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Trip report: 2 GREAT weeks in SICILY & LIPARI!

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Trip report: 2 GREAT weeks in SICILY & LIPARI!

Old Jul 8th, 2003, 12:06 PM
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Trip report: 2 GREAT weeks in SICILY & LIPARI!

Back from a truly excellent 2-week trip to Sicily (June 13 to 27). Many thanks to all those who helped me plan this trip, especially Elizabeth_S and her amazing restaurant file, GAC, Patrick and RAR.

As background info, I'm in my late 20s live in Switzerland, speak french and passable spanish (which has now been severely contaminated by italian) - so I get by quite well in italian. I traveled with my mom, who's in her very late 50s, so a little less energetic but at least as ambitious as me when it comes to sightseeing.

As an introduction, I should say that the itinerary worked out GREAT. I wouldn't change a thing if I did it all over again. Weather was almost uniformly perfect, but very HOT - highs of 38-40 degrees celsius every day - with a few brief but violent thunderstorms (more about that later).

I tend to go into details, so first here's an overview of our itinerary with the main sights/activities:

Day 1: late afternoon flight from Zurich to Catania, pick up rental car, drive to SIRACUSA. Overnight at GRAND HOTEL.

Day 2: explore Ortigia and the archeological museum, evening play at the greek theater

Day 3: drive to RAGUSA, explore then on to Roman Villa at CASALE, overnight in ENNA at GRANDE HOTEL SICILIA.

Day 4: Explore Enna, drive to AGRIGENTO, visit Valle dei Templi. Overnight at HOTEL VILLA ATHENA.

Day 5: Explore SELINUNTE, afternoon on the beach at Porto Palo, evening in ERICE. Overnight at HOTEL ELIMO.

Day 6: Off to SEGESTA, late lunch in MONDELLO. Drop off car in PALERMO. Overnight at CENTRALE PALACE HOTEL.

Day 7: MONREALE in the morning, Palatine Chapel, San Giovanni degli Eremiti and Galleria Regionale di Sicilia in the afternoon.

Day 8: Cathedral, Royal Apartments at the Norman Palace and archeological museum in the morning, Marionette museum in the afternoon.

Day 9: Visit San Cataldo, La Martorana & San Giuseppe ai Teatini, last minute shopping, aliscafo to LIPARI. Overnight at CARASCO HOTEL.

Day 10: Explore Lipari on foot & by bus.

Day 11: Full day trip to PANAREA and STROMBOLI.

Day 12: Midday aliscafo to Messina, train to TAORMINA. Overnight at HOTEL MONTE TAURO.

Days 13 & 14: Dolce far niente a la spiaggia ;-)

Day 15: Morning visit to the greek theater, early afternoon transfer to Catania airport and flight home.

Hope I piqued your curiosity...
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Old Jul 8th, 2003, 12:10 PM
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HOTELS

First a few general remarks:
- don't go to Sicily expecting fabulous accomodations or especially good value. Most of the hotels are quite old and by no means cheap. Only Taormina and to a lesser extent Palermo have a broad selection of quality hotels. Compared to my trip to Andalucia last September, I was struck by the much poorer overall price-quality ratio in accomodations.

- don't assume that hotels which advertise a/c have it in all their rooms - request it specifically when you reserve and again at check-in.

- a positive note: all the hotels we stayed at were sparkling clean.


A) GRAND HOTEL in SIRACUSA
A beautiful property, quite easy to find and with private parking. It certainly looks like it has no peers in Siracusa. We had single rooms, which in this hotel meant small rooms with single beds - they didn't seem too claustrophobic however, as they were on 2 levels. If it's hot out, avoid rooms on the 1st (US: 2nd) floor, which confusingly have 2XX numbers: because of the placement of the airconditioning unit on the lower level, the upper part of the room (where the bed is) gets uncomfortably hot and stuffy. The marble bathrooms are very attractive (shower only in the singles at least), but water pressure was so-so. Beautiful roof garden terace restaurant with a nice breakfast buffet and quite good dinner (attitude of staff was not the greatest at dinner however). Single was EUR 145 per night incl. tax and breakfast.
www.grandhotelsr.it

B) GRANDE HOTEL SICILIA in ENNA
What's in a name - after the Siracusa Grand, pulling up to this 3-star was a shocker: ugly concrete building with a seriously crumbling facade! Inside things looked better if not exactly luxurious. Rooms were simple but had good new double beds and excellent water pressure in the shower (again no tub). They have some rooms with a/c, but we didn't request them as it was cool outside - big mistake. The rooms were stuffy at night and since they faced the parking lot and street (not to mention quite a few belltowers), it was not an especially pleasant night. Breakfast was a little spartan, but there's a nice view from the terrace. Signage is good and you can park in front of the hotel. Staff was very friendly - front desk manager spontaneously told us we had mistakenly been quoted the double rate (EUR 91) for our rooms (doubles for single use) and lowered it to EUR 67 incl. tx and breakfast - the cheapest hotel we stayed at by far.
http://paginegialle.virgilio.it/pg/c...000363600&cb=0

