Little Italy – Sicily offers exciting vacation experiences

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Abundant sunshine, great beaches, crystalline waters, fresh local food, and the largest active volcano in Europe – what more could you ask for in an Italian vacation? Sicily, a triangular island off the boot of Italy, is really a country unto itself; at least the Sicilians think of it that way. 

The village of Taormina, perched high above the sea on the eastern side of the island, has always been a must stop for tourists. From composer Johannes Brahms to comedian Woody Allen, all have enjoyed its restored mediaeval buildings and stunning ocean views. The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, the French and the Spanish all came to Taormina and left their mark. The Teatro Greco, a 3rd century Greco-Roman amphitheater, hosts a variety of events today, and from the seats, one can see Mount Etna rising in the distance, still smoking from a recent eruption.


A spectacular view from the terrace at Al Saraceno Restaurant

A spectacular view from the terrace at Al Saraceno Restaurant

The Grand Hotel Atlantis Bay clings to the cliffs and was themed after the lost city of the same name, and the lobby and hallways certainly feel grotto-like. The rooms are large with all the extras – great bed, bath products, slippers, and robes. The bathroom was smallish, but the tub was deep enough for a long soak. The small patio off the room offers a terrific view of the waters below. Breakfast was served on an outside terrace right above the pool and the sea. The cantaloupe was perfectly ripe, and with fresh-squeezed orange juice and eggs made to order, the day started off right. Gazing at the bright blue waters of the Ionian Sea didn’t hurt, either. 

A charming local restaurant, Al Saraceno, is situated high above the bay and is known for its spectacular, panoramic view; diners can watch the lights come on below each evening. The owner, Alfio Puglia, is very attentive to his guests. Wood-fired pizza dough is served in place of bread. Fresh local fish came in a mixed grill and included king prawns, calamari, and scampi served with olive oil, garlic, lemon, parsley, and oregano. 

Great wine… and Mount Etna

Up a very winding road was Patria, one of the largest privately owned wineries in Sicily, with the local rich volcanic soil providing a unique terroir for wines. Tours take visitors to a volcanic cave with the layers of eruptions clearly displayed within.  

Once oriented, we sat around a huge table for a feast with the vineyard owner. It was easy to lose track of the courses (maybe seven). Fabulous wines were paired with each offering – Neri d’Avola, Etna Rosso, Cabernet, Etna Bianco, and their vintage 2001 Etna Rosso. Multiple varieties of antipasti, both hot and cold, were followed by wild mushroom risotto, seafood pasta, and finally grilled boar medallions. (Some Norwegian tourists, sitting at another table, burst into song halfway through our three-hour meal, which provided an unusual musical accompaniment to a wonderful Sicilian experience.) 

Valley of the Temples

Ruins of the Greek-Roman Taormina Theatre

Working off an enormous lunch at Patria, visitors can visit Mount Etna and walk around one of the many craters left from previous eruptions. The lava fields looked like the moon’s surface, with blasted and cratered lava rock stretching downhill for miles.  

On the other side of island, a day trip to Agrigento offers a window to the history of this special place. Lunch al fresco on the Terrace of the Gods at the five-star Villa Athena hotel included an incredible seafood pasta, followed by crab-stuffed white fish. Dessert was a pistachio semi-fredo, a cross between ice cream and a soufflé. Many glasses of a lovely, cold, white Alta Villa Grillo wine followed.  

The Villa, built as a magnificent private home at the end of the 18th century, became a hotel in 1972. The gardens of the villa surround a vivid blue swimming pool, which blends into the landscape of almond and olive trees. The patio overlooks the distant, but visible, Temple of Concordia – an incredible masterpiece of Doric art from the 5th century BC – rivals any Greek temple anywhere else in the world, even in Greece itself. The temple owes its preservation to being turned into a church in the 6th century, which saved the fundamental structure of the original temple.  

