For more than 400 years the cloisters of the San Domenico Palace were closed off to the outside world and enjoyed only by monks. The former Dominican convent has been making up for lost time ever since, becoming a haunt of the rich, famous and infamous to Taormina throughout the 20th century including the likes of Greta Garbo, Maria Callas, Edward VIII, Princess Margaret and Elizabeth Taylor — earning a reputation for opulent decadence from the time of the Grand Tour.
Now after a three-year overhaul the 111 room hotel fully reopened earlier this year as part of the Four Seasons stable. Throughout its long history though, one thing has not changed: that mesmerising view of smoking, smouldering Mount Etna, surely one of the most compelling in Europe.
Where is it?
Perched on a shelf high above the Ionian Sea on the east coast of Sicily in the resort of Taormina, best known for its Greek theatre and glamorous and celebrated visitors such as Robert Redford, Truman Capote and DH Lawrence, who was supposedly inspired to write Lady Chatterley’s Lover by a liaison involving his wife while staying in the town. The nearest airport at Catania is a 45 minute drive away and the island’s capital Palermo a two-and-half-hourtrip. The hotel itself is just away from the warren of lanes of central Taormina, including the famous Corso Umberto.
Grand monastic opulence. Those Dominican monks, whose home it was until converted into a hotel in 1896, may have been devout but they knew how to live. Long cool corridors, two ancient cloistered courtyards and grand furniture pieces that includes a towering 15th century wooden apothecary cabinet.
The art collection is impressive, ranging from Medieval oils in the “Sicilian school” by students of Caravaggio, to modern installations made from ash from Etna created by the Georgian artist Sophie Ko.
The level of service, as you would hope to expect from a Four Seasons establishment is spot on. Warm and friendly without ever coming close to stepping over the line to cloying servility. As you lie by the pool - if that’s your thing - you will be offered cold towels, cold water, a fruit kebab, even a sandglasses smear wiping service. But it is all very discreet.
The gardens, where monks once collected medicinal plants, were laid out by Italian landscaper Marco Bay includes a citrus grove with more than 40 varieties of trees including lemons, mandarins, grapefruit and minature oranges.
Most of the room are converted monks cells, more airy than they sound as two were knocked together to make a single room - but nevertheless cosy. In stark contrast the garden suites in the Grand Hotel Wing - the “modern” part of the hotel - are monumental with high ceilings and doors opening out on a small terrace with a private plunge pool. Taking the first pre-breakfast espresso in your own pool looking over at Etna is a start to the day I would recommend to anyone.
Food & drink
The main restaurant is the two Michelin starred Principe Cerami and is overseen by locally born Massimo Mantarro. The terrace overlooking the Bay or Taormina and mount Etna is must. The night we dined a very light scattering of black ash blown from the volcano dropped onto our otherwise pristine white linen table cloth like celestial ground pepper.
A la carte starters include organic egg, wild aromatic herbs and black truffle, among the primi piatti are risotto with anchovies, wild fennel and Bronte pistachio, while the fish mains include Turbot, courgette, miso and lemon, and for the meat there is suckling pig, courgette greens and peach.
Or you can book to have a private dinner on a table well away from the main restaurant with a special menu either fish or meat themed. We chose fish working our way through five courses from Rock melon with prawn and its caviar through to peanuts and passion fruit parfait, caramel cream and spiced sauce.
Principe Cerami is only open for dinner but lunch can be taken in the more informal Anciovi next to the pool. It is also possible to have a light meal at the all day bar next to the Grand Cloister where one of the cocktails, the Gelosia e Mandolino - vodka Giovi and red garlic and oregano distillate - was supposedly inspired by a legendary row in which Elizabeth Taylor allegedly broke a mandolin over Richard Burton’s head.
Volcano gazing. There are not many days when Mamma Etna - as the Sicilians like to call the provider of such remarkably fertile soil - is not putting on a show, whether huge plumes of steam and smoke by day, or glowing lava from the crater by night. All the day excursions to Etna are worth doing. We chose the gastronomic “Eat the Volcano” trip which took in milking a cow, helping to make ricotta cheese, olive oil tasting, herb foraging, and ended with a superb meal 800 metres up the slopes of the volcano at the Cottnera Winery. We were even joined by Chef Mantarro for part of the trip,
Rooms start from around 1000 euros per night not including breakfast in low season; fourseasons.com/taormina