C) HOTEL VILLA ATHENA in AGRIGENTO
A lot of positive and negative things have been said about this hotel and all of them are true! The location is absolutely unique - there is no better perspective from which to enjoy the temples, especially at night. Unfortunately, the hotel is very badly run. The beautiful pool doesn't get cleaned, the room decor is VERY tired, (second worst on our trip), drains stink, service & food at dinner could have been a lot better. Also the a/c pumps hot air into the room at night - woke up sweating bullets at 3 AM and opened the window - temps were quite pleasant outside! Finally, breakfast is served inside in a banquet room with no view instead of in the garden restaurant - inexplicable. Signage is OK once you're in the Valle dei Templi and there's ample private parking. Double for single use was EUR 130.
www.athenahotels.com

D) HOTEL ELIMO in ERICE
Right in the old town, an attractively restored house with some very nice rooms (request one facing the back or side for quiet - the ones facing the back also have a great view). It looks more modern & attractive than the Moderno. I had chosen this place over others in Erice because it advertised a/c and was furious when the room they showed me to didn't have it. Called the front desk and they grudgingly gave me an adjacent room which was much smaller but had the a/c (although the positioning of the unit was not exactly ideal: it blew right onto the bed...). My mom kept her (nicer) room without a/c and regretted it. Breakfast was quite good and the room had a beautiful view. Comfy double beds and good water pressure. Car access is well-marked but not recommended for large cars. You park in the large public lot in front of the city walls, just below the hotel. Double for single use was EUR 129 incl. tax & breakfast.
www.charmerelax.it (beware - rates on the site were not current when I booked)
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Old Jul 8th, 2003, 12:13 PM
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Hotels (contd.)

E) CENTRALE PALACE HOTEL in PALERMO
The name says it all: the hotel is very centrally located and quite palatial. The rooms are quite large and in good repair, though the matresses on the 2 single beds were not the newest. They appear to have recently completed some additional rooms though, so you may try and request those. A/C was good, water pressure was adequate.

The truly excellent breakfast buffet isn't set up on the rooftop anymore but on the 1st floor "piano nobile" of the Palazo and the richly decorated rooms make up somewhat for the lack of a view. The spectular terrace rooftop restaurant has an erratic schedule (the night of our arrival it was inexplicably closed) and there's a notice in the lobby or elevator telling you it's closed for renovations which isn't true... Food was just OK (great antipasti platter though).

Service was fine except for Gianpiero at the front desk, who is so snobbish and incompetent that I think he was the inspiration for John Cleese in Fawlty Towers! As mentioned, the location is very central to many of the sites, but the neighbourhood is not the best, especially at night - it's not threatening, just not particularly attractive/prosperous and appears to have a significant immigrant population (african, indian/tamil). Also, almost the entire Piazza Pretoria (fountain and a surrounding palazzo) is shrouded in scaffolding. BTW, the hotel isn't affiliated with Best Western anymore - it's now owned by the same company as the Monte Tauro Hotel in Taormina. Double for single use was EUR 150 incl. tax and breakfast. The hotel is reasonably easy to reach by car, but you need to swerve into the oncoming traffic lane to load/unload and they have to valet park the car a fair distance from there almost immediately. If you're returning your car in Palermo, I would recommend doing that first and taking a cab to the hotel.

Regarding other choices: the interior of the Grand et des Palmes is being quite heavily renovated (we could see gutted rooms from the street), so that's probably not an option for the time being. A new 5 star hotel, the Grand Hotel Federico is about to open just around the corner from the G & P on a quiet side street and would probably be my first choice in terms of location, although it's a pretty ugly modern building from the outside. A notch down, the Massimo Plaza looked quite attractive and has a great (though very noisy) location - be aware that there's quite a long staircase to reach the lobby though. The Hotel Joli also looked fine. The Principe de Villafranca would probably also be great - didn't take a peak though.
www.centralepalacehotel.it

