With its dramatic scenery, great beaches, old-fashioned seaside towns, and infamous history, Peter Woodman takes in the sights of Sicily in September.
It was a quiet restaurant in the Sicilian town of Castelbuono, where my wife and I happily tucked into a local speciality – pasta alla norma. It comes with salty cheese and is quite delicious.
It’s day two of our 11-night tour of the Mediterranean island, and we’d journeyed along winding roads from the coastal town of Cefalu, where we were staying, to Castelbuono – famed for its restaurants and views.
Sicily nestles neatly at the foot of Europe and offers some of the best beaches and most dramatic scenery of anywhere on the continent.
We were lucky to have visited in early September – the great heat of summer was subsiding and the crowds, seen in their hordes at the height of the holiday season, are much diminished.
Immediately after landing at Palermo, we were jolted by reminders of the island’s infamous Mafia – the airport (also known as Falcone-Borsellino Airport) was named after Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two anti-Mafia crusaders who were killed in 1992. A plaque in their honour hangs near the departure hall.
After picking up our hire car, we set off around the top of the island to our first stop – the aforementioned Cefalu. Before the trip, I had never heard of this charming, old-fashioned seaside town, with houses that stretch right onto the beach.
The Sicilians, though, know it well and descend in droves during the summer. We could see why. It’s lovely, with plenty of restaurants, a dazzling beach and an imposing cathedral. We stayed a little out of town at the Alberi del Paradiso, high up a winding side street with good views.
The next day, not wanting to risk the traffic, we took a shuttle bus into Cefalu. Sticking to the shade, we plodded through the narrow streets before ducking into the cool recesses of the cathedral.
Day two is our gastronomical jaunt to Castelbuono, and next we set off for arguably the most popular of Sicily’s resorts – Taormina.
Travelling around the top of the island, to get there, has been made easier by the creation of a motorway, which involved carving out a succession of tunnels.
We reach Taormina to learn that ever-erupting Mount Etna had treated sightseers to a terrific firework display the night before. Though we missed the main event, the 10,000ft peak puffed out plenty of smoke during our stay.
Etna dominates the eastern part of the island and seems to be in a permanent state of excitement. It did erupt with deadly force in the 17th century, killing thousands of people, but generally, these days it’s the perfect ‘tourist’ volcano – belching out regularly – but not dangerously.
For this leg of the holiday, we stayed in two Orient-Express hotels. The first – the Villa Sant’Andrea – is right on the beach. We had to pinch ourselves when we discovered we’d been given the best room in the place, with an extended balcony overlooking a hooked, natural bay with a great sweep of white sand.
The following afternoon, one of the hotel staff drove our car – and us – up narrow one-way systems to our second hotel – the imposing Grand Hotel Timeo, perched above the sea with great views of the still-smoking Etna.
Right next door is the old Greek theatre, built around 300BC where concerts are still staged. Yes, the town is touristy and the restaurants aren’t cheap, but there’s a buzz about the place and some lovely gardens to visit, where you can escape the heat and crowds.
Three nights on, we faced our longest journey – a four-hour schlep across the island to a new resort close to the southern coastal town of Sciacca (pronounced Shacka).
The Verdura Golf and Spa Resort (a Rocco Forte creation) boasts two world-class golf courses and luxury accommodation, all set within generous grounds.
The rooms are sleek and stylish, with all mod cons and ocean views. There are handy bikes too, so you can enjoy a leisurely pedal around the vast complex.
Beset by red tape, Forte took around a decade to complete the resort. His efforts have been rewarded with the announcement that Verdura will soon host some major golf tournaments, with the ultimate aim of staging the Ryder Cup.
Staying at the luxury hotel will set you back a pretty penny, but it’s certainly worth a visit for the location alone.
The highlight for us was watching the sun setting into the Mediterranean sea, after another glorious, hot day.
Before flying home, we head back to Palermo and check in at the Hilton Villa Igiea, our final hotel.
It’s elegant, in a Belle Epoque way, and could not have been more of a contrast to Verdura – stately and grand. Photos of visits by King Edward VII adorn the walls, and it felt like we’d stepped back in time – but with all the 21st century advantages bolted onto the charm of the past.
This is the sort of place that divides the haves from the have-yachts.