kitchen to learn how to make arancini, the stuffed, deep-fried rice balls that are ubiquitous to Sicily! We had our choice of fillings: caponata (a cooked eggplant, tomato, and raisin side dish), sautéed mushrooms, or small cubes of mozzarella. Most of us combined all three. In Sicily, the arancini are baseball-sized and considered street food, so one is enough!

After arancini and lunch (a delicious traditional pasta and an assortment of salads), we took a walking tour of Ortigia Island. Most of the buildings were originally Greek then modified to Roman architecture followed by Byzantine. It is a beautiful city with white stone walls—in some places 18 feet thick—that drop right into the Ionian Sea. One cathedral, Santa Lucia alta Badia has an original painting by Caravaggio—Burial of St. Lucy (the patron saint of Siracusa). Siracusa was originally home to a predominantly Jewish population and is home to the oldest Mikveh Ritual Baths in Europe, which I was fortunate enough to see! These baths were constructed in 600 C.E. and hidden underground; they were used until the Spanish Inquisition forced the Jews out of Italy in 1492. Prior to leaving Sicily, the Jewish community filled in the stairs leading down to the baths with sand so no one would discover them. They remained hidden until they were uncovered in 1989, during the renovation of the home above the baths! We made one more stop before leaving Siracusa—for gelato, of course!

The next morning as I headed to the Catania Airport to head to Rome and back to Pittsburgh, I couldn’t stop thinking how grateful I was for the opportunity to explore Sicily and finally experience some of the beautiful things it has to offer. After waiting 15 years to return, it was all I expected and more.  I can’t wait to go back and see Palermo, Agrigento, and the Godfather sites—just to name a few must-dos for my next return!

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