BY LIAM HESS
Ever since I watched The Talented Mr. Ripley at an age that was, frankly, far too young—despite the film’s sophisticated trappings, Jude Law does get brutally clubbed around the head with an enormous wooden oar—I have been a sucker for the glamorous promise of an Italian vacation. It may be a cliché, but the reason I’ll always return to Italy’s boot is that it’s filled with places that feel like they could exist nowhere else in the world, from thigh to heel; from the mind-boggling engineering of the Venetian waterways to the devil-may-care energy of Naples with its whizzing motorcycles and crumbling Baroque churches.
Still, nowhere in Italy has captured my imagination—and feels as uniquely its own place—like Sicily. A crossroads for various Mediterranean civilizations for centuries (and still to this day), its rich and incredibly varied landscapes serve as a backdrop for one of the country’s most strange and seductive cultures. The seafood pasta isn’t half bad, either. null
Last year, I was lucky enough to travel to this sprawling island to write a guide to its hotels, with a specific focus on two new openings. But one of these new openings, the Four Seasons San Domenico Palace, felt particularly magical: Situated on a rocky outcrop on the edge of the popular tourist hilltop town of Taormina, it seemed to capture everything that has made Sicily such an enchanting destination for travelers from the Grand Tour onwards.
Housed in a former convent that was first constructed in the 14th century—indeed, an entire wing includes rooms housed in the former cloisters, albeit with a few of the nun’s cells knocked through to form more spacious living quarters—peeling back the layers of its past is a history lesson in and of itself. Converted into a hotel in the late 19th century as Italian tourism began to truly boom, a wing was later added in the Liberty style (an Italian variation of Art Nouveau) to house guests including Oscar Wilde and D. H. Lawrence. Throughout World War II, it served as a headquarters for the German army. (After the war, it returned to its function as a hotel, attracting a breathlessly star-studded array of jet-set guests including Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sophia Loren.)
So imagine my delight then when I heard Mike White’s masterful upstairs-downstairs comedy The White Lotus, would be renewed for a second season—and this time set in Sicily. And imagine my further delight when it was announced that the setting for the show’s second season would be none other than the San Domenico Palace. Visions of Jennifer Coolidge in a jazzily-patterned muumuu lounging by the same pool in which I’d taken my morning swim raced through my mind.
Of course, as soon as I came to the realization I’d stayed at the actual, real White Lotus—and I began sharing this with anyone who would listen, in a manner that in hindsight was probably extremely smug and annoying—the first question anyone asked in response was: Well, what was it like?
Reader, I’m here to tell you, it was just as beautiful as it looks. To start at the very beginning, in order to reach the hotel, you’re taken along a winding road that loops through and around the vertiginous cliffs from which visitors can take in Taormina’s peerless views of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Then, you’re deposited in the courtyard—now and forever known as the historic location where Sabrina Impacciatore’s frosty hotel manager Valentina conjectures that Coolidge’s Tanya may have dressed up as Peppa Pig. (They should really make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site for that line alone.)
Stepping through the first of the cloisters, you’ll pass the shop where Mia and Lucia went on their wild spending spree, and descend to the bar area where Ethan and Cameron got up to no good while their wives were away in Noto. (I can confirm, however, that the hotel’s real-life musical offering was far superior to the warbling of the sleazy lounge singer Giuseppe in the show.) Cross the threshold into the Principe Cerami restaurant, and you can wander further out to the almost comically beautiful terraces where you watched Harper and Daphne eat their breakfasts.
Then, you can head through the perfectly manicured gardens awash with colorful lilies and scented with fragrant citrus trees, and down towards the hotel’s true pièce de resistance: the infinity pool with its widescreen view all the way from Mount Etna across to the Greek amphitheater that hovers above Taormina as a reminder of its illustrious history. Sadly, I did not spot Portia or Albie lounging by the pool and trading flirtatious glances, but if there’s anywhere you’d hope to find the spark of first love, it would be somewhere as impossibly romantic as this.
The Four Seasons San Domenico Palace has that rare thing only the very best hotels possess, which is the feeling that simply by staying there—even without venturing beyond its four walls—you’re having an experience in and of itself, with its lush gardens and corridors that seem to radiate history feeling like a microcosm of Taormina. I saw plenty of chatter on Twitter about the myopia of the White Lotus’s guests never seeming to leave the hotel and only ever eating in its restaurants, but once you’re there, it’s not hard to understand why you wouldn’t necessarily want to leave. It may not be the realSicily, whatever that is, but it’s a slice of Sicilian paradise all the same. The only thing that could possibly make it better? Staying there with Jennifer Coolidge. In matching muumuus