A leopard changing its spots

With its dramatic landscape and stunning antiquities, Sicily’s south-west coast was never short of attractions. Now a handful of luxury developments is spawning high-end activity island-wide. Julian Allason reports.

May 05 2010
Julian Allason

The old narrow gauge railway line clings to Sicily’s rugged south-west coast as it has for scores of years, its rusting rails overhung by olive and citrus trees. All is a picture of gorgeous, slightly dishevelled abandonment – save for the recently refurbished station at Ribera, which gleams brightly in the sun. By a door marked “Capostazione”, a vaguely familiar figure can be glimpsed sitting in the station master’s office. It is Sir Rocco Forte. He is not, however, playing trains.

The abandoned line bisects the fertile valley of the River Verdura, at this season a stream, but at other times a torrent. Here, after a nine-year struggle with labyrinthine bureaucracy and the patient acquisition of land from more than 70 smallholders, a significant Mezzogiorno miracle has been wrought. Rocco Forte’s Verdura Golf & Spa Resort is surely the most ambitious luxury hotel development to open in the Mediterranean in many years, and very possibly the last on such a scale.

The successful negotiation of the project has already had a remarkable effect upon this less-visited part of the ancient island, stirring the local baroni from their commercial slumbers to activate a basket of luxury projects that are seeing the conversion of castles and historic palaces into charming boutique hotels. One such is Torri Pepoli, a medieval watchtower near Erice converted into a romantic hotel and restaurant by descendants of the Counts Pepoli. Elegant guestrooms are decorated in neo-Gothic style, the most exciting – for those comfortable with heights – being the Tower suite, with its 360° panorama of mountains and the Aegadian islands. Early adoption by Italian clients has been widening through word-of-mouth recommendation.

Perhaps in response to Verdura’s arrival, international hotel operators, long alert to the possibilities offered by the extended season (around 300 days of sunshine a year), are moving into Sicily after decades of caution. Orient-Express Hotels is just completing the renovation of two famous properties acquired last year: the Grand Hotel Timeo, beloved of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, was the first hotel to be built in Taormina, in a prime position opposite the Greek theatre. Down below at Taormina Mare, the Villa Sant’Andrea is getting a luxury makeover for an opening planned for the end of this month.

But the spotlight right now is on the west of the island – starting with Verdura. Although there are only 203 keys (hotel-speak for guestrooms and suites), the property commands more than a mile of coastline with one of the island’s best beaches, its own medieval watchtower, and no fewer than three golf courses designed by the admired American Kyle Phillips. Its sophisticated new approach promises to transform the prospects of a destination that has languished; with a 4,000sq m spa and imaginative family facilities, Verdura is making a bid for a sophisticated European market sector hitherto dominated by Sardinia’s Forte Village – and essentially absent from Sicily. Little wonder the luxury travel trade is excited.

Anyone acclimatised to Sicilian melancholy as purveyed at crumbling palazzo hotels is in for something of a shock; the architecture here is dazzling enough to have John Pawson reaching for his shades. When the first guests arrived for the soft opening last summer, they stood transfixed by the work of Flavio Albanese, whose design was inspired by the radical Mexican architect Luis Barragán. Surprisingly, the angularity of the structures blends well into a landscape framed by mountain ridges and the flat cerulean plain of the sea. “Sicily is the very last place you would anticipate design adventures,” marvels one travel operator.

So why here, then? In creating his first resort, Sir Rocco’s preference was always for Italy, “and as far south as possible to take advantage of the long sunny season,” he says. No other site offered such a wide sweep of land on which to space out the resort – or so long and pristine a coastline. As a result, every room commands a sea view. Within, as without, all is washed in a palette of earthy colours, with guestrooms protected by Moorish gardens planted with lemon trees and lavender. Bathrooms overlooking private courtyards are serene, bathed in light. Polished concrete floors are overlaid by rugs. Bedrooms open onto shaded decks, where, from the comfort of a hammock or chaise longue, one can gaze out towards the distant Gulf of Tunis beyond the horizon. The Sicily one thought one knew was nothing like this.

