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Trip Report Sicily/Malta - Insight Vacations

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My wife and I have recently returned from our 4th Insight Vacation tour, Sicily in Depth with the Malta Option (September 23-October 4, 2010). It was a wonderful tour with many amazing sites and gourmet meals. Rather than repeat a day-by-day accounting of the itinerary I will provide a summary and/or observation of what we saw and did.

Flights: Our Air Canada flight left Toronto 1 hour late hence we were 1 hour late arriving in Rome. After a quick run for the B3 train to our terminal we hopped on the shuttle bus to the plane for our flight to Catania. As we got to the plane I noted that they had a staircase at both the front and the back of the plane. I thought this was a great idea.

As we took our seats I noticed that most people we still talking (loudly, if not yelling) on their cell phones contrary to the norm at home where all electronic equipment and phones are turned off once on the plane. Now I don’t know if everyone was flying for the first time, were frightened and wanted to make sure they said goodbye to their loved ones before their imminent death, or what, but it was a notable noise. I did see some though in quiet conversation so I assumed they were going to confession before their demise. When the plane started moving away from the gate they were told to put the phones away. Once we landed in Catania but before we got to the arrival gate out came the phones to report their safe arrival. Those that had been to ‘confession’ were now in heated debate with their confessor about what exactly had been said versus what had been inferred.

When the plane stopped everyone got up and tried to make their way to the exit. No orderly egress that you normally experience in North American travel but the every-man-for-himself kind that you often see depicted in movies about airplane crashes. We had a difficult time getting out of our row of seats and finally had to simply be rude and jump into the aisle without further regard.

We observed worse treatment of persons with priority boarding. As usual the gate official announced the priority boarding of first-class passengers, those requiring assistance and those travelling with children. So these passengers got up and boarded the shuttle bus to the plane. However, rather than taking them directly to the plane the officials proceeded to board the rest of the passengers regardless of which row they were seated in. Now the priority passengers were blocked in the seats on the shuttle. Once the bus arrived at the plane it was a free for all. People sitting at the back of the plane boarded at the front and vice versa. Meanwhile those requiring assistance or with children were left to fend for themselves.

The same things happened on our flight from Catania to Malta and then Malta to Rome.

Shuttles: The shuttles to the Catania airport for our flight to Malta and from our hotel in Malta to the airport for our flight to Rome were perfect. However the same can’t be said about our shuttle from the airport in Catania to our hotel in Giardini Naxos.

Our flight arrived in Catania around 3:15 but we did not exit Customs and baggage claim until 3:45. Unfortunately the last Insight shuttle had left at 3:30. We jumped in a taxi assuming the hotel was close by. The cab driver said (in broken English) that the hotel was 5 or 6 kilometers from the airport at least that is what we understood. So away we went. Ten minutes and 20 Euro later we asked if he knew where he was going. Oh yes, oh yes he assured us. The meter kept climbing…30, 40 70, 80 Euros. We finally saw a sign for Giardini Naxos and realized the driver had meant 56 kilometers. Rather than being a suburb of Catania (like we assumed) it was a town. As we pulled into the parking lot of our hotel the meter hit 100 Euro. Not the start to our vacation we expected.

At the ‘meet and greet’ that evening we met 2 other couples who had been on the same flight as us and had also taken a taxi to the hotel. We mentioned this to the Tour Director. She indicated that she would have had the shuttle wait for us had she known we were on the flight just arriving from Rome. This was not the answer we had expected as Insight had made all of our flight arrangements. We would have expected that our arrangements would have been relayed to, and confirmed with, the Tour Director.

My wife and I knew that this ‘failure to communicate’ was out of the ordinary for Insight given our previous tours but this was the others first excursion with Insight and did not give them much of a first impression. It should be noted that as the tour unfolded their first impression was changed as they saw how well Insight takes care of its’ client.

Our Group: There were 18 Australians, 14 Americans, 5 Canadians and 1 person from New Zealand in our tour group. It was a great bunch and we had a wonderful time hearing about others travels especially the Australians as they seem to travel longer and further afield then some of us. They certainly have given us some food for thought in choosing our next venture.

Tour Director/Local Guide: Our Tour Director was Andie Brown. She is a lovely lady, extremely well organized, truly knowledgeable and dedicated even working later some nights preparing some personal little additions for our tour. It was greatly appreciated. Diana was a local guide that led us on our tours of Taormina, Syracusa and to the Villa Romana del Casale outside the nearby town of Piazza Armerina. She certainly brought the sites to life with her knowledge of Roman and Greek history and her exuberant storytelling.