F) CARASCO HOTEL in LIPARI
This is the only hotel which was a lot less than I expected. I think certain posters on this board have been way too enthusiastic about it, basically describing it as a 4-star hotel disguised as a 3-star. Well, the rooms are not even up to 3-star standard IMO. For one thing, they are truly old and tired - the "enamel" on the bathtub in my room was cracked & peeling away. Not only was there no a/c (they were in the process of installing it though), there was not even a TV and of course no fridge/minibar. Also, there was no porterage (a first for me in Italy). These are basic amenities available in almost all the 3-star hotels I have stayed in throughout Italy (except for the a/c). On the upside, the rooms are quite large and there is a ceiling fan which kept the room bearable at night and the matresses on the single beds were new, if not of the best quality. Of course the main feature of this hotel is its stunning location. The view from your terrace - especially if it faces the port - is truly unique and they have a beautiful pool (the views aren't that great when you're swimming as it's sort of sunken). While the public areas are quite expansive, they look tired (especially the elevators).

The breakfast buffet was very basic (fill up your own coffee pot!) and dinner was fine, if you ignored the friendly, but utterly incompetent maitre d' - another cast member on Fawlty Towers... On our first night, we asked him how a dish was prepared and he answered "I don't have a clue, I just take the orders - I don't see the food because other people serve it". On the second night I asked him if the "piccatina di magro" was veal and he looked at me strangely and said he was almost certain it was fish - if it wasn't fish, he would come back and tell me. Sure enough, a few minutes later, he comes back and sheepishly says "you're right, it's meat" - I ask him WHAT meat??!! and he gets an anguished look on his face and says "I don't know!". I spare him further humiliation and order the Piccatina, which turns out to be surprise! veal piccata, quite yummy I might add, but still... Also, I did not find the british owner lady especially charming - not offensive, just indifferent.

The location of the Carasco gives it that unique view, but makes it quite difficult to reach town on foot. Crossing the little gravel "beach" is an ordeal and the other alternative is to take a pretty long detour. Also, walking the last steep stretch uphill to the hotel after dinner does not look like fun to me. There's hourly shuttle service to town (couldn't they make that more frequent??!!) but it stops quite early in the evening. Also, I had to call them to send the bus when our aliscafo arrived (I tried to inform them earlier but they said I should call back when I gout there) and the driver didn't come up to the pier to help us with the bags. A cab from town cost us EUR 10. If I were to stay on Lipari again, I would probably give the Villa Meligunis a try, despite the lack of a pool.

Room rate was EUR 135 for a double sea view for single use including half board and taxes.
www.carasco.it


G) HOTEL MONTE TAURO in TAORMINA
A was a little apprehensive about staying here, because it was not mentioned on this board or in many guidebooks, but since my employer (a tour operator) has it in its catalog and our product manager for Sicily assured me it was a good place, I gave it a try (the excellent staff rate I got didn't hurt either ;-) ). Anyway, it's a very good, newly renovated 4-star property with good to stunning views from every room and an excellent location. What it's NOT is old-fashioned & "charming". The building itself is a concrete pile, which you don't really see as it cascades down the hillside and you enter it from the top floor. The interior is decorated very elegantly, think Armani or Zegna store - not chain style at all. Each room has a balcony with a sea view, the superior rooms have a larger one and a larger bathroom, but standard rooms are quite adequate (we had booked 2 standard rooms, but they upgraded one of us, so that we could have 2 adjacent rooms). A/C is superb (although they do turn it down at night) and water pressure is also excellent. They also have junior suites w/jacuzzi which look great - check the web site). The rooms located on the right side of the elevator shaft (when you're facing the sea) have the best views - however they are apperently affected by some construction being done next to the hotel, so I would probably avoid them for the next few months.

The pool is quite small but the entire pool area is very tasteful and well kept and there's a very nice covered pool bar/restaurant for lunch and snacks. Besides, why hang out at the pool when you have the Med just down the hill?

The breakfast is great: excellent buffet plus a chef who does eggs (and bacon?), as well as 2 juicers where you can make your own orange or grapefruit juice. The dining room has a spectacular view of the Etna with the San Domenico Palace in the foreground. However, they officially stop serving at 9:45!!! OK, they stayed open until 10 and politely asked if you wanted anything else before they cleared the buffet, but that's too early for a resort hotel... Didn't try dinner, but the menu looked nice and half board guests were given a decent credit if they wanted to order a la carte.

The hotel offers shuttle service to both the Caparena and Lido Tropicana beaches. This costs EUR 6 and 7 respectively (includes shuttle bus, a lounger and a parasol, towels 1 EUR extra). We chose the Lido Tropicana beach on the advice of the product manager at my company due to the fact that the train line passes right behind the Caparena. It's a beautiful beach, but gravel, not sand. Clean beach, clean water, clean restrooms and decent restaurant (although there was a BIG frozen fly in my mom's granita - quite funny in retrospect but not on the spur of the moment since she bit right into it! Oh well at least they comped us ).

