Tuesday 6 October 2020 3:54 pm

Sicilian Kiss: Escaping to the pearl of the Ionian Sea

The weekend

The criteria for a weekend away have changed in recent months. On top of the usual considerations — weather, journey time, food, culture — travellers must now think about a host of Covid factors. How successfully is a country suppressing infections? Are there any entry requirements that might catch out visitors at the airport? And, crucially, is it on the UK government’s quarantine-exempt list?

Luckily, the island paradise of Sicily ticks every box.

After a tumultuous start, Italy’s coronavirus management tops the European leaderboard. Not only is the infection rate currently below its neighbours, but the southern climate means that socialising and hospitality can still take place predominantly outdoors even as we enter autumn, both reducing risk and enhancing the traveller experience. Most importantly for UK travellers, no quarantine period is required, making an Italian mini-break the perfect escape from increasingly grey and dreary Britain.

Sicily offers some additional draws. Though technically part of Europe, the island is level with Tunisia and Turkey. While the climate varies across the island, this means visitors can enjoy delightfully mild temperatures in the high teens and low twenties throughout October and November.

Those are some practical reason for booking a trip, but they don’t begin to capture the magic of the “Pearl of the Ionian Sea”, a unique fantasyland of cultural and culinary marvels set against the backdrop of the most active volcano on Earth. From the Greeks to the Godfather, the wonders of Sicily have captured imaginations for 25 centuries. And now is the perfect moment to explore them.

Where to go

You could spend a lifetime just exploring the different parts of the island, from the Arabian capital of Palermo, to the historic fishing port of Sciacca, to the ancient power of Syracuse. But for a weekend away, Etna must surely be the priority. Direct flights run from various London airports to Catania, from where it is under an hour (and past the volcano itself) to the picturesque clifftop town of Taormina. There, on the top of the Mount Tauro and a stone’s throw from the ancient Greek theatre, is the Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo.

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The Timeo is worth a weekend’s stay for the views alone. Guests are greeted to a sweeping vista, through the hotel’s tropical gardens down the cliff to the turquoise depths of the Mediterranean below, with the ever-steaming Etna on the horizon. From the restaurant, from private terraces, or from the outdoor pool that is nestled in Etna’s shadow, the jewelled Sicilian coastline fans out beneath you.

The hotel is a historical hotspot as well as a geographic one. Converted from a nineteenth century guest house and a must-see for European elites on the Grand Tour, over the decades it has boasted the likes of D. H. Lawrence, Audrey Hepburn, and, at the 2017 G7 Summit, Donald and Melania Trump. 

Today, it is a beacon of serene sophistication. Old-school elegance, with oil paintings lining the hallways and furniture that is straight out of a classic Italian palazzo, is tempered by all the modern luxuries you’d expect from a five star hotel. 

One such luxury is the shuttle service which transports guests down the hillside to the Belmond’s sister hotel: Villa Sant’Andrea. Guests are invited to enjoy all the facilities of Villa Sant’Andrea’s private beach, nestled in a hidden bay. The water is irresistibly clear, and on a sunny day, you can catch a glimpse of the Calabrian mainland across the Straits of Messina 20 miles away, before the shuttle returns you to the Timeo Restaurant for dinner.

The food

Sicily is rightly celebrated for its food, so to stand out from the crowd is to exceed an already-high bar. The Timeo Restaurant would manage this with ease purely for the view and the excellence of the welcome and service. But of course the food is also spectacular in and of itself — one could expect little less from the restaurant that prompted the President and First Lady of the United States to ask for seconds.

An amuse bouche of raw red prawns — a speciality of the province — on cuttlefish ink with a rice crisp set the scene for a menu poised in the space between luxury and exuberance. Deep-fried tempura (or the Sicilian equivalent) squash blossoms stuffed with regional goats’ cheese on a green tomato sauce would have been the highlight in itself, had they not been superseded by more of the famed gamberi rossi — this time lightly grilled – with buffalo burrata, the sweet tail meat leavened by the sharp umami of an anchovy crumb. 