Departure/Arrival Times: Most days we had wake-up calls by 6:00 with breakfast starting no earlier than 6:30. Departure times varied but we never left the hotel before 8:00. There were some days when we didn’t arrive at our hotel before 5:30 but most of the time we arrived by 4:30.

Life on the Bus: We had a very good and punctual group. Of course there was the daily rotation of seats (back 2 seats on the right each day, up 2 seats on the left) which allowed everyone the opportunity to sit at the front of the bus. Unfortunately some of us caught colds which then passed through the group. After acquiring some medications from the pharmacy all went well.

SICILY
Villages: You will visit many small villages, some perched on the top of a mountain, some along its side. Each village was interesting in its own right, many with cobble-stoned streets, some with steep inclines, some with a myriad of small alleyways breaking off from main through-fares. Taormina, Erice (ancient walled city) and Ragusa Ibla (old Ragusa) would be the most memorable.

After touring the Greek Theatre in Taormina we spent a couple of hours shopping on the wide pedestrian mall and then settled in at a piazza café for some light fare while watching a street performer do his best as the Statue of Liberty.

As you approach Ragusa Ibla you are awe struck by the postcard setting of the town perched above the newer section of Ragusa. We had a wonderful lunch just off a main square and then had time to purchase a wide assortment of chocolates from a vendor apparently named as the ‘best chocolate in the world’.

Basilicas/Cathedrals: We learned that the main difference between a basilica and a cathedral is that a cathedral contains the seat (cathedra) of the Bishop. Both offered amazing views of paintings, frescoes, mosaics, statues and in some cases tombs of notable gentry, artists and clerics.

Ancient Sites: While the Greek Theatre in Taormina was interesting I was most impressed by the Greek Theatre at Syracusa and the ‘Ear of Dionysius’. As we left the ‘ear’ a choir group broke out in song echoing across the site. The Valley of the Temples at Agrigento was also very interesting even more so at night when the alit monuments could be seen from our hotel room. I was also very impressed with the Villa Romana del Casale.

http://www.italyguides.it/us/sicily_italy/taormina/greek_theater/greek_theater.htm

http://www.italyguides.it/us/sicily_italy/syracuse/teatro_greco/greek_theater.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ear_of_Dionysius

http://sights.seindal.dk/sight/456_Villa_Romana_del_Casale.html

Accommodation: We had no complaints with any of our hotels. Of course some were a little more upscale but all certainly met our needs and Insights standards.

Buffet Breakfast/Meals: Most buffet breakfasts consisted of eggs, sausage (actually more like hotdogs), bacon, fruit, cereals, an assortment of breads, platters of sliced meat and cheese, juice, coffee. The meals could be quite different but all offered at least 4 courses. You would start with an anti-pasta, then pasta, then the main dish (fish, chicken, veal, beef) followed by desert. My but you do certainly eat hardly meals.

Optionals: The only optional tour we did not take was the excursion to Mount Etna simply because we have been to a number of volcanoes in our journeys. All the optionals were certainly worthwhile especially the following three offered in Palermo.

We left the hotel at 6:15 (got back at 11:00) for the dinner at the farmhouse in the hills above Palermo. We were first served a plate of prosciutto and fried mozzarella cheese, then a plate of eggplant and fried vegetables, then a plate of salami accompanied with smoked cheese, and finally the main meal of sausage, pork and potatoes. Well, not exactly finally. There was of course desert with a wonderful espresso. To wrap it up we were served home-made lemoncello liqueur.

The outing to the Vucceria open air market was worthwhile especially if you have never experienced this before. As you make your way through the narrow aisles, ducking the various umbrellas, canopies and awnings you are hit with the smell of vegetables and fruit, flowers, fresh baked goods. Of course walking by the fresh fish was another matter.

Afterwards we headed to the Capuchin Catacombs. Unbelievable! Do not miss this.
http://www.sacred-destinations.com/italy/palermo-capuchin-catacombs

The ‘Seafood Spectacular’ was another one of those ‘I can’t believe I ate the whole thing’ moments. We had pasta, salad, swordfish, calamari, shrimp, jumbo prawns, and desert before closing with a lemon sherbet.

