By Linsey Schluter
A recent visit to Sicily has our family reconsidering our long-held view on travelling, the essence of which is that we can never visit the same place twice. Two notions lie at the heart of this principle. The first being that you will never have quite the same experience again, and the second is that the world is far too big and life far too short! But Sicily is one place we would go back to again and again.
For those not immediately familiar with Sicily (beyond vague ideas of the Cosa Nostra, Sicily’s infamous mafia), it is the Mediterranean’s largest island, situated just off the boot of Italy. Sicily itself is a bit of a hidden gem. The majority of visitors to Sicily remain local Italians, while visitors from France, Germany and the United Kingdom make up 45% of foreign tourists. I’d wager that most South Africans visiting Italy still stick to the mainland’s flagship destinations of Rome, Venice, Florence and Tuscany, without hopping over to explore Sicily’s secrets. But those who do will find Sicily creeping into their heart forever.
5 Must-see Places in Sicily
Most visitors head to Sicily’s east coast, taking in Catania, Taormina and Messina. And no wonder, the rich history and beautiful architecture of the region is hard to beat. Perched on a cliff over 200 metres high, the old town of Taormina offers incredible views over the sea and Mount Etna. It is a Sicilian paradise. But we went against the grain, flying into Palermo before heading west to the tiny village of Scopello, tucked away in a cove on Sicily’s northwest coast.
With views over the Med, pretty cobbled lanes, a warm welcome and relaxed atmosphere, Scopello is the perfect escape.
Tonnara di Scopello is Scopello’s old tuna fishery. Long since abandoned as a fishery, and overlooking an impossibly beautiful bay – the building is a monument to Sicily’s ancient sea traditions. It is also home to hundreds of cats. An old tuna factory overrun by cats (who are, by the way, talkative and affectionate) – my boys loved it. There is a dive centre down at Tonnara di Scopello and we booked a snorkelling excursion to a neighbouring bay. The aquamarine waters around Scopello are warm and crystal clear. Throw in fresh apricots and a bottle of Sicilian wine enjoyed on the side of the boat and it was as close to perfection as you will ever get.
2. San Vito Lo Capo
Sicily is spoilt with sandy beaches, pebbled coves and easy swimming. Its most beautiful beaches include Calamosche in the south, Isola Bella (literally meaning ‘beautiful island’) just off Taormina and Torre Salsa, a nature reserve/beach managed by the World Wide Fund for Nature and a haven for peregrine falcons and loggerhead sea turtles.
I was looking for warm, lake-like swimming and so we headed to San Vito Lo Capo – a long stretch of beach on the very tip of Trapani’s northern peninsula. A favourite of local Sicilians and Italians alike, the beach was busy (and very, very hot) but the almost unbelievably blue water did not disappoint and we spent a happy afternoon lolling in the sea and licking ice cream in the sun.
Escape San Vito’s summer crowds by exploring the nearby Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro, Sicily’s first natural reserve, where pristine beaches (and wonderful snorkelling) can be reached by steep cliff paths.
The Baroque town of Modica, in the southeast of the island, hides many a Sicilian gem within its walls. Destroyed in an earthquake in 1693, Modica was rebuilt as a city of art and culture, boasting late Baroque architecture, churches, bell towers and palazzi. Known for its cheese, chocolate and cannoli, Modica is a foodie’s dream. Wander Modica’s streets, squares and steps, seeking out its quaint cheese shops, cafes and trattorias.
Sicily is the perfect destination for people wanting an immersive local experience. Teresa Richardson, Managing Director of The Travel Corporation South Africa (whose Trafalgar itineraries offer unforgettable ‘Be My Guest’ experiences) explains that Sicilians are fiercely proud of their heritage and passionate about sharing it with visitors to the island.
“In Sicily, with Trafalgar’s Be My Guest experience, guests can visit local Maria Marano’s wine farm, before being invited into the kitchen to enjoy local appetisers, secret family recipes and gorgeous chocolate – all paired with the family’s favourite wine,” says Teresa.
Visit a local chocolatier and delight in the history and tradition of Modican chocolate, still produced in the same way the Aztecs once did, a legacy left behind by the Spanish conquistadors.
I’m not sure the island’s towering (and very much active) volcano can be described as a ‘hidden’ gem, but a visit to Etna remains a highlight for any first-time visitor to Sicily. And while a visit to the summit is impressive enough (we took a cable car and then hopped in a jeep for a drive to the top), you can also hike Etna’s lunar landscape or ski down the slopes in winter.
Keen runners should look out for the Etna Marathon or Etna Trail series – a bucket list experience for anyone keen to run on the slopes of a living, breathing volcano.
5. Alcantara Gorge
Located on the northern slopes of Mount Etna, the stunning Alcantara Gorge is often overlooked by tourists. Here is where the Alcantara River flows through a unique, stone-walled gorge over 300 000 years old. Shaped by Etna’s lava and the unrelenting flow of the river, the gorge has many pools, inlets and waterfalls, including the Venus waterfall, where legend has it that Venus, goddess of beauty, bathed and swam.
Don a wetsuit for an unforgettable body rafting and canyoning experience in the gorge, undoubtedly one of Italy’s most beautiful geological wonders.
We loved the local food, especially arrancini (traditional rice balls filled with ragu and peas), crocchè (mashed potato croquettes), cannoli (tube-shaped pastry shells filled with ricotta and chocolate) and an abundance of fresh seafood and seasonal fruit; great wines; the warm hospitality of the Sicilian people and the incomparable beauty of the island.
One can happily get lost in bustling Palermo (Sicily’s capital), ancient Syracuse or picture-perfect Taormina. The island boasts colourful markets, local produce and fantastic weather. It’s a great place to connect with the locals, reconnect with your family and revel in Italy’s ‘good life.’ And so, as we save and budget and plan for our next trip, it’s a Mediterranean siren’s call we hear: Sicily! Sicily! Sicily!