SCIACA, Italy – Unlike the picture-perfect and tourist-tested towns of Tuscany, Sicily has some rough edges. I saw them once again as soon as I got out of the airport in Palermo and learned that there’s now a shuttle bus to the parking lot and car rental.
This is progress? I’ve been to Sicily at least 20 times, and it sometimes appears as if things are moving backward rather than forward.
But all was forgiven just a half-hour later, as I was enjoying a lovely breeze and a stunning blue sea just outside the window of my Alfa Romeo.
My ultimate goal was Rocco Forte’s Verdura Golf & Spa Resort, near the town of Sciacca, but I was taking the long route, which allowed me to see a couple of other clubs and a few wonderful sights along the way.
Actually, I could have seen three other clubs, but I skipped the first. That’s my only confession to make; I had a choice between seeing the town of Cefalù and visiting Le Madonie Golf Resort, and I chose Cefalù.
Anyone who has ever been to Cefalù, a splendid jewel by the sea, will understand why. But I’m not done with Sicily, and I will get back to play at Le Madonie.
I took the slow road toward Mount Etna, hugging the coast for the most part on a “state road” instead of taking the highway to Catania.
I was rewarded with wonderful sea views on the first half of the trip, and then, after a number of roads winding inland, an astonishing stop-the-car-get-out-and-enjoy-it look at a snow-covered Mount Etna. It’s a live volcano and was gently smoking when I first saw it; a few days later, it would be spewing red-hot lava, which is lovely entertainment at night.
With the help of my GPS, just after lunchtime I arrived at Il Picciolo, a course built on the base of Etna.
“We were the pioneers, but now finally we can start talking about Sicily as a golf destination,” said Salvatore Leonardi, who built the club with his brother Giuseppe in 1993.
Sicily has four clubs with six courses to play, and a few more are under construction.
“We’ve already seen that people are catching on and starting to come here,” Leonardi said. “It’s not Spain, but quite frankly, Sicily has a lot more to offer than Spain.”
Certainly, the island has a cultural and gastronomic allure that’s hard to beat. Just a short drive from Il Picciolo is the town of Taormina, with its ancient Greek theater and breathtaking views of Etna and the Ionian Sea. It really is quite a mix, and if you ever get the chance to spend the night at the Hotel San Domenico Palace – once a 15th-century Dominican monastery – in Taormina, you won’t forget that, either.
Il Picciolo is a lovely course. At 6,400 yards, it is not especially long but was host last October to the European Senior Tour. It has a wall of lava cutting through it – a border for the par-4 17th hole – but Leonardi points out that it dates back nearly a century. He said molten lava is not a threat to golfers today, despite the proximity to Etna. While the snow-covered mountain provides the backdrop, Il Picciolo was carved out of vineyards and fields of olives and hazelnuts.
• • •
Even with Sicily’s rough edges – uncollected trash in small towns, for example – it’s so genuine and rich that you can overlook the defects.
I thought about that later in the evening as I squeezed a half lemon onto grilled swordfish. It seemed that the lemon would never stop producing juice, and the swordfish, just as I expected, was tender and full of flavor.
As long as we’re talking about lemons, at some point in Sicily you have to try a granita di limone, which is something like a lemon slush, although calling it that makes it sound like it comes from Dairy Queen. It doesn’t. It comes from fresh lemons, mixed with finely crushed ice, and it is heavenly.
There’s a whole list of Sicilian specialties to try, but to keep it short, for those who like sweets, go for the cannoli and the cassata. For an afternoon snack or lunch on the run, try the arancina, a fried rice-ball.
After Il Picciolo, I headed for the town of Ragusa to visit Donnafugata Golf Resort & Spa, but I again opted for the slow route. This is, after all, Italy. Time moves slowly here, and so too should visitors.
That’s so I could see the fascinating fourth-century floor mosaics at Piazza Armerina. Anyone who thinks the bikini was invented in France in 1946 should check out the women playing a kind of beach volley at Piazza Armerina. Their calculation is only off by about 1,500 years.
Donnafugata, a NH Hotels property just outside of Ragusa, has two new 7,200-yard courses, including the Parkland Course, a Gary Player design that hosted the European Tour’s inaugural Sicilian Open in March. It’s complemented by the Links Course, which is, perhaps more precisely, a modified links. It has some hills, and though you can see the Mediterranean Sea, you’re not on it, but there is plenty of wind and lots of wasteland.
Over on the Player course, my partner Jano Torrisi tells me, “It looks like Morocco,” as we pull up to the 13th hole, a 160-yard par 3. And indeed it does. We may be in Italy, but we are in southern Italy.
• • •
Donnafugata was a beautiful setting, but I saved the best for last: Rocco Forte’s Verdura Golf & Spa Resort, which opened in 2009.
This is the famous British hotelier’s first golf resort, and like everything Forte has done, it is equally extravagant and intimate. Both courses here were designed by Kyle Phillips, whose credits include Kingsbarns, No. 1 on the list of Golfweek’s Best Great Britain and Ireland Modern Courses.
Forte has coupled that with all of the de rigueur five-star amenities: a spa, restaurants overlooking the Mediterranean or on the beach, and plenty for the kids to do. Add to that a couple of very competent and friendly golf pros – director of golf Niall Cameron and head pro David Waters – and you have a golfer’s dream vacation.
You saw some trash there on the side of the street in Sciacca? The road from Palermo was bumpy? Somehow you forget about those things when you’re on the par-5 fourth hole of Verdura’s East Course. All you see is the ocean beyond the pin, an orange grove on your left and olive trees on your right. And you are blown away by the sweet smells of spring.
“You’ve got a piece of land here I don’t think you can find anywhere in the world,” Waters tells me as we pull up to the East’s fifth hole, a tough par 4. “And the amazing thing about Sicily is that you’re out here playing golf and you can’t hear a thing: no planes, no cars, nothing.”
I’ve often maintained that you cannot go wrong with a vacation in Sicily; the island has great people, great food, a lovely sea and loads of rich culture. (I haven’t even mentioned the great Cathedral of Monreale, outside of Palermo.)
Golf in Sicily is now, finally, also a no-brainer. The choice is only whether you do it the adventurous way – flying into Catania or Palermo, getting a GPS and playing several courses – or the easy way.
The easy way is to fly into Palermo and go straight to Verdura, which can keep even the most ardent golfer occupied for several days. If you choose, this approach also will afford you time for other nearby adventures, whether it be a day at the Temples at Agrigento, dating from the fifth century BC, or simply enjoying the famed Sicilian wineries.