Just outside of Agrigento, a two-hour walking tour takes visitors through the Archaeological Park of the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. Founded in 582 BC, Agrigento was one of the most important and most culturally advanced Greek cities in the Mediterranean. The archaeological park consists of seven temples (and various other remains) built between about 510 BC and 430 BC. These are: 

  • Temple of Hera 
  • Temple of Concordia 
  • Temple of Heracles 
  • Temple of Olympian Zeus 
  • Temple of Castor and Pollux 
  • Temple of Hephaestos  
  • Temple of Demeter  

Ancient Akragas, as Agrigento was known, attracted philosophers and poets who described it as “the most beautiful of mortal cities.” Today, it attracts visitors from all over the world, who stroll through the temple ruins, imaginingtheir past glory.  

No matter what your interests, Sicily today and Sicily of the past combine to make an amazing vacation location. 




Sicily offers great value, great beauty

DSCN2680 Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

Over the years, I didn’t consider visiting Sicily, a large triangular island off the boot of Italy. Now that I’ve visited, I can’t wait to go back. Abundant sunshine, great beaches, crystalline waters, fresh local food and the largest active volcano in Europe — what more could you ask for?

We started in Taormina, on the eastern side of the island. Perched high above the sea, this small city has been a required stop for tourists, from composer Johannes Brahms to comedian Woody Allen, all of whom enjoyed its restored Medieval buildings and stunning ocean views.

The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, the French and the Spanish — all came to Taormina and left their mark.

I could feel the city’s history as we walked along the winding streets to the Teatro Greco, a third century Greco-Roman amphitheater, still hosting a variety of events today. We sat on the seats, and Mt. Etna rose in the distance, still smoking from an eruption the day before.

We took a short cable car ride down to the water where our hotel — the Grand Hotel Atlantis Bay — clung to a cliff. The hotel was themed after the lost city of the same name, and the lobby and hallways felt grotto-like. Sipping a glass of local wine on our patio overlooking the Ionian Sea, I knew that we arrived somewhere special.

Breakfast was served on a patio right above the pool and the sea. I never wanted to leave. But there were sights to be seen and meals to be eaten.

DSCN2586Up the winding road was Patria, one of the largest privately-owned wineries in Sicily. The rich volcanic soil provided a unique terroir for wines.

A tour took us to the volcanic cave with its layers of eruptions clearly displayed.

Sitting around a huge table for a feast with the vineyard owner, it was easy to lose track of the courses (maybe seven). Fabulous wines were paired with each offering — Neri d’Avola, Etna Rosso, Cabernet, Etna Bianco, and their vintage 2001 Etna Rosso. Multiple kinds of antipasti, both hot and cold, were followed by wild mushroom risotto, then seafood pasta, then grilled boar medallions.DSCN2578

Some Norwegian tourists, sitting at another table, burst into song half-way through our three-hour meal, which provided an unusual musical accompaniment to a wonderful Sicilian experience.

The length of lunch put our visit to Mt. Etna behind schedule, which meant that we had to satisfy ourselves with a very short hike around one of the many craters left from previous eruptions.

DSCN2613The lava fields looked like how I imagined the moon’s surface might appear, blasted and cratered lava rock stretching downhill for miles.

That evening we sat on the deck of a charming local restaurant, Al Saraceno, perched high above the bay.

We watched the lights come on below and enjoyed another meal, especially selected by owner Alfio Puglia. Fresh local fish was part of our menu.

With so much more of the island to explore, I can easily imagine choosing Sicily for another visit, when I am seeking sparking blue water and tremendous hospitality.

A few things about all-inclusive vacations

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

Before our last trip, I’d stayed at almost every type of property, including up a tree house in South Africa, but never at an all-inclusive resort. What a great idea it seemed — no food or beverage costs, activity fees are eliminated and we get a deluxe room with an ocean view.