The Sicily portion of our tour ended in Catania with a great highlight dinner at our hotel. It was a fairly early night with most people heading out the next morning for places afar while we readied for our excursion to Malta.

We thoroughly enjoyed Sicily and would recommend it others without hesitation.

MALTA

Only 7 of us continued on to Malta. There was one couple from the USA (on their 15th Insight tour), their travelling companions from Canada (on their 12 Insight tour) and well- travelled young lady from New Zealand (departing for a tour of Greece following Malta).
When the shuttle pulled up to the Grand Hotel Excelsior in Valletta we were amazed. Are we really staying here? Please don’t tell us it was a mistake. It was absolutely stunning. As we walked in we were struck by the marble statues, the crystal chandeliers, the leather chairs and couches.

The Insight representative provided drinks and snacks while she gave us a quick orientation, an outline of the excursion included in the Insight brochure and also offered another outing to the island of Gozo the following day.

After a quick check-in we made our way to our rooms. Unbelievable. They provided everything including small shaving kits with the shaving cream. We had a small furnished balcony overlooking the front entrance and the wide staircase climbing up to Valletta’s city centre.

That night the 7 of us had wonderful dinner together in the hotel restaurant. This afforded us the opportunity to discuss more fully our ventures with Insight and other sojourns we have made. We certainly have some great new ideas for future holidays.

Buffet breakfast was included during our stay. Now we had become quite accustomed to the usual fare provided by most hotels but this buffet was so much more expansive and even included a nut bar (walnuts, brazil nuts, hazel nuts).

At 8:00 the next morning the other 5 were heading out on the excursion to Gozo. From all reports this was well worthwhile and included stops at ancient temple sites. We didn’t go as we already had plans to go to the Hypogeum at Paola.

The Hypogeum is a pre-Christian three storey underground burial site. You must purchase tickets well in advance of your visit as they only allow access to 80 people per day, 10 at a time. We were there on October 2nd. A sign indicated that they were sold out till October 25th.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypogeum

While you can get there by taking the number 1, 6 or 11 bus, we took a taxi (20 Euro) to ensure we would get there on time. From the various maps we had looked at it appeared that Paola was a village where in fact it was really more of a suburb as it was totally built up between Valletta and Paola. As it ended up we could have taken the bus and been there in lots of time.

The tour lasts about 1 hour. While you are provided an audio-guide you are also accompanied by a site official who tells you when to duck your head and how many steps you will be climbing or descending at certain points. This was quite appreciated as you are pretty much in the dark as only computer-controlled subdued lighting is available. No pictures are to be taken.

As we exited the Hypogeum we turned left. At the head of the street turn left again and walk on for a few blocks. Following signs on the walls you will arrive at the Tarxien Temple site (6 Euro entrance fee). Unfortunately there was no audio-guide or site guide provided. Consequently the site really appeared no more than rubble when compared to the sites we had just seen in Sicily.

http://www.sacred-destinations.com/malta/tarxien-temples

Afterwards we retraced our steps back to the main square where we caught the bus (47 cents) back to Valletta. I am sure the bus was a 50s version with its grinding gears and creaking. It was quite the experience. The bus brought us to the bus terminal outside the main gate to Republic Street.

Republic Street (Valletta) it a fairly wide pedestrian mall with all manner of stores, cafés, restaurants and interesting places. We were disappointed that St. John’s Cathedral was closed as I had wanted to see Caravaggio’s famous painting ‘The Beheading of John the Baptist’. We did get to tour the Grand Master’s Palace (Knight of St. John of Malta, 10 Euro entrance fee) before settling in to lunch at an outdoor café.

Later that afternoon we headed out the back of the hotel for the short walk down Great Siege Road to the water taxi (1 Euro) over to Silema. Once there we joined Captain Morgan’s Grand Harbour tour (16 Euro). Well worthwhile.

The following morning we left for the tour of the Blue Grotto. The 25 minute tour I felt was a little too rushed. I was disappointed that we would not have time for a quick swim.
http://vrmalta.com/malta-tour/source/malta-blue-grotto-r.html

After the Grotto we went to Marsaxlokk a small fishing village on the south-east coast for a shopping excursion. I found it a little tedious in the heat of the day with the crowds and the stuffiness while trying to make your way through the market area. I would have preferred spending more time in Valletta.

We absolutely loved Malta and hope to return for a more extended stay.

On Monday October 4th we flew to Rome where the next day we would be starting Insights Italian Escapade tour.

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