Sicily, with its ancient Greek treasures and wonderful climate, has quite rightly taken its place in the pantheon of Mediterranean holiday destinations. But scratch beneath the surface and it quickly becomes apparent that those who extol the virtues of the island just off the toe of ‘Italy’s boot’ are all too often missing part of the picture. The west of the island is rarely mentioned but I can assure you that its natural sights are quite remarkable.
Its coastline, lined with salt pans, stunning white cliffs and other such wonders, is staggeringly beautiful; the upshot of its lack of fame is the absence of tourist crowds that bedevil so many of Italy’s other destinations.
My Hotel Picks
Before you start getting too excited though, let’s get the essentials sorted first. I know from painful experience that a dud hotel can put a serious dampener on a long-awaited holiday. You need not fear any holiday-ruining mishaps at either of these Sicilian sanctuaries, which are plucked straight from our portfolio of luxury properties. Both are excellent as bases from which you can foray out on visits to western Sicily’s natural attractions.
Chances are many of you reading this have enjoyed a stay or two at a five star hotel. How about a stay at a five star hotel in an archaeological park? Not so many, I would venture. Even I, guest of many a hotel in my time, felt a frisson of excitement when I first got the chance to stay at the Villa Athena, which sits right in the heart of the Valley of the Temples, site of a magnificent array of ancient Greek and Roman temples, civic buildings and necropolises.
To get an idea of the scale of the park and its Greek and Roman treasures, I strongly recommend dining at the Villa Athena’s alfresco restaurant, the aptly named Terrace of the Gods. Mind and palate will be simultaneously enraptured by awe-inspiring views and delectable cuisine – make sure to try the crisp urchin egg.
The Villa Athena does not merely lean on its superlative surroundings, however. It features include:
- 27 bedrooms in a Moorish style and open to the Mediterranean sea air and light
- A wellness centre with Turkish bath and a pool
- Beautiful gardens and olive groves in which guests can unwind
Relais Baglio Oneto
This restored Moorish-style farmhouse in the Marsala countryside radiates hospitality and luxury in equal measure. All of the 48 rooms enjoy glorious views of olive groves, vineyards and the sea, while the sunsets are worth making a date with over a glass of…what else but locally-produced Marsala?
With a restaurant that makes full use of the region’s wonderful flavours and plenty of spots inside and outside to relax with a good book, the Relais Baglio Oneto is undoubtedly one of Marsala’s premier places to stay.
With outstanding accommodation arranged, it is now possible to begin thinking about where to explore. This medley of sights really epitomise for me the dreamy, even exotic qualities of the region.
Marsala Salt Pans
If you go down to the salt pans at Trapani, there’s a chance you’ll see the flamingos that migrate to this strange yet beautiful landscape from North Africa. Seeing a flock of these elegant birds stand sentinel over the flat expanse is a mesmerising experience.
Although the flamingos no longer pay a visit to the Stagnone, Italy’s largest lagoon is undoubtedly worth exploring as well. A few miles north of Marsala, it is a wonderful place for birdwatching; it’s a protected area and the only indicators of human activity are the lonely windmills on the horizon and mounds of salt ready to be taken away – perhaps to season your supper!
Scala dei Turchi
It turns out white cliffs aren’t just an English icon. Less than nine miles from the Villa Athena, the Scala dei Turchi (or ‘The Turkish Steps’) are a stretch of marl cliffs whose striking colour comes from the depositing of calcium-rich sea life over millions of years. Descend the eponymous steps to reach a similarly stunning beach and drink in the views or enjoy a spot of wild swimming.
What’s in the name I hear you ask? This bay was where many Arab corsairs arrived when they came to raid Sicily during the Middle Ages. Thankfully those days are long gone and the only disturbance you are likely to experience is from local boys showing off their diving skills.
Lo Zingaro Nature Reserve
Sicily’s first nature reserve has a fond place in my heart. Whenever a friend waxes lyrical about their latest beach holiday, my mind instantly wanders to the pebbly beaches of Lo Zingaro – it’s never too difficult to lose the crowds and stake out your patch of paradise in a secluded cove for the day.
Should you tire of paddling in pristine turquoise waters and imagining the smugglers who used the grottoes for their illicit activities, then Lo Zingaro also boasts a network of paths that allow you to wander amongst the 650 different plant species. The area has a unique microclimate, with humidity levels that make it possible for innumerable wild flowers (some unique to Lo Zingaro) and orchids to flourish.