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.
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.