6/21: We arrived about 1 hour late taking Continental’s flight from EWR to FCO. After clearing customs, baggage was not difficult to find, nor did it take long to collect. We walked from the International terminal to domestic terminal in 5-10 minutes. The distance is about 2 NYC blocks. I checked our luggage in to Alitalia for the flight from FCO to CTA. The luggage was weighed several pieces at a time. We were entitled to 20kg/person x4 = 80 kg. The gate person was not very adept at math, and although we were over a few kg, we were not asked to pay the overage charge because she got flustered when I pointed out her math error. Having landed about 8:45am, we were now at our gate for the Sicily trip by 10:15am. We were fortunate not to encounter any problems or delays, but now unfortuinate that we had to wait 4 hours for our flight to Sicily.
The Alitalia flight was delayed by about 45 minutes, but otherwise short and pleasant. We had no problems finding our luggage in Catania, and were picked up by John of Sicilian Limousine Services. He was very helpful and informative, even detouring into Giardini-Naxos to show us the beach area before bringing us to our hotel.
Check-in at The San Domenico Palace was uneventful. The front desk claimed to have upgraded us, although the rooms we got were the same as were described upon booking. Please see my review of the hotel. We spent an hour at the small and cold (77 degrees) pool to stay awake and awaken our 10 year old daughters. We ate at Da Nino – this was our first problem. I would expect that the concierge at a premium property such as San Domenico would be familiar with the #1 restaurant (per TA) in the Taormina area, or ask us to choose if there is more than one. After an early and underwhelming dinner at Da Nino, we discovered that there are 3 restaurants by this name in the area, and the concierge had booked the wrong one (i.e., not the #1 rated restaurant). We ate at Da Nino on the beach in Letojanni, and not the one in Taormina proper. My wife had her first taste of Sicilian spaghetti and clams, and was very disappointed. I ate a plain grilled fish that was simple but good. Despite over 100 hours of planning for this trip, I never thought I would have to provide addresses of restaurants to our concierge. Taxicabs are fairly outrageously priced in Taormina. We paid 30 euros each way for transportation to and from the restaurant.
6/22: We slept from about 10pm to 1pm the next day. After rising, we walked to the funivia and visited Lido Spisone. Again, despite my research, I did not fully understand the beach situation in Taormina. The private beaches provide a beach chair, sometimes a towel, and umbrella, for a fee. Some beaches provide transportation between the hotel and beach (left our hotel at 9, 10 ,11am, and return at 3,4,5pm), also included in the fee. We arrived on the beach around 3pm, and negotiated a half-day fee w/ the “lifeguard” of 32 euros for 4 people. I wish the Italian system would catch on in the US, regarding paying for lounge chairs and umbrellas, as I am planning a trip to New York this month, and may have to buy some lounge chairs for a single days use at the beach.
The beach was pebbly and the water cold. We ate a sandwich on the beach. There were red jelly fish, which kept my daughters out of the water. After taking the beach-provided bus ride back to the hotel, we wandered around town and enjoyed our first gelato. Despite all the ratings I read before the visit, I never had a bad gelato in Italy. Some were bigger and some were superior in consistency, some of the owners were very nice and other were unpleasant, but they all were delicious.
We ate at Al Sarenco this evening. Our taxi up the hill was 25 euros. The driver was very pleasant, and took pictures of us at the peak overlooking the Greek theater. This restaurant has 2 great features – the owner is very personable and pleasant, and the view is amazing. During the sunset hours, we had panoramic views of Mt. Etna and the bay. Unfortunately, it got chilly after sunset, and we had to move indoors. The appetizers were good- a fried fish plate (calamari and small shrimp) and cold grilled and pickled vegetables w/ salami. Unfortunately, the fish pastas were a little too fishy, particularly the fish ravioli. I later heard that Al Sarenco makes the best pizzas in Taormina, and I would definitely return and try the pizzas. Before dinner, I rented a car at the Avis in town and left the car at the hotel for the night. Unless you regularly drive a standard shift, DO NOT rent a standard shift. This mistake made for amusing but unpleasant driving. One additional hotel perk is free valet parking.
