Explore the world and experience the contours of foreign lands, their styles and structures, every day slipping into the fresh new garment that is a perfect hotel. These oases offer ample amenities and views to allow you to stay in without the slightest hint of guilt, or easy access to venture out and enjoy the particular delights of a place. My girlfriend and I set out for our two-week tour of remarkable boutique hotels to find just what makes each of these properties and their proprietors so exceptional, welcoming and refreshing the traveler with their unparalleled hospitality and attention to detail. We were in search of a nexus of luxury, location, design, art, architecture, and world-class cuisine and we found it all over Southern Italy, from Sicily to the Amalfi Coast by car with 2 ½ weeks and a brilliant weather forecast.
Two hours east of Palermo, the terrain steepens and the twin spires of an ancient Norman Cathedral appear below the massive Rocca di Cefalu, its cliff faces topped with crumbling stone fortifications. Situated in the middle of Sicily’s North coast along the Tyrrhenian Sea, this lively small town is full of visitors during peak summer months, but by now the crowds had dispersed. The Hotel Alberi del Paradiso welcomed us from their vantage point on a hill overlooking the sea, the pool an immediate oasis in the Sicilian sun still scorching well into September. There is a growing movement to protect the environment and conserve energy in Sicily and the Paradiso is a fine example, first visible with the solar array shading the car park and more subtly throughout the property, minimizing our carbon footprint while providing impeccable service.
The view of the golden sunset illuminating the town was enough to entice us from our private balcony to the streets and sea below. The two private beach clubs, one sandy and one rocky, where the chairs and umbrellas and postcard-clear water beg for a cocktail and a good book, but that would have to wait for tomorrow. We decide to wander down to stone paved pedestrian thoroughfares of the town as the sun sets, the shops bright and open long into the night as locals greet each other and warm night envelops the scene. The towering rock face above appears in glimpses, up narrow alleys bursting with color from window boxes and bougainvillea.
Small family-owned restaurants spill down the terraced side streets and we stop for a bottle of local vino bianco- in this case a crisp Grillo, and homemade pasta with fresh clams and mussels. The main square at the Cathedral is lined with more cafés for a digestif; Sicilian Amaro and Grappa put a bright finish on full stomachs. Back at the Paradiso we sit on the balcony and watch the town below. In the morning, the same view beckons from the broad-windowed shower, and our first taste of the delights of a Sicilian breakfast unfold on the dining terrace. Local pastries, charcuterie, cheeses, fresh fruits and immaculate cappuccinos savored as the breeze rustles trellised vines above and a few determined doves clatter around on the tile roofs eyeing the spread.
The Aeolian Islands to the north are a tempting next stop, but we head south through the Madonie Mountains and pass through tiny hilltop villages on our way to Mt. Etna, the 10,000 foot volcano smoldering on the far edge of the island. The roads to Isnello and Castelbuono are narrow and winding almost beyond belief to a driver used to broad American freeways. Even our direct route through the mountains feels at times like an endless traverse of winding roads that get us no closer to our destination, Zafferana Etnea, on the east coast. Soon the terrain shifts to broad cultivated valleys and a modern highway speeds us through to the mountaintop town of Enna. Pausing for lunch nowhere in particular we are surprised by another incredible meal, this time pasta with wild mushrooms and homemade sausage, still just beginning to get a sense of what it means to experience Italian cuisine.
Another hour and Mt Etna looms suddenly much closer, a smoking crater and trail of smoke in the sky guiding us to our next stop, the boutique country hotel Monaci Delle Terre Nere on the gentle slopes of the volcano. Here, the efforts of owner Guido Coffa attain a kind of beauty and serenity that envelop completely. With 17 rooms spread out over a 16 hectare organic farm, the estate is bursting with fruit trees and olive groves, and is almost completely solar powered. Renovated from ancient wine making buildings, each room’s unique style incorporates original structural features and a gallery’s worth of beautiful furniture and art pieces, all pulling you nearer the core of this truly wonderful place.
Nestled in rock terraces alongside broad strips of lawn, the gracefully situated pool and spa overlook small farms and vineyards down to the shimmering sea. The restaurant carries a slow food mantra and ever-changing menu that combines local ingredients, often grown on premises, with emphasis on excellent Etna wines that thrive at elevation in the volcanic soil. Fully refreshed after a tranquil sleep and breakfast in the garden, we head up the coast to Taormina.
Perched on the rocks several hundred meters above the rocky beaches at the water’s edge, Taormina is understandably one of Sicily’s top destinations and has charmed and inspired visitors from the ancient Greeks to Goethe and Truman Capote. One of the town’s historical highlights is the restored Teatro Antico, built by the Greeks in the third century BC using Mt Etna as a natural backdrop and still hosting performances. Our nights here will be spent in the six room Casa Turchetti. Once a convent and later used by Allied forces in WWII, it sits near the main square and just above the pedestrian thoroughfare Corso Umberto that runs through the heart of the city. The freshly renovated rooms are comfortable and quiet and the spectacular views from the rooftop terrace are matched by the impeccable hospitality and kindness of proprietors Pino and Francesca.
In the morning we venture down to the beach clubs around Isola Bella, once a private island that has since become a nature preserve and a popular destination for sun-seekers. After a few hours lounging on the shores and cooling off in the stunningly clear water we enjoy a delightful meal outdoors at Casa GioLi and spend the remainder of the evening enjoying wine and people watching in the cafes along Corso Umberto. Nights in Taormina are warm and energetic with live music and laughter. Still, watching the sunrise from the terrace is not to be missed. Find the slippers provided and pad up to see the sun as it crests behind the Teatro and bathes the town in warm first light. Soon we are on our way north to Messina, the ferry to Calabria on the mainland and the five hours drive to Napoli.