Italy's Greek island is perfect for a touch of autumn sun

The legacy the Greeks left behind is another reason to love Sicily


September 16, 2010
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The spectacular view from La Pergola over Mazzaro Bay in Taormina on Sicily’s east coast

The spectacular view from La Pergola over Mazzaro Bay in Taormina on Sicily’s east coast

The Greeks knew a good thing when they saw it. Arriving on Sicily's lush eastern coast nearly 3,000 years ago, they settled, prospered and expanded until they had colonised most of this fertile island suspended between Europe and Africa.

Their spirit remains alive and well in what is today an exquisite holiday playground. The fact that the warmest welcome and loveliest hotels and villas are concentrated in the east is attributed by locals to the nous of the commercially-minded Greeks whose descendants are Sicily's congenial hosts.

Their ancestors were not bad architects, either. There is something wonderful about stumbling upon a ruined Temple of Apollo in the heart of Ortigia's modern shopping district, or enjoying music in an ancient amphitheatre high on a hill above trendy Taormina.

This beautiful resort makes an excellent base for Sicily's east coast, though Taormina is a game of two halves - the hilltop town with all the shops and some of the best hotels, and the beach, reached by funicular.

The raison d'etre of the beach is not particularly the pebbly shingle, but the beauty of Mazzaro bay and the views from its seaside accommodations.

It would be impossible to think of a more pleasing villa than La Pergola, an architect-designed property that is part of the portfolio of island experts Think Sicily. It enjoys wrap-around balconies on two floors and huge picture windows overlooking the sea, making eating in a thoroughly delightful prospect. But it would be a shame to miss lunch down the road at the Villa Sant'Andrea, a classy hotel now operated by Orient Express whose great joy is its canopied restaurant overlooking the private beach.

Those who choose to stay at the top of the town will find a pair of five-star hotels - the San Domenico Palace and the Grand Hotel Timeo - which some will find a little gloomily old-fashioned. Hogging the middle ground is Relais & Chateaux's Grand Hotel San Pietro, which just looks traditional, but is actually new-build. A personal favourite is the simpler, but delightful, Paradiso, hidden behind the main drag beside the botanical gardens.

Getting there

Kuoni (01306 747008, www.kuoni.co.uk) offers a selection of Taormina’s top hotels from £825 in season, including five nights with breakfast, scheduled flights to Catania and transfers. Think Sicily (020 7377 8518; www.thinksicily.com) offers La Pergola, which sleeps six, from €3,210 (£2,665) per week in late September or October; they also have a great end of season deal on several other villas, going for €1,500 (£1,246) per week until the end of October. Casa della Fate is bookable through Holiday Lettings (01865 312 059; www.holidaylettings.co.uk). Avis (0844 581 0147; www.avis.co.uk) offers rental cars from Catania and other Italian airports. Caronte &Tourist ferries car and passengers from Calabria to Sicily every 40 minutes, no advance booking required.

An hour south of Taormina is the bustling city of Catania, sitting in the shadow of Etna.

Here is perhaps the finest food market in the world, one good reason for a large family to create their own feast at Think Sicily's finest villa, Don Archangelo all'Olmo.

This special but eye-wateringly-pricey house sleeps up to 24 and has a magnificent swimming pool and its own commanding view of Etna. It also has a resident cook, so we were served on the elegant patio and didn't get to create our own fishy feast the night we crept in for an inspection visit. However, we dashed into Catania the following night just to eat at the island's most celebrated seafood restaurant, the Osteria Antica Marina at the market's edge. Romantic though it is to eat outside, and be serenaded by strolling musicians, those with sensitive noses will find it more fragrant to dine indoors. The fishermen calling there from the boats even before dinner service ends is testament to the freshness of the catch.

Siracusa, a further hour south, is one of Sicily's best-kept secrets, and well worth a visit by any history-lover. It has superb archaelogical parks and its own amphitheatre, while the old city, Ortigia, boasts phenomenal baroque architecture built over a classical structure.

We were delighted to be self-catering during our few days on Ortigia as we slavered over the exquisite produce on display at the daily outdoor market. We rushed home with balls of exquisite buffalo mozzarella and a punnet of the island's famous sweet Pachino tomatoes, sliced them together, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with basil leaves torn from the plants growing in our own courtyard.

We were lucky with that courtyard, where we whiled away many a lazy hour. The Casa della Fate is an ancient building converted into an atmospheric set of holiday apartments complete with beams and other historic features. Most have a sea-view, but only one - ours - has the little patio where it was so delightful to enjoy daytime meals. For breakfast we brought home delicious cannoli from the café at the bottom of the road; this Sicilian speciality, consisting of a fried pastry shell lined with chocolate and filled withfresh ricotta is reason enough to visit Sicily. As is the heretofore-lauded fish, some of the best of which we enjoyed at Ortigia's excellent Porto Marina restaurant, where like every self-respecting restaurant in Sicily, they display their catch of the day as proudly as crown jewels.

One of the best things about staying on Ortigia is the opportunity to catch the changing moods of the magnificent central, elliptical Piazza del Duomo.

Sleepy in the daytime, this is a good time to explore the cathedral built on top of and around fifth-century columns which remain clearly visible both inside and out. The altar, built by Sicily's earliest settlers, pre-dates even the Greek elements by 300 years. By late afternoon, the pavement cafés on the piazza are filling up and this is a perfect time to people-watch. By 10pm, the piazza is sizzling like Saturday night, but soon after midnight it's somnolent once again, like a theatre whose curtain has just come down.

The other great perambulation is around Ortigia's coastline, which will take you past harbour, marina, rocky beaches, street cafés galore and a charming little park filled with the papyrus plants for which the town is famous.

It's worth driving a further half-hour south to discover the 17th-century city of Noto, possibly the most perfectly-preserved baroque jewel in the world. Built by nobility following an earthquake, it was the setting for Antonioni's New Wave film, L'Avventura. A word of warning: those baroque streets are quite hard to find unless you keep asking.

If you head for Noto Antico - which we wrongly took to be the historic centre - you will end up on a wild and woolly road to some much more ancient ruins. The beautiful area you want is known as the centro storico.

Self-caterers should be sure to fly into Catania rather than the better-served Palermo, as the drive across the island is not for the faint-hearted. But another option is to come across from the mainland on the fast and excellent car ferry.

Arriving on the north-east corner of Sicily at Messina, this also offers the tempting prospect of spending a couple of days exploring the intriguing Aeolian Islands off the north coast.

One more thing worth knowing is that despite being so far south, Sicily has a short season. Look for a last-minute bargain between now and the end of October, or wait until the island warms up and starts coming back to life in May.

    Last updated: 11:10am, October 5 2010