I had been warned about driving in Taormina, but was not prepared for the reality of trying to drive a standard (last standard driven was in high school- 25 years ago) on the narrow and hilly streets. I recall driving in Positano w/ an automatic without any problems, so I think the standard is what provided the biggest challenge, combined w/ the hills. If I had to do it over again, I would have skipped the car and taken taxis everywhere, or rented a car w/ auotomatic transmission. Although the taxis were expensive, the car was also expensive, costing more than the taxis for local transportation. We rented the car to drive to Siracusa (see below) and to have the freedom to wander to the different beaches.
6/23: The next day we went to Siracusa. I tried to rouse the group early, but could not get on the road until 9:30am. We had our first breakfast at the hotel. I hate to be too severe a critic of the hotel, but I would have been more impressed with a more authentic Italian/ Sicilian breakfast. Instead, there was the same stuff found at most upscale hotels – croissants (aren’t they French?), eggs, bacon, sausage, smoked salmon, yogurts, cereals, breads and pastries. My most pleasant memory o a Positano breakfast was being served warm sfogliatelle. On the plus side, the juice was fresh, and they did have fresh ricotta and prosciutto (on request). However, there were no other Italian pastries or breakfast items. Another annoyance – for $1400/night, I think the waiters, most of whom are standing around talking to each other, can pour your water and juice, rather than having to get up and self-serve at the buffet. But I digress.
The drive to Siracusa was fairly uneventful, until we got off the freeway. We wandered around until we found Ortygia, and the parking lot at its entrance. Signs were not very useful after we left the freeway, and virtually non-existent in Ortygia. ***A very important point – please plan your itinerary on a map, so that you need not wander aimlessly looking for items of interest. While I had read about these places if interest, they were not easy to find***
We walked around town until we found our lunch restaurant - Ristorante Oinos di Ivo Vatti. This was the first meal that I can say we thoroughly enjoyed in Sicily. The red shrimp crudo were delicious – even my wife, who likes her seafood cooked, enjoyed this dish. We spend the next hour investigating Ortygia. We found an interesting museum, and were surprised to find the fortress at the tip of the island locked up (we were told it was a military base). We then drove to the Greek theater – after a short visit, the kids were ready for the trip back to the hotel. BTW, the navigator that we rented from Avis was not at all helpful. It functioned electronically, but could not accurately place the car on any roads that we travelled.
That evening, we ate at Il Barcaiolio. Our cab left us at the top of several steps (over 100), which led down to the beach. The restaurant is quaint, and would likely be romantic without children. The children did enjoy more beach time while we waited for our meal. Our waitress was a transplant from Great Britain, and very nice. My wife had spaghetti and clams again, and was pleasantly surprised that these were much better than our first try (at Da Nino). I had pasta con sardi – I don’t like sardines, but I thought I had to try this dish in Sicily. It was palatable, but not my favorite. I felt in this restaurant the same way I had felt the night before. The surroundings are fantastic – overlooking a beautiful beach and bay, and the people are so nice, that you really want to love the food. But, unfortunately, the food is just okay. We continued our trend of trying the local wines – like the food, the wine was gopod but nothing I would return for. The culinary highpoint of the night was our daily gelato stop in Taormina.
6/24: The next day, nothing had changed at breakfast. Again, it would be nice if the hotel varied their offerings, especially some hot Sicilian specialties. This morning, we visited the Greek theater in Taormina. It was better preserved than the one in Siracusa. Considering our bad luck with the car, and our less than outstanding trip to Siracusa, in retrospect, I could have skipped the day trip to Siracusa. This theater gave my children enough “Greek ruin” experience without the 2 hour car ride. We stopped in to the hotel Timeo, near the Greek theater, but fairly isolated from it. I have read multiple times from Vagabonda that Timeo is in a busy part of town, and I would agree that accessing the door near the Greek theater entrance is very busy, and not very attractive, with hoards of trinket sellers. I don’t know if there are any other entrances. We looked at the beautiful public rooms and terrace. The view from the terrace was clearly superior to our view, as it had both Mt. Etna and the bay in a panoramic view. The gardens looked very attractive from the terrace. We did not get close enough to the pool for comment, nor did we check out any rooms. We then walked to the public gardens, which were very beautiful. I can never get enough bougainvillea.
