As I release the clutch and accelerate up the hill in second gear, the 50-year-old car springs into life and hugs the winding road ascending Mount Tauro. The breeze whistles through the sunroof of the tomato-red Fiat 500, and I try to remember ever driving a car that delivered such a heady rush of adrenalin and endorphins.
Sighting the smouldering peak of Mount Etna, for the umpteenth time today, reminds me that I’m not driving a dodgem — despite the tiny size of this Italian icon — although flooring it in fourth gear only seems to manage a top speed of about 30mph.
As we reach the summit, the spectacular view of Taormina, the Mediterranean and Europe’s most active volcano again reveals itself. And as the warm October sun beats down, the panorama of the undulating coastline makes it clear why the Santuario Madonna della Rocca, a tiny church carved into the rock, was built up here in 1640.
We don’t stay long, as they’re preparing for a wedding ceremony, so it’s back into the Cinquecento for the precarious descent and through the town, from medieval chapel to ancient Greek theatre. Sicily’s most popular summer destination, Taormina’s modern fame was founded on the third-century BC Teatro Greco, albeit the Roman reconstruction: a horseshoe-shaped theatre with a dramatic view over the Gulf of Naxos. It was here that Goethe’s Italian Journey, and the paintings of Otto Geleng, established Taormina on the Grand Tour and later attracted the leading poets, writers, musicians and artists of the early-20th century.
The town’s first hotel, dating back to 1873, sits right in front of the theatre and played host to the likes of DH Lawrence, Jean Cocteau, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. And it’s this bygone glamour that the property still exudes; its architecture and views evoking the initial allure of the late-19th century, while the prestige of the historic film festival conjures up the timeless chic of post-war Italy.
Part of the Orient-Express group since 2010 (now Belmond), the Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo started life as a five-bedroom house and soon expanded, massively, to 70 rooms, thankfully retaining the feel from its early period — the main building being joined by the annex Villa Flora, housing almost half of the rooms. Surrounded by a six-acre park of manicured gardens — orange-blossom, jasmine, bougainvillea — peace, serenity and, as you’d expect, discreet privacy are all part of the attraction.
The Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea, Timeo’s sister hotel just around the coast, with a private beach overlooking the Bay of Mazzarò, offers much the same. The 1830 villa, built by an aristocratic English family, now with 64 rooms, maintains its seclusion just a three-minute cable-car ride from the centre of Taormina.
It doesn’t offer the tantalising views from up high, but when the Mediterranean becomes too tempting, this is where you dip your toes in the sea. Better still, you can be taken out in the hotel’s traditional Sicilian fishing boat, where the full majesty of the Gulf of Giardini Naxos is all too apparent.
Back at the Grand Hotel Timeo, I take in the magnificent view over Mount Etna at breakfast on the terrace, having arrived too late the previous night to see anything, and think I could quite happily sit here all day.
That doesn’t happen, of course. The hotel’s Fiat 500s are too much of a draw and we make our way through the pretty medieval streets up to the tiny village of Castelmola, 1,800ft above sea level, and the Santuario Madonna della Rocca. The prospect of the wind in my hair and those vistas on the horizon as I drive down cliff-hugging roads is a thrill I’ll never grow bored of. Even at 30mph.
How to do it: Kirker Holidays offers a four-night holiday combining two nights at Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo and two nights at Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea from £998 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes return economy flights from London to Catania, return private car transfers, accommodation with breakfast, and the services of the Kirker Concierge to book excursions, expert local guides or a table for dinner.
Next up: Capri, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast are surely the next step after the glamour of Sicily. Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan’s TV series for the BBC, The Trip to Italy, has left me longing for luxury yachts, Michelin-starred restaurants and unimaginably beautiful coastlines.
Believe it or not, my favourite trip of all time was in my home country: to the Kimberley region in Western Australia. It’s one of the most remote places on Earth — yet still one of the most luxurious experiences I’ve had. I took a cruise along the coast between Broome and Wyndham on the Kimberley Quest II — a ship custom-built for this journey. I treated myself to a helicopter safari over the Horizontal Falls — the world’s only, well, horizontal waterfall. I also flew over Montgomery Reef, Australia’s largest inshore reef, hiked trails decorated with indigenous rock art, and even pulled up the boat to the King Cascades for a swim.
Next up: My Kimberley trip taught to explore my own backyard more. Next, I’d love to see the whale sharks off Ningaloo Reef.
Along with a group of seasoned oenophiles, I set off one morning to Domaine de Bellevue, a vineyard in Bordeaux with a private wine club, Le Grand Société. We took a private jet from RAF Northolt, starting with a glass-in-hand tour of the vineyard, and embarked on a bon viveurs’ luncheon in the underground caves: local delicacies paired with the vineyard’s world-class wines. We rounded off with cigars and digestifs before heading back to Bordeaux airport to take the private jet back to London.
Next up: I surf, and have always wanted to join a surf charter cruise, one that offers a surfing and cultural adventure into the Maldives’ undiscovered atolls.
A perfectly fitted suit has to be the ultimate luxury, and no visit to Hong Kong is complete without a visit to a tailor. Thirty years ago, after much searching, I met Frankie Luk, in the Wan Chai district — and he’s been making suits for me ever since. Typically a fitting is followed by local dim sum; then I head back to London, carrying suits and shirts to deliver to clients he measured up on his last trip to The Dorchester.
Next up: Johannesburg and Singita Boulders Lodge on Singita’s private reserve in the Sabi Sands Reserve, for the Big Five, spa treatments and South Africa’s finest wines
Compiled by: Julia Buckley
Read more in the Jul/Aug 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)