We just got back from our “half the world” trip – Italy, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. You are reading it correctly, Italy! Many people whom I told this to had this reaction of wow nice, paused, and asked: “wait, Italy”? I know Italy sounded like out of the way but the reason was I found a cheap one-way ticket from Boston to Japan via Europe for $559 so it saved us by more than $300 per person routing through Europe. I played around to see if the price change with a stop in Europe and amazingly it didn’t differ much so I viewed it as a free trip to Europe! The routing ended up to be Boston -> Madrid, stop in “Madrid” 5 days, Madrid -> London -> Tokyo (Haneda) and flew with Iberia and British Airlines! Even though Google was warning me the fare is in Basic Economy (usually means no bag check and no in-flight meal) and I was prepared to pay for check baggage, it ended up just like full service – 2 free bags check and meals!
Then, I determine where in Europe to go for those 5 days that is reasonably cheap to fly in and out of Madrid. Without hesitation, I picked Tuscany but I was a little surprised by the expensive airfare from Madrid to Rome/Florence/Bologna that fit our connection. Our Boston to Madrid flight gets in at 6:20 AM and most of the cheap flights to Italy are not until the very late afternoon so it’s like wasting a day. The early morning nonstop Iberia flights cost over $250 yikes! That was when points and miles came to the rescue!!! It only cost 7,500 Avios and $30 in taxes for the same flight that cost over $250 redeeming through British Airways – its distance-based award chart. British Airways is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards which we have a saving of points; the transfer only takes a few minutes. For the return flight, FCO to MAD was a cheap $100 Vueling flight.
Few days before our trip, I was checking the weather and it wasn’t looking good! The forecast said over 80% chance of rain almost every day and the temperature plummets to a high of upper-50s, OMG! I talked to Jason, should we change our trip to somewhere else in Europe? We waited another day for the weather forecast and decide. No change in the forecast and I scrambled to come up with a backup plan. The FCO to MAD flight was already paid in cash so I hate to waste that so I was checking the forecast around Italy. Guess what, everywhere I checked were rainy and cold…and I found the only place guaranteed to be warm and mostly sunny was Sicily. Should I change it? I asked Jason and he was very supportive. Another rescue by points and miles, the “cancellation” fee was minimal; British Airways’s award re-deposit fee is only $35 or if the taxes and fees paid was less than $35 then it’s that amount, thus for our case, only $30 per person. Madrid to Sicily (Catania or Palermo) is not cheap but there was availability with Flying Blue – 11,500 miles+$40 in taxes and fees to redeem an Alitalia flight from MAD to FCO to CTA. The return was simply a $60 flight from Palermo to FCO to make our connecting Vueling flight back to Madrid.
All those changes at the end made our $300 saving to probably a $100 saving but still a free vacation to Sicily where it is not cheap to get to from Boston 🙂 Because it was a last minute change, there weren’t much of choices in terms of budget accommodation. I really wanted to stay in Taormina with nice views of Mount Etna but it is the most expensive area to stay in Sicily. Parking is the primary issue so I filtered by accommodation with private parking which limited the choices even further. In the end, I picked Hotel Villa Greta which cost $369 for 4 nights after 15% off with Orbitz and including breakfast and free parking. I will review the hotel later on in this post.
Our flight was supposed to arrive at Catania at 4:25 PM which will give us enough time for an hour drive to Taormina and made it before the sunset at 8 PM. However, our MAD to FCO flight was delayed so we barely made it to the gate for our FCO to CTA flight but they won’t let us board because of our luggage GRRRR! They rebooked us on the next flight so we didn’t get to Catania until 6:15 PM which by the way was less than 3 hours delay to be eligible for the EU Regulation 261/2004 delay compensation, double GRRR!
Once we arrived, we walked to the Dollar rental car counter to pick up our car which I prebooked with AutoEurope, my favorite Europe rental website that I have been using; it has no hidden fees and paid upfront so we don’t need to deal with the rental company for the final cost. The rental was only $144 for the 4 days returning at Palermo and automatic too (automatic transmission in Europe is $$$). They gave us a choice of a Ford wagon or some mini compact car that its name we never heard of. Jason picked the Ford and off we go to Taormina – a 50 minute drive. Once we got on the “highway”, the speed limit was 130 km/hr, that is 80 mph in such narrow 2 lane roads, crazy!!! Jason was driving at 130 km/hr and everyone was passing him! I Googled for speed limit and speed camera in Sicily and I read “speed limit is just an indication and not enforced, however, aware of speed camera”. Well all the locals were speeding so we guess no speed camera nearby! The last section of the highway from Catania to Taormina has toll charges and it cost €1.70; we paid that every day getting out of Taormina!
