Rocco's resort gets spa living off to a tee

Carved into the Sicilian coast is a golf and leisure resort par excellence


Dining by moonlight: at the poolside Buon Giorno restaurant

Dining by moonlight: at the poolside Buon Giorno restaurant

After a few days in the sun, there are three words guaranteed to bring you back to earth harder than a 747 with a blowout: Cold, Rain ... and Luton. The pilot told us to expect all three, in that order, as a wobbly budget jet that seemed to shudder in sympathy, broke through the clouds over Bedfordshire to the sound of trolleys being stashed and air crew strapping themselves in.

Ten minutes later, a handful of Brits and a few well-fed Italian families trudged their way against a spitty cross-wind smudging the mascara of the hostess trying to smile us through to Arrivals.

If the holiday wasn't over before, it was now.

The Sicilian sun seemed a lot more than a two-hour flight away. And as we boarded a commuter-stuffed train, one of us closed his eyes and napped himself back a few days to an entirely different greeting…  

You wouldn't think so to see the fishermen haggling with the locals on the quayside, but life in Sciacca, a traditional coastal town on Sicily's western flank, is as laid back as it gets.

The local polizia tend to ignore their illegal trading, turn a blind eye to dodgily-parked cars and only reluctantly move on street traders. It's a complacency that frustrates younger Sicilians but, for a tourist, there's a charm to the easy living in a place where the weather's warm, the streets are safe and no-one gets too excited about anything.

It's hardly surprising that this part of the Mediterranean's biggest island does little to promote itself. Even its natural gems such as the hot springs that rise up from the sweat grottos of Monte San Calogero tend to be dominated by locals.

So when it was announced that Rocco Forte had chosen 570 acres of local seafront to create his latest, and quite seriously pukka, spa and golf resort, the Verdura, there was more than a little excitement around the trattorias.

My cabbie, who had met and married a local girl while living in - would you believe it - Luton, made a kissing gesture with his fingers as he drew us off the road and over a bit of wasteland to a grassy brow and a security barrier.

"Impressionante, no?" he said.

Just a bit, I thought as we crept our way through a massive ripple of dusty white roads linking a series of striking greens, all cut into olive and citrus groves.

Opening up before us was a vast landscape hugged against the sea by a distant mountain range. Everyone was cycling, strolling or zipping around on electric golf carts. The only sounds were insects and the occasional click from the tee. Cars here merely drop off and pick up.

But it was the smells that remind you how exotic the Mediterranean can be: oranges, sun-blushed and ripening on trees (the very ones I found squeezed into my glass at breakfast), and olives garnished by salt winds from the sea. 

Their marketing people use the word exclusive a lot, which is fair enough as it pretty much is. I didn't see many car workers in the spa; unless they dressed their kids in Armani Junior and do deals via Blackberries by the pool.

It's essentially a place to play golf, relax and eat the sort of food you'd find hard to replicate in any high street Little Italy. I'm not a golfer. The last swing I perfected was the one I put up in the garden for the kids.

I contented myself with the relaxing and eating bit; borrowed a bike, plucked my own orange (right off the branch) and left the golf to those in Rupert Bear trousers. 

There are two 18-hole courses, both designed by Kyle Phillips, the man behind Kingsbarn Links near St Andrews and The Grove in Watford.

There are eight restaurants, including a trattoria built into a 15th-century watchtower and a casual beachfront cafe; a spa and a few children's clubs, which was fitting because they really did seem to accommodate them well, and in an unfussy, tolerant and very Italian way.  

They have the run of the place but you don't see them running; there's a small, discreet and well-staffed compound where they can let off steam and they even have their own pool.

Every one of the 230 rooms, whether those set in tiered terraces on high ground or sunken into the slope towards the sea, have terraces and uninterrupted views of the sea. They're intensely private and behind rustic pastel-stoned, walls and heavy wooden doors which can sometimes seem a little bland. 

But the interiors are anything but. Olga Polizzi, Rocco Forte's sister, designed them with a brief to marry modern luxury with an authentic Sicilian feel. The result was a blend of rich, earthy tones and bright printed fabrics enhancing rooms of four-poster wooden beds, rich, colourful, rugs on polished floors, artful lighting, and locally fired earthenware.  

The beds are low and wide like the TVs, which have loads of free channels and double as internet screens.

Bathrooms are accessed via walk-through wardrobes and there are large black screens you can close across the glass terrace doors at night to keep out the morning sun.

If you can afford it, you can even take the family and hire one of the Presidential villas, which come with private courtyards, outdoor pools - and even a private room for the bodyguard.

The best food is to be found at La Zagara, a fine dining restaurant in the main building. It's pure Mediterranean: beautifully fresh in a healthy, herby, lemon-and-saffron sort of way. Lots of local fish and native wines, as you'd expect. The best experience is to be found at Liola, the trattoria, a stroll, bike or buggy-ride away further up the cliffs.

That was pure Sicily; approached via a short, tree-lined road, it was pure film-set when lit up against a darkening blue sky.  It sat at the end of a courtyard of designer boutiques and a golf shop, a hidden hamlet on your doorstep.

One tip: If you take a golf cart to the restaurant, take something to sit on, or get the staff to wipe the seats, as there may be white dust on your clothes when you get off. And if you take a bike, like I did, prepare to see someone take it back - there are no wheel-locks and it's a bit of free-for-all.

There's a dress code for the restaurants. It's all smart-casual and they discourage flip-flops and shorts, although to be honest, this isn't a place that attracts tattoos and football shirts.

But the real casualwear is reserved for the spa, where people arrive and leave in the dressing gowns hanging in their rooms.

There's something decadent about leaving your front door wrapped in towelling for an outdoor pool rich with healing salts and floating as if in the dead-sea under an evening sun.

It's pricey but there are inclusive deals to cover many of the extras, but even on half-board I paid only around €400 more over three nights for extras including wine, lots of cocktails and a couple of spa treatments.

A return Ryanair flight cost me just over £200 to Tripani, which at an hour's drive away, is as direct as you can get.

But that was no inconvenience as the roads on this part of the island are generally clear.

Unlike Luton. And you can't put a price on that.

Getting there
Verdura Golf and Spa Resort (www.roccofortecollection.com; 00 390925998001), has double rooms from £570 per night with breakfast. Includes a €50 (£42) per day voucher for use in restaurants/bars for guests staying three nights or more; Abercrombie & Kent (www.abercrombiekent.co.uk; 0845 618 2213) offers one week at Verdura from £1,995 per person (based on two sharing) including BA flights, breakfast and Group B car hire from airport

Jewish Sicily
● Jews first arrived in Sicily in early Roman times when they were taken there as slaves by victorious Roman armies. The largest number was taken to the island by Pompey after he sacked Jerusalem in 63 BCE, and by the Roman Proconsul Crassus who sold 30,000 Jews as slaves.
● By the end of the 15th century, there were Jewish settlements, or Giudeccas, in 50 towns in Sicily and its islands, varying from 350 to 5,000 people.
● Jews gradually integrated into island life, becoming involved in medicine, farming and trades such as the production of olive oil.
● Jewish life in Sicily ceased after the Jews were expelled in 1492. For Jewish tours in Ortigia, the old part of Syracuse: www.allagiudecca.it.

    Last updated: 5:33pm, July 19 2010