Hugging Sicily’s stunning southern coast, Azienda Agricola Mandranova is more than just a guesthouse with friendly owners. To stay here is to be thrust into the heart of Sicilian family life – with its emphasis on conviviality and the cucina. Regular cooking classes, in which ingredients are plucked straight from the olive tree-filled gardens, make the evening meal a focal point of the blissful day.
11am – though later check-out may be possible, availability permitting. Earliest check-in, 2pm; however, the reception closes at 7pm so it's not possible to check in after this time.
Double rooms from £135.30 (€150), including tax at 10 per cent.
Rates include breakfast.
La Robazza and Il Casello apartments can both be rented as self-catering properties by the week, but they’re used on a B&B basis during peak season. The hotel's set on a working farm, so you'll be able to watch the tractors trundle by and go for tours of the olive groves and press; visit between September and November if you want to catch the olive harvest.
At the hotel
Library of books, music and films, pool table. In rooms: air-conditioning, bottled water and bath products by Culti; flatscreen TVs in suites. There’s no WiFi, but an internet point is available between 9am and 11 am every morning.
Our favourite rooms
L’Oliva is a deluxe two-bedroom suite big enough for three, with a huge cosy sitting room, a small single bedroom and two bathrooms (shower in one, tub in the other). It’s beautifully tiled, with a quartz and cement floor and an antique bed adorned with carved cherubs with a rich maroon coverlet. Rooms in the newest building are closest to the road – avoid these if you are sensitive to the occasional car horn or rush of traffic.
The little square infinity pool (once an irrigation tank) is perched on a hillside above the farm, with views of the olive trees and fields beyond. The violet-tinted water does wonders for the skin, thanks to its high sulphur content.
It’s more a case of what not to pack. Travel light as you’ll want to bring home as much of Mandranova’s home-made pistachio pesto or olive-oil soap from your soap-making class as possible.
There’s a two-night minimum stay. The restaurant and one dedicated suite are wheelchair-accessible. The hotel is perched by a main road, so you're likely to hear some traffic noise.
Welcome most of the year, but only under-twos and over-14s in July and August. Baby cots are free, older children can stay on a sofa bed in the suites for €25 a night (including breakfast). Babysitting (€10 an hour) and children’s menus are available.
In summer, ask for one of the tables alongside the casale (main house), so you can dine alfresco by candlelight.
Casual and relaxed – think Palermitan gentility on a country break.
The Mandranova restaurant is where co-owner Silvia serves up traditional Sicilian dishes such as torta di mandorle (almond cake) and timballo di anelletti (Sicilian ring pasta with peas and aubergine), all made with fresh-from-the-garden ingredients. Don’t be surprised if the hotel’s dogs settle by your feet throughout the meal.
There’s no actual bar, but guests can take aperitivi and digestivi until 11pm in the two living rooms or on one of the stylish mint-green plastic sofas set in the gardens.
The restaurant stops serving at 8.30pm; the last glasses of local wine are poured around midnight.
Tapenade, local cheeses, Sicilian wines, bread and, of course, olive oil can be brought to your room between 9am and 8pm.
The hotel is 40 minutes from the city of Agrigento and three and a half hours from Etna National Park.
Flights from London Stansted, Brussels Charleroi and Rome Ciampino arrive at Comiso Airport (www.soaco.it), which is a 90-minute drive from the hotel. The hotel is also two and a half hours from the airports in Catania and Palermo. From Catania, Etna Transport (www.etnatrasporti.it) runs buses to Licata, which is 25 minutes from the hotel.
The nearest train station is in Licata, a 20-minute drive from the hotel. It’s possible to get to the Italian mainland without leaving your train; the carriages simply load onto a ferry across the Strait of Messina. See Trenitalia (www.trenitalia.com) for train times and prices, but railways don’t cover the whole island.
A set of wheels will be handy if you're hoping to explore the countryside. There's valet parking onsite, and you can pick up a hire car at Comiso Airport; contact Smith24 to arrange your travel.
Worth getting out of bed for
Spice up your culinary skills with the hotel's cookery class (€60) – Silvia will discuss the menu with you the day before and take you through all the steps in preparing it, using locally sourced ingredients and garden-grown vegetables. For ocean-bound fun, ride the Tornado – Mandranova's 38-foot boat – along the coastline, stopping at an island for lunch and spotting dolphins on the way, before returning to Port Licati to take in the daily fish market. The hotel also hosts classes in olive-oil soap making for €20 a person.
Half an hour down the coast in the little port of Licata is one of Sicily’s culinary headliners; La Madia has netted a twinset of Michelin stars thanks to homegrown chef Pino Cuttaia, whose punchy, playful menu draws from his childhood memories of the area. Pine-cone-smoked fish is one of his most flavoursome signatures (+39 09 2277 1443). Nearby, L’Oste e il Sacrestano is much more down-to-earth; a family-run trattoria serving simple, home-made pasta, straight-from-the-sea fish dishes, and a wide-ranging selection of Sicilian wine (+39 09 2277 4736). In Agrigento, Spizzulio is a lovely little wine bar with more than 300 different bottles in its cellar, as well as lots of local cheeses and cured meats (+39 09 222 0712).
