Secret Hotels of Sicily
Across Sicily, historic villas and farm estates have been reborn as cozy, family-run hotels and agriturismi, or farmstays, where the food is organic and the people are as warm as the ever-present sun.
Not too long ago, the Letizia was a creaky old pensione good solely for its location at the harborside edge of Palermo's historic La Kalsa neighborhood. In 2003, the hotel was completely overhauled to become the Sicilian equivalent of a boutique, with Persian rugs on parquet floors, rustic beamed ceilings, sumptuous bedspreads, and a mingling of old-fashioned wood furnishings and modern functional pieces. The neighborhood, filled with the crumbling palazzi of the city's 18th-century golden age, has also recently undergone a successful rehabilitation and is far cleaner, safer, and more welcoming than in years past. For downtown Palermo--half a block from both the main drag, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and gorgeous, café-lined Piazza Marina--the hotel's rates are phenomenal. Even the spacious suite (room 105), which comes with its own little terrace courtyard, goes for as little as $200. Via dei Bottai 30, 011-39/091-589-110, hotelletizia.com, from $155.
Casale del Principe
"An agriturismo provides a family experience," says Tamara Amadei, manager of the Casale del Principe, a half-hour drive south of Palermo. After listing some of the activities that the 18th-century monastery-turned-agricultural-estate offers, such as cooking and ceramics courses, horseback rides, and archery, Amadei contrasts the property with standard hotels, which are "too cold," she says. "They give you a room and that's it. We grow our own vegetables and make our own marmalades, cakes, and wine. We get our cheeses from a neighbor." Amid farmland filled with poppies, vineyards, olive groves, and fruit orchards, the masseria (stone farmhouse) consists of a restaurant--serving $27 four-course dinners--and nine huge guest rooms. Three rooms have private terraces with panoramic views of the Valle dello Jato, its fertile fields rising into pine forests that, in turn, reach into toothy mountains. From the inn, guests can walk past geese chattering in a fountain to a series of 21 nature trails that were laid out by local hiking clubs. One path winds to the ancient ruins of Jato, a hilltop city dating to the 10th century B.C. Contrada Dammusi, 011-39/091-857-9910, casaledelprincipe.it, from $121.
Monaco di Mezzo
The scenic countryside surrounding the Monaco di Mezzo estate seems made for horseback rides. After rambling up to the edge of a thousand-foot precipice, riders look over vast yellow and brown fields. In the distance, the pastel hill town of Resuttano stands out against the forested backdrop of the Madonie Mountains. Speaking mostly in Italian, riding guide Antonio Carlotta regales guests with the history of the area and the property, currently owned by Ettore and Vincenzo Pottino. "The Pottinos' father was a marquis," says Carlotta. "Once, the family owned almost all the land around here." A kind of feudalism continued in pockets of Italy until reforms in the 1950s spread the wealth among peasants who worked the land. Noble families retained ownership of their core estates only. The Pottino brothers live 60 minutes away in Palermo and pop in regularly to check on their 18th-century stone farm complex, which as an agriturismo rents out nine rustic rooms and six rambling apartments. Day-to-day operations are in the capable hands of Mimmo Piombo, who doubles as the chef, using the organic farm's entire output in $34 dinners that may include antipasto, caponata (eggplant stewed with tomatoes and capers), and succulent veal chops, followed by limoncello and melon. Contrada Monaco di Mezzo, 011-39/0934-673-949, monacodimezzo.com, from $108, horse rides from $20 per hour.
The counts of Pilo di Capaci built this imposing villa in 1778 so they could tend the estate's vast citrus groves. When the bottom fell out of the citrus market after 2000, the current owners--Paola Tedesco and her husband, Giovanni Scaduto--replaced some of the lemon and lime trees with olive trees and began renting out three rooms in the main villa and seven comfy cottages scattered around it. As an agriturismo, Villa Cefalà has been successful, thanks in part to its convenient location a 30-minute drive east of Palermo, just off the state highway outside the beachside community of Santa Flavia. The hotel is slung into the low hills between the area's two top sights: the Phoenician ruins of Solunto and the baroque villas of Bagheria. Tedesco and Scaduto recently installed a swimming pool and opened a restaurant where four-course feasts--served in a timbered hall with a fireplace in winter, and in the poolside garden in summer--cost $34 ($40 with fish), with wine made and bottled at the estate. A new wing of 10 modern rooms opened in March. SS. 118 no. 48, 011-39/091-931-545, tenutacefala.it, from $113, cottages from $180.