We chose the Barceló Bávaro Beach Deluxe in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, a new resort perched on the beautiful, aqua Caribbean. The Palace Deluxe was one of three Barceló resorts clustered in a compound. Our hotel offered about 1,400 rooms of various sizes and prices. Their website advertised Bávaro beach as one of the top 10 beaches in the world. My only goal for the vacation was to read one novel a day, sitting by the sea. The ocean was glorious, with wide, white sand beaches — perfect for novice snorkelers, even though they weren’t many fish that close to shore.

As you consider this kind of vacation, there are a few things to keep in mind. If you like the idea of a cruise ship that doesn’t move, choose a hotel of this size. Thousands of people will be sharing your vacation with you, fighting for the same beach chairs, trying to make reservations at the same 11 restaurants. I’d pick a smaller resort next time.

Also, pay attention the airfare cost before you book a resort. Flights to the Dominican Republic averaged $1,000 per person. The cost of the airfare turned what seemed like a good deal — $300 per night for the room, all meals, beverages and activities for two — into an expensive vacation. Hidden costs were an issue as well. For example, our transfer from the airport at $30 per person round trip.

A benefit was the huge range of food choices, including a gigantic daily buffet. If you wanted Japanese, Italian, Mexican, French, seafood or a steak house, getting a table before 10:30 p.m. was difficult. When we arrived at any restaurants, at least one third of the tables were empty, being held for the “premium guests.” At a hotel this size, during high season, paying extra for premium status might be a good idea.

We had our best meal in one of the two wine cellars — a private meal for eight of us. We ended dinner at 11 p.m. just as the disco opened for the evening. A quick tour of the casino and then the disco was enough for us oldsters.

All-inclusive was not exactly true. We paid a supplement for the cellar dinner, extra to rent a cabana at the pool, extra for decent wine. The basics are covered with more food and alcohol than you could reasonably need, but read the fine print to make sure you don’t charge up a big extra bill.

Our large room was nicely outfitted with a flat-screen TV. You could see the ocean if you hung off the railing. A hot tub for two was located on the balcony with a privacy screen. Soaking in the tub while sipping a cold, local Presidente beer was heavenly.

Ultimately, I reached my goal of vacation reading, soaked up some lovely sunshine and paddled around in the aquamarine water. All-inclusive resorts may not be my preferred lodging, but it was worth the exploration.

A seaside holiday in France

Published September, 2012  Battle Creek Enquirer

Fresh oysters at Nopal Brothers at Les Halles.

In the freshest oyster, just opened, you can taste the sea. Biarritz, a lovely French city on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and the border of Spain, you can see, taste, smell and feel the ocean in the food, the air and the warm spirit of the people.

The fortunes of the city have risen and fallen with the sea. Biarritz began as a whaling center in the 12th century. In the 1800s, European doctors recommended to their wealthy clients that the ocean at Biarritz had therapeutic properties. For us, an invitation from old friends prompted us to visit.

Biarritz, in the Basque region, straddles two countries. We flew into Bilbao, Spain – 90 minutes from our destination. Bordeaux, France is two hours the other way.

The city of Biaritzz, France

The town was discovered in 1854, when Empress Eugenie (wife to Napoleon III) built her palace on the beach. On a future visit, I plan to stay at the five-star Hotel du Palais, Imperial Resort and Spa. Why shouldn’t I indulge myself overnight at Eugenie’s palace? We wandered through the landmark hotel’s gardens and Belle Epoque lobby to admire the surf, and we pretended we were royalty.

We, of course, had much nicer accommodations with dear friends, where we laughed, cooked, ate, drank and then laughed some more. In the true French style, we went out every morning to buy fresh baguettes, croissants and sugar brioche (think large round doughnuts) to enjoy with our café au lait.

Eating, shopping for food, preparing food, and eating again were the primary aspects of the rhythm of French life and a terrific one for over-tired Yanks on vacation. Our daily walk was to the covered market, Les Halles, which stays open until 1:30 p.m. We first visited the Nopal brothers’ (Jean and Marc) oyster bar for the bargain price of six euros for six oysters and glass of wine ($7.50). The center of the room was filled with fresh fish of every kind. In the next hall were vegetables, fruits, cheese, poultry and meat, laid out in one tempting display after another.