Once we got out of the highway, it was a very windy and narrow road up to the mountain where Taormina is located. Jason was joking that the Almafi Coast drive got him trained so no worry! The difference was that Almafi Coast is “flat” and not upward to the mountain! It was so crazy of the narrow road with cars barely pulled up to the sidewalk and once we got in the town center, so many pedestrians crossing and motorcycles, OMG, it was scary!!! I would never ever able to drive all the way up if I was the driver! Once we got to the hotel according to Google Map, the entrance was urg…where is the parking? Jason dropped me off where I walked all the way up to the reception; it was like 4 flight of stairs and I was sweating! The receptionist who barely speaks English but luckily another staff who speaks good English came over and gave me instruction – to drive further up and enter through the other back door that is easier for our luggage. There was no private parking lot! Instead, it was just street parking along the windy mountain road. The receptionist found a spot for us and pointed that and then we unload our luggage down the flight of stairs to our room. Our room was small but a balcony with good views, more on that later.
As soon as we unloaded, we walked down to the reception to ask for direction to walk down the town center. He gave us a map and draw on it on where we can locate a stairway directly down to the town – a 15 minutes walk. The walk down was fine but I am not looking forward for the way up! Anyways, we got down to the center and walked to Trattoria da Nino but we got turned away without a reservation; I made a reservation for the next day. Then, I searched TripAdvisor and found Ristorante l’Incontro nearby with good reviews so we had dinner there instead. We ordered the mussels as the starter and they were overcooked, urg, not a good sign!
Luckily, the seafood spaghetti and risotto were pretty good! The fresh and tasty Mediterranean shrimps, how I miss you that I have to take a trip to Europe each year to eat you!
The dinner was $89.77 plus €3 for tips. After the yummy and comfortable meal, we browsed around town but it was very late already so many shops were already closed. In Italy, how can I not have gelato? But I saw this cute popsicle shop and I got the mango one. It tasted very fresh mango taste but it made me thirsty! We didn’t hang around much longer as it was already past 10 PM so we walked all those stairs up to our hotel; it wasn’t that bad…at least not as bad as Dubrovnik!
The next morning, I woke up early naturally and in time for the sunrise; I walked out to our balcony and the view was very lovely! Mount Etna, the mountain on the way back, was shy on the days we were there that it was covered by clouds.
As the sun was rising, it lit up the mountain closeby and it turned to golden color. I was hoping the thin clouds covering Mount Etna to move out but it didn’t so that was the “clearest” I saw.
Our tiny room but at least clean and modern furnishing compared to other similar price point hotels that I researched on.
The bathroom is tiny, look at that shower stand; I can barely turn around without knocking on the glass! The one thing I hated about the room is the sewage smell inside the bathroom in the morning, we didn’t notice that until the morning; somehow the smell accumulated overnight and then you can really smell it in the morning!
A photo at our balcony for the view 😀
Breakfast doesn’t start until 8 am and I was already starving. The dining room in the hotel has a home-warming atmosphere.
The breakfast was just okay with no hot items 🙁 We ate some fresh croissants and eggs to fill us up to start our day.
After the quick breakfast, we walked up to the back door to our car, the balcony next to the back door has good views too! The thin clouds were still lingering there!
Our itinerary of the day: Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, Sicily. I didn’t realize how big Sicily island actually is, to get from one place to another, it takes time…..2 hour 35 minutes, it was a long drive and so many detours due to construction that Google doesn’t know. We finally reached Agrigento! This short tunnel of trees looked very cool!
We didn’t see any visitor center nor sign to the entrance so we just kept driving and passed through a few small parking lots. We turned back and followed the “P” sign to a bigger parking lot where it cost €3 and an English speaking guy showed us the visiting route. By walking, the roundtrip loop takes around 2 hours! Another option is taxi to the top of the other entrance and then walk down one-way; it cost €3.50 per person. To save time, we chose the taxi and walk option. Both entrances have vendors selling souvenir items and hats! You’ll see alot of hat selling vendors in Sicily!
We walked to the taxi stand and the driver told us to wait for more passengers to fill the taxi, once we reached 6 people, we start the short taxi ride to the top of the valley.
The entrance fee is €10 per person and there was a line to go through a metal detector. The first temple we visited was Temple of Hera Lacinia or Temple of Juno, it was built around 450 BC!
This reminded me of Athens but with fewer people!
It was a long walk to the 2nd temple under the scorching hot sun; we were there early/mid-May so couldn’t imagine how hot it can be during the summer time.
The way of the arcosalia; those are catacombs in an arch shape.
My favorite temple in the valley – Temple of Concordia which is one of the best preserved Greek temples in the world! It was built around 440–430 BC, amazing how well it is preserved and still standing today!
The Statue of Icarus, it is huge!!!
Temple of Concordia from the back. Have you noticed there are scattered rocks surrounding each temple? We didn’t realize at first but after a closer look, those are to hide the floodlights that light up the temples at night, brilliant right?
