Sicily's many splendours
THINK of Italy, and most people will call up a mental slideshow of Rome, Florence and Milan with their cityscapes and jostling mobs of camera-toting tourists.
And yet, just an hour or so south, the island of Sicily floats in the balmy breeze of the Mediterranean, still every bit as Italian as the mainland and with just as much history.
Perhaps the lingering whiff of its Cosa Nostra past has something to do with why Sicily remains a little off the beaten tourist track, but even that is quickly subsumed by a general mood of bonhomie.
And why not? The island's appeal is timeless. Even during the low season - such as around Christmas - the days remain warmer than the north and tourism is less feverish.
Since time immemorial, Sicily has been a safe harbour for merchant ships, roving marauders, fortune hunters and waves of immigrants led by successive Greek, Roman and Middle Eastern overlords. This explains the almost pan-Moorish quality of local Sicilians, their distinct patois and unique take on architecture and fashion.
What's more, the natural landscape is stunning. At every turn, the restless eye settles on secluded beaches, volcanic mountains, ancient towns, the world's best granitas and imaginative cuisine, all linked by a superb infrastructure of roads and conveniently located airports.
Given how easy it is to move around, consider renting a car and wending your way from one end of the coast to the other. If driving is not for you, there are many coaches that service the different towns, and an efficient train network.
If you're arriving in Palermo, check into the Quintocanto (www.quintocantohotel.com) in town and ask for a corner balcony room facing the church.
From here, it's a quick walk to the local sights, including the outre interiors of the 12th-century, gold-mosaicked Palatine Chapel (www.federicosecondo.org), and the daily markets at Ballaro and Capo, where the ancient alleys are taken over by stalls stacked high with cheese, herbs and the freshest seasonal fish and fruit.
Or else hop into the car and, half-an-hour later, you will be in the mountain village of Monreale, where the cathedral was built by the same generation of artisans who designed the Palatine and unleashed their imagination to cover the interior with gold mosaics depicting biblical scenes.
Shopaholics should hunt down Vallone (www.iovannivallone.it), a hole-in-the-wall atelier near the Piazza Borsa that makes amazing (and cheap) leather accessories that, if you squint, could pass for a Celine tote.
Now comes the extra-fun bit - eating, which is practically a national pastime when one is in Italy, and more so in Sicily where the eternal sunshine is such a boon for vegetables and fruit.
Adjourn to the Antica Focacceria San Francesco (www.afsf.it), a slow-food temple devoted to delicious homemade rice balls and pasta tossed with anchovies, raisins and toasted breadcrumbs. The almond granita - smooth as silk - is, hands down, the best in Sicily, which is saying something.
From Palermo, turn towards the south-eastern coast for unrivalled sun-kissed beaches and pretty little towns where life seems to go on pretty much the way it has for hundreds of years.
Depending on the time of year, Taormina can be a hyperactive tourist trap, so if you're after a bit of peace and quiet, drive on south along the coast for Avola Antica (www.avolaantica.it).
Perched high on a limestone mountain overlooking the coast, this bijou agriturismo - a uniquely Italian bed-and-breakfast set on a farm - is a gem where the very spartan rooms (starting from about 35 euros, or S$60, per person a night, including breakfast and dinner) are more than made up for by the scenery of coastal plains, ancient towns and the Mediterranean Sea; a garden of rosemary, lavender and figs; an outdoor pool shaded by olive trees; and a to-die-for dinner whipped up by the dashing resident chef, Molino Santo.
If you're after a holiday that involves more than indolent pool-side reading, siestas and fabulous meals, then you must check into the nearby Baroque town of Noto.
At the Seven Rooms (www.7roomsvilladorata.it), hotelier Cristina Summa has turned an ageing wing of the ancient Palazzo Nicolaci into a luxurious pavilion of high-ceilinged rooms, soothing colours and a breakfast terrace with panoramic views of Noto.
Destroyed by an earthquake in 1693 (along with almost all the city's noble families), Noto was completely rebuilt soon after, which explains the uniformity and pristine quality of its burnished architecture, the perfectly preserved churches and generously proportioned urban grid. In the evenings, locals and visitors flock to the high street for the passeggiata (leisurely stroll) before adjourning for dinner.
In Noto, gourmets are spoilt for choice. Our top hits include Ristorante Dammuso (via Rocco Pirri 10/12, tel: 0931-835786), Trattoria del Crocifisso (via Principe Umberto 46, tel: 0931-571151) and Marpessa (Vico Carrozzieri 10, tel: 0931-835225)
From Noto, it's an easy day trip to any number of beaches. If culture calls, descend onto Siracusa for its Greek and Roman ruins and, in particular, the 3,500-year-old island of Ortigia.
Here, the catacombs - accessed from the Duomo Square and used during World War II as bomb shelters - are a must-visit, as is the nearby cathedral with its Baroque shell encasing the original interiors of a 3,000-year-old Greek temple.
By this time, it will occur to you that after a week that seemed incredibly packed with activities, you've barely scratched this corner of Sicily. Ragusa, another gorgeous Baroque town at the foot of the Iblei Mountains, remains uncharted, as are Modica and the Unesco World Heritage site Scicli, with its wonderful crop of palaces and churches.
Which is why, just before you head for the airport - your luggage filled with cheese, spices and leather bags - you find yourself still at your favourite neighbourhood gelateria, desperately scarfing down the last cup of granita while composing half-joking e-mail messages to your boss and family, explaining why you can't return home just yet.
Sicily can do that to you. And that is probably the island's greatest surprise.