Something’s happening in this part of Sicily,” declared Mario Faro, the owner of the charming boutique resort Donna Carmela, as he drove me at top speed down a narrow country lane between flower-studded lava-stone walls. “All we need is a catchy name, because we can’t keep calling it ‘Between Catania and Taormina.’ ”
Let’s just call this place A Muntagna — “the Mountain” — like the locals do. Indeed, much of the current “Etna Explosion” is happening up on the slopes of the volcano, where a group of vintners is leading a thriving food and wine scene. Meanwhile, Etna’s seaward skirts are being settled by a growing tribe of new residents. These new Sicilians are being enticed away from the world of Milanese fashion or London finance by the dramatic vistas, cultured private enclaves, and word-of-mouth trattorias — all a safe distance from touristy Taormina.
The pool at Rocca delle Tre Contrade. | CREDIT: FRANCIS AMIAND/COURTESY OF THE THINKING TRAVELLER
Look at the rich, dark volcanic soil beneath the orange trees in the garden of Rocca delle Tre Contrade, a villa about 16 miles from Etna bookable exclusively through the Thinking Traveller, and you’ll realize that, not long ago, a lava flow once reached this far. Raised on a hillock above ancient citrus groves, the audaciously restored and refitted 19th-century villa with 12 bedrooms. Its show kitchen has a special function: the couple who own Rocca, Milan-based Jon Moslet and Marco Scirè, regularly set the whole villa aside for group culinary experiences. “Our goal,” Moslet told me, “is to be the most desirable villa in the world for travelers who love food.”
The wine cellar at Rocca delle Tre Contrade, a 19th-century villa turned hotel and restaurant. | CREDIT: FRANCIS AMIAND/COURTESY OF THE THINKING TRAVELLER
Nearby, chic country hotel Zash is surrounded by fruit trees, kitchen gardens, and vines. Seven of the property’s 17 rooms are in the Pompeii-red main house or the former wine cellar next door, but standout accommodations are four private pool villas, completed in January 2020. Even if you’re not staying over, book lunch or dinner at the resort’s Michelin-starred restaurant, housed in what was once the winepress. Young chef Giuseppe Raciti exalts Sicily’s rich food heritage with ingredients like red prawns, tomatoes, strawberries, and Agrigento goat-milk cheese.
Zash, a rural resort with modern flair. | CREDIT: COURTESY OF ZASH
Channeling Sicilian nobility in these coastal enclaves is fun, but sooner or later, you should make time for the Mountain. Located near the pretty upland town of Zafferana Etnea, the paradisiacal country resort and organic farm Monaci delle Terre Nere is a good halfway point. Another conversion of an aristocratic estate, it’s set amid dramatic ancient lava flows—one of them has even been incorporated into the walls of a suite. Owner Guido Coffa opened with six rooms and suites in 2012 and currently has 24 rooms and four villas with private pools.
Heading north via Milo then west after Linguaglossa brings you into Etna wine country, where bright-green vineyards stand out against lava flows that cooled into tumbles of loose black rock. Etna Rosso, a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes, is slowly building a reputation to rival more famous Italian reds like Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino. Marco de Grazia of Tenuta delle Terre Nere, one of the pioneers of the new Etna wine scene, likes to call this earthy yet elegant red “the Burgundy of the Mediterranean.”
Silvia Maestrelli left a career in finance when she fell in love with Etna’s wine and landscape. Tenuta di Fessina, the winery she bought in 2007, is now a leading Etna Rosso producer. But it’s also the most stylish place to stay in the northern wine zone. In 2018, Maestrelli opened eight guest suites with exposed lava-stone walls, Caltagirone tiles, and river-reed ceilings between exposed wooden beams. Since then she has added complimentary evening aperitifs and pairs wine and food the way the locals do. House-made ricotta and prickly-pear gelato, served with a bottle of the label’s Musmeci, is a revelatory encounter of sweet and dry.Over a simple lunch at Marricriu, a traditional Sicilian restaurant in the town of Riposto, I asked Benjamin Spencer, the director of the Etna Wine School, what it is about the region that gets so many people hooked. “There’s a mystic beauty here,” he ventured. “It’s something that never leaves you after you first experience it.”