Sicily Familiarization Trip

December 23, 2022

As part of Italy, Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean. It’s also home to the majestic heights of Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe. In late October 2022, Karin Patrick of ILX Travel joined Exclusive Italy’s one-week Sicily Familiarization Trip to discover more.

Attendees visited four magnificent coastal destinations: Palermo, Sciacca, Syracuse, and Taormina. They enjoyed guided tours of several Unesco world heritage sites and landscapes planted with lush Mediterranean vineyards and citrus orchards – Sicily produces some of the world’s finest lemons. And they got to stay in luxurious accommodations and feast on superb Sicilian cuisine and some rather exceptional wines.

Was this your first time in Sicily?

“Yes, I’d been planning to go for years but kept postponing it. I know Italy well but had never been to Sicily .”

What makes Sicily different from the rest of Italy?

“It’s authenticity. And what surprised me was the Sicilians’ pride in their Ancient Greek history. They say the Greeks brought them ideas and knowledge. Later the Romans brought them to order and organization, but they were far more aggressive colonizers. Sicily’s Ancient Greek monuments, such as the amphitheaters and temples, are outstanding and still in excellent repair today”.

You stayed in four different destinations – which was your favorite?

“The Sicilian Jewel, Taormina – the location is just beautiful. It lies on the east coast overlooking the Ionian Sea, with Mount Etna as the backdrop. It is more touristy than the other destinations, but its popularity is well-earned. It has a 3rd-century BC Greek theater, still in use today, and stores selling Sicily’s iconic ceramics. And then there is the old-world grandeur of the beautiful Grand Hotel Timeo. It’s set in a garden with seven terraces, palms, cypresses, lemon trees, orange blossom and bougainvillea, and a pool”.

Which attraction was most memorable?

“The Cathedral of Monreale above Palermo, that was fabulous. I’ve seen many churches and cathedrals, but this one is special. The interior is decorated entirely with mosaics, composed of colored and golden glasswork, telling stories from the Bible. So you see the Stories of Genesis in the nave, the Gospels in the transept, and the smaller naves. The central apse references the Book of the Apocalypse, and the smaller apses show the Apostles, Peter, and Paul”.

Cathedral in Palermo, Italy visited on Sicily Familiarization Trip
Cathedral in Palermo

Which was the best-guided tour?

“The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento was the most fascinating. It is the most important relic of ancient classical culture in Sicily. It comprises the temples of the gods, as well as the necropolis area and the sanctuaries outside the ancient walls”.  

Which was the most impressive natural wonder?

“Definitely Mount Etna. It was a beautiful day, crazy windy and a little chilly. Mount Etna has over 400 craters, but it is not as dangerous as you might imagine. They have done a lot of work to channel the direction of the flow of the lava should it erupt. We drove most of the way up, then hiked the last bit. It was an incredible experience. And then the next morning, when we were leaving, Mount Etna was covered in snow. That was something”.

Could you tell us about the food?

“Everything is fresh, locally produced, and full of flavor. Sicily is the garden of Italy – they still live primarily from agriculture. We had a lot of homemade pasta. I’m vegan, so I enjoyed all the fresh seasonal vegetables and fabulous pizzas. The others in our group also ate a lot of freshly-caught fish and seafood. And then there were the desserts. Cannoli – deep-fried cylindrical pastry shells filled with sweetened ricotta, candied citron, and grated chocolate are best known.  And we tasted some delicious wines too. We visited the Terre di Giurfo Winery for wine tasting and lunch. Their vineyards, on the fertile volcanic soils of Mount Etna, produce light and well-rounded wines”.

Which hotel did you like best?

“Well, there’s the Grand Hotel Timeo in Taormina, mentioned earlier, but we didn’t sleep there. Probably the most amazing place we stayed was the Verdura Resort in Sciacca. It is modern, so some people might not like that, but they would certainly like the luxury and extensive facilities. The Verdura’s East Course is Golf World’s No 1 Golf Course in Italy”.

Is there anything specific you would recommend that people pack?

“An extra bag for carrying home everything you buy as souvenirs and gifts. I brought back a beautiful linen tablecloth with napkins, a pretty linen dress, a couple of cute ceramic bowls, a bottle of limoncello (you can’t leave without that), and my favorite, a beautiful leather purse that I could not leave behind”.

If you were to return to Sicily, is there anything particular you’d want to see or do?

“I would return to Taormina – I would love to spend more time there. And we didn’t get to see Catania, so I’d like to explore that. Then there are other parts. Sicily doesn’t have a highway, so it’s all really small roads, and some transfers from A to B can take over two hours. So I would love to do the whole island and use helicopters in between.

For clients, that could be an option – you need to stay in Palermo, and you need to stay in Taormina. But you’d also want to see the Valley of the Temples and maybe play golf. With a helicopter, that would all be possible. And I’d love to go back and sail the volcanic islets north of Sicily – the Aeolian Islands, Lipari, Stromboli, and Filicudi”.