There’s an Italian restaurant near my house that comes with its own ‘Shakey Hand Man’. Few things better symbolise Italian hospitality; his sole job, it seems, is to greet visitors with a warm handshake and a beaming grin. It makes you feel happy. Likewise, as we roll up the drive of Azienda Agricola Mandranova, our hotel in Sicily, a gentleman approaches us with a beckoning grip and the kind of magnanimous smile that provokes almost instant soppiness. We discover he is Giuseppe and I get a sudden urge to ask him to be my uncle.
If I had a pound for every hotel I’ve Googled upon with a guffy line exclaiming ‘home away from home!’, I wouldn’t be a journalist any more. But this Italian retreat nails it. It’s the smiling Giuseppe upon arrival that sets the tone, letting guests know that they matter. Although there are a handful of other cars in the drive, variously hired at Catania or Palermo airports, we can’t see anyone else.
One of the perks of the Mandranova’s semi-isolated location on Sicily’s southern coast is the obligatory adventure en route. Italian motorways are some of the best in the business. While other roads dip and dive tracing the undulation of the land, here they follow a remarkably level course. At various points you find yourself careering into mid-air supported by gargantuan pillars as the parched Sicilian countryside sprawls beneath you. Moments later you are ploughing through mountains, emerging on the verge of dramatic escarpments coated with terraced vineyards. We get rather carried away. The basic directions instruct us to turn left somewhere near the southern coast. Mesmerised, we opt for an hour-long, three-point turn around southwestern Sicily.
And when we arrive… that smile. Giuseppe takes us on a brief tour of this magnificent farmhouse property. Blanketing the hefty acreage are thousands of the olive trees that yield Mandranova’s prize-winning oil. Whereas other corners of this island can seem scorched and lava-scarred, here there is an almost lush richness. The farmhouse is the centrepiece; an imposing white-walled building staggered in height and arranged with a distinct geometric beauty – a softer take, perhaps, on the ancient Parthenon at Agrigento, half an hour to the west of the property.
Our tour ends abruptly when we reach the swimming pool. Perched above the hotel on a hill, it is dug from the rock around it; a natural water storage tank inherited from the Moors. From here we can see the farmhouse poking above the landscaped foliage sprinkled around the pool. Beyond that, cascades of olive groves amble down hillsides in glorious non-uniformity, framed by craggy peaks and soft cambers – the Sicilian countryside has the beautiful ability to roll and jut almost simultaneously. We notice the sun making a break for the horizon, and then notice a couple deckchairs by the pool. Guiseppe, you’ve been great, but we must loaf. We fetch a bottle of fruity Bacca Rossa red from the house, the first of many, and recline with happy grins on our faces.
As the evening arrives, Mandranova’s guests begin to loiter around the stone patio next to the farmhouse. They know what’s coming. Us newbies get involved, and chat gamely with about eight others, lolling around wicker chairs and wrought-iron tables adorned with candlelit lanterns. If you ever need an indication of taste, lighting is the giveaway. This hip hotel has got it. A selection of trees around the terrace are beautifully spotlit from their lower trunks, and golden yellow beams of light soar from the base of the farmhouse, dissolving as they reach the upper storeys.
Giuseppe drifts from table to table, charming pants off. His English has an almost lyrical quality. His favourite word is ‘beautiful’, pronounced ‘bee-yoootiful’ in the manner of a pining sigh. Half a dozen tables are laid out in front of the house, with waitresses dipping in and out of the amber glow of the interior dining room, distributing twinkling goblets on the tables. When the guests settle down for dinner, tables are shuffled together, and it starts to feel like a dinner party. We are with a honeymooning couple and a middle-aged pair who say ‘cool’ a lot.
And then the scoop. Giuseppe might be the face of the operation, but his wife Sylvia is the mastermind, plotting a gastronomic tour de force from the kitchen. First up is perfectly al dente thin penne in pesto. Next is swordfish baked and basted to disintegrate on your tongue. Almost everything is lubricated with the best olive oil I have ever tasted, borne of trees a few hundred yards from our tables. I could drink the stuff neat. Then chocolate cake, subtly spiked with chilli for a gorgeous, light heat. And, of course, lots of wine. Giuseppe and Silvia’s two teenage sons help serve up. Predictably, they are both dreamboats, studying economics in Palermo when not matching Silvia recipe for recipe. Take them home to your mother. The family and guests josh and chat and get drunk. It really does feel like you are having supper at a friend’s rather spectacular house.
Our cups runneth over, and we retire to bed. Like the rest of the hotel, our room isn’t ostentatious, instead it is charming and elegant in a very simple way; buzzspeak would have it as ‘rustic chic’. Old wooden doors open onto restored majolica floors under beamed ceilings. Tiled showers with superb rainfall heads. Crisp stucco walls and cherry-wood beds. That’s the secret formula. A grinning Giuseppe upon arrival, ceramic tiles and exposed wood, tastefully illuminated trees, perfectly al dente pasta. Italian hospitality at its best: simple things done very, very well.