Aside from the momentary construction (which we didn't notice at all but some other guests were complaining about), the only issue you should be aware of is that the hotel is down a short but extremely steep hill (there are steps) from the road and the entrance to the Giardino Publico, so it's not recommended for people with mobility issues. Car access is somewhat problematic (you need to make a sharp U-turn and go down that hill and parking is limited. Still, it should be OK if you leave your car at the hotel for your entire stay (and why wouldn't you?). All in all a very pleasant surprise.

If I had booked the hotel on Utell(www.utell.com), it would have cost EUR 150 for a standard room incl. tax (and perhaps breakfast, this wasn't clear), which is quite fair I think (as a standard room at the Timeo was going for EUR 180, no mention of view or balcony). Direct e-mail quotes from the Monte Tauro and Timo were much higher, however.
www.hotelmontetauro.it

Whew! A detailed itinerary will follow ASAP (probably this weekend).
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Old Jul 8th, 2003, 12:38 PM
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Andre

Great report, Andre. More please . . .
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Old Jul 8th, 2003, 01:06 PM
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Wow--what a great report. I love your style Andre--just the right level of details to make good reading. Grazie !
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Old Jul 8th, 2003, 04:33 PM
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Thanks for the details on the hotels! I can't wait to read your itinerary portion, as you switched hotels a lot and am wondering how it all fits together. Did you feel like you were spending a lot of time driving? I tend to stay away from many hotel switches, but am curious about how much more ground you were able to cover this way.
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Old Jul 8th, 2003, 06:23 PM
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Andre,
I too enjoyed your trip report and am looking forward to more. Did you rent from Auto Europe? What type of car rental rate did you get? We too are flying into Catania and then we'll be driving on towards Siracusa...is it difficult finding one's way from the airport to the road to Siracusa? Grazie! Lisa
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Old Jul 9th, 2003, 03:19 AM
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Hi all,

Thanks for the kudos! Either I'm not as obsessive-compulsive as I thought or I'm not alone

AP6380:
I enjoy this style of travelling because I actually spend much less time driving back and forth and more time exploring than if I base myself somewhere "central" for say a week. Also, if a hotel isn't that good, I'm not stuck with it for more than a few nights. It does mean more packing/unpacking, but you get good at it. I would only travel this way with a rental car, however - not by train (too much trouble dragging luggage).

Lisa:
I rented from Avis - they were just fine. Car interior could have been a bit cleaner, otherwise zero complaints. Reserved a group D car (Opel Astra or equivalent) and got a DIESEL Alfa 147 - great car, though trunk space was limited. The road to Siracusa is well-marked once you find the airport exit

Hope this helps,
Andre
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Old Jul 9th, 2003, 02:08 PM
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We just returned from a similar trip. I agree with all that was said except for the Villa Athena Hotel. It is true that the hotel needs some new carpets,etc. but our room was fabulous. We booked it a year ahead and got a room with 3 windows and a terrace facing the temples. Awesome. Room 201. I thought the service was fine there. The breakfast room could have been in a nicer location (like facing the temples on a terrace)When we wanted to use the pool they said that it was closed. I thought it was because there were two events going on that night, but maybe not.
The Hotel Carasco was definately a place I would not stay. The "British owner lady" was miserable. She actually yelled at us for waking her up at 8:30 so we could check out. A lot of guests were also complaining about her. Luckily we didn't eat there. The beds were as hard as a board. In fact, I think they were just boards covered with a mattress pad. The pillow was equally as hard. NO AIR CONDITIONING, and when you leave the room, all the power goes off( including the fan), so when you return the room was a hot as ........We stayed at Villa Belevedere in Toarmina and loved it. Beautiful grounds, friendly service, great view. But........ no matter how good or bad the hotels are, the food is the best. We didn't have a bad meal anywhere and spent the day thinking about what a great dinner we were in store for. We had to skip lunch because we ate so much for dinner.
The driving wasn't so bad if you have a sense of adventure. Just look straight ahead and go!
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Old Jul 9th, 2003, 02:26 PM
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LOL Judyrose, the "english owner lady" is indeed not a morning person - my (limited) interaction with her was definitely more pleasant later in the day than earlier. Did you also "experience" the maitre d' the way we did?

I agree that the food was generally excellent and anyway you don't travel to Sicily for the hotels. Still, the island could use some major investment in that department.

Andre
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Old Jul 9th, 2003, 03:08 PM
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No, we didn't eat at the hotel Carasco. Also, the half board was way more than the 10 euros mentioned before. We ate at Al Pirate. YUM.
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