The picturesque town of Taormina has drawn visitors to Sicily for millennia thanks to its unique position suspended between land and sea. First inhabited by the ancient Greeks, who left behind an impressive 3rd century BC theater overlooking the coast, it rose to prominence when artists such as Goethe and Wagner came to visit in the 19th century. More recently, the Taormina Film Festival, has brought celebrities and VIPs to the town and tourism is always on the rise.
With inimitable views of Mount Etna – Europe’s highest active volcano – and a shoreline reminiscent of the Amalfi Coast, Taormina combines all of the earth’s elements: fire and water, earth and sky. Sicily is a land of contrasts and Taormina’s rugged landscape, coupled with its star appeal, makes it one of the Mediterranean’s most coveted and iconic beach resorts.
Belmond, the luxury hotel and train brand, saw an opportunity in this mix and owns two properties in Taormina: the lush Grand Hotel Timeo, located beside the ancient Greek theater in town, and the idyllic Villa Sant’Andrea, down by the sea. Depending on the season and your travel style, Belmond’s properties offer a range of exclusive experiences that transmit the essence of the Sicilian lifestyle.
For those who visit in the spring and summer months, staying at Villa Sant’Andrea is the obvious choice. Set within the intimate Bay of Mazzarò with its own private beach, the property is spared the foot traffic of nearby Isola Bella and easily accessible from the center of Taormina by cable car. Most of the 71 rooms and suites have private balconies that look out to the sea and the landscaped gardens provide ample space to lounge in the shade of leafy palms and fragrant fruit trees.
This year, Villa Sant’Andrea celebrates its centenary and has introduced a number of initiatives to commemorate this important anniversary. Originally the private villa of Robert Trewhella, a Cornishman and civil engineer who came to Sicily to develop the country’s infrastructure in the 1800s, the home was completed in 1919 before being turned into a hotel by Robert’s nephew Richard Manley in the 1950s. One of Trewhella’s main achievements was the development of Sicily’s Circumetnea railway that wraps around Mount Etna and connects the more isolated western towns with larger ports at Catania and Riposto.
Belmond has refurbished a vintage train from the 1940s so you can travel back in time as you visit family-owned wineries along the volcano. Guests can also visit a small town near Etna to lunch prepared by Le Mamme del Borgo, a group of Sicilian women who cook up traditional Sicilian recipes including Pasta alla Norma with eggplants, arancini rice balls and cannoli.
If you prefer to take to water, the property hosts cruises along the coast where you can admire Taormina and its secret grottos from the sea before reaching the fishing town of Acitrezza. Here, the Rodolico family has been building and painting traditional wooden boats for four generations and travelers can see demonstrations of this dying art. This journey continues to Catania for a private luncheon at the aristocratic Cutore residence with Rosalba and her family where guests can taste dishes inspired by Monsù recipes.
And the Ape tour of Taormina, on a three-wheeled Ape Calessino, is without a doubt the best way to explore this hilltop town. Cruise around with the breeze flapping through your hair while swerving down winding streets, enjoy panoramic views from the borgo of Castelmola and stop for a pistachio granita in town after a visit to the Ancient Greek Theater.
In the winter months, guests can stay at the Grand Hotel Timeo which stays open through the New Year. A private home-turned-hotel in 1873, the property is located in the heart of Taormina with a terrace that looks onto Mount Etna and the Ionian Sea. During the holiday season, Belmond organizes a Nativity Scene tour and ceramic course in the nearby town of Caltagirone, famed for its pottery, and sweet Christmas cooking classes with the Mamme del Borgo to learn how to make Sicilian pastries like cassata and cannoli.