SICILY AND AEOLIAN ISLANDS HOTELS
VISIT SICILY, AND YOU GET THREE CULTURES for the price of one. This lush and mountainous island, the largest in the Med, boasts some of the finest relics of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, not to mention a splash of Moorish North Africa.
With its frisson of underworld Mafioso, the visual drama of smoke-wreathed Mount Etna, and a coastline strung with clifftop villages and ribbons of golden sand, Sicily is not surprisingly one of the decade’s hottest destinations.
Don’t wait till the summer crowds descend – come and smell the almond blossom as early as February, guzzle fresh Sicilian strawberries against a backdrop of spring flowers at Easter, swim in warm island waters as late as November and explore ancient temples in crisp winter sunshine.
Sicily’s ancient monuments, mosaics and temples are rivalled only by those of Rome itself. Agrigento is home to Valley of the Temples, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Come at sunset or even after dark, when the seven Doric temples stand illuminated against a velvety sky. The huge 5th century BC temple of Segesta, sat on a windswept hillside, is another of Sicily’s blockbuster ancient sights.
You can also relive ancient history in elegant Syracuse with a ringside seat at the city’s vast Greek theatre, where classic tragedies are still staged. There’s more Greek theatre to enjoy in the hillside resort of Taormina, with its fabulous views across the bay to smoking Mount Etna. Other cultural diversions can be found not far away at Villa Romana dei Casale, with its wonderfully preserved mosaics depicting bikini-clad Roman ladies.
Sicily’s capital Palermo has an altogether different appeal. Ignore its manic traffic and take to a horse and buggy for a clip-clopping ride through the backstreets – a tapestry of statues, markets, fountains and washing hung out to dry. Time permitting, head up to the cathedral town of Monreale, for mesmerising views over the bay.
Sicily’s often-ignored west coast boasts the salt flats of Trapani, complete with windmills, and the atmospheric clifftop town of Erice – often wreathed in mist while the beaches far below are bathed in sunshine. Pop into Marsala for a tour (and a tasting) at a wine factory or browse the shops and soak up the sleepy atmosphere.
If Sicily is the place to overdose on culture, the neighbouring Aeolian Islands are the place to play. This necklace of tiny volcanic isles – Lipari, Vulcano, Salina, Panarea, Stromboli, Filicundi and Alicundi – with their white sugar-cube houses attracts its share of wealthy Milanese magnates as well as a hip young crowd keen on sea, sand and sun.
Lipari is the arrival point for most island-hoppers. The little port’s narrow streets are lined with cafes and chic boutiques selling designer labels (this is Italy, after all), and you can hire a motorini for a free-wheeling coast-to-coast tour. Panarea is the chic see-and-be-seen party island, with the coolest hotels, clearest waters and most vibrant nightlife.
Volcanic Stromboli offers visitors a nightly free firework show, when jets of molten lava shoot up into the night sky, while Vulcano’s trademark sulphur-like smell fails to deter visitors from making the two-hour hike to the summit of its own volcanic cone or wallowing in the open-air (and rather whiffy) mudbaths.
Out-of-the-way Salina – setting of the movie Il Postino – is the greenest of the Aeolians, while rocky Alicundi and Filicundi offer a glimpse of tiny caper plantations, lava-hewn staircases and all the feel of an island timewarp.