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.
Tenuta di Roccadia
In 1988, Pietro Vacirca gave up the family clothing business to buy an abandoned 19th-century farm built on the site of a thousand-year-old Cistercian convent. "Finding Roccadia was like finding a beautiful woman," says Pietro. "So I got married--for the second time. First my wife, then Roccadia." Five years later, Pietro opened Tenuta di Roccadia as an agriturismo with horseback riding and hiking trails. Arranged in long buildings draped in flowering vines, the 25 guest rooms are large, with sturdy wooden furnishings and wrought-iron bed frames; six of the rooms feature lofted sleeping areas built of rough timbers. A patio looks over vineyards in a valley to the snowcapped peak of Mount Etna beyond. Roccadia's olive and citrus groves, almond trees, and sheep provide most of the ingredients for the preserves, liqueurs, honeys, cheeses, and whatever else smells so good in the kitchen. Four-course dinners ($27) begin promptly at 8:30 p.m. in the dining room, where old farm implements hang under a high wood ceiling, or on the terrace in summer. Contrada Roccadia, 011-39/095-990-362, roccadia.com, from $100.
The hotel with the best combination of style and value in all of Sicily is on a coastal road in Siracusa's historic center of Ortigia. Gutkowski's owner, Paola Pretsch, converted a pair of powder-blue houses overlooking the Mediterranean into a 25-room hotel. She decorated the properties along minimalist lines, enhanced by traditional touches, with mod furnishings near old stone doorways. In the main building, the rooms with direct sea views are 3, 4, 8, 9, and 15--the last reached via a terrace. In the annex up the road, the views are best from second-floor rooms 24-26. (From the first floor, only the sea horizon is visible above stone fortifications across the road.) The scrumptious breakfast consists of homemade cakes and cookies, fruits and cheeses, organic marmalades and honey, and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Lungomare Vittorini 26, 011-39/0931-465-861, guthotel.it, from $114.
Hotel Gran Bretagna
Guests who are clued in specifically request Gran Bretagna's room 107--and do so well in advance for the privilege of sleeping under the vaulted ceiling adorned with a dazzling fresco of stars and angels. Rooms 101 and 102 are the next best accommodations, with smaller paintings overhead. In fact, all of the rooms are nice, if simple, often with checkerboard floors, balconies, and giant windows. The quarters are also extraordinarily spacious: Half of the guest rooms come with a twin bed in addition to the queen, and a few are large enough for a third bed. The hotel's convenient location, in between two restaurant-lined side streets at the north end of the old city, is hard to beat. An extra-special feature was discovered during the Gran Bretagna's 2002 renovation, which transformed it from a backpacker joint into a three-star hotel. Under the living room, workers unearthed a section of the city's 16th-century fortifications. Marco Capillo and his sister, Annalaura, who run the place, have since installed glass floor panels so guests walking to the courtyard can get a glimpse of the ancient wall. Via Savoia 21, 011-39/0931-68-765, hotelgranbretagna.it, from $143.
Hanging in the Villa Nettuno's living room, amid old oil paintings and gilded mirrors, is an article by a traveler praising the lovely stay he had here...in 1887. (In lieu of photographs from the trip, the article contains the traveler's etchings.) The traveler's hosts were the ancestors of the current owner, Vincenzo Sciglio, whom guests often find on an heirloom settee reading La Repubblica. Vincenzo's great-grandfather, Principe del Giglio, moved to Taormina from Siracusa in the 1850s to build this villa. A generation later, Vincenzo's grandfather added the battlement roofline and dusty rose façade accented in white stone from Siracusa and black volcanic rock from Mount Etna, and the property began taking in guests. Some were long-term, including a German who stayed for eight years and an American who hung around for 25. The family business continues to thrive because of its owner's care and attention, as well as large, simple guest rooms and a perfect position: between the bus stop and the town gates, and across from the cable car leading to the beach. Maria, Vincenzo's wife, tends the lush gardens--hibiscus, night-blooming jasmine, and fig, citrus, and cypress trees--which grow in a series of terraces up a steep hill, where there's a little neoclassical temple with sweeping panoramas of the coast. Ten of Villa Nettuno's rooms have tiny balconies that look over the gardens to the sparkling sea far below. Via Pirandello 33, 011-39/0942-23-797, hotelvillanettuno.it, from $100.