Since the closure of the coastal railway from Palermo to the ancient Greek city of Agrigento, the south-west has remained largely unexplored by five-star travellers, top-end tourism being concentrated in Palermo, the seductively run-down capital in the west, and on the ancient terraces of Taormina in the east – safe terrain for the likes of Orient-Express.

The 2005 opening of Kempinski’s Giardino di Costanza, in the vineyards outside Mazara del Vallo, was the first bold deviation from a grand tour itinerary little changed since Nelson passed through in 1799. Kempinski rectified this with a subtle update of traditional décor.

It is with the launch of Verdura that other, more contemporary leisure possibilities have opened up well beyond the golf, gym, tennis and swimming facilities one would expect from a modern five-star resort. They include diving (a medieval port is submerged just offshore), mountain biking, riding and helicopter flights over a smouldering Mount Etna. One of the island’s leading independent travel experts, Louis Mendola of the website, observes that all of this points to the arrival of a younger, more active clientele than before. “Verdura has achieved critical mass in the luxury sector [here]: now we’re seeing a chain reaction of innovation amongst hoteliers.”

Helen Brown of luxury tour operator Carrier concurs, judging the new, heightened level of contemporary comfort and action activities to be the missing elements in a destination rich in historical appeal. “There is no doubt that it’s the addition of sophisticated sporting and family facilities that is generating all the interest,” she says.

But it would be a pity to overlook the island’s historic sites, so densely packed that Sir Rocco has placed a copy of the Sicilian classic The Leopard at every bedside as a kind of historical gazetteer of the region. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel records in sumptuous prose the decline of the princely dynasties at the time of the reunification of Italy, bringing to life a world of aristocratic balls, feudal poverty and mafia intrigues, and helping to decrypt the enigma with which the island presents visitors. Just a 40-minute drive from Verdura lies one of Sicily’s most dramatic sites, the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento – a series of seven Greek temples on a ridge rising between the hilltop town and the port below. The novelist and playwright Luigi Pirandello was born nearby, and his work is saturated by this landscape, over which the ancient Greeks continue to cast an evening shadow. For lovers, painters and antiquarians it remains one of the most romantic gateways to the classical world.

A few miles down the coast at Marina di Ragusa, a portal has just opened into the more recent part of western Sicily’s past. La Moresca is a stylish boutique-hotel conversion of an art nouveau villa, the 20th-century seat of the noble Criscione family, who have adapted it to contemporary purpose – complete with solar-powered lighting, but no loss of authenticity. It is an atmospheric indication of what is to come as property owners respond to the increase in top-end tourism. La Moresca’s 15 whitewashed bedrooms, furnished sparely with simple antiques, positively invite elopement.

Opportunity is knocking on the gates of sunbaked old towns such as Sciacca and Palma di Montechiaro. Here, in the bosom of the past, tiny restaurants and bars are packed with stylish dressers looking entirely in place. Some of the boutiques are easily the match of those in Naples, if not Milan – and with cheaper prices.

Much of this is evident as I retrace the footsteps of The Leopard to the town of Santa Margherita di Belice. Here, Lampedusa passed childhood summers at the Palazzo Filangeri-Cutò. Its 100 or so rooms, private theatre and chapel furnished the setting for many of the most memorable scenes from the novel. Today, the exotic gardens, which the novelist remembered as “a paradise of parched scents”, remain, but the building collapsed in a severe earthquake that struck the town in 1968. It has now been partially rebuilt and houses a charming museum displaying the manuscript of what remains one of Italy’s best-loved novels. For a view of that lost era, one has only to gaze out from here to the old town, a romantically ruinous time capsule.

Will the opening of Verdura and the new hotel developments shake southern Sicily out of its torpor? The travel trade believes so; and much is happening. Restoration of the row of collapsed 18th-century town houses opposite the palace of Filangeri-Cutò is all but complete. Although the palazzo now serves as town hall, some of the residences on the quiet square are being reoccupied and restored by owners, as well as being converted into hotels and B&Bs.

In The Leopard, the Prince reflects long upon the observation of his nephew that “everything must change so that everything can stay the same”. Indeed, it could be said to be the book’s central theme; and it could also be said that the agent of that change has arrived here on this timeless coast.

See also