Just Back: Soulful Sicily

Limor Decter of Embark Beyond returned to Sicily and fell in love all over again with the Italian destination. She is back with this detailed report.

Sicily is food for the soul. Actually, Sicily is feast—a feast for the mind body and soul. Sicily will reawaken your senses.

Sicily has been seducing me for years with its culture, history, art, gastronomy and beautiful landscapes. It has a mystic allure that touches your soul.

Goethe called Sicily “piece of paradise” on Earth. Once you have seen or tasted its beauty, you, too, will agree. It’s about time that Sicily is finally getting the love and attention it deserves—it is a spectacular destination. While “The White Lotus” highlighted some of its beauty on screen, it has failed to capture the essence of Sicily, an enchanting island filled with a symphony of flavors and colors. Sicilians are brimming with life.

Limor Decter in Sicily
Decter and her husband have visited Italy many times over the past 40 years because they love “the Italian spirit.” (Photo Courtesy Limor Decter)

My husband and I visited Sicily in October 2022 after postponing our trip from the year prior. I refer to our visit as “whet-the-appetite” trip. We visited Palermo and Taormina for a few days with a quick stop in Agrigento. Truthfully, we needed more time to absorb and digest Sicily. We needed more time to spend with our local friends Salvatore and Guido from Sicily Lifestyle and Viviana and Peppe from Essence of Italy who inspired me to visit Sicily in the first place. I am already dreaming to return.

Our visits to Italy have been inextricably linked with life milestones. Italy was our first vacation as new parents 30 years ago after our son was born. Back then, we wanted to revisit the cities we loved as backpackers, and we also wanted to explore and celebrate parenthood in new regions. Sicily beckoned me when I became a new nonna to our first granddaughter. One never needs a reason to visit Italy, but we used our grandparenthood to celebrate in Sicily. We have been fortunate to visit Italy many times over the past 40 years and we keep returning to Italy, a most beloved country, for great reason. We love the Italian spirit—the people, the hugs, the love, the loudness, the warmth, the food, the scenery—that’s amore.

The Cathedral of Palermo
The Cathedral of Palermo, built by the Normans in the 12th century, is one of the most important architectural monuments in Sicily. (Photo Courtesy Limor Decter)

Sicily, the Mediterranean’s largest island, is roughly the size of Massachusetts, with each region so distinct it’s as if Palermo and Taormina are two separate universes. The Romans, Greeks, Normans, Spaniards, Phoenicians and Arabs have conquered Sicily and each nationality has left an indelible mark on the island. The Sicilian heritage is a layered mix of history and cultures all influenced by the conquests evident in the traditions, architecture, dialect and Sicilian food. Everyday life in Sicily is bursting with flavor, and we certainly tried to savor it all.

We started our trip in Palermo at the fabulous Villa Igiea. When I saw Sir Rocco Forte at ILTM Cannes recently, I thanked him for his extraordinary gift to Palermo. This hotel is reason enough to visit the city. Villa Igiea is truly a living legacy to the history of Palermo and the Florio family, the original owners of the 19th-century palatial resort located just 10 minutes away from city center. It was originally designed by Ernesto Basile and built in Sicilian Art Nouveau style. The Rocco Forte brand has meticulously restored the five-star resort, highlighting the pictures and artifacts of the Florio family yet modernizing it with all luxurious modern amenities.

The Villa Igiea bar
The Villa Igiea bar, with vaulted-stone ceilings and frescos, has a cocktail menu with innovative twists on modern classics. (Limor Decter)

When I entered our incredibly spacious George V suite, with sweeping terraces overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, I shrieked with giddy excitement. I felt like a principessa! The lavish suite was designed by Olga Polizzi with classic antiques and magnificent fabrics. The suite is well-appointed and super comfortable, featuring a huge Carrara marble bathroom with Sicilian floor tiles. The hotel offers exceptional cuisine and white glove service. The Irene Forte spa and skincare line is excellent. Our day started with breakfast at the elegant Belle Epoque Louis XVI restaurant as I piped fresh cream into homemade cannoli and dipped it into nuts. After all, Sicily is the land of cannoli, amongst so many other delicacies. We enjoyed our exquisite al fresco meals, overlooking the gardens and the sea. The romantic bar with the vaulted-stone ceilings and frescos is a perfect place for an aperitvo or nightcap.

Viviana at Essence of Sicily selected the perfect Palermitani guide. Guisi was beaming with pride, showing us her native city while sharing urban tales as we explored the maze-like alleys of the city. I couldn’t confess my love for “The Godfather” movie or music because Sicily is so much more than that stereotype. However, within five minutes of our city tour, I stumbled onto an accordionist, who was playing the theme from “The Godfather”—a perfect welcome to Palermo.

