At the heart of Monaci delle Terre Nere hotel is a dusky pink, 19th-century villa, lovely in its own right, but just a fraction of the scenery that awaits you. With Etna’s slopes behind you and the Ionian coast a sinuous blue laid out ahead, in between there’s a 62-acre working farm – so vast you’ll need staff to take you past the vineyards of rare grape varietals, secluded hilltop villas, orchards, natural amphitheatre, past the treehouse and chicken coop, and back to the open-air bar on a little golf cart. Naturally, it’s a spot with a serious eco-conscience too. Suites are either beamed airy villas in the grounds, converted farm buildings or lava-walled hideaways, and the team – local-expert owners Guido and Federica, a wine-savant sommelier, and a run of charmers from reception to the dining room – make you feel right at home in this expansive tract of Sicilian serenity.
27 rooms, including 15 suites and four private pool villas.
11am, but later can be arranged, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 3pm.
Double rooms from £474.25 (€540), including tax at 10 per cent.
Room rates include a buffet breakfast.
The hotel’s cobbled hills and wild expanses can be tricky for even the most mobile guests – staff will happily pick you up in a golf buggy on-call, but be prepared to stretch your legs a bit.
At the hotel
62-acre working farm with vineyards, orchards, a treehouse and chicken coop; library and small boutique; outdoor terraces; golf carts for transporting guests; free-to-borrow mountain bikes and Smart e-bikes; free WiFi throughout. In rooms: Independent air conditioning, coffee machine with organic pods, private wine stash with a selection of Etna wines made on the estate, selection of fresh organic fruit, artisanal bath products.
Our favourite rooms
Housed in a quiet 18th-century building, Estate Suite Minerale has a beamed ceiling and dramatic lava stone walls. It’s in the old wine press, giving it lashings of rustic charm, a unique split-level layout and sweeping views over the vineyards. Seclusion and style are found in Deluxe Estate Suite Fiore, a sprawling suite set in an eco-friendly building in the hotel's grounds. We love its mod four-poster, from which you can spy the sea through large windows. The Monaci Pool Villa is set amid the slopes, a fair walk (or short putter on the golf cart) away from the main villa, but worth the effort for the extra privacy and your own pool with views to sigh for.
By the open-air bar, sunk into a terrace hewn into the foothills, the hotel has an unheated, outdoor pool with an infinity edge, overlooking swathes of the Sicilian countryside and cerulean sea.
Volcanic rock murders inappropriate footwear, so be sure to bring hiking boots with a strong constitution (and super comfy trainers for bombing about onsite); and leave several bottle-shaped spaces in your luggage for some of the hotel’s own wines.
On request, a baby cot (free), an extra child's bed for 3 to 12 year-olds (€90 a night), or an adult bed (€150 a night) can be added to all rooms and suites except the Deluxe; ask when booking.
Welcome. There’s a treehouse and chicken coop, small playground, two badminton nets, table tennis and other games. The secluded villas dotting the grounds are best suited to families, and most suites have a sofabed.
All ages can stay, but those with robust walking skills and of a curious nature will be the most rewarded by a stay here. (Buggies might be hard to manoeuvre over the hills).
Go for one of the suites or villas nestled in the grounds (especially with a private pool if you have older kids) – they’re more secluded, with much more space and sleep multiples.
The hotel have a dedicated family-activity programme, where smalls can hang out in the treehouse and meet the farm’s hens to collect their eggs; photographic treasure hunts are held; and botanical and painting workshops are held. Plus, the owners’ breadth of knowledge about the local area means they have watertight itineraries of themed museums or visits to adventure parks.
There’s a gentle sloped entry into the pool and a shallow patch, but no lifeguard on watch; however, the bar is right next to the pool, so you can easily find a table overlooking it.
Etna restaurant by the pool has a simpler menu of pastas and salads, with the odd fish or meat dish that may appeal to little ones.
A babysitter can be booked on request.
