Like their island home, poised like a soccer ball launched off the toe of Italy’s boot, Sicilians are a thing apart. And visitors tend to fall hard for Sicily’s welcoming people. “Sicily is all about Sicilians,” says Paola Vasta, founder of Palermo hospitality consultancy VP Luxury Key (vpluxurykey.com). “They’ll open their doors to you in a way that is extraordinary.” And then they’ll ply you with fabulous food and send you off to explore their beloved island with a list of can’t-miss sights. Your only enemy here will be time. There’s never enough of it in which to see all the ancient temples, crumbling castles, volcanic vistas and vineyards—but you can certainly try.
About the size of Massachusetts and having a population of roughly 5 million, Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and is reached from North America via connections from Rome (and other major European cities) to Palermo or Catania. Italy’s Meridiana Airlines (meridiana.it) offers a nonstop flight to Palermo from New York’s JFK airport that operates from April through October. Renting a car is a smart way to get around, and visitors with limited time should concentrate on the island’s accessible north for a mix of beautiful beaches, villages and cities as well as cultural attractions.
Writers, expats and fashionistas have long been drawn to Taormina, a spectacular coastal town 33 miles north of Catania that sits nearly 700 feet above sea level and has a historic center that’s great for exploring on foot.
Start early with a stroll through the Giardino della Villa Comunale (Via Bagnoli Croce; free), public gardens thick with cypress, olive and almond trees overlooking the Ionian Sea. Then stop by Bam Bar (45 Via di Giovanni; 011-39-0942-24355; no website; breakfast for two, $9*) for an almond granita, a sorbet-like treat topped with whipped cream and served with a side of brioche.
Nearby, the Teatro Greco (Via Teatro Greco; 011-39-0942-23220; adults, $9), cut into a hillside, is thought to date from Hellenistic times (3rd century B.C.) and has jaw-dropping views of Mount Etna and a lineup of alfresco performances from spring into autumn. Shops selling beachwear, vintage maps of Sicily and olive oil line the Corso Umberto, Taormina’s main drag. At Ceramiche Farano (34 Via Teatro Greco; 011-39-0942-23445; ceramichefarano.com), you can find classic hand-painted ceramics.
The town connects to the sea via a two-minute ride on the funivia, or cable car (Via Luigi Pirandello; $3 one way), down to Mazzaró, where you can get to Taormina’s rocky but beautiful beaches. Isola Bella is spectacular, a tiny tear-shaped island reached by a narrow spit from the main beach. For an aperitivo with some of the best views, splurge on an Etna Spritz (a mix of Campari and Sicilian-blood-orange bitters that costs $24) on the terrace of the Belmond Grand Timeo Hotel (59 Via Teatro Greco; 011-39-0942-6270-200; belmond.com). You’ll gaze over Taormina’s pastel facades, Mount Etna and the sea. And for fresh fish and a huge selection of Sicilian wines, reserve a rooftop table at Vicolo Stretto (1 Vicolo Stretto; 011-39-0942-625554; vicolostrettotaormina.it; dinner for two, $100).
Etna From All Angles
Europe’s tallest active volcano (10,990 feet), Mount Etna is a sight to see. On a clear day you can ride the Funivia dell’Etna cable car (Rifugio Sapienza; 011-39-095-914141; funiviaetna.com; $32 a person) up 15 minutes from the base, on Etna’s south slopes, to 8,202 feet for unforgettable views of the craters and coastline. Alternatively, on the north slope consider a guided jeep tour with Sicily Off-Road (011-39-349-7234906; sicilyoffroad.com; $85 a person for an all-day tour including hotel pickup in Taormina) to drive up an old lava flow.
Mount Etna’s rich soil produces some interesting wines. You can savor the fruits of the local nerello Mascalese grapes farther down the volcanic slopes at Murgo (13 Via Zafferana, Santa Venerina; 011-39-095-950520; murgo.it), a fifth-generation family winery where four brothers run a farm stay and restaurant. The restaurant, Tenuta San Michele (lunch for two, $45), serves simple Sicilian specialties, such as caponata and salsiccia al ceppo (sausage spiced with wild fennel).
Feasting on Cefalù
Between Taormina and Palermo sits Cefalù, a former fishing village whose sun-bleached facades rise, Venus-like, from the sea. The Romanesque Chiesa de Cefalù (Piazza del Duomo), the cathedral in the heart of the old town, dates from the early 12th century and houses a fascinating mix of golden Byzantine mosaics and modern stained-glass windows. For impressive views, hike 45 minutes to the top of La Rocca, a rocky crag 885 feet above town, where you’ll pad around the ruins of a castle from the 13th century.
Just east of town you can learn to cook Sicilian specialties with Cinzia Bruneo and Antonio Sireci, who run the cooking school Sicilian Food Lovers (Villa Palamara; 011-39-348-6515061; sicilianfoodlovers.com; three-hour classes including a four-course dinner and wine, $90 a person) at Villa Palamara, a 16th-century Dominican monastery that’s now a guesthouse. You’ll learn to hand-roll tagliatelle and cook with traditional Sicilian ingredients, such as salted capers and sardines, to create sarde e beccafico (sardines stuffed with citrus-flavored bread crumbs) and other dishes. Then enjoy the fruits of your labor on a sun-splashed terrace surrounded by olive and lemon groves.
