Converted into a luxury hotel from a former 15th century Dominican monastery, the San Domenico Palace Hotel in Sicily’s picturesque town of Taormina still retains much of its old world charm.
Located on a cliff rising high above the Ionian Sea, the property commands views of an ancient Greek theater to one side, the imposing slopes of Mount Etna on the other, and the smooth, curved Sicilian coastline between. It also lies within a five-minute walk of the town’s main shopping street, Corso Umberto 1 and the medieval amphitheater, Teatro Antico, where the annual Taormina Film Festival is held.
The property is awash in centuries of European history with its 105 rooms and suites set in two different wings, the garden wing, built within the former 14th century monastery, and the grand hotel wing constructed in liberty-style in the early 1900s.
Gone are the stealthy steps of the monks, their Psalmodic chants and their silent, cloistered cells, replaced now with renovated rooms, marble finishings, vaulted ceilings and velvet drapes. Instead of people of prayer, the property has been the playground of celebrities including Ava Gardner, Oscar Wilde, Salvador Dali, D.H. Lawrence, Truman Capote, Elizabeth Taylor, as well as a plethora of royalty including the Kaiser and the King Edward of England.
The famed hotel is along a cobblestone street lined with ficus trees, with convenient parking right outside its main entrance where marble wall engravings of two monks are carved on either side. A sturdy wooden door leads to a spacious walled courtyard with a pond filled with plants and gold fish swimming quite contentedly in its center.
The foyer boasts a classic Sicilian brown-tiled floor furnished with potted plants, crimson and gold sofas and gilt-framed oil paintings. Inside, several corridors and an encased inner courtyard rest with the right corridor leading to a convention center, the swimming pool and an outer garden. The garden is adorned with mandarin, pomegranate, lemon and orange trees and filled with the sweet scents of wild roses, bougainvillea, jasmine, hibiscus and orange blossom.
Small rooms off the courtyard may have once been confessionals but now house merchandise such as clothes and children's items. Beyond is another inner courtyard lined with citrus trees and labyrinth-like hedgerow, bougainvillea and gnarled ivy branches clinging to the arches and stone pillars. A vaulted walkway surrounds the courtyard, and an entire corridor of rooms — once the cells of monks and nuns, their portraits painted above the doors — have been renovated into guestrooms.
Our suite on the second floor granted a perfect view of the half-moon coastline far below and downtown Taormina to our left on the steep cliff side. A large patio enabled us to enjoy drinks under a blue sky as well as under the stars at night. Inside the room, a classic design dominated with gilt-framed mirrors, still-life paintings, and four framed prints of marble sculptures adorned the walls and a warm, color scheme of honey, white and brown balanced the décor.
The property's Les Bougainvillees Restaurant is furnished with hanging chandeliers, potted plants, standing lamps, and an old copper bust of the Madonna. Oil paintings, medieval in style, line the walls. Table candles help emanate a cozy atmosphere over dinner.
Upon entry, the restaurant presents an impressive wine menu with more than 1,000 choices. In terms of food, try the San Domenico Flambes Dish Menu to have your meals cooked right before your eyes. A mixture of local sea and land products with Sicilian flavors items include curly salad, crunchy smoked pork cheek, balsamic vinegar dressing, durum wheat spaghetti with grouper and cherry tomatoes. I have not tasted better tomatoes than the Sicilian variety served here, especially lightly sautéed with Planeta olive oil. Two other menu options are offered, a Sicilian Tasting Menu and an à la carte one, which includes a delicious Carnaroli rice creamed with Nero d’Avola red wine, almond shavings and Ragusano cheese.
A second restaurant, Principe Cerami, named after the hotel’s founder Prince Giovanni Rosso di Cerami, earned two Michelin stars in 2010 and is open only during the busy season. The Oratorio de Frati Bar and Lounge is housed in what used to be the monastery’s refectory. Breakfast is served inside or (weather permitting), on the terrace overlooking the coast. A range of Sicilian pastries, sliced meats, fresh juices and other offerings are served daily.
Aside from shopping and beach time, a stay in Taormina is not complete without a visit to the mighty Etna volcano, which can be arranged through Etna Experience. The tours, led by local guides who are multi-lingual, include a hike up the volcano, lunch at a local restaurant, and visits to caves and Alcantara Gorge.
Steeped in history and emanating elegance, the five-star San Domenico Palace Hotel lives up to its star ranking by offering supreme comfort, location and luxury around every corner.