To climb a volcano, visit lemon groves, explore pretty villages and chill out on family-friendly beaches, try south-eastern Sicily. We pick the best of one holiday at three different prices…
“We are in Italy,” the lemon farmer said proudly. “But our climate – it’s African.”
I looked surprised. In early summer, with a cool breeze drifting through the scent of lemon flowers, the view was postcard Italy.
Below us the glossy green leaves of the lemon grove stretched down to the bright Sicilian coast, while behind us Mount etna posed under a cap of white smoke.
Fabrizio, the farmer at La Gabriella, looked at my expression and laughed. “It’s true – Libya is our neighbour, and Tunisia is closer than Greece.
“Even in autumn the sea is warm enough for swimming! Now come – have you ever seen lemon pickers at work?”
It was with some reluctance, after watching deeply-tanned workers festooned in buckets climb into trees, that we politely refused his offer of coffee (“Or something stronger, no?”) and set out to explore.
One of the island’s prettiest towns is medieval Taormina, with winding lanes, a Greek theatre, baroque churches and boutique shops all clinging to the edge of a cliff.
We were told to get there early, before the coach-loads of day-trippers arrive, then take the £3.50 cable car down to the beach for a lunch of fresh seafood and crusty bread (£12) and wait to see the town itself after 7pm, when the last tourist coach leaves.
Then, we shared the streets with the locals and enjoyed wheels of pizza (£10) on terraces overlooking the tumble of roofs to the sea.
For a quieter day out, we headed south and stumbled on the tiny fishing village of Marzamemi, with chic cafes around the main square and two popular lunchtime restaurants on the harbour front.
Further south still is Syracuse, 2,700 years old, steeped in epic Greek history and a Unesco site. In the town we wandered around pretty squares past designer shops tucked into old palazzos, and enjoyed seafood spaghetti (£10) in a quiet courtyard.
More history was to be found at the magnificent 5th Century BC Greek theatre on the hills above, ancient stone quarry caves and a wild, sunken garden next door.
But the real adventure was yet to come – climbing Mount etna. The drive to get there was worth it alone – olive groves gave way to vineyards, pine forest and then only black lava. You can either take a cable car and bus up to view the crater (£53pp), or opt, as we did, to burn off some pasta and climb 1,000m in an alien landscape of powdery black paths and swirling cloud.
In the evening, over a glass of wine from vineyards on the slopes of etna, there was only one toast to be made. Having been in Sicily for the spring lemon harvest, here’s to going back in the autumn for the olives.
1. Lap of luxury
For a night or two of sheer luxury, try a five-star stay in a converted 15th Century Arabic fort and hermitage, perched on a rolling estate just south of ragusa.
At the Hotel Eremo della giubiliana, our room looked out on to a courtyard where knights used to guard the convent in the 16th Century. next door was a quiet, tree-encircled swimming pool and another sunny courtyard, perfect for lunch on a hot day.
We treated ourselves to dinner under the vaulted ceiling of the main restaurant and explored the estate from the monks’ dark refectory (now a wine cellar) to the wheat fields, its own archaeological site, spa and even a private airstrip.
Another evening we headed into old ragusa, where we discovered restaurants carved deep into ancient cellars.
What’s The Deal? ONE week for two with flights and car hire from £1,554 (£777pp). Add extra nights from £79pp per night.
2. Relaxed retreat
Clinging by its toes to the top of a mountain more than 500m above sea level is the medieval village of Castelmola, a quiet twist of streets with staggering views over Taormina below and across to Mount Etna.
Just below a 13th Century castle and small collection of restaurants and bars is the charming, family-run four-star Hotel Villa Sonia.
On the site of an old mansion, it’s now a terraced hotel where the swimming pool and rooms look across to the volcano, and where we woke every morning to the distant clucking of chickens.
Popular with both families and honeymooners, it is the perfect base from which to explore Taormina, with a free hotel shuttle winding down the mountain roads.
What’s The Deal? ONE week for two at Hotel Villa Sonia with flights and transfers costs from £1,388 (£694pp), or accommodationonly from £62pp per night.
3. Family bargain
Get a laid-back taste of Sicily when you stay on a farm – the italians call it “agriturismo”. Try self-catering at the turreted Villa Alfredo, owned by an award-winning olive oil producer, where around the cobbled courtyard, old workers’ cottages have been converted into small flats. Here you can collect fresh eggs and vegetables from the garden every morning, swim in the pool in the evening and watch the sun go down over the olive groves.
Or at la gabriella, settle into one of the self-catering flats and cottages that are hidden among Fabrizio’s lemon trees. Pick fresh peaches from the garden to enjoy after a relaxed supper cooked in one of the shared barbecue areas.
WHAT’S THE DEAL?
One week’s self-catering, based on a family of four at the Villa Alfredo, costs from £415pp per week with car hire and flights from london. Or la gabriella starts at £425pp per week with car hire and flights from london.
All deals from Long Travel (01694 722193, www.long-travel.co.uk). Ring to check for special offers or late deals.