The hotel’s a leading light in sustainable hospitality in Sicily, from its discrete banks of solar panels, down to its bamboo straws. Half its heating comes from renewable sources, and it’s one of just three Eco-Bio certified properties on the island and great care was taken to preserve and protect original elements during renovation and building, while crafting newer builds in eco-friendly style. Furnishings are upcycled and reclaimed, local wood and lavastone was brought in for construction, chemical-free paints are used, energy-saving lighting is installed, plastics and single-use products have been done away with, and toiletries and cleaning products are all Earth-kind. And, the hotel’s groves, gardens, herb beds, vegetable patches (kept leafy by a gravity-based irrigation system) and chicken coop keep them largely self sustainable and ensure a nearly 0km menu (with the few outside ingredients picked from local farms or suppliers); farming is almost wholly organic and the vines biodynamic (the resulting wines are very good indeed). Mulching is duly carried out too. And, in the interest of tending nature and preserving traditional practices, owner Guido has sought out 30 kinds of rare and ancient seeds, which he’s successfully grown across the estate. And, there are charging points for e-cars too.
In summer, sit close to the terrace edge for uninterrupted, volcano and coast views; or ask for a private meal in a peaceful hillside locale.
Swooshy cottons and pastel tailoring oughta do it.
There are two: Locanda Nerello and a more casual poolside eatery, both serving a 0km menu and champions of the slow food movement, where dishes are determined by the daily harvest. Most of the fruit, vegetables and herbs are grown in the hotel’s own organic gardens with very local suppliers called in for the odd ingredient. Etna has a smattering of tables over a leafy terrace cut into a hillside, while Locanda Nerello is in the main villa and feels like a noble eccentric’s dining room, with its antiques, original artworks, neon signage, and curios, expect dishes like albacore Cinisara beef tartare with Salina capers, apple and egg; creamy carnaroli risotto with fennel, olive and orange zest; sweet-and-sour rabbit; and cannoli made to a heritage recipe. Refined Etna wines make the perfect pairing to the quintessentially Sicilian cuisine. Breakfast is a lavish buffet piled with local, organic produce, including fresh fruit, bread baked in the hotel's brick oven, pastries, local honey and seasonal jams, gourmet cold cuts, cheese and eggs from the estate’s own chickens.
Grab a glass of Sicilian wine at Convivium bar, situated in the villa's former cellar, or nab a cocktail for happy hour – the Monaci Spritz is a refreshing concoction with lemon liqueur, tonic water, angostura bitters and lemongrass tincture; or perhaps the Etna Mule with vodka, estate lemon and clementine juice, lavender syrup and ginger beer. All cocktails can be served by the pool too, where there’s a gob-smacking view of the coast and surrounding countryside. Or, you can take a romantic rendezvous in Locanda Nerello restaurant. Wine is a serious business around these parts, with Etnian wines being hailed as some of the best in the world and much of the park dedicated to vine cultivating (the owners have paired up with a local university to help reintroduce rare and lost varietals in their own vineyards). In fact, in the hotel’s old cistern, there’s a three-storey wine cellar lined with bottles, and the sommelier is a fount of knowledge for vinophiles, so be sure to book a tasting. For abstainers, the hotel's fragrant herbal tea selection includes home-made infusions such as bergamot and Sicilian lemon, green tea with rose muscat, and a few secret heirloom blends.
Breakfast is from 7.30am–10.30am, lunch 12.30pm–3pm, and dinner 7.30pm–10.30pm. Drinks at the pool bar run from 11am–6pm and in summer Locanda Nerello opens till 11pm.
Monaci delle Terre Nere sits at the eastern edge of Etna National Park, a 20-minute drive from the Ionian coast and a half-hour drive to Taormina. Built among fruit orchards and vineyards, it's remote, but you’re guaranteed a splendid view.
Catania is the closest international airport about a 40-minute drive from the hotel. It has good direct links throughout Europe and a few destinations beyond.
The closest train station is Catania Ognina in Catania or Taormina-Giardini (both are a half-hour drive away). Each station runs a regular service to Messina, where you can catch the ferry to the mainland, and Sicilian destinations such as Syracuse (www.trenitalia.com).
