Category Archives: Sicily

Sicily: The tale of two Grand hotels

Sicily has many exceptional hotels but what about those Sicilian destinations with less selection to offer. Here’s a look at two. The tale of two old world hotels…

Grand Hotel et des Palmes, Palermo

Palermo is on the cusp of a Renaissance. It has been chosen as Italy’s Capital of Culture for 2018 and its popularity as a travel destination is growing. But what Palermo is missing is a solid selection of luxury accommodation. It is nearly non existent and it was very difficult to find a well recommended hotel in this capital city. So I settled on the historical Grand Hotel des Palmes because of its excellent location. Like many old European hotels, this clearly was once a sparkling hotel in the grand tradition. Sumptuous gilding, marble and mirrors but unfortunately a bit dusty and worn from wear. Much of it’s beauty ignored.

I wanted to like the hotel as it has it’s charm and some of the people that worked there were genuinely friendly with an ease to smile if albeit a bit lackadaisical. But unfortunately it wasn’t enough to cover the fading splendor, the rickety lift, the stained carpets and the peeling paint. This was especially apparent in my room which had scuff marks all over the walls, the chandelier was hanging a bit precariously, and the room was stuffy and dark. This was because the wooden window shutters so popular in Italy were almost all the way down. Upon further inspection the cord to lift it up and down was not working properly and so the only position it would stay in was nearly all the way down. Meaning, no view, no air circulation, and no natural light.  The bathroom was basic and here some creative touch ups were used to cover some of the blemishes like painting the toilet seat to make it look ‘new.’ The room was clean though just in need of  major remodeling.

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The same goes for the public spaces which were shabby and its such a shame as you can really see this hotel was a grande dame at one time. The lobby doubled as a bar area which is fine though there wasn’t a lot of seating when the aperitivo hour came round and there were a few rowdy coach tours staying and constantly lingering in the lobby. I don’t understand why they don’t use a neglected formal room down the corridor as for a hotel bar it would be quite a place. The bartenders doubled by working in the restaurant and so they weren’t always immediately available, or there was one to serve 30 people which meant drinks took forever. The nicest area was the restaurant/breakfast room which appears to have been a formal dining space at some point, with chandelier and lavish details which served up a daily breakfast buffet.

The service was decent, polite, rooms were clean, but not exceptional. Faux antique wooden details and brass. There was no evening turn down service, and the room’s heating/air conditioning did nothing for the temperature of the room. The concierge desk was friendly but here too it could have been better. Their restaurant recommendations were restaurants aimed at tourists and fairly predictable choices. And when I asked for a nice place close by for a cocktail I was sent to an area of tourist restaurants instead of the more elegant pedestrian street with cafes and bars, literally around the corner from the hotel which I discovered on my own a day later. And while not the hotel’s fault, it was quite noisy one evening with a car or store alarm going off all night long. It was hard to sleep and it was still going in the morning. Needless to say it wasn’t a comfortable stay.

Would I stay here again, perhaps as the location is very central. But I hope by the time Palermo becomes the Capital of Culture the hotel gets a make over and some new as it would really shine, and the city adds exciting new hotels to signal that Palermo is open for visitors.

Grand Hotel et des Palmes via Roma 398 90139 Palermo – Italy

Grand Hotel Ortigia, Syracuse

The neighbourhood of Ortigia, in Syracuse is a lovely little peninsula separate from the city and full of charm and history. Baroque streets filled with cute cafes and a palatial central piazza as smooth as an ice rink make it not only a wonderful hostorical town to linger in but also a central point to go and visit near by towns in the Noto Valley.

But here too it was hard to find a great hotel selection. A couple of boutique hotels were already booked months in advance and not much else to choose from except the larger, tried and true Grand Hotel Ortigia overlooking the marina and with a great location. From the outside it does look like many European hotels with its continental facade, but inside the decor is… well a bit of a mess. They describe it as “Liberty” style in reference to the British arts and crafts movement of the late 19th Century but really it looked like a bit of an old Gothic house meets a bit of hippy psychedelic.

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My room was very simple though almost dorm like. Very clean and comfortable, light pale green and light wood, and while not the most stylish place I’ve been to, it had some nice touches you don’t get in many hotels. For one since most people only stop through here for a day or two and really don’t unpack they have conveniently put up wall hooks above the area where the suitcase rack is placed so that you can conveniently hang things right there over your bag. They also put up a plastic back splash to protect the wall from the scuffing that comes from people’s suitcase, something the Grand Hotel des Palmes might want to consider. Also I loved the rare to find electrical outlet right over the bedside table to allow for easy night time phone charging. But the real surprises were in the bathroom. While small and only with a tiny shower I had to really squeeze into, the shower head was not only a rainfall shower but it also had a series of shower heads down the wall like a mini spa. And for a real treat they had cult brand Culti bath products which they replenished very generously. I have to say I was very impressed.

