I've had a love affair with Sicily since visiting it on tour with Simple Minds in the 1990s. Here's what captivates me about this magical Italian island, and my tips on what to see and do there
Sicily has been part of my life for over 25 years. I love the food, the wine, the history, the romance, its mythology, its culture, even its chaos. It’s as much a place for couples in love as for those who want to bring their kids for some family bonding.
I remember the very first time I arrived there, standing on the deck of the ferry on the short crossing from Calabria to Messina, and I can honestly say it was love at first sight. Sicily has been invaded by the Greeks, Romans and Arabs, but also the British, who helped release the island from the grip of fascism during the last throes of World War II. My own grandfather was one of those young soldiers and it was through him that I became fascinated by Sicily as a kid, hearing about this strange landscape dominated by the wondrous, active volcano, Mount Etna.
I think it was Goethe who said that to not know Sicily was to not know Italy. As someone who knows Italy from top to bottom, I would say that he was bang on with that sentiment. If you’ve never been south of Rome, you really are missing out, so be a bit more adventurous, and lots of treasures for the senses will greet you when you set foot on this fantastic island.
You will want to visit the main cities of Palermo and Catania, but Siracusa (Syracuse) is a particular favourite town of mine, as is magical Noto, which is nearby and overflows with architectural treasures. The fountain of Arethusa is a must-see, and it’s lovely just to walk along the streets of the old town as Archimedes is supposed to have done. But it was the little mountain-top town of Taormina – known as 'the pearl of the Ionian Sea' – that I fell hopelessly in love with, and it has now become my home away from home, the place where I feel reborn.
Taormina is a real jewel, a spoilt brat even, along the lines of other well-known 'pearls' such as Portofino and Capri. Its golden age may have been in the Fifties and Sixties, when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton sat in the cafes sipping prosecco and bellinis, but you are still likely to see actors and directors like Al Pacino and Woody Allen leaning against the walls of the Teatro Greco, as well as rock groups like Coldplay and Simple Minds.
It is not an easy claim but for me, Taormina is arguably the most romantic little town I have ever come across in my wide and wild travels. Hence the pull for artists and especially honeymooners. A wedding in Sicily is something to cherish, and that explains why the town is increasingly popular for those familiar with Cupid.
If you can pick a time to be in town, I’d recommend some of the cultural events including the Taormina Film Festival (www.taorminafilmfest.it) and Taormina Arte spectaculars (www.taormina-arte.com). Winters are great for those who love mild climates that are perfect for trekking among the stillness of the ancient countryside.
In summer, of course, you’ve got great beaches, and I like to go walking on the paths on the side of Mount Etna, but one of the main reasons to come here is the local food and wine, which are both exquisite. I love La Botte on Via Santa Domenica (www.labotte1972.it 00 39 0942 24198), which has the most incredible seafood and great wines. I’d say a good lunch for two would set you back around €70. Then if you go down to the beach at Mazzaro, the restaurants do incredible crab, lobster and prawns - just unbelievable. Another place I’d recommend is on the hillside at the top of Taormina, near the Madonna Della Rocca church. The restaurant's name is Al Saraceno (www.alsaraceno.it; 00 39 0942 632015) and it has the most fantastic views, especially at night, with all the lights twinkling in the bay below. The meat dishes there are always top quality.
As for hotels, well I’d definitely suggest Villa Angela because I own it! But it’s a fabulous spot and I’m very proud of it and what we’ve done. The views of the sea and Mount Etna are breathtaking, and the centre of Taormina and the ancient Greek amphitheatre are just a few minutes away. I think we’ve got a tremendous staff who really go out of their way for guests - we know they have worked hard so they can visit us, and we appreciate that. We also make it as family-oriented as possible. Doubles including breakfast start at €270.
Where else? The Hotel Villa Schuler in the centre of town has the most incredible botanic gardens. It’s a wonderful building and a great location. Double rooms start at €146 including breakfast. Another place to suggest would be the San Domenico Palace Hotel, which is built on the side of an old monastery and still has the old cloisters and gardens. A double room including breakfast starts at €261.
If you’re going to get a bit off the beaten track, head to the Aeolian islands, a ferry ride away from the north of Sicily. I really enjoy the Capofaro Hotel on Salina - it’s just really tranquil, middle-of-nowhere stuff, with vineyards and olive groves; somewhere to go and just let the days drift by. Double rooms start at €220 including breakfast.
Back on the mainland, if you do just one thing, I’d say go to Acitrezza, north of Catania. They have the most amazing ice cream there, so get yourself one of those and just sit by the ancient port and watch the world go by. There are some large rocks poking out of the sea near the coast that are linked with the mythological tradition of the one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus, son of the sea-god Poseidon, who took Odysseus and his companions prisoner. Odysseus managed to blind the giant and they made their escape. The furious Cyclops hurled rocks after him, which fell into the sea without hitting Odysseus - the Cyclops Rocks. The archipelago formed by these small islands is protected as a marine nature reserve and a habitat for a large variety of species of fish and plants; it’s great for divers.
That’s what I love about Sicily – there’s the history, the beauty, the tradition and the food, all coming together.