The villa’s remote setting may make it a place of near-poetic seclusion, but it’s tricky to reach without a car. Unless you're happy to pay for taxis, be sure to bring or hire your own wheels. There are several rental companies at Catania airport, most with reasonable rates.
Messina, where you can catch the ferry to Italy, is about an hour’s drive away. The ferry travels to Villa San Giovanni roughly every 20 minutes. From the port you can explore Reggio Calabria and travel further into Italy.
Worth getting out of bed for
The hotel’s far-removed setting makes it feel very much like its own little world, albeit privy to some of Sicily’s more vaunted views. So stays tend to be about hyper-local explorations, wandering the grounds, lazy swims in the pool, honouring aperitivo hour. But it’s not all passively passing the hours – you could glean some knowledge from the chef in a pasta-making class, which uses eggs from the hotel’s chicken coop; take a wine and olive oil tasting and a vineyard stroll with the hotel’s remarkably well-informed Tuscan sommelier, or take a masterclass with the resident mixologists, using estate herbs, fruits and flowers. There are bikes and e-bikes to borrow for free, and horse-rides can be arranged, but for an even gentler pace, take the hotel’s botanical walk as an intro to their 150 varieties of plant, flower and tree; or wander along the herb route, picking plants as you go to be turned into a restful tea blend. Yoga sessions are held here too. Weekly live, open-air jazz sessions (in the reception in winter) add a swing to proceedings, and Mount Etna has a tendency to blow its top (not too violently) from time to time, adding a delightful sense of drama to a trek up the sides (just remember to duck and cover); but it’s a must-climb experience – and if it happens to go off during dinner, hotel staff will call you outside to watch the spectacle. Little intense? A cable car can take you to the summit – the lift-off point is about an hour’s drive away. In the winter months, it cools down enough to ski on – on snow, not lava flumes. Our day-trip tip is Taormina, a living history lesson, with Corinthian, Byzantine and Baroque architecture and a remarkable Greek amphitheatre. Alternatively, hit the beach or venture out to Forza D'Agro, a hillside village where scenes from The Godfather were filmed.
If you must deviate from the hotel’s lauded cooking, nearby seaside towns Catania and Santa Maria la Scala offer seafood so fresh it might flip from your plate. A 19-minute drive away on Via Catania is All’Angolo, a teeny trattoria with five tables, an outdoor patio, more than 100 grappas to choose from (be sure to travel there in a taxi) and a killer linguine al tartufo. In Un Angolo di Mondo in Acireale (a 25-minute drive from the hotel), has authentic stone-baked pizzas stacked with locally sourced toppings. Medousa Bistrot, on Via Sesto Pompeo in Taormina, has a honey-coloured terrace that’s studded with palms and greenery, lending a secret-garden feel to this stylish spot.
Sicilia's Café de Mar in Acitrezza is a stylish spot on the shore, with a bright white terrace overlooking the sea and cosy sofas scattered between palms. There's a lengthy list of by-the-glass wines, and excellent cheap food. Keep it simple, and order the tomatoes with mozzarella and basil, or an ice cream sundae.
She was crying and blubbing and all we could do was high five. It had given us a fright when she jumped us on an evening stroll. She’d looked so sane earlier; the chatty South African lady on the table beside us at dinner. Now, she was borderline delirious. She beckoned us to follow her deeper into the orchard. ‘Come look,’ she sobbed. ‘Come look. Please.’ You wouldn’t necessarily follow on Wandsworth Common but here, in Sicily, in the grounds of a boutique hotel, on holiday… What’s the worst-case scenario? She’s smashed her Kindle Fire?
When we reached a clearing, it was so obvious: they were tears of delight, not despair. And the reason rose above us on a near horizon – the gurgling, fuming spectre of Etna, slopes lit by glowing Irn-Bru-coloured lava streams, its plume dominating the sapphire horizon. She let out a whimper, saying ‘Isn’t it incree-dible?’ and then scampered off to find some more guests to startle.