The public spaces included a restaurant/breakfast room which also doubled as a bar on the top floor offering splendid views over the water and parts of the city. The decor fails to impress, something a coach tour would have lunch in, but the views go a long way. The problem is, here again I encountered a tour group and they all convened in this limited public space to have a bit of a party and it meant noise and lack of seating for the rest of the hotel guests. And on a rainy day when no one wants to be out on the terrace there is even less room. Other than that, it was a pleasant area and offered a nice breakfast buffet in the mornings.

Everyone I encountered working at the hotel was friendly and helpful. My room was always made up before my return, there was a turn down service in the evening complete with a Sicilian almond biscotti on the bedside table. The concierge team at the front desk was knowledgeable and available to help set anything up from local restaurants to day trip excursions.

Would I stay here again, yes. Though I can’t say it was the coziest or prettiest place I have been to, I felt looked after and cared about.

Grand Hotel Ortigia Viale Mazzini 12 – 96100 Siracusa

The Grand Hotel des Palmes would do well to learn a thing or two from the Grand Hotel Ortigia. While both are aging hotels, the Grand Hotel Ortigia went the extra mile with staff effort, room comfort and extra details. But as both cities grow in popularity as tourist destination the cities would do well to not only get more accommodation options in town but for these hotels reviewed here to do some serious updating with fresh design. Because with the history and location, both hotels have the potential to be attractive places to stay.

Italian Summer: Where to go

For fun in the sun Italy has it all…

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When it comes to summer destinations Italy offers the whole package. Whether it be time by the beach, culture in the city, or a foodie trip of the best gelato not only can it all be done in Italy, you could do all of that in one trip. The hard part is trying to decide where in Italy so here are a few suggestions.

The Amalfi Coast: Endless blue sea for as far as the eye can see, cascading bougainvillea, and sunny lemons make anywhere along the Amalfi Coast a dream destination.  Some of the best luxury hotels can be found here offering rooms with views and some of the friendliest service anywhere. And while beach life might be a bit rocky, with pebbles instead of sand, the water is calm and refreshing. Not to mention Italian town life on the sea offers a relaxed atmosphere and welcoming casual dining so it is easy to enjoy the day seaside, swim, have a meal of fish caught that morning all while sipping a chilled glass of vino. Positano and Capri are the glamour spots while Amalfi town offers a bit of Italian life and the breath taking views from high in Ravello’s nest cannot be missed. Take time to explore the smaller towns such as Praiano, Atrani, and dotted villages along the coast. The Amalfi Coast never disappoints.

Florence and Tuscany: Italy at its most elegant can be found at its heart in Tuscany. The history of art and culture is evident from its towns and cities to its rolling country hills. While hot in the summer and with extensive crowds, Florence and neighbouring Siena and San Gimignano are worth braving the crowds even in the middle of the heat. Enjoy the cafes, take shelter in the shade of the churches filled with breathtaking works of art and rest your feet over some wine tasting. For a complete escape, villa rentals are a wonderful relaxing way to live like an Italian if only for a few days. Long lunches at vineyard eateries are a fabulous option in the summer as you hop between picturesque hill towns and villages.

Sicily: Being an island most destinations in Sicily are not too far from the seaside. Quaint seaside towns remain laid back, such is life in Southern Italy. While there are many places to choose from, Taormina is the most popular having been a stylish resort for centuries. The town has lots of restaurant and cafe options while the seaside has water activities and a charming little island called Isola Bella. Farther afield on Sicily’s southern coast there are pristine beaches and blue waters. But for a real summer beach holiday head for one of Sicily’s jewel like Aeolian islands or the unspoiled Pantelleria.

Puglia: This is where Italy meets Greece. Both share the deep blue Adriadic Sea and taking the ferry between Puglia’s Brindisi to Greece’s Corfu island is quite common during the summer months. But Puglia is very special. Quiet. Peaceful. Green of the olive trees contrasting with the blue sea and the white washed buildings of Puglia’s sleepy little hill towns and fishing villages. The Valle d’Itria has polished small towns with choice cafes and restaurants. Ostuni, especially has much to offer. Not too much is built up along the sea coast so you can see it from miles away, it glistens in the sun. While beaches are busy in the summer there is still a feeling of this being an Italy without all the crowds. A perfect place to get away and live slow.