Jul 20, 2005
Outside Magazine

Catania in Sicily    Photo: courtesy, Tourism Italy

My Italian is good enough for me to know that the desk clerk was promising the six trails around Eremo della Giubiliana were well marked. And I know she said that all but two of them were fine for a short pre-dinner bike ride. So I followed trail five, whizzing toward the sea, pedaling on medieval paths past crumbling stone walls, carob trees, and fields bursting with poppies. At first it was easy to keep the turreted hotel on the horizon. But after more descending than climbing, I lost my reference and didn't see a marker. Attempts to retrace my route proved futile—the paths looked remarkably alike. Near dusk, I crossed a road and flagged down a car. Although the driver didn't know the hotel, he delayed getting home to his family dinner to drive me and the bike—once we'd taken off both wheels and the seat—to find it. Which we did, after 30 minutes of zigzagging through countryside where even the nicest hotel remains incognito.

Sicily, a punt off Italy's toe across the Strait of Messina, collects superlatives. Europe's highest volcano, 10,902-foot Mount Etna, towers over the Mediterranean's largest island, 9,000-plus square miles. The rich volcanic soil produces blood oranges and grapes that yield mighty tasty red wine, like Nero d'Avola. Though parts of Sicily—particularly around Taormina—have lured admirers since Roman times, other areas are largely ignored. Like the striking south coast, where Italy meets Africa. Here, stone walls in the highlands delineate ancient farms, and the Mediterranean Sea is the dazzling blue of a husky's eye.

Adventures: Surrounding Ragusa, built onto a limestone hill between two deep valleys, are some of Sicily's best ancient sites. For the greatest views, take an aerial expedition. The Eremo della Giubiliana hotel (011-39-0932-669119,, in Ragusa, takes visitors up in its own plane. Or explore Syracuse, about a 40-minute drive east, founded in 734 b.c. and onetime rival of Athens in power and prestige—Archimedes, Cicero, and Plato all called the place home. At a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Agrigento, five fifth- and sixth-century Doric temples stand along a ridge.

Meals: Sicilian cuisine is hearty: Think spaghetti tossed with fennel, fresh sardines, and citrus zest. You can eat exceptionally well in Syracuse: Ristorante Don Camillo is cherished by locals, and Pasticceria Tipica Catanese makes it clear why this part of Italy is known for its cannoli and cassata, a sponge cake made with ricotta, dried fruit, and nuts. In Noto, hit Caffè Sicilia for gelato—the ricotta-pistachio and cinnamon-almond flavors are especially tasty. Modica is home to Sicily's oldest chocolate factory, Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, featuring confections loaded with cocoa from the Ivory Coast.

Lodging: Eremo della Giubiliana (doubles from $319) began life as a 15th-century fortified convent before passing into the Nifosi family in the 18th century. The 13 starkly elegant rooms are transformed friars' cells. There's a gardenside swimming pool and a fleet of mountain bikes to explore nearby medieval sites, villages, and the private beach (with an inn-provided picnic in tow). House-bottled wines, like the Inzolia, a crisp white, are served with dinner in a vaulted cellar; the breakfast table overflows with homemade blood-orange marmalade, lemon jelly, and artichoke pâé. Five new white-stone cottages are situated along the airstrip, so you can park your plane right outside.

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