As we stood there transfixed in Etna’s foothills, between the spewing orange volcano and a pink supermoon bouncing off Mediterranean waters, Mrs Smith was so excited I thought she might blow her own top and shower us with rainbow. She’d spent the last day in a lava lather – desperate to see the molten rock flows – and now we’d finally got it. What else could we do in the sheer romance of the moment? We slung each other a high five.
Zoom back 30 hours and we’re cruising downhill from the picturesque town of Zafferana Etnea, en route to Monaci Delle Terre Nere, the scent of fig and jasmine wafting through the windows. ‘Is Etna active?’ asks Mrs Smith, a question inspired as much by Dante’s Inferno as geological interest. ‘Yup – but it hardly ever erupts. Like once every 10 years.’ I bluff. As we wind the narrow lanes, we cast each other accusatory looks at the sound of faint guttural rumblings.
Before us the gates of Monaci swing open – the baroque terracotta of the 19th-century palazzo (and former monastery) visible between the pine trees. The welcome party is upon us and we’re on a tour of the one-time vineyard – the 200-year-old stone vats for grape stomping, the black lava-rock stonework, the spectacular terrace, the grand communal rooms with their bursts of modern art (Olivier Mourao’s Picasso-esque paintings and Fabio Novembre’s cheeky, nude-shaped Him & Her chair are stand-out favourites), and our simple, elegant room; no TV, no phone, just a king-size bed and an ancient door that could halt a rhino charge.
Then, there’s the pool; set amid cleared, grass-covered olive terraces with a view stretching five miles to the sea. And five miles behind us, points Nerwan – a Sri Lankan representative among the delightful staff with their universally flawless English – a smoking Mount Etna. How often does it erupt like that? asks Mrs Smith. ‘Most years,’ he answers. I nod meekly in agreement.
With that, we’re ensconced on loungers. Before we know it, a couple of Aperol spritzes sit beside us, only the distant rumblings of Etna punctuating the sheer tranquillity. A yoga class comes and goes on the grassy terrace, but we slowly dissolve into our loungers. Tomorrow, we’re going up that volcano, enthuses Mrs Smith, who has acquired Etna-mania.
Afternoon rolls into aperitifs, accompanied by olives and honey from the hotel’s land, local cheeses and nuts. And aperitifs into dinner on the terrace. Vegetables, herbs and olives all come from the hotel’s grounds, and chef plays it simple with his bounty – parmigiano with home-grown aubergines and local cheese, a creamy risotto with nutty borlotti beans, swordfish with garlicky green beans and an almond semifreddo. Wines are taken seriously and we plump for a mineral-packed carricante, a bianco superiore.
‘Burgundy, Champagne, Etna – the three best wine producing areas.’ Proprietor Guido has glided out of the shadows, a hushed, assured presence who answers questions enigmatically (You own this amazing place? ‘I feel a place like this owns you.’ Your style and decoration is beautiful. ‘You must listen to what a house like this wants.’ It’s also environmentally friendly, down to the chemical-free paint.) On the subject of his great passion, wine, he is more definitive; different lava flows, different soil types, it makes Etna unique. ‘Come for the wine tasting tomorrow.’ We have loved to, but we’re going up Etna itself. ‘Ah, then you will see for yourself,’ and he is off seamlessly to the next table, startling them as he appears into the candlelight.
Morning comes and breakfast on the shady pine terraces is serene and delicious – white local sheep’s cheese, local sausage, home-grown fruits, house-baked bread, Etna’s famous honey – then back to the lounger to soak up more sun before the hotel-arranged geologist comes to pick us up for our private tour up Etna. It’s too late to take the cable car to the very top, so still no lava.
Then back to a pool dip, more Aperol spritz aperitifs and dinner again on the terrace. We’ve been up Etna, we explain to the smiley South African on the table beside us. ‘Isn’t it incree-dible?’ It erupted the other night and we got to see the lava.’ Mrs Smith’s ears prick up. ‘Maybe it will tonight. It’s beau-tiful. What a hotel! What a location! I’ve never seen anything like it! You have one night to see it, I hope you’re lucky…’