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The famous “Trump Pasta” (pecorino tortellini on a bisque) was more than worthy of the tastebuds of world leaders, but was overshadowed by a stygian-black cuttlefish risotto with local seafood which tasted of the very deeps. The meltingly sweet quinoa-crusted tuna steak with zucchini and orange sauce was Catanese cuisine on a plate; all of the local  specialities crammed into each mouthful. 

All of these can be matched with the superb DOC Etna wines made on the slopes of the volcano you can literally see from your table. This was food and drink worthy of a trip in itself — after a while you even forget the scenery.

What to do

Exploring Mount Etna must surely be the priority, but how to do it? Summit tours are a popular option, with trained guides leading guests via a cable car to reach the topmost crater, over 3,300m above sea level.

But if volcano trekking to dizzying altitude is not the goal of your Sicily trip — and for something a little special — consider a tour focused not just on Etna itself, but on the impact it has had on the island.

Set up by local agronomists, Etna Wine Lab leads guests on a journey that explores the volcano’s relationship with the landscape, and the unique food products it has spawned, from pistachios to prickly pears. A mineralogy lesson and hike through the lava fields of Etna’s lower slopes culminates in a picnic of local produce, before guests are invited to discover the secrets of Sicilian wine-making.

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That begins and ends at Barone di Villagrande. The oldest winery on the hopelessly fecund slopes of the volcano, it was founded in 1727 and has been retained in the same family for 10 generations. It’s fair to say they will probably keep going a while longer.

Set on the eastern side of the mountain — in a microclimate that sees them receive 10 times as much rain as the rest of Sicily but with bone-dry summers — it enjoys conditions oenologists dream of. All of their wines, which combine tingling acidity with crisp minerality, are perfect for the local food, from the rosato (a rosé to convert any apostate) to their Etna Bianco DOC Superiore, the sort of wine that dances on the tongue. The restaurant makes the perfect showcase, seasonal local foods (the famed arancina on a tomato base that tastes of summer itself, olive oil pressed within staggering distance, and chestnut honey from a forest you could hit with a well-aimed stone), paired impeccably with each wine, right up to the rich, mysterious local red, with dark fruits and balsamic scents and the musky astringency of two years in a chestnut barrel. 

You will leave vowing to start an import business.

And after that

It would be remiss to visit the archaeological wonderland that is Sicily without experiencing some of the classical culture for which it has been famed through the ages. The earliest parts of the ancient theatre in Taormina date back to the third century BC, with renovations and rebuilding over the years that chart the island’s diverse history. 

But this is no relic: it remains an active theatrical and concert venue. The programme is eclectic: Greek tragedies and classical operas followed by rock concerts of epic proportions — world-famous names who have played the Teatro Greco include Kasabian, Bruce Springsteen, and Sting. While social distancing measures mean the schedule has had to undergo some changes, the venue is still operating in October, and visitors to Taormina can experience entertainment in a space that has captivated audiences for millennia. 

© Copyright Tyson Sadlo

Top tip

When you’re ready to bid farewell to Taormina, consider spending an extra night in Sicily to experience an entirely different side to it just an hour away. Catania, which boasts the island’s largest airport, offers a culture trip of another kind: quintessentially Italian architecture, with faded baroque churches rising out out of a rabbit warren of twisting alleyways, netted with wrought-iron balconies and punctuated by the revving of scooters. It is worth spending an afternoon exploring its secrets, before climbing the spiral steps of the Chiesa della Badia di Sant’Agata opposite the cathedral at sunset, to see the city spread out from above.

And for dinner, head to Osteria Antica Marina in the heart of the fish market, an unassuming eatery that looks no different from its neighbours, except that it is so wildly popular pre-booking is essential. You’ll still be tasting the rich tang of the raw tuna and baby anchovies on the flight home.

Need to know

The Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo offers rooms from €505 per night including breakfast. Flights to Catania depart from all London airports, and a transfer to Taormina costs €75 one way.

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