After returning to our hotel to pick up the car, we drove to Giardini-Naxos to find a sandy beach. Vagabonda warned me that parking would be difficult. However, I usually manage to find street parking in NYC, which is a formidable challenge to most people. All the beaches in the US have parking lots. To understand the parking situation in Sicily, think of a major city street abutting the beach, without additional parking for beach goers. I finally deciphered the signs for public parking, and walked over 1 mile looking for a functioning muni-meter. I found two that were both broken. I finally gave up, and was willing to pay any ticket I might receive. The beach fees here were less expensive: 9 euros for two chairs and an umbrella. The children loved this beach (Lido Sayonara), because it had fine sand that they could play in. The water was still cold, but the kids ran in and out of the water playing at the water’s edge for several hours. Part of this beach’s beauty is the surrounding mountains on which perch Taormina. The drive back to the hotel was full of white-knuckled excitement. At one point, I was driving up what I thought was a one way street, entering a busier street where cars were whipping out from a hidden street. The car in front of me stopped short of the precipice, necessitating my trying to engage 1st gear, without rolling back and killing the guy on the moped, and while not being hit by unseen traffic. And the cherry on the cake was someone who wanted to turn into my “one-way” street. I think my wife’s screaming deterred him and he found a different route. After burning up half the clutch, I arrived safely at the hotel, looking forward to diving into an ice cold martini w/ dinner.
Tonight, we ate at the Michelin one star in our hotel, Principe Cerami. Despite the supposed formality of the restaurant, several male patrons wore uncollared shirts and jeans. The restaurant is extremely small- 6-8 tables. The terrace is very nice, but not as nice as at the view from the hotel Timeo. Here, the waiters and waitresses were more “stiff” and unfriendly. I was warned that I should stick to less expensive places, especially by Vagabonda, and perhaps our experience proved others correct. The food was no better or worse than any of the less expensive places. Do I really need a water menu? – tap, sparkling or still choices really suffice for me, and only suggest pretension. I was most surprised that the waiter seemed so inflexible about preparing plain items for the children (ie, they serve squid that are poached or sautéed, so why couldn’t they slice some, throw some flour on them, and quick fry them for my daughter (ie, calamari)). They seemed insulted by the request. We regularly dine at some of the best places around the world, and I do NOT find this attitude often. Specifically, I do not usually find that high prices equate to stuffy and inflexible service. Most places, no matter how formal, are usually able to accommodate my children and some of their requests. Like other nights, the culinary high point was the post-meal gelato for which we walked into town. We also ate our first Sicilian cannoli – pretty good for minimal research.
6/25: Our last full day in Taormina, we wanted to make it to Isola Bella, so we drove to the parking lot at the bottom of the funivia. We walked over to Isola Bella – not as easy a task as one may think, as you are jeopardizing life and limb to walk on the heavily trafficked road. Again, the road that connects the beaches is hilly, wider than some streets, but heavily trafficked w/ cars driving fairly quickly. The other problem, recognized at the top, were the many steps to the beach. Anyone going to Taormina should work on a Stairmaster for at least 1 month before travel. This beach was more expensive, and we had to coax towels out of the lifeguard. The beach has smooth rocks rather than sand. It was amusing watching the girls try to build a “rock” castle. We all had fun walking to Isola Bella. There were fewer jellyfish today. The water was still too cold for much swimming or snorkeling. We had brought masks, but the kids were not interested. Our family is used to the warm water of the Caribbean – 85 degrees or more. After a few hours, the children wanted to return to the sand beach, so we drove back to Giardini-Naxos. Today was the only day where I can say the car was useful, but not essential, to explore more than one beach.
We parked in the same place (BTW, I never got a ticket). We were all hungry for lunch, and looked for a restaurant off the beach. We were very lucky to find La Vela. I am wondering why I bothered doing all the research that I did, considering this was the best meal (so far) that we had enjoyed in Sicily, and we had just serendipitously picked it. During lunch, we sat next to and spoke to a local tour guide (who was chatting w/ the owners) about Da Nino and Vagabonda. I don’t know if he was trying to make me feel good, but he assured me that we had eaten at the better Da Nino. Our limousine driver also knew Vagabonda. It seems like everyone knows of Vagabonda, but no one knows the actual person. The tour guide had even communicated with Vagabonda, and he told me that Vagabonda knew all about his family. Everyone who I spoke to respects Vagabonda’s judgement. I was very surprised that every dish we ordered at La Vela was superb – the pastas, the fish, and the meat. Feeling satisfied that I had finally found some good Sicilian cooking, we enjoyed our last afternoon on Lido Sayonara. I very gladly returned my car to Avis after climbing the mountain roads. Our final car chapter includes the Avis dealership not being open at the agreed upon return time. After we circled the block a few harrowing times, and almost had a bus hit us, the Avis dealership opened, and I handed over the keys. He did not seem interested that the GPS system did not work.
