Travel is a mixed bag. With it come many delights, great adventure, a measure of disappointments, small mercies and insights, some of which only make sense when you’re back home.
Let’s start with the delightful part: Hotel Signum, in the commune of Malfa, is a 20-minute winding drive around the mountain from the main port of Santa Marina on Salina. It looks out across the Tyrrhenian Sea to neighbouring Panarea and the smoking Stromboli – the perfect picture of a volcano.
In a way, the sea journey to Signum prepares you well: these are the waters and islands of Odysseus’ epic voyage. Salina is a dream. An island in the Aeolian group just above Sicily, it was formed by two volcanoes, which the locals describe as breasts (of course they do!). Ms Smith swears she can also make out a Cyclops.
After enjoying the exquisite delights of Puglia, we’ve driven across Basilicata – around the arch of Italy’s heel – through Calabria, and crossed the Messina Strait to Sicily. Catching the hydrofoil to Salina, we get a weather warning at the ticket office: ‘Il mare e mosso!’ Fortunately this turns out to be nothing more than hand-waving melodrama – a national pastime: considering it’s October, the crossing is surprisingly smooth, and we watch with anticipation as Salina finally hoves into view.
Our three-hour transit has become an adventure. The taxi we have taken from the port stops, and the driver points down a track. We walk down scented laneways, passing houses with cherry tomatoes drying in bunches on verandas. In small increments, our state of mind has shifted to local time – over sea, on road and with that final perfumed walk to Hotel Signum’s door.
Simple, without being spartan; one window framing a Mediterranean view, another revealing olive and lemon trees. The detail has been handled with a light touch, with an ease that belies the amount of informed thought needed to achieve this effortless-looking style. In the bathroom, traditional tiles add a splash of colour. A roughly moulded soap looks like a large lozenge of butter, and is cupped in a glazed blue-and-white butterfly-motif dish. Olive oil is the main ingredient, as it is for the body wash, enhanced with a zing of cedro (ancient lemon). Wild rosemary and mint plucked from this very island make the shampoo another pleasure.
Ms Smith has found a fluffy robe and she is lying on the bed perusing the spa menu. I’m contemplating lunch. We’ve been here all of 30 minutes and we feel right at home. Soon we’re being seated in the dining room by Signum’s sommelier Vincenzo Minieri. It’s late in the afternoon and we’re the only table, but we feel welcome and relaxed: the mark of a great hotel.
One dish in – a fist-sized mozzarella di bufala, by itself, on a plate, next to a salad of blood-red cherry tomatoes tossed with wild herbs – and we decide to eat in-house for our entire stay. A bottle of local olive oil is chosen from a sideboard holding a selection of Sicilian varieties. I pour a little over the mozzarella, add a pinch of salt, and cut into it. Immediately it oozes. We groan with glee as we dunk pieces of crusty bread into the milky, virgin slurry.
Seafood, vegetables, grains and pulses make up most of Michele Caruso’s menu. Food is deceptively simple but cooked with supreme skill. Spaghetti is tossed with a little oil, bottarga (dried tuna roe), wild fennel and breadcrumbs; couscous is served with finely chopped mussels and tomato; fish stew is flavoured with eggplant, anchovies, olives, tomato and capers. Vincenzo doesn’t miss a beat. We’re in his hands and his wine choices are perfect.
After lunch, we make a pact. I book a couple of hours with Vincenzo in the Signum cellar pulling out bottles of rare, foot-crushed Etna Rosso and planning wines for the following days of our stay, while Ms Smith signs up for a treatment in the Signum Spa.
The spa area is a secret stone garden with pools of geothermal water connected by channels and various igloo-shaped buildings for different treatments. Water trickles down a moss-laden wall. Ms Smith emerges glowing, and scented with the sweet herbs, capers and citrus of Salina.
The island itself also offers much to see. We catch the local bus on occasion, but mostly we amble through Malfa’s stone and terracotta laneways. Ms Smith even manages a dip in the warm Mediterranean and a has close encounter with some local marine life. One evening, we stroll to a little bar in the piazza to drink Salina’s fabulous sweet Malvasia, and watch Milan play Juventus.
The many photos we took that show much of what I’ve described still don’t come close to capturing the essence of this magical place. As Italo Calvino put it, aromas and flavours are elements you cannot transmit vicariously or convey electronically. And that is why we travel.
Reviewed by Stefano Manfredi, chef