Filling our bags with local cheeses and a fresh chicken to roast, we stopped by the Milwaukee Café, with American style counter service with baked goods, coffee and fresh juice. I wanted carrot cake, but had some tasty green beverage with carrot juice instead. I understand their pancakes are delicious, but we were past breakfast and rounding the corner to lunch.

A few hours on the beach were required before eating again. Biarritz has several choices including the La Grande Plage, where we parked ourselves on the sand. A long boardwalk filled with umbrella-topped tables provided a welcome break when we tired of the sand and surf. The waves were dotted with neoprene-clad people waiting for their big ride. I settled for a mystery novel, vowing that next time I would sign up for those surfing lessons.

A wonderful fish entree at Le Surfing.

The best surfing beach was a couple of coves over at the La Cotes des Basques. We visited a great restaurant on the same beach, appropriately called Le Surfing. It’s a special place to watch the surfers and the sunset while enjoying an excellent well-priced meal ranging from burgers to excellent fresh fish.

Biarritz caters to an upscale, summer clientele and featuring several lovely shopping streets. I went directly to the Jean-Vier linen store to browse Basque tablecloths. These brightly striped linens reflect the Basque traditions of the region.

Our last stop was to buy a Gateau Basque. The torte-like cake, with its crumbly almond texture, was the perfect ending to one of many terrific meals with friends in one of France’s most charming seaside cities.

Simply Not…a More Congenial Spot — Bermuda

Published in the Chronicle/Advisor

Nothing was dark and stormy when we landed in Bermuda, except the name of the island’s national drink. That “Dark and Stormy” is a wonderful combination of Black Seal rum and locally brewed ginger beer (similar to ginger ale, but a bit more ‘ginger-y’).  Locals drink their Dark and Stormies with wedges of lime. I suggest you drink lots of them, alternating with Rum Swizzles, another local favorite.

You don’t have to travel far off shore from North Carolina (642 miles to be exact) to get to this tiny, affluent British territory. The British sensibility overlaid with the island vibe recalls days of the former Empire when Britannia ruled the waves. Settled in 1609, Bermuda made the international map in 1883 when one of the then-royals, Princess Louise, the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, visited during the winter and called it ”a place of eternal spring.”

It was a nostalgic long weekend for my husband and me; we had honeymooned on the island almost 20 years ago. Just like with us, significant changes in the island were visible, including a great deal of development— but the same charm emanated from the brightly colored buildings with their unique white roofs, consisting of limestone wedges set in a stair step design.

We stayed the Fairmont Hamilton Princess, a huge pink resort downtown called the “pink palace” by locals. The hotel, open for 125 years, had many nice qualities including a fabulous location on the water. Our room, in the main section of the hotel was a bit tired, as sometimes happens with large high volume hotels. Ask for one of the Tower Rooms, which are larger and have a balcony.

We started with high tea served in the Heritage Court. Not as terrific as other high teas, for example the Peninsula in Hong Kong and Chicago, but well priced and quite adequate. How can you fault a three tiered plates, filled with 6 types of sandwiches, sweet things, scones, clotted cream and a lovely pot of Earl Grey tea?

Take the free boat over to the Fairmont Southampton (the hotel’s sister property). That’s where you’ll find the tennis courts, golf course and lovely sand beaches. Several hours spent lounging on the sand, looking at the aquamarine waves will restore anyone to sanity. The sand wasn’t really pink there, rather very fine and white, but who really cares? If I were to choose again, I would pick the sister hotel for its amenities, even though it is even larger and was packed to the gills with convention groups. These hotels offer specials and packages all year long, so shop well before booking.

