Spicy Sicilian Flavor & Refined Paris Design

Sep 23, 2015 Avatar Hilton Smith Hilton Smith

Travel in the 21st Century continues to evolve in so many ways. Part of that evolution is focusing on a particular region for a more in depth travel experience. In September, that focus was on the Italian Island of Sicily with an always pleasing return to Paris at the end.

Sicily is a large and distinctive island, the largest region of Italy. It is very close to the mainland, but in many ways, it is far removed from it. In design, food, culture and history, it is very different for what you might expect.

My trip of about a week was to the Eastern region, principally Catania, Syracusa and the adjacent island of Ortigia and to Taormina. Palermo, which is on the opposite side of the island is over four hours away, and I leave that for a future trip.

There is no direct service except through major European gateways or on domestic Italian carriers. I flew Lufthansa from LAX via Germany with its new restaurant style service in Business Class. A dedicated flight attendant, name recognition and food served without carts were the most obvious changes here. It was a refreshing and welcome change I enjoyed.

Once in Catania, I settled into the UNA Palace Hotel right in the heart of Catania.

The city itself is in the shadow of constantly smoking Mount Etna and the roof terrace bar was a pleasant late afternoon diversion after touring in the hot sun.

Our private guide spent two hours on a walking tour through a city than can use some sprucing up.

Regardless, I liked Catania for the wide streets, distinctive architecture and lively night life.

The elephant is the symbol of the city, a recognition of its closeness to Africa.

Throughout Catania, as well as other elements of Sicily, I saw ruins from the Greeks, Romans, Norman and even Arab periods during various invasions and occupations. This gives Sicily part of its unique and spicy past.

Outdoor theater and temple ruins, as well as partial aqueducts, dot the island. The intensity is striking.

While Catania is laid out on a traditional grid thanks to the great earthquake in the 1600’s, compelling Syracusa and its companion island of Ortigia is not. Here the town hugs the sea and the Hotel Des Etrangers was in the perfect location on the island to enjoy it. Listed as a 5 Star, I would give it only 4 Stars.

The island is connected to the Syracusa by several bridges, so getting back and forth is easy. Wide plazas and narrow streets give the town personality, and it is fresher and brighter than Catania. A three-hour private tour was constructive and informative. I discovered the local and surprisingly uncrowded archaeological museum, which had many examples of what were taken out of these ruins we were seeing each day. Spectacular artifacts from even BC eras were on display.

Food is a big part of Sicily, dominated by Italian restaurants with fantastic pizza and a wide range of seafood. I discovered il Tempio di Athena in Syracusa for amazing pizza. The ice cream here and elsewhere in Sicily became a daily treat. Most restaurants outside of the hotels fell in the Italian or seafood categories, surprisingly little variety.

My final stop here was enchanting Taormina, again with Mount Etna off in the distance. This town hugs the hillside and is a maze of narrow streets with cars and people. Be careful where you walk as the crowds, cars and buildings can become an obstacle course. It is for good reason the most popular tourist stop on the island.

I stayed at the Belmond Grand Hotel Temeo right next to the famous outdoor amphitheater and at the gateway street into the main square. This is truly 5 Star and I had a room with a “private garden” which could be viewed from the public walk. The food and service here was outstanding and the huge terrace was enchanting in the evening as night fell for drinks and food. Again Mount Etna was the backdrop. The rooms are all different here so choose carefully.

A private three hour walking tour including the amphitheater was helpful indeed.

The sister Belmond Sant Andrea is only about 20 minutes away by private complimentary hotel shuttle and it is highly recommended. This hotel is on the beach and offers different recreational choices and also a free boat tour that should be registered for right away in season. We dined at both properties and the food was nothing less than gourmet perfect with a wide variety of offerings.

After a week in Sicily, I was off on Austrian Airlines via Vienna for a few days in Paris. This city continues to be my favorite. The first night was a short stay at the K & K Cayre on the Left Bank near The Museum D’ Orsay and the Seine. The Sunday street market was nearby and I loved the atmosphere here.

The hotel itself was clean and comfortable but with the rooms lacking atmosphere.

The final two nights were spent at the new Peninsula Paris just off Rue Kleber in the 16th District. It is an amazing hotel with a seamless blending of old and new.

The Bar Kleber was where the Vietnam peace treaty was signed in the 1970’s and the breakfast room was carefully reconstructed complete with ceiling paintings.

The vast rooms however are as tech as they get, but intuitive even for those of us who do not have high tech as our first language. Extraordinary service by the concierge staff was essential in getting me outstanding dinners at Le Souffle and Auberge d’chez eux. This extraordinary 5 Star property was a fit ending to my latest European adventure.

My return was on United Airlines Business Class from Paris via Newark. Other than an unscheduled stop in Halifax due to earlier food poisoning to one of the United pilots, I arrived back uneventfully. My Newark connection was re booked due to the delay, but I was home only two hours behind schedule.

Europe continues to excite and the lower Euro is a further reason to tap unexplored territory and delve into areas you have yet to visit.

TravelStore can help you do that in fine style and with comfort and peace of mind.

Hilton Smith