Photos by Jason Leppert
Driving from the airport in Palermo, Italy, we were surprised to see such diversity. We had been to the mainland part of Italy several times before, but Sicily felt somehow different. There were beautiful hillsides and the ocean beyond. When we arrived at our hotel for the next six nights, we felt as if we were staying in an Italian estate. The Excelsior Palace Hotel was very grand and elegant if not just a bit tired and worn out with age. But it served us well as our “home” base for our island stay.
We decided to take a car tour from Palermo in the western part of Sicily over to the eastern side to Catania, home of the famed Mt. Etna. Mt. Etna is still an active volcano and rises 10,990 feet in the air and is 93 miles wide at its base. It’s last eruption started in 2014 and is still going on today. We were able to see steam rising from three separate locations as we approached the parking area at 1,700 meters (about 5,577 feet). We decided to ride up Etna on their cable car, which started at the parking level and went up to 2,200 meters (about 7,217 feet). While it cost a hefty 30 Euros, it was well worth it. It was a surreal experience rising above the clouds to an area that looked like the surface of a distant planet.
The views were amazing! From the top of the chair lift, you could ride a van to the top or walk up, both of which took more time (and energy) then we had. But many people were trying both routes. In all, it took us about an hour for the round-trip ride and exploration on our own. The car ride down allowed us to see where the lava had flowed across many sections of the road from a previous eruption. The forces of nature never fail to amaze me with their simultaneous power and beauty.
After leaving Mt. Etna, we asked our driver to take us to a traditional restaurant for lunch. Mind you this was on a Sunday, so the family farm house we stopped at for a bite, turned into a two-plus-hour feast! We had multiple appetizers, themselves a meal. Then several pasta options, all delicious, followed by four different meat choices. By this time we had run out of stomach and an appetite and had yet to have dessert. We decided due to being stuffed to the gills and our lack of time, to skip it. I think our leaving early left the waitstaff at a loss as this is the best part of the meal, but we needed to leave after this lengthy banquet.
The second day we were in Palermo. We were able to enjoy a three-hour walking tour, which included both a brief history lesson and the sampling of regional foods along the way. We were treated to rice balls called arancini which were filled with peas, carrots and meat and were so delicious right out of the cooker. We also tried their pizza and a local beer, both very tasty. The next course was not one we indulged in. It was a mix of cow spleen, trachea and lungs spiced with mint and put on a bun. Several of our group ate it but were not anxious to try it again. We felt we just did not want to be that adventuresome and passed.
The last course was my favorite. The lemon gelato is such a treat in both Italy and Sicily! It is flavored in such a way as to almost pop in your mouth. I can never get enough of this specialty delight. Our 34-year-old tour guide had a wonderful way of making us feel at home in all areas of the city. He and my son, Jason, who is 35 years old enjoyed sharing a conversation as they walked along. They were from different reaches of the world and yet so much the same. I enjoyed watching them talk so openly.
On to the resort town of Taormina next: Again as time was a factor, we were only able to enjoy a stroll through the many shops and boutiques at Corso Umberto, the main street in Taormina and the remains of a hilltop fortress. We decided we were now ready for something sweet and opted for the amazing lemon gelato once again. As our ride back would be around three hours, we had to regretfully leave this town and its stunning views earlier. The car tour and our stops took us about 12 hours in total. We hit quite a bit of traffic as we drove back to Palermo, so our seven-hour tour was extended to a much longer day.
Our guide was a very good driver, but he did not speak much English. So, while we had time to kill between courses at the restaurant, my son and Luigi were using their phones to communicate through the translation apps. It was a great benefit and gave us the chance to converse in spite of the language barrier. We found out he was a retired iron worker who found driving for tours to be more financially beneficial and less stressful as he aged. He and my husband, Mark, found a common bond as my husband is a building contractor. As we travel we always find that the world is not as big as it seems when we find common ground with people from around the globe.
Next, we were set to enjoy the events surrounding the real reason we were all brought to Palermo, Italy. We were invited to attend a ship extension ceremony courtesy of Windstar Cruises at the Fincantieri shipyard. My son is a cruise travel journalist, and this type of tour is part of his job. However, my husband and I were lucky enough to also be invited by John Delaney, the line’s president. The first day we were privileged to see the final cut be made by John himself. This cut allowed the Star Breeze to be completely separated into two pieces. This ship held 200 passengers before the addition of more staterooms. After the expansion, it will hold 300 total guests.
On the second day, we were given a tour of the other maritime projects going on at the yard. These included two new ships being built for Virgin Voyages as well as some of the pieces being prepared for the second of three Windstar ship extensions, the Star Legend. (The Legend was the ship my son and his wife Heidi, as well as my husband and I had just cruised on for 12 nights in Alaska. So, knowing the layout of these sister ships gave us an even greater appreciation for the extensive work they were doing and would be doing to the trio of motor yachts.)
Next we were treated to the event of a lifetime, watching the new mid section being moved into place between the existing front and back of the Breeze. It was moved with such precision and in such a short time. It was quite a sight to see in person as this huge ship’s section, full of new staterooms, moved by us as we stood at the side of the dry-dock area. In addition to extending the ship, they will be refurbishing the existing staterooms, adding a few more venues and putting in new more efficient engines — work that will take four months to finish. While this was my first time visiting a shipyard, my son and husband have been to several others. I now sure understand the fascination they have seeing these cruise ships being renovated, or in this case extended. My husband has a builder’s interest as does my son who shares his construction genes. We look forward to seeing how the completed ship will look after its four-month upgrade.
While we may not ever get the chance to visit Sicily again, we were pleasantly surprised with how different this island was from the main part or boot of Italy. Having a lot of immigrants from the surrounding countries, Sicily is its own melting pot of diversity and thus charm with a true international vibe to it. We again left with a feeling that we were once again connected to people we may have thought were so different from us and yet ended up being the same, with the same life goals to be happy each day and to live in peace. Travel once again gives us not only joy but new perspectives on the world’s people.