Temple of Concordia at a distance and you can see it’s up at the valley overlooking the fields underneath.
The remaining columns of Temple of Heracles:
The flowers were blooming in the valley that they gave a colorful contrast to the yellow colored temples.
At a distance, the city of Agrigento.
The temple of Castor and Pollux (Dioscuri) that has only 4 remaining columns.
We spent a good 2.5 hours at the valley photographing with the temples and for a late lunch, we went to the close-by il Molo right at the marina of Agrigento. There is a huge free parking lot so it was convenient to park our car and walk in for lunch. The restaurant looks very fancy but the prices are like the same as with the seafood restaurants in Taormina. We ordered a mixed seafood plate as the starter, the plate itself looked fancy too! The 4 items were cocktail shrimps with a creamy sauce, fish with almonds, cold shellfish mix, and oyster. Jason liked the Sicilian oysters!
The entree I ordered was the lobster spaghetti and it was the best lobster spaghetti that I ever had! Each spaghetti was covered with flavorful lobster sauce and yet not too heavy in cream, it was a perfect balance. Shockingly, it was cooked with a piece of grapefruit which brought out the flavor of the lobster; I have never seen that combination before, have you?
Jason ordered a grilled seafood mix which consisted of a codfish filet, octopus, and two types of shrimps. The seafood was grilled perfectly! Surprisingly, the codfish was very tender and not dry nor salty at all!
I couldn’t praise enough for the food flavors but the downside was we waited for a very long time between each course…we spent 2 hours there, it was that slow! The cost of our lunch was $79. It was already 3:30 pm by the time we finished our lunch so we decided to head back to Taormina to explore the wonderful town. When we got back, Mount Enta was fully covered 🙁
I took photos of the walk down to the town center to show you the number of steps…..starting from the reception area.
Flight of stairs to get down to the road level.
The hidden entrance of the stairway:
It wasn’t steep so really not that bad.
Some sections were dark at night so might sure to carry a flashlight or use your smartphone flashlight function to light up the road. It might look scary at night as hardly anyone there but I can assure you that it is safe to walk at night!
We saw some strange flowers where in each flower has a bee hidden underneath, can you spot the bee?
Once we got down to the town center and plugged in Google Map to the famous Greek Theatre, we passed this not so famous and smaller scale Greek Theatre.
We haven’t see Taormina in daylight since we arrived last night so it was a nice walk through the town center to see some of its colorful shops. All of their balconies were decorated with colorful flowers!
Even their flower pots are very cute!
The admission cost of the Greek Theatre is another €10 per person! At the back of the Greek Theatre, it offered a great view of Taormina town.
We sat there and waited for the sun to set and slowly the Greek Theatre turned to golden color. It was too bad that Mount Etna was fully covered by clouds otherwise the photos would be more spectacular! There were a few tourists there waiting for the sunset as well and many photographers brought their tripods. However, we couldn’t stay till the sunset because the Greek Theatre closes at 7 pm and the sunset at that time of the year is 8 pm. We waited as late as possible so that the angle of the sun was low enough for the golden color. There were two girls who endlessly taking selfies in front of us and we couldn’t wait any longer so Jason had to adjust the angle that I covered those two girls.
Another side of the Greek Theatre for more views of Taormina, the beautiful town we stayed at!
We stayed till 7 pm and left to explore more of the town center. Taormina is a vibrant town, touristy but didn’t lost its charm.
We had dinner at Trattoria da Nino where I made the reservation the night before and we were given a choice of indoor or outdoor seating. We chose outdoor as the weather was pleasant at night to enjoy dining outdoors. The restaurant has over 2000 reviews in TripAdvisor so we were looking forward to see if it meets the high ratings.
We splurge on the raw fish €25 dish that everyone raved about and it was definitely interesting. I am not a raw seafood person but I like the shrimps with the orange sauce, another fruit-seafood combination.
We ordered the mussels, grilled shrimps, and a seafood spaghetti to share. The grilled shrimps were delicious OMG! The mussels were better than the night before, at least most were cooked perfectly, but the seafood spaghetti was not as good. The total cost of our splurge seafood dinner was $95.98 🙂
After the yummy dinner, we strolled around town before the shops started to close. The town was very lively at night, I just wish that the shops remain open later so we can check them out.
I researched that the best gelato is at Pasticceria Etna Snc but they did not have my favorite melon flavor. I chose a scoop of milk and coffee and both were very smooth and creamy. It wasn’t the best gelato I had in Italy but it was pretty good!
More window shopping….I love those but very expensive at like €50+ each, too expensive for a souvenir 🙁
More street scenes at night that we enjoyed strolling around.
Our first full sightseeing day in Sicily was enjoyable, great weather, great sites, but transportation took so much time that we couldn’t see as much as we would like to. The seafood in Sicily was overall very good, I want to have that seafood spaghetti again!