Season two of The White Lotus has traded Hawaii for Sicily. There weren’t any hints in season one of the hugely popular show that The White Lotus hotel is a chain, but it turns out it might be a fictional Four Seasons – one where its inhabitants have an unlucky habit of winding up dead or, at the very least, with an unwelcome surprise in their suitcase.
A biting satire on luxury, The White Lotus is a show about life behind the scenes for the top one percent who visit an eye-wateringly expensive hotel and throw hissy fits as every possible occasion. The show is told both from the point of view of the staff and the guests and has been critically acclaimed for how it dismantles the notion of luxury. Staff are taught to just smile and say yes whatever happens, but in the end, the guests with all their excessive demands seem more like blubbering babies than esteemed adults.
I checked into the Sicilian filming location to see whether life imitates art. The 111-bedroom San Domenico Palace is in the charming medieval town of Taormina in Sicily and doubles as The White Lotus hotel. Turned into a hotel in 1896, it was originally a 14th century convent and is now a Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts property, benefiting from a complete refurbishment that finished barely a year ago. Remnants of its ecclesiastical history abound, but the plush rooms are flawless and contemporary.
The property spills onto the Ionian Sea with the actively-smoking Mt Etna rising behind it, panoramic views from the private terraces taking in both. We stayed in a room identical to that of The White Lotus’ Di Grasso family with our own plunge pool. On the show, the three generations of Di Grasso men have arrived from Hollywood to seek out their Sicilian roots, joining other dysfunctional guests which include wealthy airheads the Sullivans and snobby nerds the Spillers. Staying at the hotel in real life, one can people-watch and storyboard your own comedy drama.
The staff at the San Domenico Palace are peerless. I suspect the General Manager and Four Seasons’ PR people are watching The White Lotus thinking ‘who said this was a good idea?’ A show about the hotel being full with self-absorbed, sex-obsessed idle rich people making spoilt demands of the long-suffering and occasionally feckless employees doesn’t seem like great image management – but perhaps they’re in on the joke?
The stand-out star of the series is Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore), the fiery and demanding GM whose English is lacking in diplomacy and tact. Flatulent, geriatric womanizer Bert Di Grasso’s (F. Murray Abraham) arrival is greeted with amazement. “I’m impressed that you’re even here. It’s a long trip from Los Angeles, and you’re quite old, no?”
The pastel pink San Domenico Palace perches on one rocky arm of the town, with an ancient Greek theatre, which also features in the TV show, on the other. If you look closely, you’ll see the name ‘San Domenico’ still written over the hotel’s entrance. They didn’t edit it out. One can get lost in the maze-like layout and long corridors which, in The White Lotus, makes it difficult to keep tabs on visiting ‘local friends’.
Working girls are the bane of Valentina’s life, though I failed to spot any at the San Domenico’s chic bar. In a scene in the first episode, one of the girls, Lucia (Simona Tabasco – hot name), makes her disappearing act in my favourite room in the hotel. It features nothing but a centuries-old writing desk, a couple of gargoyles and an epic sea view. “She’s disappeared,” laments Valentina. “She’s one fast slut.”
The San Domenico Palace is no stranger to celluloid. The cloistered palm-fringed internal piazza, which features a well at its centre, had a prominent scene in Luc Besson’s freediving flick The Big Blue, with Jean Reno and Patricia Arquette. Back in the black and white days, the director Federico Fellini was a regular and entertained the likes of Ingrid Bergmann, Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn here, in the lush herb and citrus-nurturing gardens. Great Anglo writers were drawn to its flame, too, Oscar Wilde, D.H. Lawrence, Truman Capote and John Steinbeck among them. Francis Ford Coppola stayed here ahead of shooting The Godfather in 1972, and it was the concierge who suggested he film Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) Sicilian scenes in Forza d’Agrò and Savoca, half an hour’s drive north of Taormina. Taormina itself is walkable from the hotel and is postcard-perfect: it has trinkety shops selling locally made products, as well as great restaurants and views over Mount Etna and the ocean
The breakfast spread is magnificent – no one looked accusingly when I helped myself to a complimentary bottle of Bollinger.
“I was told that the cheese here is made by a blind nun in a basement,” relishes Tanya McQuiod, who played by Jennifer Coolidge is the self-confessed “insane alcoholic” who’s come to Sicily with her new sport fisherman husband (which is already going awry) determined to ride on a Vespa and live out her Monica Vitti fantasies.
I don’t doubt the cheese was made by a blind nun in a basement. The food at San Domenico is spectacular. You could say that of anywhere in Sicily, but it’s especially true here. The breakfast spread of cheeses and cold cuts is magnificent, and no one looked accusingly when I helped myself to a complimentary bottle of Bollinger. The dining room, the Principe Cerami, is named after the Sicilian nobleman who converted the convent into a hotel. It’s held onto its local roots through chef Massimo Mantarro, who has earned two Michelin stars. The lunch and dinner menus boast contemporary reinterpretations of classic Sicilian dishes and there are meat, seafood and truffle tasting menus. The wine is extremely notable too, with much of it coming from the slopes of Etna.
I visited the nearby Pietradolce winery, a brutalist lair sticking out of the volcanic soil which looks like it was designed by Sir Ken Adam of 007 fame. These smoky, vivid and perfectly-balanced wines, which are available in every shade, are worth the trip to Sicily’s east coast in itself. After fine wines overlooking the Ionian, you may wish to sample one of the hotel’s freshly-made sugary cassata cakes or cannoli the size of a toddler’s arm.
It’s enough to make one die of pleasure, which perhaps explains the shock opening beach scene of The White Lotus. “Rocco, how many dead guests are there?” barks Valentina. “I don’t know,” he shrugs, “a few?”
Visit The White Lotus hotel yourself
Room rates at the San Domenico Palace, Taormina, a Four Seasons Hotel, start from £960 per night with breakfast. For more information visit the website. The White Lotus season 2 is now available on Sky Atlantic
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