Palermo for Insiders
Plan to spend at least a day rambling in Sicily’s largest city, Palermo, which is rich in Norman cathedrals, Baroque masterpieces and buzzing markets. “Palermo is the aristocracy, it’s the grandebellezza, it’s culture,” says Alexandra Buzzi, of Absolute Sicilia (103 Via Libertá; 011-39-913-823783; absolutesicilia.com), a private-tour operator that gives guests out-of-the-box experiences in this city and elsewhere in Sicily.
La Vucciria has been Palermo’s market for more than 700 years. But now Mercato del Capo (Via Porta Carini) and Ballarò market (Piazza Ballarò) are the liveliest ones. Vendors shout out their wares—everything from artichokes, anchovies and the island’s round eggplants to fresh octopus sliced and diced right before your eyes and splashed with lemon, salt and parsley.
Absolute Sicilia can arrange tickets in the royal box (where parts of The Godfather III were filmed) at the Teatro Massimo (Piazza Verdi; 011-39-091-6053521; teatromassimo.it), Italy’s largest opera house and the source of much Sicilian pride. The company can also point you to Palermo secrets, such as tailor Filippo Cali (11 Via Giuseppe de Spuches; 011-39-091-9821241; by appointment only), a favorite with Sicilian ladies for his beautiful silk dresses (from $315).
Learn about heirloom products and the island’s slow-food movement over dinner in the home of Palermo chef Bonetta dell’Oglio (9 Via Segesta; 011-39-347-2869430; bonettadelloglio.com; $55 a person for a four-course meal), whose seasonal menu may include honey (from Sicily’s famed black bees) drizzled over goat cheese and locally caught amberjack with pine-nut sauce.
A favorite spot for lunch is Sapurito Cucina Povera e Pizza (Via Principe di Villafranca; 011-39-091-322037; lunch for two, $35), where the cucina povera (peasant cuisine) includes panelle (chickpea fritters) and sfincione, pizza topped with anchovies and bread crumbs.
Six miles west of Palermo is Monreale, a hilltop village where golden mosaics cover the walls of Cattedrale di Monreale (Piazza Guglielmo II), a magnificent Norman church. Just an hour west of here, along the road to Trapani, you’ll find the A.D. 5th century Tempio di Segesta (Contrada Barbaro; adults, $10), built by the ancient Greeks and considered among the best-preserved Doric temples in the world.
In the heart of olive country near Trapani, sleep inside a 1,000-year-old tower at Agriturismo Sanacore (7 Strada Quartana, Guarrato; 011-39-092-3864279; sanacore.it; $82 a person a night, including breakfast and dinner). During the harvest (early October to mid-November), lend a hand with the picking or watch olives being pressed.
At the port in Trapani, catch a hydrofoil for the 25-minute ride to Favignana, a butterfly-shaped island in the Egadi archipelago (Europe’s largest marine reserve). The island is home to 4,000 people and once was the center of Sicily’s tuna industry. Commercial fishing here has stopped, but Favignana now attracts travelers for its turquoise waters and bike-friendly terrain.
“You feel the island more on a bicycle,” says Francesco Fiore, who runs I Pretti, a boutique hotel inside a former sardine factory. Rent your wheels from Noleggio Grimaldi (33 Piazza Europa; 011-39-092-3030149; noleggiogrimaldi.it; from $5 a day). Then pedal to La Pinnata (41 Via Garibaldi; 011-39-320-2350897; lunch for two, $9) for a pane cunzato, a pressed-bread sandwich filled with anchovies, sun-dried tomatoes, pepperoncini-infused olive oil and capers. It’s as comforting and colorful as Sicily itself.
RCI affiliated resorts in Sicily include:
Apartments with balconies perched above the Calabrian coast; the resort offers trips to Mount Etna and the amphitheaters of Siracusa. Contrada Sillemi Alta, Letojanni, Taormina, Messina
Member Reviews: “The apartment was well appointed, clean and tidy.”
“The views are stunning, and the pool is excellent.”
“Stunning views, friendly staff, quiet location, lovely breakfasts, happy hour.”
It’s not too early to start planning your 2016 vacation! Start early for destinations that are in high demand by RCI subscribing members, like Sicily. RCI Weeks® reservations can be made as much as 2 years before check-in and are available to RCI Weeks, RCI Points® and Club members.***
For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.
Non-RCI affiliated resorts:
San Domenico Palace Hotel Taormina
Many of the 108 rooms at this grande dame hotel in the town center have terraces and balconies with sea views. 5 Piazza San Domenico, Taormina; 011-39-0942-613111; san-domenico-palace.com; doubles from $305 a night, including breakfast
Plaza Operá Hotel
Centrally located in the Liberty neighborhood and within walking distance of restaurants and the Teatro Massimo. 2 Via Nicolò Gallo, Palermo; 011-39-091-3819026; hotelplazaopera.com; doubles from $105 a night, including breakfast
I Pretti Resort
The 16 suites surround a courtyard at this boutique hotel inside a former sardine factory and a short walk from Favignana’s ferry. 1 Largo San Leonardo, Favignana; 011-39-0923-921576; iprettiresort.it; doubles from $170 a night, including breakfast
- *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
- ***These vacations are limited and subject to availability.
- NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
- Published: Fall 2015