Elegant and eco-friendly, Monaci delle Terre Nere hotel is a dusky pink, 19th-century villa, spectacularly situated on a 60-acre farm between the Mediterranean coast and Mount Etna. The decor – reclaimed wood furnishings, an antique palmento wine press and Phillipe Starck chairs set against black lava walls – echoes the dramatic surroundings; and local-knowledge gurus, Guido and Ada, make you feel right at home.
11am, but later can be arranged, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 3pm.
Double rooms from £490.70 (€580), including tax at 10 per cent.
Room rates include a buffet breakfast.
Have the hotel arrange an hour-long wine tasting from €45 a person, or go all out with a cooking course (€95 a person) taught by the hotel's chef; you'll prepare and eat two courses, sip on coffee, and enjoy wine chosen by the hotel's sommelier. Onsite yoga sessions can be arranged on request.
At the hotel
A 60-acre farm, library and free WiFi throughout. In rooms: air conditioning, minibar and 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. Superior Fruttato's floor-to-ceiling windows with garden views; fresco-style, powder blue walls; and exposed wooden beams make it homely and authentic enough to make you feel like a bona fide paysan.
The hotel has an unheated, outdoor pool with an infinity edge, overlooking the Sicilian countryside and cerulean sea.
Volcanic rock murders inappropriate footwear, so be sure to bring hiking boots with a strong constitution; and clear a bottle-shaped space in your luggage for a bottle of U'ranaci wine, a bold blend of Nerello Mascalase and grenache grapes, produced onsite.
On request, a baby cot (free), an extra child's bed for 3-to-12 year-olds (€50 a night), or an adult bed (€95 a night) can be added to all rooms and suites except the Deluxe and Classic rooms; ask when booking.
Welcome. There’s a treehouse, small playground, two badminton nets, table tennis and other games. The Estate Deluxe Suites are best suited to families, and most suites have a sofabed. Kids can also borrow bikes, go herb foraging or join a cooking class.
Impressively so; half of the hotel’s energy is from renewable sources. Owner Guido’s ‘zero-kilometre’ food philosophy favours home-grown and locally sourced ingredients (guests dine on produce from the 60-acre farm on site); and recycled and reclaimed furnishings, solar panels and chemical-free paints and plaster are just some of the villa’s clever eco elements.
In summer, sit close to the terrace edge for uninterrupted, volcano and coast views; and in chillier months cosy up to the wood-burning fire.
For Mrs Smith, a colourful maxi dress with costume jewellery. Mr Smith will hit the mark in pastel linens.
There are two: Locanda Nerello, serving a zero-kilometer menu, and Etna, a more casual poolside eatery. Both are champions of the slow food movement, with menus that are determined by the daily harvest. Local suppliers are used as standard, and most of the fruit, vegetables and herbs are grown in the hotel’s own organic gardens. Al Locanda Nerello, expect dishes like cinisara beef tartare served with Etna apples and egg yolk, and rigatoni with ricotta cheese, walnuts and Trunzo cabbage from nearby Aci. 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 join owners, Guido and Ada at the 6.30pm 'happy hour' for Etna wines and cocktails – the Monaci Spritz is a refreshing concoction with lemon, Aperol, Campari, sparkling wine and soda. The hotel's sommelier hosts Etna wine tastings, on request (€45 a person for three Guido Coffa wines on a shared basis or €80 a person for a private wine tasting with the Sommelier). 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 winter Convivium Bar opens from 11am to 11pm.
Monaci delle Terre Nere sits at the eastern edge of Etna National Park, a 20-minute drive from the Mediterranean 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 (www.catania-airport.com), 39km from the villa (about a 40-minute drive). You can fly direct to Catania from London Gatwick and Munich airports; and destinations in central Italy such as Rome, Florence and Milan. Comiso is also close by, a 90-minute drive from the hotel.
The closest train station is Catania Ognina in Catania, situated 23km from the villa 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 a 79km drive away (about an hour). The ferry travels to Villa San Giovanni roughly every 20 minutes (www.carontetourist.it). From the port you can explore Reggio Calabria and travel further into Italy.
Worth getting out of bed for
The hotel's Sicilian chef is happy to share his gastronomic know-how in cookery lessons on site; can be arranged in the morning, on request. Each guest will prepare a two-course lunch served in the restaurant afterwards (€95 a person, including two glasses of wine and coffee). Weekly live, open-airjazz sessions (in the reception in winter) add a swing to proceedings.Mount Etnahas a tendency to blow its top 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. A cable car to the summit is 20km from the hotel (about an hour’s drive). In the winter months, Etna offers spectacular skiing – on snow, not lava flumes (+39 09 582 1111). If Etna’s a touch too volatile for your tastes, Smith’s day-trip tip is tremendous Taormina – a living history lesson, with Corinthian, Byzantine and Baroque architecture and a remarkable Greek amphitheatre. Tired of ruins? 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 (+39 09 5780 6988). In Un Angolo di Mondo (+39 09 587 7724) 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 (+39 09 527 6129) 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…’