For our last night, we ate at Licchio’s. On our way to the restaurant, there was a mini-parade of fancy Sicilian carts and horses. We enjoyed this dinner the most of any in Taormina. The food was fantastic. The fish was very fresh. Unfortunately, due to the great lunch, we could not eat our whole meal, but we tasted several dishes. We met the owner. If we return, I would like to take a cooking class, offered at the restaurant.
6/26 Our departure from Taormina was happily uneventful. Sicilian Limousine Service dropped us at the airport, and Alitalia was only 30 minutes late in departing. I will continue this story on the Rome TA, as we spent 5 nights in Rome as well.
To summarize: The hotel was beautiful, but the breakfasts were only acceptable and not outstanding. The interactions with the concierge(s) were irritating – they were somewhat helpful, but never gave the feeling they were “on your side” to find the best restaurants and best way to get around Taormina. I would have liked to spend more time around the hotel, enjoying the pool and gardens; and have an aperitif before dinner in the historic and beautiful bar.
You do not need to study Italian to visit Sicily (for the purposes of travelling in major cities). Virtually everyone spoke some English, and were very pleasant in trying to communicate, except our concierges, who I heard speaking French and other languages. BTW, Rosetta Stone is pretty useless for tourist-oriented conversation. I know how to say “The children run” and “ the ladies read the newspaper” in Italian but not “how much for the taxi?”
I spent several hours working on the lowest cost currency conversion. The most successful part of this research revealed that the CapitalOne Venture card charges $0 for foreign transaction fee, and uses the WSJ rate to convert. AMEX charges 2.7% and Mastercard charges 3% to convert euros to dollars. I also re-activated an old ATM so that I would have access to two checking accounts, in the event one failed. I wanted to maximize withdrawals to minimize ATM fees of $1.50/transaction. I later found out that all the Italian ATMs have a 250 euro maximum/transaction (despite my banks having $1000/day maximums), so I could not “beat” the relatively high ATM fees.
I am very glad that we visited the different beaches – they each were charming and very different. I wish the water was warmer, and I did not expect jellyfish. Parking is difficult, but not impossible. If I return, I will likely take a taxi to and from the beaches and skip the car rental. I will also explore more beaches north of Mazzeo. If I had 2 more days, I might visit Etna or the Aeolian islands.
If I ever rent a car in Italy, I will definitely rent an automatic. Thinking back through my most terrifying times driving, they all revolved around using a clutch on hills. I do not think it would have been nearly as stressful w/ an automatic car, even with the very narrow and hilly streets, and the people co-occupying the streets without sidewalks.
Regarding Tripadvisor, Vagabonda is a wonderful resource, and helped tremendously in my planning. I wish there was some way I could repay her for the advice she provided. My research would have been more efficient if the TA forums had categories.
Regarding the trip to Siracuse, I would definitely rent a tour guide, as I feel the trip was less than satisfying because we likely missed several great attractions. Without someone to provide historical perspective, ruins are less than thrilling. I would also budget more time in the city, possibly allowing for a boat tour of Ortygia (at least 2 hours), which was recommended, but we ran out of time.
Regarding the city of Taormina, I would like to spend more time, walking up and down the small alleyways to explore “off the beaten track” stores, shops and churches. One half day to hit the high points was not enough, and each night we mainly walked the main drag (Corso Umberto) looking for gelato shops.
Regarding restaurants, I will return to Al Sareno for pizza, Licchios for dinner and possibly a cooking course, and will look for more places off the main concourses. Overall, the other places we visited had some dishes that were memorable, but most were not. The owners and waitstaff were mostly very friendly, and I agree w/ Vagabonda regarding Michelin stars not counting for much in Sicily except greater expense.