Villa Igiea
At Villa Igiea, one can enjoy al frescodining, overlooking the gardens and the Tyrrhenian Sea. (Photo Courtesy Limor Decter)

Palermo is a vibrant city filled with street food, street art and street noise set amongst famous cultural institutions like the imposing Cathedral, Teatro Massimo, Norman Palace and Quattro Canti. The streets echo with artifacts and memories of the ancient invaders. We toured the Mercato del Capo open-air market with seasonal fruits, vegetables, fish and cheese. I loved the juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern in Palermo. I felt the city’s vibrancy and saw its youthful spirit. It feels like Palermo is undergoing a rejuvenation while still embracing its past.

Our next stop was Agrigento, home to the Valley of the Temples, the most famous archeological site in Sicily. We were more excited to meet up with Viviana than to explore the Valley of the Temple. Travel is always about connecting—connecting to the place or connecting to the people. While the ruins and its history is fascinating, we felt that spending the afternoon with Viviana, a native Agrigentian who gave up her Sunday afternoon to be with us, was way more impressive. Viviana arranged a memorable picnic lunch at Kolymebtra Garden amongst ancient citrus trees, almond and olive trees. Our lunch was a feast of Sicilian dishes and delicacies. Viviana shared the scents and flavors and tales of her hometown.

San Domenico Palace, Taormina, a Four Seasons Hotel
San Domenico Palace, Taormina, a Four Seasons Hotel opened in July 2021.  The hotel was originally built as a convent in the 14th-century before becoming a hotel in 1896. (Photo Courtesy Limor Decter)

We then zigzagged across the country to Taormina, passing a diverse landscape of mountains, beaches, active volcanoes, and historic towns. Sicily’s vastness can be felt on the drive across the island. Taormina is perched on a rocky promontory, high above the Ionian Sea. It has a long history as a tourist destination since the days of Byzantine and Roman rulers. The panoramic vista views overlooking the Bay of Naxos is unforgettable. Taormina is a unique and charming village filled with beautifully restored medieval buildings and charming cobblestone streets strewn with boutique shops and cafés.

We stayed at the incredible San Domenico Palace, Taormina, a Four Seasons Hotel just steps away from the main town. It opened in July 2021. The hotel was originally built as a convent in the 14th-century before becoming a hotel in 1896, welcoming an impressive guest list of celebrities and dignitaries. The Four Seasons renovated and restored this architectural gem and the hotel is now the perfect union of the ancient and the modern design. Architect Valentina Pisani and Rosaria Catania Cucchiara supervised the historical restoration of the lavish resort.

San Domenico Palace, Taormina, a Four Seasons Hotel
San Domenico Palace, Taormina, a Four Seasons Hotel has a clifftop infinity pool. (Photo Courtesy Limor Decter)

History prevails throughout the hotel with its Medieval art, frescos, antiques and sculptures set amongst contemporary furnishings. Our room was in the historic convent building with nave-like corridors and vaulted ceilings surrounded by Medieval artifacts. The room was spacious in soothing earth tones and our balcony suite overlooked the gorgeous gardens and cerulean sea.

The hotel is carved into the cliffs offering commanding views of Mount Etna and the sea beneath. The flourishing lush gardens, overlooking the pool deck is filled with orange and lemon trees, colorful hibiscus plants and rows of lavender and jasmine. The scent is intoxicating. We started the day with breakfast on the expansive terrace with views on views. I tried to soak the spectacular beauty, but I kept taking photos and videos to capture the view. We enjoyed the pool area and met so many visitors who were as impressed with the hotel as we were. The hotel has a superlative culinary team, including a Michelin-star restaurant and other great dining options. I loved the whimsical cart offering granita in many flavors—lemon was most refreshing. The service at the hotel was impeccable: The staff was very gracious, friendly and knowledgeable.

Photo Courtesy Limor Decter
At Four Seasons San Domenico Palace, this cart offers granita in many flavors. (Photo Courtesy Limor Decter)

Sicily Lifestyle, a destination management company with deep roots and connections in Taormina and Sicily, arranged our city tour. Margret ushered us through the town as we made our way to Teatro Greco, the ancient theater, and the main cultural attraction in Taormina. The theater, built in the third century, is still used today for world class concerts and events. The panoramic vista views of the Mount Etna and Bay of Naxos is breathtaking. It was great to experience the local culture in town and to see the family-owned stores and restaurants without the big brand invasion yet. This plays a huge part of Taormina’s charm.

Our visit to Sicily was truly an immersive experience with history and culture, artisanal food, stunning scenery, and the lively spirit of the Sicilians. Sicily is not one and done. It has officially joined my "wandermust" list—I must return to Sicily to explore and experience more of the island. 

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