Sicily and the San Dominico Palace Take Center Stage

The incomparable Jennifer Coolidge aside, I’d be disinclined to share a cannoli with any of the, shall we say, colorful characters in the recently-wrapped second season of HBO’s White Lotus, but if taking a seat on the veranda of the San Dominico Palace Hotel was part of the deal, well, I suppose I could make an exception.

Who wouldn’t covet a stay at the Palace? The 14th-century convent was converted into a grand hotel in 1896. From the start, it was a decadent playground for Italian glitterati, gay luminaries, literary lions, and movie stars, among them Oscar Wilde, DH Lawrence, Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sophia Loren.

But no trip to the hotel would be complete without a tour of Sicily itself, the fascinating island that floats at the tiptoe of Italy’s “boot,” a world apart from haute Milan, hallowed Rome, and the Clooneys of Lake Como.

Take it from a cognoscente…

“Sicily is a little tattered, rough around the edges, a little third worldish, but to me, it is gorgeous,” said Stephen Collesano, a retired vice president of American International Group from Washington, DC, who delights in his Sicilian roots. “Northern Italians look down their noses at Sicily. It’s poorer, but there’s a simple elegance,” he said. 

That might not be evident if you fly directly to the positively opulent San Domenico Palace, where White Lotus was shot, and the ultimate destination on this trip for Stephen and his friend, Guido Iudini, a banker who lives in Rome. Now, if you were traveling in Sicily, wouldn’t you want a guy named Guido as your guide? That last was an aside.

San Domenico Palace

Driving to Taormina takes about three hours from Palermo, Sicily’s capital and main arrival point. Here, the duo embarked on what would instead be a two-week ramble.

(Palermo is, by the way, the setting of the splendidly ornate Villa Tosca, where Daphne and Harper booked their overnight escape in White Lotus. Should you have a yen, and plenty of it, the four-bedroom, five-bath villa with that dreamy pool rents for $5,500 per night.)

“It’s a hoot to drive,” Stephen said, describing what sounded to me like a horrifying, off-the-grid joy ride. Picking up a car in Palermo, they often traveled on dirt roads through rural fields that seemed to lead nowhere, then abruptly opened to towns and ruins dating back more than two thousand years. There are tiny homes, villas, storybook spills of bougainvillea, ornate churches every two blocks, and shops and open-air markets selling fine goods, antiques, tchotchkes, and gorgeous food.

Staying in small hotels and wineries along the route, the “food everywhere was outstanding,” he said. “And a buck goes a long way.”

Top of his list is Castelbuono, “Where my father was born. It is now a hot little tourist town with winding streets, shops, and the Castle, which is now an art museum,” he said. The mayor gave them a tour.

San Domenico Palace, Taormina

There’s the 4th-century Villa Romana del Casale near the town of Piazza Amerina, which was nearly buried by a landslide in the 12th century and excavated in the 1800s. “The mosaics are mostly intact and beautiful.”

It took two days to explore Agrigento, “the home of the Valle dei Templi, the most outstanding Greek ruins outside of Greece,” he said. Both are World Heritage sites.

They climbed Mt. Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes (it last erupted a few weeks ago.) “It’s a little scary, unsettling,” Stephen said, putting it mildly. “You walk in ash, like sand, and through the smoke.” It’s magnificent at night, though, flames tickling the sky. 

At last, we arrive at the doors of the San Domenico Palace in Taormina. “You stay only in this hotel,” Guido insisted. It was spectacular, Stephen said. 

Completely renovated in 2021, with keen attention to preserving the facade and other original details, and it is now a premier property in the Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts portfolio. There are 111 guest rooms on three floors, ranging from the 400 square foot Convento Suite with views of the Cloister, which runs about $2400 per night, to the 1507 square foot Royal Suite, overlooking the sea and the ancient Greek Theater (which still hosts the opera,) and costs around $5550 per night. Many of the rooms have terraces, some have small private plunge pools, and all have splendid views. A full breakfast is included, and tasteful little dogs and cats, the kind that fit in your Gucci tote, are permitted. No doubt there are additional assorted taxes and fees, along with palms to grease.

There is, naturalmente, a spa and fitness center, and a shuttle service to area beaches – it overlooks the sea but is not directly on it. For fans of the show who wondered why everyone eats in the hotel restaurant every night, consider that among the three bars and three restaurants on site is Principi Cerami, which boasts two Michelin stars. The infinity pool, perched on the cliff, is just as spectacular as it appears on screen, said Stephen.

You don’t have to stay at the Palace to visit the gardens, which date back to the time of the monks and have been refurbished with palms, frangipani (think Hawaiian leis), and forty varieties of citrus tree, including lemons, mandarins, grapefruit, and calamondin. Consider the be-still-my-heart scent when everything is in bloom.

The hotel is closed until March 13, 2023, the start of tourist season, and word is it’s booked solid for next year. How unsurprising. But! A quick waltz through hotel listings for Taormina on shows a wide variety of accommodations at multiple price points – some for under a hundred bucks, others as extravagant as the Palace.

Among the tempting mid-range possibilities, there’s the Hotel Rivage, which travelers give a four-star rating. Located directly on Mazzeo Beach, the hotel features comfortable rooms, many with balconies overlooking the sea, and a secluded pool, with rates starting at $212 per night, including taxes and fees. 

Check out The White Lotus on HBO – here’s the trailer for season 1 if you want your interest piqued!


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