Public transportation is plentiful and cheap— buses and ferries operate all day and night. We took the ferry from Hamilton to the biggest tourist attraction, the Royal Naval Dockyard. To be honest, it was disappointing from a shopping point of view. Sure, you could buy the famous Bermuda Rum Cake right from the factory, and the local potter produces unique pieces, but most of the shops were over-the-top touristy. All of the gigantic cruise ships dock here as well, disgorging torrents of tourists. To be fair, we didn’t take in the Bermuda Maritime Museum or the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo, Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute, or the Botanical Garden, so maybe we didn’t give the area a fair chance to impress. We did have a mean Dark and Stormy at the Bonefish Bar and Grill while waiting for the ferry to return, however.

A few words are in order about Goslings Black Seal rum, the local standard that can also be found in the States.  Like much of the history of the island, it was the strategic location of the island on the trade route to the Americas that brought the first Gosling to its shores. In 1806, James Gosling had a royal charter to start a wine and spirits business in the New World and was transporting a huge fortune in spirits when his ship was becalmed for 91 days.  His charter from the Crown ran out and he put in to the nearest port, where he established a distillery. A family business, it is the only company that blends and bottles in Bermuda, and the largest exporter of a Bermuda made product.  A tip:  buy several bottles at the airport duty free before you leave the Island.     The local liquor stores sell it, as well, but with hefty local taxes adding significantly to the price.

Rum is also the key ingredient in another Bermudian favorite, fish chowder.  Local fresh fish, in addition to the chowder, should not be missed. We had one unfortunate, if inexpensive, meal at an Italian restaurant while visiting and would strongly recommend you stick to fish! Outerbridges Original Sherry Peppers, a mild hot sauce, is another critical ingredient to the chowder.  A terrific souvenir and locally produced product, Outerbridges sauces (in various flavors) are unique and tasty.

If you truly want to be a Bermudian, you need to fully understand the use of the word “hot.” Here it doesn’t refer to the weather or attractiveness. If you have had several tots of the local rum, you may be considered “hot.” A few more Dark and Stormy and you’re feeling no pain, then you progress to “full hot.” If you lose track of the days and your family is about to officially report you missing, you’re on a “Royal Full Hot.”

The advanced states of “hotness” can be easily remedied with a meal at any of a number of tremendous restaurants. One evening, we ate at the Flying Fish, a new restaurant down the street from the Fairmont Hamilton. Fresh local fish including the irresistible local tuna, wahoo, mahi mahi, mussels, crab, lobster are prepared daily. Upstairs, the sushi chef was sending platters of lovely looking sushi to diners all around us. We ordered the tuna steak, pan seared with balsamic teriyaki sauce and roasted garlic and the striped sea bass with a lemon caper saffron sauce. Their oysters are so fresh they are swimming in tanks.

A classic dining and lodging choice on the island is the Fourways Inn. First opened in 1727, Fourways certainly qualifies as a Bermuda original. They have a lovely gourmet restaurant with a classic French menu. A budget tip is to travel to the island between November through March, when Fourways Inn is part of a great value dine around package where you can sample various restaurants as part of your hotel package— this is also the spiny lobster season! We’ve always wanted to stay at Fourways’ Cottage Colony, suites nestled around their pool and gardens.

The cottage idea was started at another premier lodging choice, Cambridge Beaches Resort and Spa. This wonderful escape is located on a private peninsula with 30 secluded acres with four private beaches at the far end of the island before you reach the Naval Dock Yards. Maybe it is just the nostalgia of the place where we honeymooned, but the property still looks great.

Bermuda packs so much into a small crescent shaped island—enough variety for the adventurous and tranquility for those looking to just lay about the beach.  Think about a vacation to Bermuda while humming the title song from the old movie, “Camelot.”

“It’s true, it’s true, the crown has made it clear. The climate must be perfect all the year.” With apologies to King Arthur— in short, there’s simply not a more congenial spot, for happy ever after-ing than the island of Bermuda.